It’s a Wonderful Life
I can’t help it. My eyes tear up every year as I watch the ending scene of the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All the townspeople pour into George Bailey’s living room bringing their fistfuls of cash to help their friend in need, and then, the line that gets me every time: Harry Bailey enters his brother’s living room and raises his glass, “A toast to my big brother George: the richest man in town.”
Pass the tissues.
It has taken an entire life time and a little miracle from an angel named Clarence for George to realize the truth in Harry’s proclamation. Most of the movie, in fact, is spent establishing why George might not feel richly blessed. George has ambitions; ambitions that are never met. He never goes to college but takes over the family business when his dad dies suddenly. He never leaves Bedford Falls, the small community where he grew up. He lives in a fixer upper and he can’t afford a new car like his neighbor’s. He ultimately views his own life as meaningless and his contributions to the community as irrelevant. It takes a vision of what life would be like if George never existed to open his eyes to the impact he’s made on his family, his friends, his world.
It occurred to me this year during my annual viewing of the movie that I’ve met a lot of George Bailey’s in the technical communication industry. They didn’t dream of being technical communicators when they were growing up—they had bigger dreams of grandeur. They’ve had their fill of mean Mr. Potter’s in their life who have belittled their contributions, bullied them, and perhaps even set them up for failure. They’ve settled into a routine, but don’t really feel like they are doing anything worthwhile. They don’t make as much money as their engineering counterparts. And at some point, they face a final straw where everything seems to be crashing down and they just want to walk away. Does anyone even care that they’ve struggled to create meaningful documentation? Does anyone ever read it? Has it made any difference at all?
Cue Clarence, angel second class, trying to earn his wings. Let’s show our despairing technical writers a vision of what life would be like without them…
It’s Christmas morning in a modest home. Wrapping paper lies scattered around the living room. Two children sit in the middle of the room, throwing a temper tantrum, yelling about how they want to play their new game console and they want to play it NOW. Dad has the game console on the table in front of him, randomly trying to connect wires between it and the TV, but the screen remains black. There’s no manual to reference, no diagram showing the right way to connect everything. You see, there was no technical writer to create it.
Dad yells over the noise, “Have you gotten through yet?” Mom, on the phone, agitatedly answers. “I just got the help desk number from information; dialing it now” Why, you wonder, doesn’t she look it up on her computer? It seems home computers aren’t a thing in this new reality. Technical writers weren’t there to help them catch on. They were too difficult to learn, too inaccessible for the average home user without any written instructions.
Mom dials a number, listens for a second, and sighs heavily. “The recording says I should stay on the line, but I’m 473rd in line. This is going to take a while.” She pulls up a chair next to the phone, while Dad dumps the cat out of the game console box and hands it to his children. “Here, play with this. It’s the only part of your present we don’t need instructions for.”
We see the help desk at the gaming company. Phones are ringing off the hook as frazzled customer service representatives attempt to address the calls coming in from frustrated parents trying to make the new systems work. The status board blinks over to 473 calls on hold. The average time on hold: 18 minutes.
We hear a representative say into his phone, “I understand. Please hold on while I find a solution.” He stands up, shaking his head. “I’ve never heard this one,” he says as he raises his voice over the ambient noise. “Anyone know how someone might be seeing their game, but hearing the sound from the TV channel, not the game music?” There is a general shaking of heads as he wanders over to an unorganized notebook of handwritten notes and starts paging through.
After a few minutes, another representative rushes up waving a sticky note. “Hey Bert! Heard you have a strange audio problem. I think I have an answer for you! I got a similar call about 3 hours ago. Spent about 45 minutes in the lab trying to duplicate the issue. Tried a lot of stuff, but I think I finally got it. I just haven’t had any time to add it to the notebook. I …” Bert grabs the sticky note and rushes back to the phone, leaving his friend staring after him. A supervisor walks by, “Get back to your station, Ernie! Returns start tomorrow at 7 if we haven’t cleared this backlog!”
Isn’t there a better way? Maybe a knowledge base, with a robust search engine that could give representatives the answers they need in seconds? Sadly, no. Without technical writers, the support representatives have had to use their free time (of which there is none) to jot down their notes for common problems called in. But there’s no time to type up their solutions, no time to organize the notes into some semblance of order to improve findability. In fact, there’s not even a guarantee that all the representatives share their notes. After all, they are rewarded based on the number of calls they answer in an hour; if their notes can make them more efficient and make others look bad, maybe they won’t have to work Christmas next year.
It’s the day after Christmas. Mom is seen licking an envelope and putting on a stamp. “I’m going to mail our letter of complaint,” she yells down the hall. “Remember I have to stop at the library to look up their address and then I’ll drop it by the post office. Should be back in about 45 minutes.”
Dad enters. “Wish that AOL company had made it,” he says as he gives her a kiss.
“Who?” she asks.
“Remember how I’d heard about a company that was going to make it possible to send mail electronically without a stamp? You could have just gone to the library and sent your letter using one of their computers. It would have saved you a stop.”
“You and your dreams,” she replies hitting him with the envelope. “I’m so glad I stopped you from investing in their stock. I told you it wouldn’t catch on. Not when you need a computer science degree to operate all that equipment. Think about it!” she exclaims waving the envelope about. “Imagine the support required for something like that. We can’t even get a simple gaming console connected! How much effort would it take for something like that!”
“Yeah, you have a point. I just heard on the radio that IBM declared bankruptcy. They should have stuck with their typewriters. Imagine trying to bring computers into every home!” he laughs.
“You know, I could have made it work,” she says with a smile.
He raises his eyebrow. “Oh, really? How?”
She once again waves her envelope in front of his face. “I write a mean letter. All it would take is someone to just write down the instructions in a clear and concise fashion.” She holds up her hand to stall his objection. “Not the engineers, with their gobbledy gook, disorganized mumbo jumbo! Someone who speaks the language of the common man!” She turns to leave. “Someone like me!”
“It’ll never work!” he yells after her. “Who would want a job like that?!”
You are back in the world you know…a world where virtually everyone has a computer and all the information known to man in the palm of your hand. IBM is worth over 170 BILLION dollars. Clarence has done his job (is that a bell you hear ringing?). It’s clear what a different and miserable place the world might be without technical writers.
So, as you enjoy your holiday season and open up your presents, enjoy the fact that they come with instructions. Sit back and reflect on the impact a technical writer made in that situation and realize you really do have a wonderful career.