Way back in the Fall Semester of 2010, I was contemplating  topic for my undergraduate thesis, a required component of my school’s Technical Communication degree. A mandatory part of the thesis was submitting the finished product to a scholarly journal for publication. I decided at the time that I would aim high and try to publish my thesis in Technical Communication, the peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for Technical Communication. It was almost a throwaway idea; I didn’t think that a professional journal would be interested in undergraduate research.

Well, I guess I was wrong. My original research article, “The Use of Online Collaborative Writing Tools by Technical Communication Practitioners and Students,” has now been published in issue 60.1 of Technical CommunicationI am very proud and humbled to think that my research and my writing were considered a worthy contribution to the field’s body of work. (Note that only STC members or subscribers to the journal will be able to read the article online.)


Technical Communication issue 60.1, February, 2013. My article is that first bullet point!

It is also valuable self-validation at a time when I’m feeling hard on myself. The job hunt has not been going well, and I’m starting to doubt my abilities. Having my work published could not have come at a better time for the sake of my self confidence.

Unfortunately, it seems academia matters little to industry hiring managers, so it won’t help me get a job. In fact, it didn’t help at my last interview. But, I can at least say that my writing skills are publication worthy and I have strong research skills.

All that aside, I’m still very excited. I poured so much work and heart into that article–even after I had graduated and gotten the grade on it! I’m so pleased to see it all come to fruition.

On a slightly humorous note: I’ve always been slightly disgruntled at the sheer wordiness of my article’s title. As it turns out, my article has the shortest title in the issue!

Another approach to approaching recruiters

If you read my last post, then you know that I attended the Chicago Tech Job Fair last week and experienced some mixed results. And now you also know that regardless of whether you read it. As I mentioned in that post, I want to briefly reflect on how I approached the recruiters.

Now, I am no means an expert (quite the opposite, in fact), but hopefully having my thoughts here will help somebody else. Continue reading

“Sorry, we’re only looking for….”

Like many universities, my school held a job fair every semester. Because it was a science/engineering university, said fairs were extremely technology oriented. Most of the companies present were in the software, biotech, or petroleum industries.

Every semester, I (and my colleagues in the Technical Communication program) would show up bright eyed and hopeful, clutching our expertly crafted resumes and the portfolios that cost a mint in color printing fees. And every semester we left disheartened–heads bowed and feet shuffling–after wasting an hour or more hearing, over and over, “Sorry, we’re only looking for software developers… engineers… science majors….”

Or worse: “Sorry, I don’t know what technical communication is.”

Or even worse: “Well I’m sure we have a call center position open–that’s what you mean by ‘technical communication,’ right?”

We got used to it. It was a miracle and a thing to be celebrated when somebody did know our field. Further, in those incredibly rare instances when somebody actually had a tech writing position available, jaws could be heard hitting the floor clear across campus.

Surely, I thought, things would be different in the Real World. Technology and software companies these days almost always have customer-facing help, or at least some sort of documentation.

So imagine my horror when I attended the Chicago Tech Job Fair (sponsored by techfetch and the Illinois Technology Association) on February 7th and experienced a horrible feeling of deja vu. I walked into the room, and it looked almost exactly like those dreaded college job fairs: two rows of tables in the middle, and tables lining the walls, each boasting giant foam board or poster board displays about the company in question. The tables all had pamphlets, business cards, sheets with job descriptions, or other propaganda. The companies were even giving out free branded junk, such as pens or staplers. The free swag was often the highlight of my university job fair experience.


Chicago Tech Job Fair

I almost walked out on the spot. After all, as a shy introvert, I have a hard enough time approaching strangers and trying to convince them I’m worth hiring. If it was going to be anything like my college experience, why deal with the stress of talking to recruiters who don’t care about my field–only to leave with disappointment and no prospects?

I decided to give it a shot anyway, mainly because I recognized one of the companies. A company I knew hired technical writers, because some STC Chicago members work there. That gave me some hope as well as a starting place. I figured, if nothing else, I would have some practice talking to recruiters. I was very bad at it in college, so I could use all the practice I could get. (And here I apologize for having no photos in this post. I was too stressed from being perky and employable and forcing myself to make eye contact with the recruiters, so I totally forgot to take pictures.)

In a later post, I’ll discuss how I used this fair to experiment with my approach and how the recruiters reacted to how I introduced my field.

I forced myself to approach all of the companies. Many of them gave me the ol’ “Sorry but we’re only looking for…” line. Even now I’m not sure if it was comical or just sad. I think it would have been sad if I didn’t hear this from another company: “Actually, we have a tech writing position open! I’m surprised somebody actually asked about it.”

My jaw didn’t hit the floor, but I couldn’t contain my shock. To be fair, the recruiter seemed almost as shocked as I was. As a result, I actually came away from the job fair with one solid lead.

I also managed to find several less concrete leads. They mostly amounted to, “Well, we have a tech writing department, but we’re not hiring right now.” Still better than being told my degree–for which I suffered through calculus–was useless. I have some companies to watch and some recruiters whom I can stalk. (Which is evidently totally acceptable if my job hunt books are to be believed.)

More importantly, I came away from the Chicago Tech Job Fair with increased confidence and practice talking to recruiters. Also a rubber ball that flashes blue and red when you bounce it.

Too much of a good thing?

Hello, wonderful readers. Sorry for the posting delay–I had many photos, but couldn’t post them until I managed to track down my SD card reader. So now I have photos!

Specifically, I have photos of the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show, which I attended on 16 November.

Fine Chocolate Show

2012 Chicago Fine Chocolate Show

The Show took place in one of the Festival Halls on Navy Pier. I love visiting Navy Pier as often as I can–generally to people watch and indulge in fried dough–so I jumped at the opportunity to attend this event when I saw a deal pop up for it on LivingSocial. Incidentally, this was the only way I heard about the Show, and I suspect it was somewhat poorly attended as a result of poor advertising.

Now it may come as a surprise to some readers that the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show displayed chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. I hazard to say too much chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate as much as the next red-blooded woman, but this event was pretty much the Taste of Chicago, but with chocolate.

Chocolate Art

Chocolate sculpture from the French Pastry School.

In fact, it functioned much like the Taste of Chicago. For the uninitiated, the Taste of Chicago is a summertime gluttony fest where patrons purchase tickets, which are then traded for food from vendors representing popular Chicagoland restaurants. The Chocolate Show was similar: admission included tickets, the currency required for chocolaty bliss.

Eagerly clutching my tickets in my fist, I carefully surveyed the exhibit hall. My plan was to scope the vendors to carefully choose where to spend my tickets. However, it turned out that only about half the vendors required tickets in exchange for a sample. In fact, the very first table I approached furnished me with an incredible slice of chocolate mousse cake, ticket-free!

And so I embarked on a journey through a sea of chocolate. Chocolate truffles, chocolate cream puffs, chocolate cheese, chocolate cake, chocolate wine, chocolate cheese, a drink made by steeping roasted cocoa beans (like you’d steep coffee beans), chocolate vodka, and even chocolate sandwiches!

Chocolate panini

A chocolate panini–the least-sweet item in the show

And as weird as it sounds, the chocolate panini was fantastic. By the time I found that vendor, I was craving salt something fierce. And, of course, anyone who ever dipped fries into ice cream knows the bliss of the sweet-salty flavor combination.

While eating my sandwich, I watched a demonstration by the French Pastry School. I actually watched three of them over the course of the day. I learned how to make chocolate marshmallows, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate bouchon. Of course, each presentation was accompanied with samples of the items being created–without tickets!

Chocolate demos

Chocolate demonstration given by the French Pastry School

In addition to guaranteeing I wouldn’t eat another chocolate bar for weeks, I bought a bread knife. I passed the Gunter Wilhelm knife booth. As I dutifully sliced tomatoes to test blade sharpness, I mentioned I was looking for a bread knife but couldn’t afford designer cutlery. The nice guys at the booth kindly sold me one of their demo models for a very reasonable price. I don’t know much about knives, but it slices my nice hot loaves (no, I do not have the patience to let them cool, and I never will) rather than squishing them, which my prior knife did. And I’m a sucker for a good deal.

One booth in particular deserves mention: the folks of Icing Smiles Inc.  were holding a fundraiser. Three fancy cakes were on display and you “voted” for your favorite by putting a dollar in the appropriate fishbowl. And got a chocolate sample in exchange. Icing Smiles is a nonprofit that matches volunteer bakers with children suffering from critical illnesses. Once matched, the bakers make–for free–incredible custom cakes to help cheer up the child and the family. Bakers can also provide cookies and less fancy cakes for fundraisers and the like. It’s a really great idea and makes me wish I had crazy pastry talent.

Icing Smiles, Inc.

Icing Smiles Inc.’s “voting” fundraiser

I finally left the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show with half my tickets still in hand, total chocolate overload, and tons of truffles and other chocolate samples. They have been hanging out in my kitchen like Halloween candy nobody wants–and might just stay there until next Halloween at this rate.

Thank you as always, readers, for following along. Hopefully there will be a smaller interval between now and the next post. In the meantime, I leave you with a few more miscellaneous Chocolate Show photos.

Chocolate log

Chocolate log


To-pretty-to-eat truffles

Chocolate mustaches

Chocolate mustaches

Chocolate Buddha

Antiqued chocolate Buddha

Back in the saddle…

Let’s try this again, shall we?

Nobody intents to let their blog die, and neither did I. But it happened. I was too gung-ho and got burned out, my dog died, my boyfriend got into a motorcycle accident, and Chicago’s summer season ended. Excuses, excuses–I know. But now I’m back on the job hunt after a brief break during which my current job gave me extra hours, and Chicago’s winter holiday season is already kicking. I’m sure for the next two months, I’ll have plenty to write about.

In the meantime, I’m forcing myself (as of yesterday) to apply for one job every day. Statistically, somebody’s bound to hire me eventually, right? And if it’s just one a day, I won’t get too burned out on them (or that’s the theory, at least). I write a new (more or less) cover letter for every application I submit, and I DESPISE writing cover letters. Hopefully, this strategy will allow me to keep up steam until I’ve found something.

With some luck I’ll be able to keep the blog going this time. Thanks for sticking around!

The Disadvantages of Telecommuting

As much as I love telecommuting (here’s why), it does have its downsides. I have discovered these disadvantages during my tenure telecommuting for the ALMA project. I hope that by voicing these problems, people thinking about telecommuting full time will be able to consider both the cons and the pros. I also briefly discuss how I deal with these issues. Here are some difficulties I have encountered while telecommuting:

Motivation Issues

I’ve heard many work-at-home people say they’ve had problems with motivation. And, admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to get work done without the boss looming nearby. I’ll be working out on the porch and just get distracted looking at the flowers or the sky or the people on other porches. I find this happens much more often when the project I’m working on is less interesting than I’d like (shocking, I know).   Unfortunately, the hours won’t work themselves, and the work won’t finish itself, so telecommuters have to learn pretty quickly not to let the mind wander too far.

I also have the opposite problem, at times. Without some distractions, like other employees dropping in, I sometimes find I get sucked into a project too much. I tend to over focus, hunching uncomfortably over my laptop keyboard and not noticing the head, neck, or backache I’ve developed from overdoing it. Yes, the work gets done this way, but it’s not healthy.

In fact, recent studies have shown that frequent short mental breaks are required for optimal productivity. This New York Times article elaborates on this idea, suggesting options for “cognitive recharging” that even include short naps. However, the article does caution against taking too many breaks.

Telecommuters have to strike a balance when motivating themselves. Some days, I find that I can’t concentrate more than 20 minutes at a time, so I spread my workday over a longer period with many more breaks. Other days, I am very focused, and have to consciously force myself to take breaks. On these days, I cram more work into a shorter time period. It’s all about finding the right balance to fill the weekly work quota.

Disconnected from the Workplace

Sometimes it can be a little difficult to keep track of what’s going on at the office. For instance, my boss was out of town this week, and I didn’t even know it!

Things change at the office, and the telecommuter may be completely unaware of it. Maybe a policy change affecting the telecommuter occurs, but nobody informs them. Or perhaps somebody has left the company, but nobody thought to inform the telecommuter, who is wondering why their e-mails to the former employee are now going unanswered. People rarely intend to leave the telecommuting worker out of the loop; it’s just a simple case of out of sight, out of mind. Intentional or not, it can be very frustrating to find out things after the fact, especially when they affect my productivity.

Communication Problems

Communication with people back in the office presents a number of challenges. First of all, it is not always easy to get your point across through e-mail, or even via a phone call. This is doubly true when working with very technical documents. There have been times when I’ve asked somebody a question, but I didn’t understand the answer. So I had to ask for clarification. In some cases I’ve had to ask for clarification several times, which is frustrating for everyone involved. Dealing with these sorts of issues face to face would probably speed thing up and lower the frustration levels quite a bit.

Another problem is that e-mail and phone communications aren’t always timely. You’re always waiting for that return e-mail, and often left wondering if the recipient received it at all. Furthermore, and e-mail conversation takes much longer than the same conversation in person. You can always call, but it’s not guaranteed that the person you’re trying to reach will be available, or that they’ll even return the call.

Finally, it’s much easier to ignore e-mails and calls from somebody who is telecommuting. After all, they’re not in the office to bother you in person, and you can always say, “Oops, sorry I must have lost that e-mail.”

Hours Not Always in Sync with Others’

I love that I am able to work at 2 a.m. if I am so inclined. However, if I find an issue that I need somebody else to deal with, I have to remind myself that it will have to wait until the next day. The same goes for e-mails being sent to other time zones. If I e-mail Charlottesville at 4 p.m., I shouldn’t expect a response until the next day because it’s 5 p.m. there, and the person has probably already gone home. Finally, there could be problems if somebody sends you an urgent e-mail and you aren’t able to receive it because you’re not working at the same time they are.

Therefore, every week I make a point of working during normal work hours for Socorro, Charlottesville, and Chile, so that on those days at least, I can be reached and I can reach anyone with relative little delay. I also have my phone set to check my work e-mail address on a regular basis, so if an emergency does come up, I’ll at least know about it within a reasonable time frame.

I hope this article helps anyone facing this issues as a telecommuter or helps someone decide whether this life is right for them. I encourage any of my 3 readers to post in the comments with any similar experiences or tips for dealing with them. As always, thanks for reading!

A Fair Day for a Faire

One reason I love Chicago is the street fairs. There are street fairs going on all over the city throughout the summer. Last Saturday I went to the Custer’s Last Stand Festival in Evanston. It was conveniently nestled around the Main St. El stop, so it should have been simple to get to.

The General Himself

General George Armstrong Custer, in the flesh.

Even more pictures (and, incidentally, some more words) after the cut. Continue reading

The Joys of Telecommuting

I really love telecommuting. Why? Because this is my office:

My Back Porch "Office"

Bright and sunny in the morning, yet pleasantly shady in the afternoon. Best. Office. Ever.

As some of you already know, I have spent the last year working as Documentation Specialist (aka engineer herder and acronym wrangler) for the ALMA project. Well for the last month and a half (and until the project ends for our department), they very kindly permitted me to switch over to 100% telecommuting so I could go on this little odyssey of mine.

As I mentioned above, I really love telecommuting. Here are some more reasons why:

I can choose where I work.

Such as the lovely back porch. Or the breakfast nook (which is sunny and nice on chillier afternoons). Or the dining room table. Or even the park or the beach!

I can choose when I work.

I am a night owl; I have been my entire life. I am happiest when I can burn the midnight (or 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.) oil and sleep through the morning. I have no problem getting up in the morning–I got to those 8 a.m. classes somehow, after all–but given the choice, I’d really rather not.

I can work in my pajamas.

Or in a suit. Or in just jeans and a tee-shirt. I can send e-mails, and the recipients have no way of knowing that I may or may not be wearing any pants.

I can listen to any music I want.

While in the office, there were no rules forbidding music that I  knew of. I simply didn’t want to bother my officemates with my music–which is extremely varied, and probably isn’t for everyone. I also dislike wearing headphones because they’re uncomfortable and block out things I might need to hear. Working at home means problem solved.

There are fewer interruptions.

Because I choose to work either when household members are at work or asleep, my work is generally interruption free. In the office, I had chatting officemates, people popping in and out looking for things, the phone ringing, etc. Now the interruptions pretty much only happen when I want them to.

No commute.

No dealing with public transit or all the other crazy drivers on the road. Granted, the commute to my office in Socorro was about 90 seconds in “heavy” traffic. But in Chicago, the commute can be brutal, whether driving or taking the train/bus.

Despite all of these lovely perks, there are some downsides to telecommuting, as well. Those downsides, as well as some ways I deal with them, can be found in this post.