Leadership Tab

I have added a new tab to this blog titled Leadership, which highlights the various projects I’ve led outside of my usual day jobs. And you thought I was just another pretty face.

Programming Note: For those of you wondering whatever happened to the Project MERCCURI flight, it is still going on the next SpaceX launch, which has been rescheduled for April 14 as of this writing. Stay tuned!

Jargon Note: For those of you under 35, televisions used to have two knobs or more for changing channels and adjusting the reception–this would be in the years before cable, when TV signals were sent through the air and picked up by antennas on top of the house. Reception was sometimes a tricky thing, but the Big Three networks of the time wanted to make sure their audiences would “stay tuned” to their station for whatever stuff they were promoting next. In 21st century terminology, I suppose the closest equivalent would be “follow my RSS feed!”


Okay, I just felt really old typing all that.

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Coming Attractions

I will be attending the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch at Cape Canaveral Sunday, March 16. Science Cheerleader‘s Project MERCCURI payload will be going up to the International Space Station on that flight. Should be fun! Keep an eye out here for updates. I might post the story on this blog, my personal blog, or on ScienceCheerleader.com.

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Searching for Work

“The great thing is not to lose your nerve.”
–Jerry Pournelle

The quest for freelance work continues, though I am not dropping entirely the notion of picking up a staff job. As it stands right now, I’m looking at several opportunities, ranging from aerospace to training & development. I have a feeling my mother is going to be right on this one (don’t you love it when that happens?): I’ll probably get a lot of work all coming in at once. Not a bad problem to have, but I have to exercise a little patience. I just got to Orlando on Monday, and it’s now Thursday.

If you’ve been following these posts and feel that you might have need for a mildly amusing tech writer who can operate as a literary Swiss army knife, check out my resume and contact me as you see fit.


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Practicing What I Preach

One of my many side activities here in Northern Alabama has been tutoring someone on her grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills through a program called Learn to Read, which specializes in helping English as a Second Language (ESL) students. I lucked out, as my student already DID speak the language.

What she really wanted to do was write fiction.

This was a challenge for me, because while I’ve written fiction here and there, I am a nonfiction writer by inclination and trade. Even my fiction-writing classes and books are ~20 years old. So all I could do, really, was let her write and poke holes in it–politely, if possible.

Of course this past November I took on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again, which gave the student the opportunity to turn the tables on the teacher. I found her criticisms of my very rough draft familiar…slow start, not a lot of action, not enough drama. At least she was listening.

Now comes the hard part–my student’s criticisms, like those of my other first readers, were surprisingly mild–I have to go back and edit the thing. That means I have to go back and take my own medicine and act on all the nagging helpful advice I dispensed with such impunity. The advice goes something like this:

  • Designate time daily to write/revise.
  • Keep things interesting, everything from plot action to descriptions of the scenery.
  • Don’t be afraid to put your main characters in jeopardy.
  • Just because you like a particular phrase, sentence, paragraph, section, or chapter doesn’t mean it’s sacred–get rid of it and rewrite it if it doesn’t fit or flow.
  • Make sure your characters are progressing toward their goal!

The other bit of parting advice I had my student (I’ve been helping her since 2007 or so) was to just keep working and stay on schedule. Speaking of which, I’ve set a goal of June 30 for getting a decent, publication-worthy story done. We’ll see if I manage to practice what I preach without someone standing over me every week.

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Looking Back and Looking Forward

For a look back at my 2013 blogging, see here.

As for the look forward, I will be moving down to Orlando, FL, soon to hunt for apartment and new source(s) of income. As noted in a previous entry (waaaay back in 2013), I’ve taken an inadvertent turn into unemployment. Call it a plot twist.

I have a couple freelancing opportunities to start off my soon-to-be-new life as a freelance technical writer. I have lots of things to work out yet, such as my marketing strategy and amount of time I’ll need to spend hustling for other work, but this hiatus in my employment seems like a good opportunity to take the plunge and see how I like working for myself. Expect to see a lot of “lessons learned” here as I try this new experiment.

More adventures ahead for 2014. Here’s to the journey!

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Job Hunting: 8 Things You Can Do to Help Your Inside Game

There are (or will be) times when things are not going particularly well in your career. You might read this blog and think, “Oh sure, Leahy. It’s easy for you to be confident about this or that topic, you’ve got a job!” As it happens, I do, but that’s about to change (see below).

What do you do when you’re facing unemployment? Coping with joblessness isn’t just a matter of keeping your resume up to date. Like playing golf or running a marathon, job hunting is as much an inside game as an external activity. You need to keep yourself moving. What follows is some (hopefully) useful advice that I’ve been giving myself lately. If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough to share.

1. Show Up
The first thing you’ve got to do is get up at your regular time Monday through Friday. Shower, get dressed, brush your teeth, see to your personal grooming, etc. Show up like you’re a working person because you are. Your job is to look for work.

2. Avoid Negativity
This goes for the people around you as well as your self-talk (what you say to yourself). Life is too short and unemployment stressful enough without Negative Nellie (or Ned) telling you you’re unwanted, you’re no good, you’ll never work again, etc. I don’t mean turn into Pollyana and think everything will always turn out for the best, but unemployment sucks, and you don’t need to have people around you or in your own head telling you bad things.

Camel 2

3. Be Specific About What You Want
If you’re fortunate enough to have a two-income household or a “rainy day” fund you can live on for a bit, you can be more specific and concrete about what type of job you want. Along with that, consider the whole package: work content, pay, benefits, location, work environment, all that wacky culture stuff that I talk about on this blog. Look for jobs online that fit your magic words, and apply there first. Your cover letters will be better because your enthusiasm for the work will be real.

4. Be Realistic About the Job Hunt Process
Usually the only ones who will respond immediately are the computers that collect your resume online. If you’re looking for long-term work, the holidays are a bad time to search because a lot of HR departments go on vacation. You might be the ideal candidate for a particular job, but it can take weeks or months for your resume to work its way through the system, which is why it’s important to put your network to good use (see my next point).

5. Take Advantage of Your Network
Technical writers get to talk to a lot of different people in the course of our work because we have to learn a lot about many topics. Let people know you’re looking for work–and be specific about the type of work you want so people don’t send you well-meaning but unproductive ads for jobs you’d never do. The polite thing is not to ask your friends or acquaintances for a job; instead, ask them if they know of a job in their company or circle of experience. Perhaps ask for an introduction or a recommendation or at least a reference. That part is up to you. Your network can get you in the door; the rest is up to you.

6. Keep Writing
I’ve been on furlough for a while now, and National Novel Writing Month provided an excellent opportunity to get a first draft of a novel written. Getting it published will be an interesting side job once I get it edited. Not a novelist? Write poetry. Or a journal entry. Or a specific description of your ideal next job (see above). Keep “sharpening the saw,” as Steven Covey likes to say. Use your journal to vent the ugly thoughts in your head so when you speak to others you can be your best self. Just as you don’t need Negative Ned dragging you down when you’re looking for work, you don’t want to be “that guy/gal” in an interview.

7. Pay Your Bills
If you lack the luxury of a second income or rainy-day fund, march to the unemployment office, sign up, start collecting checks, and then make a promise to yourself to get off relief as soon as you can. Also, if you don’t have a lot of time or money to waste looking for your “dream job,” take what work is available to pay the bills. It might not be ideal, but it keeps you on a solid footing and more importantly it keeps you working. Also, some jobs–especially government jobs–will do credit checks on you. Fair or not, a poor credit rating can affect your chances for employment.

8. Use the Time to Grow
“Oh, great. You’re going to tell me this is a chance to get in touch with my inner feelings?” Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you. Unemployment can be a very humbling (even humiliating) experience, especially if you are someone who defines him/herself by your work, and you need to take care of yourself. Take some time to figure out what went wrong with your previous employment situation and identify ways you can avoid that situation in the future. Find a new, low-cost hobby or interest and start writing or blogging about it. Stay in touch with your family members and friends–the ones who won’t drag you down, of course. Someone told me recently that every time she was unemployed she had an opportunity for self-improvement and growth. I’m not quite so philosophical as that, but it’s something to aspire to when I grow up. Still, if you’re down and out, taking some concrete steps to build yourself up can only improve your situation.

And by the way, yes, I am looking for work, but I’m taking my own advice and going home to spend the holidays with my family. The job hunt will resume January 2. You’d better believe I’m showing up.

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Know Your Path

My career path would probably be considerably easier if I wanted to be in management. My father, more of a traditionalist than I am, does not understand why I don’t want to “work my way up the food chain” and become the big boss. No, I explained (more than once), I want to be an independent contributor and remain low(ish) on the food chain. Some people are wired to supervise and lead others. I’m not of that mind set.

Part of the difference between my father’s idea of a career path and mine is that he was in travel and hospitality sales. As you move from sales associate to sales manager to VP, there is still a certain amount of sales involved. There are still management duties, to be sure, but you still have the opportunity to interact with the customers. In the writing and communication worlds, however, it’s been my experience and observation that leadership and personnel activities erode the time you have to write. I love to write. I hate doing paperwork, performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, “counseling,” and all the rest. It’s a limitation I recognized after being in a couple of different supervisory positions. If getting away from writing is a great concern to you and you would prefer to stick with your writing, your career path will be restricted to some degree. If you enjoy leading and developing people too, by all means, go for it! This essay is for those folks who are blessed enough to write for a living and self-aware enough to know that they don’t want to do much else.

So does that mean that if you don’t want to be promoted you can’t move ahead?* Hardly.

(* Here’s a trick: when someone asks you if you want to “move ahead,” you should ask what they mean by that. Your measure of what “moving ahead” means might be quite different from theirs.)

If you wish to grow as a professional communicator, you have two primary methods of making your career more interesting and fulfilling over time without climbing the corporate ladder: broadening your skills or deepening your knowledge.

Broadening Your Skills

This is especially easy in small or medium-size companies, where the staff is more limited and the potential for specialization isn’t as likely. For instance, if you’re a proposal writer in a medium-sized company and your work slacks off, you can walk down the hall and find out if someone outside your area needs writing help. That’s how I ended up working on website content and engineering specifications. I’d never done those before, but templates and formats are easy to find and learn. And the advantages go both ways: another department gets writing help and you get to add another skill set to your resume, with the potential of doing more of that type of work should it be necessary.

Deepening Your  Knowledge

Hang around a particular industry long enough and eventually you learn how things work, not just on a content level, but also how the bureaucratic and political processes operate. My last title at NASA was not “Technical Writer,” but “Subject Matter Expert.” You don’t want me designing a rocket or bending metal, but if you want a clear understanding of how a particular architecture, system, or subsystem works in human spaceflight, odds are that I can provide that. This is the side of me that makes my current employer tell me that I’m really an engineer at heart. Yeah, right, but I don’t like math and statistics, which are other limitations of mine, which is why I write for a living.

Taking the Next Step

So let’s say you’ve reached a plateau in your current role: you’ve learned as much technical stuff as you can without getting another degree or getting promoted to manage others. What are your options? It really goes back to deepening your knowledge or broadening your skills.

Deepening your knowledge could mean working for a different subset of your current industry. If you’ve been looking at things from a high-level view (writing for executives or program managers), you might decide to delve deeper and work on the front line, writing documentation for the end product or developing product brochures that go directly to the end user. Likewise, if you’ve been down in the trenches, it might be time to visit the generals’ tent to see what projects they might have for someone with detailed knowledge of the products and what makes them tick.

Broadening your skills might mean doing a different type of writing–say, moving from technical documentation and reports to proposals or from conference papers to policy documents–same industry, different contribution. Or you might take a leap out of your current industry and apply your current skills to a completely new topic while also learning new skills. You lose some of that connection to the industry you’ve known, but if your choices are up, down, or out, perhaps it’s time to choose “out.”

In the end, you have to make career decisions that make sense to you. Some of your decisions might be constrained by your current financial obligations, the status of your spouse or family, or the general state of the economy. However, given a healthy economy and a good understanding of what makes you tick, you can usually identify and then find the type of job you want–one that allows you to move up or move on and keep writing.

And if a family member expresses concern about your career path, you can always inform them that your choices are making you more marketable and a better employee. If you’re continuing to do what you love, odds are you will be.

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