Silicon Valley Writer — The Early Days

El Palo Alto and the San Francisquito Creek ca...

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During the first week of my technical writing career, I came home crying every day.  It was 1984.  We had just returned to the United States after spending five years living in Haifa, Israel, where I worked off and on, part-time, teaching English and writing public relations materials for the University of Haifa.

We weren’t sure at that point how long we would be staying in the States.  My husband had got a job working for an engineering consulting company in Silicon Valley.  We had no savings and living expenses were high.

With three small children—one in fourth grade, one in second grade, and the youngest, just three years old, I had hoped to find a part-time job. Although it wasn’t a very popular concept, I had heard that some women were sharing jobs in order to have more time at home with the children. So I went to a Career Center, submitted my resume, and registered as someone seeking a job-share for a writing position.

It didn’t take that long before I got a call to go for an interview with another woman, around my age, at a small startup in Palo Alto.  We hadn’t worked out the details of the job-share.  But I figured that could come later.

The main guy conducting the interview looked a little like Jerry Garcia.  Maybe that was intentional, because I found out later that he was an ardent fan.  John Henderson, the chief engineer and CEO,  sat at a desk cluttered with some sort of computer hardware that I’d never seen before.  In fact, the only contact that I’d had with computers until then had been a part-time job for a few months, writing educational materials for Atari computers.  I had learned some very, very basic software concepts about pixels and screen resolution.  But knew nothing about the insides of a computer.

“Do you know what this is?” said John, holding up a plastic rectangle with wires.

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

He looked over my writing samples.  The most technical piece that I had written was a free-lance article about new types of packaging materials produced at the Technion in Haifa, designed to protect fruits and vegetables being exported from Israel to Europe.

“We’ll call you,” he said.

I didn’t expect to hear back from them.  When they called, it turned out that they had offered the other woman the position. But she refused because the salary was too low–$18,000 for full-time work.

I hadn’t wanted to work full-time and the salary was indeed low.  But I couldn’t afford to be choosy.

“I’ll do it for that amount of money if you let me leave at 3 o’ clock,” I bargained.  In Israel at that time, standard employment practice allowed mothers of young children to work three-quarter time and get full pay.  So I didn’t feel that I was making an unreasonable request.

In those days, the software we used to produce manuals was primitive and difficult.  It was before WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).  To draw a simple line on a page, you had to specify the vertical and horizontal coordinates of the beginning and the end of the line.  There was lot of guesswork.  And I wasn’t very good at guessing.

So not only was I struggling with trying to understand the purpose of a memory board and how to describe its installation into the motherboard of a computer, but I was also struggling with the writing tools used to produce the manuals.

Apparently, John had asked the guy who used to do the job to mentor me for a couple of weeks.  He was a preppy-looking single man, a little younger than I was.  I still remember his encouraging words,  “What made you think that you could do this?  You’re never going to be able to do it!”

I agreed.  After a miserable first week, I called to give my resignation.  John H. wouldn’t take it.  “Don’t listen to him,” he told me.  “He’s leaving.  I have faith in you. You can do this.”

As I said, I needed the money.  So I did stick with it.  Don left.  That alleviated one pain.  But I still had so much to learn.  I had persuaded my boss to let me leave by 3 PM in the afternoon, but I still had full responsibility for writing and producing all the manuals in the company without help from any editor or technical illustrator or production assistants. I even had to deal with the printing-house to select paper, estimate production runs, and do quality checks on the materials. Sometimes, I came in on the weekends to get the work done.  Sometimes, I came back in the evening after giving my family supper.

I was the Tech Pubs department for Tall Tree Systems for three years as the company grew from ten to forty employees.  In the last year, we were big enough that John let me hire someone to help me. The company made enough money that John treated us to some nice holiday parties.  But unfortunately, Tall Tree Systems,  was not one of the big success stories in Silicon Valley.

I am in touch with at least of my former colleagues from Tall Tree Systems. I’ll see if I can get her to contribute some information about those early years.

This entry was posted in memoir, postaweek, technical writing, Uncategorized, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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