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Survivor’s Guilt?

Picture shows; JOHN HURT as The Doctor and BILLIE PIPER as Rose Tyler in the 50th Anniversary Special - The Day of the Doctor
Even if you are the last Time Lord standing for good reason, you can’t help but feel guilty sometimes.

I’m in a position that I haven’t really been in before–or at least not for a long time. While my private life is always in flux and stressful, my professional life is generally in good shape for the moment. Even typing that makes me a little superstitious that I’ve now ruined my good luck. But at the same time, I’ve worked hard to get to this point, so I shouldn’t feel guilty. So why do I, at least a little?

Let me back up a little here…this is my reaction to things going on around me at the moment. At this time, there are a lot of companies that are having huge layoffs. ‘Tis the season, unfortunately. The end of the year–especially when many contracts would normally either come to a close or be renewed are not being renewed. We’re seeing huge layoffs at some of the biggest tech companies like Twitter (well, that’s an entirely different story as to why), Meta (aka Facebook), Amazon, Lyft, Salesforce, Microsoft, and the list goes on. Even my company has had some workforce reductions, in that at least speaking for my department, some contractors will not be back after the new year, and there some rearranging going on. Because I’m an employee, I didn’t make the cut–at least not this round.

I say “not this round” because I’ve learned over the decades that there is no such thing as “safe” in the work industry anymore. Generation X was the first generation that understood and experienced that you couldn’t join a company for life and get the mentorship to build a career. We’ve always been on our own, so I learned the hard way very early. Even so, I’ve known people who’ve either been at their company for long periods of time. My husband is one of those lucky souls that’s been at his company for about 20 years now. I know a few others. I believe that my true record for being anywhere is either 37 months, or 7 years–depending on how you view it. The 37-month long job was a permanent position which I left to join a dot-com in the late 1990s. The 7 year one was one which I was a contractor for 2 1/2 years, had a three month break, but then worked part-time (very part-time) as a side gig for another 4 1/2 years. I usually count the former as my true longest gig.

Other than that one long contracting position that was more off than on, I’ve never been in one place long enough in this century to break that 37-month record. I’m hoping I’m on a path to do that, but I don’t hold my breath. I’ve been in my current position for 25 months, of which I’ve been a permanent employee for the past 9 months. I like where I am, and while I’m anxious about what the new year will bring with all the changes, there’s a part of me that’s conflicted about still being where I am, but it’s not what you think.

I don’t have any feeling that I want to leave anytime soon. However, I do have PTSD about layoffs. I’ve seen it too many times. Contractors always are the first to go. But then there’s usually another round that comes to take away the rest. It follows the old saying of “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. The contractors are the first shoe–would I be part of a group that would be the other shoe that has yet to drop? In my head, I don’t think I would be because of the work that my manager and I do–we are relatively critical for ongoing maintenance of the big projects we’ve done in the past two years going forward. That said, I also know that technical communicators are usually underappreciated because so many in leadership don’t understand our value. Many people think they can write, but those in technical writing know better. Even so, I think I’ve asked my manager many times in the last month since finding out that the contractors were not getting their contracts renewed after the new year if we were next. The PTSD kicked in something fierce.

Once I’d been strongly assured that I was “safe” and there was evidence that yes, I have security in the near future and don’t have to start looking for work, naturally I relaxed. But there’s a part of me that said I shouldn’t be so relaxed and feel almost unaffected. My co-workers and friends are being laid off in droves. Some of them are much more experienced than me, and yet, they are out there looking for work. I’ve done my best to try to share job listings when I see them, but it’s now getting to be too much. I want to be a good friend and good person to network with, but part of me almost feels TOO relaxed that it wasn’t my turn for a change. I feel emotionally neutral due to my version of survivor’s guilt. It’s usually me impacted, and for once, it’s not. One part of my brain is telling me that I should not feel guilty, because it’s just business and that I’ve worked hard to put myself in this position of safety. I should enjoy the fact that I’m not stressed out because of my job. Very busy, yes, but not stressed. I know the next month is going to be full of transition learning, transition of my responsibilities, and just getting a lot of normal, high-volume, end-of-the-year work that needs to be done, but I have the support of my manager and the company behind me for a change. I should feel good about this! (And I do!)

But then another part of my brain tells me that’s not being completely cool. I’ve been in the same position as all those people who’ve been laid off WAY too many times myself. I understand the stress, the anxiety, the depression, and the uncertainty that comes with being laid off, even if you know ahead of time. So many of those who were laid off in these past months didn’t deserve to have their livelihood taken away from them, and shouldn’t feel like less when it wasn’t a reflection of their actual work. There are certain habits that I haven’t broken since I was a contractor because of those things, like working a lot (if you don’t work, you don’t get paid), and saving as much as I can in the bank, not spending a lot on big trips or big ticket items, because you don’t know if you might need that money to pay bills and feed your family. I’ve shed the tears, been hysterical, felt lower than low about myself and my predicament more times that I’d like to count. (Hence, the PTSD about layoffs.) So, I should be supportive and try to help when I can– and I do my best.

So, it just feels weird to be in this position–hence, the “survivor’s guilt”. So many are impacted right now, when the world is barely getting its footing back after the pandemic and inflation is higher than it’s been in a very long time, and your paycheck doesn’t stretch as far as it used to…I get it. For the moment, I’m not as impacted as so many technical communicators right now. I do count my blessings, but don’t you think for one moment that I think that I’m smug about not being laid off, or that I don’t care. I do. But for the moment, I’m willing to feel okay about it.

At the same time, for those who haven’t been in this position before, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Remember to file for unemployment insurance. Unless you’ve been a freelancer the entire time, you’ve probably paid into that fund even as a contractor for some agency. You may have a lot saved up or not much, but either way, it’s YOUR money–that’s why it’s called unemployment insurance. It doesn’t last forever, but it might help you pay some bills and hold you over a little bit while you look.
  • Don’t stop looking–even during the holidays. My observation over the years is that there are two main recruiting times during the year, namely November through January (for calendar budget years) and between May and July (for fiscal calendar years). So, even with vacations and holidays when hiring managers may not always be available, don’t give up! Keep pursuing and looking because while jobs will still become available during other months, those seem to be the biggest rush months for work.
  • That said, do take time for yourself during holidays. Getting laid off around the holidays is the worst! You’ve already got all the usual holiday stresses, and now you have work/money stress to add on top of that! Even so, cut yourself a break. Take some time to catch your breath, regroup, and enjoy the holidays as best as you can under the circumstances. A new year is ahead, and it’s an opportunity for a new start! (And new starts can begin anytime.) It’s a chance to reassess your personal as well as professional circumstance, and decide how you want to move forward? Do you want a more challenging job or a less challenging job? Are you willing to move? Do you want to work remotely or an office? Do you want to change fields? Are you taking care of yourself and your family, and how does work support that? Now’s the time to do that.
  • On the job hunt, there are several things to keep in mind as well:
    • Make sure you update your resume and LinkedIn profile and take the opportunity to ensure that it’s cleaned up, grammatically correct, and laid out well structurally. A misspelling for someone applying for a tech editor position, for example, would be an automatic “no”. First impressions count. There are plenty of template resources out on the web that can help you with that if it’s been a while. LinkedIn is a HUGE resource for recruiters, and having an incomplete profile does not do you any favors. It should mimic your resume at a minimum.
    • Send out as many applications/resumes as you can. As my husband would remind me all the time, you have more chance of catching a fish if you have multiple fishing lines out on the water–even if you only need one fish. I’ve been through situations with other economic downturns where a single position that used to get 10 applicants now gets 100 or 1000 applicants. As a result that’s no fault of your own, you get ghosted or never hear anything back about a position. So, the more of them you send out, it increases your chances of getting a response.
    • If you see something that you think you might be able to do, but you don’t have experience in “X” (something requested in the job description), apply for it anyway–even if it’s a few things that are missing. There was a study that was done that showed that women in particular were guilty of that–not applying for a position because the job description had a few things required, and the applicant didn’t have 100% of the requirements. Men will more often apply even if they don’t have everything. But I also know men who have that same mentality–if I don’t have all of it, I can’t apply. Not true. I didn’t have any experience in InDesign, Service Now, or how to navigate in Workday, and I was taught all of it in the past two years, and then more. I had the foundational skills that allowed me to learn these quickly, and that’s part of the reason that I got my job. I was able to adapt, and my resume showed that I had the foundational skills to learn and adapt. So take a shot–you don’t know where it might lead you. You can always say no if you get a job offer if you don’t think it’s a good fit. But you have to apply to get to that point first.
    • Keep a spreadsheet–Excel or Google Sheets is fine–to track your search. It doesn’t have to be much, but I usually include the position title, the company (or the client company and the recruiting company), the name of the contact or recruiter with their phone number and email info, the date of contact, the date I forwarded my info, and a field or two where I track the dates of each step going forward. There are times I’ve sent so many applications out that I’ve lost track of where I’ve applied, who I’ve talked to, where I am in the process, etc. This will help keep you on track.
    • Take advantage of your network. For me, it’s always been about my tech comm social media network and my STC network–especially my STC network. Making those connections with other professionals in your field and supporting organizations can make a big difference. They can provide leads, or even advice as you do your job search. Again, with my current job, when I initially applied for it as a contractor, it was the only job I had been offered as a contractor that preferred STC membership. When I asked my manager during my interview why she was looking for that, she said that she felt that those in STC cared about their careers and were the ones that more often went for continuing education to stay on top of the profession. Well, as active as I am in STC, I had that (and still have that) in spades! I also worked my network at the time as I had an STC connection who had gone to my same grad program and used to be in my chapter (she moved) who was in the same company, and I could ask her about her experiences, what kinds of questions they often ask about during interviews, etc. I was able to reciprocate the favor recently when she was looking for a new position, and I could forward her the job openings at my company! That’s how it works. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but people are always willing to help, so take advantage of that!
    • Take the opportunity to learn something new. Whenever I had a gap in employment, I’ve always used that time to invest in myself. What is a skill I could improve? What’s a software program that is being requested more often that I don’t know? What’s something that I’d like to learn because I’m interested? There are so many educational opportunities and choices! I started my master’s degree because I was unemployed, and I was switching professions (or at least making a course correction), and with appropriate paperwork, etc. I was able to get the state unemployment department to pay for my first three courses of my degree. A bit of savings there! There are also so many other resources out there–STC has a great educational program that I’ve benefitted from, LinkedIn has courses (I took several when it was still Lynda.com), and there’s something to fit any budget. Understanding a skill that you may not have used yet will still get you a little bit ahead of not knowing anything about a skill. For example, you don’t know about structured authoring? Plenty of free resources to teach you.
    • If you are in tech comm, create an online presence. Even if you worked on proprietary stuff, use some items and change it up with fake names and processes that will help you display your aptitude. Create an online portfolio with different examples of the kinds of writing or other skills (like graphic arts, UX design, HTML programming, etc.) that you can show. Another way is to participate in social media forums or heck, write a blog on topics! This very blog was started for that reason–to show prospective employers what I know in a more conversational way. This blog is now 10 years old, so I think it’s been doing a good job for me, even if I don’t write as often as I used to.
    • Do contract work or part-time gigs, as you don’t know where they might lead for the better. One of the things that brings me relief that I’m not currently part of any layoffs is that until I got this current position I’m in, I had not worked a full-time, permanent employee position since the year 2000. Seriously. It’s been 22 years since I worked full-time as an employee, and I don’t mean as a full-time employee of some contracting agency. That’s been a big adjustment. Granted, some of those years were years off to be a stay-at-home mom, but those that weren’t–all contracting jobs. So if you are used to having full-time permanent employment, don’t diss contract work. It might be the difference between having a paycheck or no paycheck. Money is money, right? That said, that also goes for part-time employment. I’ve been in part-time positions, or even juggled two or three at a time so that I had a relatively steady income for a while. All my contracts and part-time gigs gave me an opportunity to learn something new that I could put on my resume, or advance my skills even more. It got me to where I am now, so do what you need to do to be employed. Sometimes even taking a slight pay cut might reap rewards later. There are opportunities where contracts can be converted to full-time permanent employee, or you’ve at least gained an opportunity to apply at a client for a full-time permanent position, but it’s because you put the work in first. It’s not an automatic thing. I’ve had at least two occasions when I was told that they were going to convert me, and then it didn’t happen (would get laid off instead). My current position is the first time it converted, but I still had to go through the same process as if I came off the street. It was not automatic or a shoo-in. But, I’m sure I had an advantage of already knowing the work.
    • Don’t give up. Give yourself a break, but don’t give up. Looking for work is an unpaid full-time job in itself, and it can be really, REALLY frustrating when there is a lot of competition out there. Just continue to work every angle you can, do as many searches through as many contacts as you can, and go back to that first bullet above of advice. The more lines you put out, the more opportunities that someone will “bite” and you’ll get that interview and job. But it can take time–which can be excruciating at times. Just don’t give up until the job is done.

Everyone is worthy of having the ability to contribute to society through a variety of means, and make a living from it. Intellectually, most of us know that when we are laid off, it’s a business decision and not a reflection of our body of work or work ethic, even if it feels very strongly that it’s personal. It will feel personal for a long while–I won’t lie to you about that. But having been in the situation too many times, and falling into the same emotional trap, these are the steps I take to ensure that I can be at my best when that next opportunity does come around.

What are your thoughts and experiences about layoffs in tech comm? Share your experience in the comments.

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It’s the climb…

If you are on social media–specifically Facebook, you know that Facebook will show you “memories” from past posts on a given day. Recently, it’s been showing me posts and photos from what I think was very much a breakthrough day in the start of my career–spending 36 hours in Portland, OR at LavaCon 2012. I had done a webinar in about four months prior for Adobe, as someone who used to be in their marketing team discovered me, and had me participate in their webinar series at the time. But it was Adobe’s invitation to “cover” Adobe Day the day before the big start of LavaCon for this blog that was my first real introduction into the tech comm universe–I guess you can say my “debut to” tech comm society (like a debutante of sorts). There, I met many people that I had only known through social media, and remain friends with them to this day. Seven months or so from this writing will mark the 10th anniversary of the first STC Summit that I attended in Atlanta (which ironically will be in Atlanta again this year), and met a whole bunch more people similarly.

What’s hanging on in my mind is the journey I’ve had to take from that point at LavaCon 2012 to now…how many job changes I’ve had, how many dry spells of unemployment I’ve had, how many jobs that were good or bad, my adventures with STC and other tech comm outlets, and finally, all the people. I mean, some people that I met at LavaCon in that very short spell there are still friends who I rely on, and who I consider mentors. Same with those I met at my first Summit. Some of them gave me exposure and breaks to help me find jobs along the way and foster my writing. Sometimes, I’ve learned things that were not tech comm related that have either been set by example or were a good life skill. I think the point is that–WOW! Over the last 10 years, I’ve met SO many people in the tech comm field that have supported me along the rough road I’ve had to take along the way to get to where I am now, who didn’t give up on me when I had given up on myself. Hence, to get to where I am now, it’s been “a climb”.

These days, I’m in a good place professionally. For the moment, I like being a full-time employee, which I really haven’t been for more than 22 years (since before my son was born). I’m fortunate in that I get to work remotely, as this has always been important so I could be flexible and available for my family. I get to flex my tech comm muscles, and I feel like I do my job well, and have gained the trust of those I work with. I reflect on both the good contracts and not-so-good contracts I had, and how they’ve all helped me focus on what I do best, learn skills along the way, and figure out what I really want from my career. I’ve also advanced to being elected as a board director for the STC with some hard work, a lot of support, and some luck thrown in there, too. All the tech comm friends I’ve had along the way have supported me both professionally and with my STC endeavors, and that’s been a big help.

The one area that is suffering right now, however, is my sanity as a parent. I’ve written often about my son over the years. You would think that as a young adult with Asperger’s Syndrome who’s had so much support over many years, he’d be in a good spot. However, we’ve hit a big snag. He’s SO close to being done with his degree, but his program requires working at FOUR internships (basically, working for about 18 months as an apprentice) during his participation in the program. He’s made two attempts at working, and he never gets past working a full week. For him, working three eight-hour days plus two days of classes is just too much. He’s also putting a lot of pressure on himself because he feels he needs to be “perfect” or at least better than any other newbies there so that he can stand out, but he can’t keep up with the pace. He’s spent more time in a dealership bathroom crying than I think most people ever have! He’s just not ready for that. So far, the director of the program is allowing him to continue to take classes, but he’s not so flexible with this internship thing. He’s also not helpful, as it’s obvious that my son needs to be in an environment where accuracy of the work supersedes speed, which is not the environment of your average car dealership. The program director insists that the students need to find jobs on their own–which my son has done twice now, but he won’t help give us any leads for someone who might be a better fit for my kid so that he can gain some confidence and experience. We’re expected to figure out how to do this on our own. We’re all frustrated with this situation, to say the least. It’s actually giving me PTSD.

My husband and I have been looking for alternative programs where my son could transfer his credits. We’re also at a point where we’re trying to find alternative majors or training for my son, because his interest and confidence in his current major is waning. With his very, VERY narrow set of interests and a huge lack of motivation, this is proving very difficult.

I’ve been suffering from burnout syndrome for a long time, and I’m just so used to it that I truly don’t know how to full relax. I recently read that parents of special needs children that are higher functioning often have more stress than those who are much more dependent. So right now, my stress is so bad that I’m starting to not only do the usual of losing sleep and being grumpy and have the occasional eye twitching, but now my body is throwing in the occasional heart palpitations when I’m not even doing anything that stresses me out. That can’t be good.

So, while I’ve come so far because of the professional support I’ve gotten towards an important part of my life–establishing a solid career, now I have to figure out how to find the support to keep parenting and help my kid so that he can find some success himself.

It’s still a climb to balance this work/life thing. I’ve got the work thing down now, thankfully, and hopefully it stays this way for a long while. But this life thing…UGH.

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Pandemic re-emergence? What’s new with TechCommGeekMom…so far.

Exit Darkness, Enter Light” by Fr@ηk is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s been a while since I’ve actually updated things. The last few years with this pandemic haven’t actually been that inspiring. And the last year or so has been a whirlwind. As I write this, I just finished giving my husband all my documentation for our 2021 taxes. Wait–it’s 2022 already? There are times my head feels scrambled because there’s just so much going on, and just in 2022 alone, there have been some big changes in my life–or at least how I’m doing things. Let me explain.

First, let’s look at things on the STC front. I’ve worked very hard over the last few years as a chapter leader for my local chapter–doing everything from communications to membership to programming to executive operations (if you want to call it that), and while I still have to do one more transition training after the spring (Easter/Passover) holidays, I’m essentially out of chapter/community leadership for a while. I knew the day would eventually come. I’m still a chapter member, just not in leadership. It was a good run, because the chapter is still going despite a lot of things that went wrong due to the pandemic and just the state of the world right now, and I’ve left it in the hands of people that I trust, so that helps. But this doesn’t mean that I’ve left the STC volunteer schema in any way. If anything, I got lucky as I was elected as a Board Director for the STC Board Director. I will tell you, the process to be a candidate was more intense than any job interview process I’ve ever been in! And I was lucky because there were two spaces and I was one of two candidates…so…you do the math. I really went into it not expecting to be elected at all, and lucky if I got to be on the slate. So, there’s a lot of changes that are coming up this month where I’ll be initiated into the Board. I sat in on an orientation/onboarding meeting this past week, and just had to breathe through it…it’s different, and it’s a lot to take in. I’ve been assured by my friends who’ve been on the STC board that I’ll be fine. I hope they are right. In the meantime, I’m still active on the Community Affairs Committee (CAC) for the Board, so that keeps me busy as well on that front for the rest of the program year. Between Board stuff and CAC stuff, I’m going to especially busy for the next month or so. I’m also presenting at the STC Summit this year, so I have to finish out the slides and such for that. Busy, busy, busy.

The other big thing that’s happened this year is that something that I’ve been seeking since this blog was started was finally achieved. I finally got a permanent placement position that’s remote. While I still had to interview for the position as if I was coming from the outside, I was able to convert my contract position into a permanent full-time employee position. I’m still doing the same job, except now I have the security that my contract isn’t ending at the end of October 2022, so unless there’s a big layoff or I really screw up, I have some job security. That’s taken a huge weight off my shoulders. I finally have employee benefits–better than what my husband had at his long-term position, that we switched it to me taking over medical, dental, vision, etc. Some things that I’m working on, though, is getting out of a contractor mentality. I’m still the biggest advocate for contractors–believe me–but I’m still adjusting to a full-time employee mentality. I haven’t been a full-time employee since 2000–before my son was born! So, it’s a bit of an adjustment in that respect. I also am part of progress checks and performance evaluations, which I’m not used to, and that gives me anxiety. I went through my first one the other day, and so far, so good.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I’ve found a work “home”, and I generally like the work that we’re doing. Right now, it’s a little stressful as we have a big project going on that is launching at the end of June, and the intensity of getting everything done and doing the due diligence with the content is…challenging. Part of the challenge is me learning to go with the flow of things, and while I know what’s planned for after this project, I can’t think past that project launch. Just so much going on. I will say, at least, that where I’ve landed encourages that I have the opportunity to learn and grow, and I know my manager is happy with my STC involvement, so, that helps.

Some of these things spill over into my personal life, of course. While I haven’t been needing to look for a new position, I had to help my son look for his first apprenticeship/internship for school as he continues his studies to be an auto mechanic. He still struggles with his studies, but I can’t always help him because I don’t know the first thing about auto mechanical-related stuff. But I could help him with his apprenticeship search, and I’m helping him with his onboarding. It’s his first job, and his autistic anxiety is getting the best of him in some respects. I think he’ll do fine. We lucked out because we pushed him to look before the other students did, and he is starting in two weeks where he works once a week for about 3-4 weeks, and then he’ll be almost full-time (32 hours per week) while he continues his studies during the next 16 months. But, he got something, and he’s going to be one tired guy once he starts, but hopefully it’ll go well. He seems to get along with the service manager he’ll be working for, so that’s a good start. When I started this blog, he was still a little boy, an early “tween”. Now, he’s a young adult, and while in some ways he’s still a teenager even though he’s actually in his early 20s, so much is changing for him, too. Oh, and the hubby is fine, too. Readjusting to working hybrid, and he’s wishing he could work remotely permanently.

So, that’s the update. Kind of hard to write about much more at the moment. Oh, I will be on the Content Wrangler podcast this week as well! The podcast is A Decade of Observations From TechCommGeekMom: Danielle Villegas on April 20, 2022 1:00 pm ET. I look forward to talking to Paul Perrotta! He and I already just gab and gab when we do get together to talk, so it should be an interesting chat!

How have you started to emerge from the pandemic? Any big changes for you? Share in the comments.

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An invisible disability is still a disability–even at work.

Photo by Ola Dapo on Pexels.com

Today was a typical day for me, in that I had to deal with my son’s frustration with his schoolwork. For those who haven’t read this blog for very long, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. And I have it too, but we are different in how we display it. (I’m older and more experienced in trying to work with it or around it.) He’s having difficulty with keeping up and understanding what he needs to do with his class, and he texted me today to say that his instructors were claiming that they had never received his accommodations form at the beginning of the year. I remembered when that came in, and I was sure that he had sent it to the head of the department at least (he’s only taking classes in one department). Since my son has given me permission to go into his school email, I was able to find the accommodation form as well as the original email, and so I emails the professors on his behalf, forwarding the information to them, and saying that if he needs to get more accommodations that will help him succeed added to his form, he’ll work with the school office that helps with that stuff to make it happen.

It made me think about everything that I’ve had to do in my life, not knowing that I was autistic as well for most of my life. I can definitely sympathize with my son, and I didn’t have the same kind of encouragement and help that he gets. One of the things that we have in common–which is definitely a sign of our autism–is that when we get overwhelmed, we shut down. We won’t be able to move forward or back or any direction until we get help. This is often misinterpreted as being lazy. Now, this is not to say that we can’t be procrastinators or lazy like others in the world. We absolutely can. But we need to differentiate what’s being overwhelmed and what’s being lazy. Sometimes the difference is razor thin.

One of my son’s fears in speaking up for himself is that he doesn’t want to look stupid in front of the class–or his instructors, for that matter. He’s afraid to say, “Hey, I’m confused, and I’m not sure what I’m doing,” even if the instructor just gave him the instructions. You can imagine his frustration that with the topic he’s learning, he knows he has to learn it as part of the curriculum and certification process that he’s going through because it’s going to be an important part of what he’ll be doing for his career, so he does need to understand how to do it. I’m the first to say my son is not an academic, but he IS smart, but is learning-different. And being learning-different is invisible. He’s still learning how to speak up for himself and advocate for himself, and this is when Mom (me), his dad, and people in the disabilities office at school try to advocate for him or teach him how to advocate for himself. When he’s frustrated, he gets overwhelmed and it’s hard to separate what he needs to do to advocate for himself and his anger and frustration. It’s tough.

But I understand it. It wasn’t until I was much older–twice his age–until I understand how to do it for myself. Now I’m a little TOO fierce when I advocate for myself sometimes! LOL But the difference is that accommodations at school and having your parents intervene is not the same at work. There are those in the workforce who think that accommodations is solely for needing wheelchair access, visual readers, closed-captioning, and ergonomic chairs and wrist rests. What’s often ignored in the workplace is the invisible disabilities–autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, sensory integration, anxiety, and things like that. When someone is in school, there are support systems put in place to help people with these kinds of invisible disabilities. Sometimes, at the college level, they’ll have it, depending on the college, but it’s limited (this is what we’ve tried to take advantage of at my son’s college when possible). But at work…nope. Nothing.

For me personally, I’ve usually divulged my autism after I’m hired and settled in, because most of my career has been done without that knowledge, and I want to be hired on my accomplishments and merits without that information. But once I’m in, I try to make sure that my manager and my teammates understand some of my limitations. For example, I can listen and take notes, but I can’t process the information at the same time. I can’t condense it quickly to take down the notes, and move on. The person giving me the directions or talking about something might have moved onto the next thing before my brain actually can process whatever’s being talked about. So I find I have to tell people to SLOW DOWN, and I have been taught to review my instructions back to the person to make sure that I understand them. The last thing I need to do, which is a natural reflex for most people, is to say, “Sure, I understand,” when I don’t, and then mess up the entire situation. This used to get me in trouble–a lot more than anyone else who was around me either at school or work. So, I had to learn to do this so that I didn’t mess anything up. Other times, I’ve had to learn how to step up and say I’m overwhelmed, especially if everything–meaning many tasks assigned–all became a “priority” or “urgent” at the same time. I have learned how to gauge my own bandwidth, and call out if something is unrealistic, and ask my manager to prioritize the priorities as well, because I can only do so many things at once without feeling overwhelmed and having a meltdown. I will even have to make sure that I say something that I’m on the verge of feeling overwhelmed, and ask for help to navigate, because I do want to do a good job and do well. Some of this is the sort of thing that my son is still learning how to navigate, and I can only teach him so much about this without being with him at all times.

One of the big things that the pandemic and the last four to five years has been about is people trying to encourage each other to be kind, patient, and flexible with each other. There’s no better place–outside of your own home–than your workplace, where people spend almost as much–and sometimes more–time with co-workers than with family. So many practices came into play a century ago that are still used today that don’t work. This isn’t “feel good” talk, but rather common sense and decency towards each other. We don’t all work the same way. We don’t learn the same way. Heck, even I get frustrated with other people when they don’t understand something that I do! But, having an invisible disability or not, we all need to figure out the best way to work with each other and make compromises. Sometimes that starts with someone who’s at a natural disadvantage that they can’t help.

What do you think? Do you think corporate society does enough to accommodate invisible disabilities? Include your comments below.

Posted in Uncategorized

I’m a writer. So, explain to me why I should know HTML?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. It’s been a very busy year! I’ve started articles for the blog, but then forget or don’t finish them. I’ll catch up eventually.

In the meantime, this topic has been really relevant to me lately, and I figured that I’d share my thoughts on it.

My first disclaimer is that I am not a developer in any shape or form. I leave that to my husband who’s been doing it professionally for about 30 years now. However, as I’m often known to say, I know enough to be dangerous. And that amount I know has actually helped me immensely in my career.

I originally started learning HTML about 22-23 years ago. Yes, HTML hasn’t changed that drastically since the 1990s. I was working for one of the early e-learning dot-com companies. It was the position that in my mind truly started to launch me into a tech comm career, although I didn’t know what tech comm was or know this would be the launching point at the time. We were building a continuing education portal for various financial companies, and in order to make customizations of the splash pages, I needed to learn a little bit of code. As I started helping out with some of the customizations more and more, I asked my manager if the company would be willing to pay for me to take a course at the local community college so I had a better understanding of what I was looking at, and could do a better job with these customizations that were being used in both the splash pages and building the content for the learning sites. They agreed, and off I went. I still have the textbook because the basics were so easy, and if I forget something, then I can still look it up. But taking that course and applying it to that e-learning platform for our clients was just the start of something that helped to propel me in my career.

Years later, I started a content management job using SharePoint. Now, this was long enough ago where the content author/managers could still go into the backend of editing fields into the HTML. People were always being told that they could copy and paste directly from Word, and the formatting would stay the same, but the reality was (and still is) that Word adds all sorts of extraneous code that’s not needed, and when that combines with the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets for those who don’t know–the code that set the general formatting for the page(s)), it wouldn’t always look all that good, especially when it came to tables. This job was at a financial company, and boy, did they like their tables, and they would always look horrible. I would grab the HTML code for the pasted tables, put it into Dreamweaver where I could look at both the code and the front view at the same time, and I would either rebuild the tables or work on taking out that extraneous code that Word would leave in. Once I’d get it to where it needed to be, I’d copy the code back into SharePoint and…voila! A perfect table! I got a reputation for being the “Table Queen”, always fixing everyone’s tables on their pages and fixing the formatting.

Fast forward to now. I’m liking my job, and I’m part of a team that’s worked in SharePoint (no access to the HTML, though) and a new knowledge management system (KMS–similar to a CMS), and sure enough, the CSS that’s been provided by the outsourced developers to customize the system they are using is, well, terrible. We figured out some tricks to work around it, but it’s not unusual for me to get a request from someone on my team asking me to–again–fix a table, fix the bullet points, or the section alignment, or something along those lines. Just today, my manager couldn’t figure out why the bullet points she wanted to make in a text field weren’t working. And so I went into the HTML code on the backend, went through the section line by line (fortunately, it wasn’t a big section), and had to tweak the code and manually fix it so that it aligned properly again and the bullets were done correctly. I’ve turned into the go-to person to fix these things in the system.

Am I a developer? Oh, heck no. Not by a long stretch. There are times even the HTML baffles me, and I’ll ask my husband to look at something and see if he sees something I can’t. He’ll be able to show me where there’s an issue (it’s usually something small in JavaScript, which I can kind of read, but couldn’t write), or determine that it’s not on my side with the HTML, but must be part of the CSS that I don’t have access to. But having a basic understanding of HTML has also helped me understand what I’m looking at in PHP, JavaScript, and definitely understand how XML and Markdown work. In fact, when I taught Technical Editing a few years ago at NJIT, I included several weeks of a crash course in HTML, XML, and Markdown, because so much editing these days–if not done through comments and “track changes” in Word, is done fixing code–not always with an text editor.

HTML, XML, and Markdown are pretty easy to learn once you get the hang of it. Does it help you as a technical writer or technical communicator? Yes, absolutely. You don’t have to be a writing software documentation or writing API documentation to know that having these basic coding languages under your belt can be helpful. Just using standard CMSs and KMSs often will use these. Knowing how to go into the code to add that Oxford comma in the sentence, or to realign the row of a table–it makes a big difference. It also opens up opportunities to learn more and take on more important and interesting projects down the road. It’s a game changer for technical writers because this allows them to be more than just writers–it allows them to be more multi-functional in a technological world. (And again, to put this in perspective, the KMS that I’m helping to build is about Human Resources stuff, and I still help to write the knowledge articles, too!) So I’ve found learning these basic web languages to be instrumental to my growth and my career as a technical communicator. I’m needed not only because of my regular technical writing skills, but I have that extra “something” to contribute as well.

What do you think? What are your experiences? Include your comments below.