Katharine Valentino, 12/18/2017
Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.
Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money.
After the usual round of interviews, my next job was as a technical writer in the newspaper industry, I was hired to document and train an editorial and classified-advertising system. How fun!
Documentation proved difficult, however. I had been hired because I understood newspaper workflows and could write in the Associated Press style used by the majority of the newspaper industry. AP style requirements are many and specific:
Great Depression is capitalized, for example, but civil rights movement is not. Newspaper and magazine names are never italicized. After a colon, a sentence has an initial cap but a word or phrase is always lowercased. It is “the waitress’s hat” but “the waitress' style.” It is a (number) “3-year-old girl,” (number) “5 acres,” (spelled out) “two years ago,” (spelled out) “second grade,” (number) “50,000 people” and (spelled out) “I’ve told you a million times.”
In journalism school, each style mistake in a story may drop your grade by one letter. So reporters and editors are grim on the subject of AP style. Anything that does not comply is perceived as wrong. However, my manager was familiar only with the Chicago Manual of Style and required me to comply with its requirements, instead. In vain did I try to explain that doing so would interfere with editors and reporters learning the material.
Training was troublesome as well. The classified ad part of the system was straightforward, but almost every editorial process could be accomplished in more than one way. I developed functionality comparisons that helped clients identify their own best methods. The approach worked well, reducing training time by a third and getting my students off to a running start once they went back home to Cleveland, Cambridge, Kansas City or Costa Rica. Temporarily, that is; once my manager found out I was sitting with students and discussing implementation issues with them, she required me to go back to the only type of training she was comfortable with: stand up in front of the class and read, word for word, from the manual. Oh, my aching feet.
Perhaps this nonsensical approach to documentation and training contributed to the company’s decision to discontinue maintaining and selling the system; in any case, two years from the time I took the job, the system was “sunsetted” and I was let go.
Next, an environmental cleanup company hired me to document their job-tracking system. I was happy to go to work for a company that was doing good work—until I found out that the environmental cleanup that was being done by the company under one company name was made necessary in part by the environmental mess that was being made by the same company another company name. Oh well, that’s business: You gotta pay us to make this mess, and then you gotta pay us again to clean it up.
The manual took a year to write, with my sources insisting that the system was too complex ever to be put on paper and making themselves scarce when I needed to ask questions. By the time it was finally printed, a replacement system was being evaluated. I was asked to stay on while the new system was purchased and customized.
For the next three years, I documented human resources; inventory management; sales order management; payroll; capital asset management; procurement and subcontract management; project costing; accounts receivable, accounts payable and other financials; work orders; project revenue and costing forecasting; and reporting.
During the final year, we were required to work 60 hours a week. Everybody was frantic, and the development team made it hard on me by making changes to functionality already documented, printed and distributed without telling me what the changes were. I had an assistant who had to spend all her time reviewing printed manuals and issuing change pages rather than helping me out with new functionality. I had a manager who handed out manuals to recipients in a dozen offices across the country without recording their contact information, so we never knew who to send change pages to.
After the last system module was implemented, I tried to switch to online help, which could be updated without having to issue change pages. Nobody at headquarters was interested in anything other than “the manual,” however, so I only succeeded in doubling my workload—online and paper—rather than in working better or smarter.
Do you remember, “Take this Job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more.”?
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