Yesterday I interviewed for a technical writer job. Three people interviewed me, and overall it went well. At the end, they asked me to take a short written test. This was a little unusual, but it went fine. They handed me a written set of instructions and left me alone with a laptop. On the laptop were two open windows: the company’s software and an empty MS Wordpad file. As they were leaving me, I interrupted:
“Wait, how much time do I have for this?”
“There’s no time limit,” the woman said. “Just do it at your own pace.”
“So where is your office – where do you sit?”
“Oh, we sit at the office at the opposite side of the hallway.”
“So how do I let you know when I’m done?”
“You can just tell the receptionist.”
“But what happens if I need help? If I don’t understand something in the exercise or if the laptop malfunctions, how do I reach you?”
“I’ll come back to check on you in about 10 minutes.”
“By the way, do the people in the cubicles nearby know how to reach you?”
“I think so.”
“When I finish with the writing test, what do I do?”
“Just save your work and tell the receptionist.”
“So is it ok if I save the work on the local desktop…and name it ‘Robert Nagle test’?”
“By the way, does the laptop still have the writing samples from other candidates?”
She laughed. “Maybe. I can’t remember. Actually, you have Internet access, so you might be able to access the company’s public documentation as well.”
“Ok,” I said. “I got it. You’ll check with me in a few minutes.”
“Yes, good luck.”
Hours later, I realize that this one minute preliminary conversation was probably more important than the written test itself. Part of being a good technical writer involves understanding directions and making sure you’ve been given adequate information to do the work on your own. At my last job, the primary subject matter expert (SME) lived in Australia; as a result, I had to structure my entire work schedule around the fact that he was available for questions for only 30-60 minutes at the end of my day (because of the time difference). I usually spent between 4:00 PM and 6:00 PM gathering various questions to ask him via chat or email before I left. The next morning when I checked my email, the answers were usually waiting for me (to my amazement and relief).
Looking back at this writing test, I realized that I made two mistakes: 1)I should have asked for the interviewer’s cell phone number in case I needed help and 2) I should have run my completed writing sample through the Google Docs spellchecker before finishing it. In my defense, I did check to see if the laptop had a copy of MS Office 2007 installed; if I did, I almost certainly would have used its amazing spelling/grammar check tool.
Did I pass? I don’t know; I am still waiting to hear from them.
Robert Nagle (idiotprogrammer at gmail.com) is a Houston-based technical writer. You can view his resume/writing portfolio here.