Alumni Profiles: Alex Katz
Department of Linguistics alum Alex Katz completed their MA in 2016 under the supervision of Dr. Nancy Hedberg. Their MA thesis, titled ‘Politeness theory and the classification of English speech acts,’ developed a taxonomy of English language speech acts and laid out politeness-related features to produce a classification system useful in computational applications. About halfway through their degree, Alex knew that they didn’t want to remain in academia and wrote their thesis from a computational linguistics angle to be more qualified for computational linguistics jobs.
In their first computational linguistics job, Alex took over the documentation for their team’s projects. After that, they started looking for ways to make documentation the focus of their work. To further this pursuit, Alex completed the University of Washington’s Certificate in Professional Technical Writing which got them started in the world of Technical Writing.
Alex’s background in linguistics gave them insights into how the linguistic choices of language users affect the experience that their audience has when reading or listening. This background helped Alex adapt their writing to fit industry style guides and also helped them convince technical engineers of the importance of those style guides to create a better user experience.
Alex’s current role as a technical writer at Google on the Android Partner Engineering Documentation Team isn’t necessarily the typical environment that a technical writer experiences, but the role fits them well. A day in the life for Alex starts like most jobs, by prioritizing tasks for the day. It might also involve some meetings with engineers, but it consists mostly of writing documentation or reviewing draft documents related to ongoing projects. At Google, Alex has the opportunity to collaborate with other technical writers on bigger projects while also having focused projects of their own.
Alex’s favourite thing about their work? “The satisfaction of publishing a document after you’ve gotten all the stakeholders to agree on the wording,” says Alex. “It’s that little dopamine rush of checking something off your to-do list, plus knowing your coworkers think you’ve done a good job.”
Alex's tips for finding a career in industry after academia:
1. Start early
If you want to write for industry, start your portfolio now. a. See if your favourite professor needs a syllabus edited; start a blog about a hobby; clean up a term paper or two; and assemble whatever you’ve got in a Google Drive folder you can share with recruiters. By the time I realized I wanted to be a technical writer, the vast majority of my technical writing belonged to previous employers, so I couldn’t show it to anyone. Writing on topics outside your desired field is worth including—I got my current job partly by including some freelance blog posts about Magic the Gathering—but my employers usually prefer writing about subjects close to what the job is about.
2. Be prepared to spend time doing short-term contract work or freelancing
Unfortunately, the job marked isn’t kind to technical writers. You may have do spend a few years doing short-term contract work or freelancing before a company recognizes you as worth hiring full-time. It sucks, but you’ll learn a lot about what you do and don’t want in an employer
3. Create resume and cover letter templates for each type of job you're applying to
Having different versions of your resume and cover letter for different types of jobs (technical writing, marketing writing, editing, etc.) can save you time when you're applying for different positions.
4. Networking works
Keep your LinkedIn profile updated. Make friends with recruiters occasionally and they'll be more likely to remember you when an opportunity comes up. If you've got friends who work at a company you'd like to work at, see if they can refer you.