Now, back in 1987 there was no Wikipedia, so I looked up Boolean in the Dictionary. When I read that it was a form of algebra, my face grew long. And after the first lecture in X-MP repair school, I cracked open one of the yellow volumes and there was nothing in there but equations like this: A^B B^C = CA. To me, it was like looking at hieroglyphics.
It turns out that Seymour Cray, the guy who founded the company and invented supercomputing, used Boolean exclusively to design his systems. That’s right–no schematics or circuit diagrams, nothing. Every electrical path in the entire monolithic system was laid out in a series of gate equations. And when some error was called out of by the operating system, I had to trace the signal back through those yellow volumes until I narrowed it down to the malfunctioning module. Ouch.
Over the course of the next three months, I also learned a great deal about assembly language, flags, I/O, and all kinds of inner workings that we computer users don’t even hear about today. From the user’s point of view, it’s all been abstracted up to the point that my parents just flip through newspapers on their iBook like they have been doing it all their life.
I think back on those times now and the misery it was for me to sit through hours of this training for a job I wasn’t going to be doing. For my non-mathematical brain, the course was like a forced march served up in a series of all-day lectures spoken in a different language. Did I mention there were exams?
And in the end, I got through it all with a dose of charity from the instructors and a passing grade. Boot camp was over, but was I really qualified? Sure, I knew how to diagnose the machine on a basic level and replace broken parts, but did that make me qualified to write the manuals these engineers would rely on to do their jobs?
I wasn’t sure, and for the first year or so of writing manuals full time, I went to work each day in fear that I would be discovered to be an impostor. My fellow technical writers were all engineers on some level, and they really seemed to understand what they were doing.
But as I read their stuff in peer reviews, a strange notion became clear to me; in almost every case, I was the better writer. I was the one with the edits that showed them how to be better. And when the crisis arose, I was the guy they relied on to fix things.
The first time was when they wanted a special report written. It was essentially a glossy application for a NASA quality award, and management wanted to win it badly. They put me on the project and I totally shifted my focus to working with the manufacturing process engineers. It was field of study I had actually learned about in college, and I was really enjoying my work for the first time. While Cray’s quality processes weren’t robust enough to win the NASA prize, the report ended up winning an award from the Society of Technical Communications. In fact, the report ended up being used as a sales tool in a period where Quality was all the buzz.
As a writer, I was finally on my way. Then came the manual from Hell.
It started when Cray decided it needed a manual that would show customers how to build a proper computer room. Because they operated at such high speeds, Cray systems needed a very specialized computer room with environmental controls, a signal-ground reference grid, positive air pressure, and a raised floor in order to work reliably. So they put a senior writer on the project and he cranked away for a year. And when it was time for a review, the Director of the Customer Service decided he wanted to see it. The guy nearly had a coronary.
What the writer had produced as a first draft was three inches thick, with paragraphs that ran on for pages at time. It looked like a law book.
So they called me into a big conference room and they put me on the project with another new writer. We wrestled with it for a couple of months, but when we were done, it was compact, concise, and easy to read. The bosses loved it and it ended up winning an STC award.
So that felt good, but I realized then that I needed to move on from Technical Writing and get into something that offered shorter projects and more variety. And when an opening came up in Marketing Communications in Minneapolis, I was all over it.
So I aced the interview and made the move to big city. That was 1991 and I’ve been in Marketing ever since. I never did need that know-how on how to fix an X-MP, but I did learn the lesson that all limitations are self-imposed.