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Ken Circeo: Technical Writers can be interesting (sometimes)

I was reading a small piece from a Microsoft person about how he came to be a technical writer when I decided to plow through his archives. The stuff I found just cracked me up.

Technical Writer (and ex-Microsoft worker)  Ken Circeo on meeting Bill Gates:

At first, I thought it might be a Gates clone, no shortage of which are roaming Seattle. Guys who think that they, too, will become richer than most countries if they wear thick glasses and refuse to comb their hair. But no, this was Gates himself. The glasses, the hair, the voice. Especially the voice. As he fired a few technical questions at one of the guys working the booth, I noticed beads of sweat forming on the booth worker’s brow. I saw him lick his lips like a fourth-grader hoping to come up with the right answer, and I felt his anxiety. How would I like it if my boss to the sixth power started questioning me about the technology I write about? I’d be cool, right? Wrong. I’d say my name, my team’s product, and then start shaking like Ralph Kramden trying to answer the $99,000 question.

..

My incidental meeting with Bill Gates doubtless had a greater effect on one of us than it did on the other. I’m fairly certain that Gates didn’t go home that night and say, “By the way, Melinda, you’ll never guess who I shook hands with today: Ken Circeo, the tech writer!”

Here’s another piece on the perils of giving tech support to friends and family members:

While it’s true that I may know trifle more about PCs than the average user, please don’t mistake me for a real technician. Computer technicians are paid to do things  like clean your registry, adjust your page file size, and remove your spyware. I know they charge a lot, but that’s because most of them know what they’re doing. When you get your computer back from them, the bill is too high but your PC runs better. It’s like taking your car to a garage. Same thing. Furthermore, real PC technicians seem to enjoy tinkering with computers. It’s like fun to them. One Microsoft guy, Adam, actually smiles whenever he opens the case. It’s eerie. I mean, what’s there to get excited about? An extra expansion slot? For crying out loud, Adam, it’s not a box of Twinkies, it’s a computer! Silicon, wires, jumpers, and fans.

But Adam loves it. He’s knowledgeable and patient, and, like the mechanic who works all day fixing cars at the garage and all night at home fixing his ’68 Charger, Adam has found his passion in life. He proved that last summer when a bunch of us went jet skiing at the lake. It was an expense paid, all-afternoon event.

On the way back, I said, "Anyone know where Adam was? I didn’t see him at the lake." To which someone replied, "He said he was going to overclock an old PC."

In addition there is awkwardness when something goes wrong:

Me: Geez, will you look at that?
You: What?
Me: I thought I saved that file before I changed it, but now I can’t find the original.
You: Is it important?
Me: You might say that.
You: Can we get it back?
Me: Do you have a recent backup?
You: Backup?

He debunks some myths about working at Microsoft:

Myth: The software is free.

Reality: Not quite.

Microsoft employees can buy software in the Company Store for pennies on the dollar. When my friends find out about this, the typical reaction is disbelief that the stuff isn’t free. Fair enough. After all, free products for employees is pretty much standard policy across the American landscape. Kodak people get free film; Duracell workers get batteries; and don’t tell me the Duncan Hines employees aren’t driving home with trunkfulls of cake mixes. The difference with Microsoft is that the black market for pirated software continues to thrive. Free software to employees would make it awfully tempting for ne’er-do-wells to pad their pockets on the sly. I’m not sure what the keeps the execs at Duncan Hines awake at night, but I don’t think cake mix piracy is high on the list. ("Psst! Hey, bud…sell y’ some nice coconut mixes real cheap…")

He discovers that safety precautions are not as sophisticated for hot-air balloons:

I casually asked the 55-year-old balloon captain with whom I’d entrusted my life for an hour, "So I guess you get people losing water bottles and watches over the side on occasion, eh?"

He looked at me like I was from outer space. "No, never," he said.

Hey, it wasn’t like it was a bad question. It could happen. Not that there was any safety lesson to begin with either. You’d think that before you take off, they’d go over a few rules like:

  • Don’t throw anything overboard or you could hurt someone on the ground and we could get sued
  • Don’t lean too far over the basket or you could fall out and that tends to smart
  • Don’t stand too close to the propane tank because when we turn it on every 30 seconds or so, it’s DANG HOT!

Nope. No safety lesson. I guess that would tend to detract from the romantic notion of floating off into the blue. It just seems a bit odd to me that in America you can drive down the road in a car surrounded by 2,000 lbs. of corrugated metal and a half-dozen air bags for protection, but if you aren’t wearing your canvas seat belt, it’s a $118 fine. But go ahead and float half a mile above the world in a balloon with nothing to hold you in but your sense of balance, and that’s just fine. No problem at all. Take the kids, why don’t you? Go have a great time!

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