I’M STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT – Marilyn Armstrong

One of the many things I learned while working for a living was “never let them know how good you really are.”

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Moreover, I’ve always been more fond of family and friends than my work, except for the year I ran a newspaper in Israel. I totally loved running a newspaper. I was busy all the time, either editing, writing, looking for material, helping design the physical paper.  This was before they had software to design magazines and newspapers, so you had to literally cut and paste the pieces into place.

I wrote three regular columns under three names: the lead story as me, a cooking column, and an astrology column under various names. And if we were needed another article, I wrote that, too.


I got to interview the big guns in 1980s Israeli politics including Netanyahu who I think was Education Minister. Pretty sure. We did a very long interview about how important it was to stop using the money for “other stuff” (settlements, for example) and spend it on education. He certainly has changed a lot since the mid-80s.

Other than that, I did what I could with the skills that I had. There was only one English-language newspaper and everyone who wrote in English wanted to work there. On the other hand, there were dozens of advertisements for technical writers.

I wasn’t a technical writer, but if that was what they were hiring? I was one.

And so I got my first got a job as a technical writer working with the group at the Weizmann Institution who were designing DB-1, the predecessor to all DBs since. The first real, multi-lingual database. Except I didn’t know anything about databases. In fact, when I got the job, it was the first time I’d heard of one. I hung around the office for a few days, realized I was useless unless I got some training and ‘fessed up.

After six weeks of having database design force-fed into my brain, I could use the database and design something simple that worked. Sort of.

I learned system analysis rather than computer programming, so I never knew how to write programming though I could read it. I learned how software is designed and understood why and how it works. During my three years there — until they sold the product to IBM — I found my technical writing legs.

I was a bit of a pioneer. Breaking new ground was exciting and professionally risky. I was known, by the time I left Israel, as its best tech writer in the country. Israel was a very small market and when I went back to the States, I was a little twitchy about testing my skills in “the big time.” But it was fine. Maybe better than fine.

Except for one thing: I discovered the reward you got for being very good and very fast was more work. Not a raise or a promotion. Just work. Not even overtime.

In my first job in the U.S., I started as “the junior writer.” Eventually, the other 5 members of the department were let go or moved on until finally, there was only me. Doing the whole thing that had previously needed (?) six people.

I was handling the “work” four writers and an editor had done before me. I finally asked how come I didn’t at least get the title of “manager” and was told I was too good a writer to be promoted. Too good to be promoted? Okay, how about a raise?

I got 6%. I changed jobs and made more money. That was when I realized that I should never have let them know just how good — and fast — I was because there was nothing in it for me except more work.

I eventually got really good and ultimately got a good salary. This is exactly when the dot com market blew up. The company for which I was working went out of business between Monday (when we got the news that our backers had lost all their money and thus we had lost all of our) and Friday. A lot of small investment companies disappeared that year.

It was also the same time when big companies decided \they didn’t need tech support departments that knew enough to offer tech support. Simultaneously, they concluded no one needed a manual since customers could call Pakistan and ask questions … and get the wrong answers.

I was already getting sick and working was difficult. Garry had lost his job and Owen’s company blew up on 9/11. My income mattered. But the industry decided I and the work I did was obsolete. Ironically today, the tech writing business is resurging. It turns out that people who buy expensive stuff — like cameras — feel they are entitled to a manual. Sadly for me, I’m 20 years out of date, lack the ability to work a full-time job, and live in the middle of nowhere.


Why am I writing all this? Because Garry and I were talking last night. He said he had a burning need to succeed. Virtually nothing else mattered to him. How did I feel about work?

I said no one has a burning need to succeed as a technical writer. It’s just not that kind of job. So what DID I have? I was an incredibly good writer and insanely fast. I was a better writer than anyone else I had worked with and at least twice as fast. They got paid more, but they were men.

If I’d had the drive and business sense to move out into the big wide world and build my own company? Could I have “made it big”? I don’t know, but I didn’t do it so I’ll never know. I never liked the business side of the business world.

But damn, I was good.

14 thoughts on “I’M STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. You have experienced so much to be proud of to enjoy in your life. It hasn’t been stagnant in any way shape or form. What a delight. It makes you a far more interesting and rounded person. I love that!

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      • That is true. Some get stuck! I like to keep changing and moving. My kids always hated it growing up because we never ate the same things twice, etc. I wanted them to experience as much “different” as I could. I think it only succeeded in making them go the other way. Alas!

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  2. You are right to be proud of your accomplishments. Just the thought of being a “technical writer” makes me cringe – that you rose to the top of your field, with no prior experience, is impressive.

    I understand what you’re saying, though. I once asked for a promotion from legal secretary to paralegal because I was doing all the work anyway and doing it better even than some of the attorneys. I was told I was too good a secretary to lose. When I balked at that, I was told they would consider me for the paralegal position only if I was willing to take a pay cut. Say what? I had three young children and barely making ends meet as it was. I passed on the promotion. They promoted another secretary into that same paralegal position, and I understand she got a raise, too – but then, she was a blond, voluptuous, bubbly airhead with questionable morals. Which is why, come the next Halloween, I showed up at work in a blond wig with dangly earrings and high heels. My co-workers thought it was hilarious. The new “paralegal” was totally clueless. Management didn’t care so long as I got my secretarial work done. Needless to say, I changed jobs not too long thereafter – getting myself that promotion and raise after all.

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    • That pretty much sums up my experience too. I’m not convinced it has changed very much, either. Theoretically, it has changed but looking around at the continuing disparity of wages in the markets, most of what has changed is all “mouth music.” I changed jobs a lot. That’s how I finally got a really decent salary and the title and all that. Unfortunately, the market collapsed at about the same time. Oh well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I studied technical writing that University of Calgary. My training consisted of assisting with the creation of a Tech Manual for Touch Screen Monitors. If you finger prints on you monitor, I could be partially to blame. But I think that only caught on in Star Trek where they are eternally fingering all their monitors. Shameful bunch. I’m always amazed that no matter ship or device they encounter they immediately know how to finger the monitors and makes things work. Absolutely amazing.

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    • I didn’t study tech writing. I was part of the group that invented it. We kept re-inventing it as times and technology changed. There was no path to follow because no one had ever done it before. I was surprisingly good at it — which was amazing considering I had always been so non-technical. I guess we all change as the earth turns.

      The reason all those trekkie people can instantly understand everything is because they have a script that tells them what to do. I always wished I had a script. It wouldn’t have relly helped.

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