Top-flight Technical Editor / Author / Writer, Communications
This week, Stephen
Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Gina Carrillo.
Gina Carrillo is a
technical writer and editor of 10 years, a technical communications
instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a
freelance author and technical editor for Que Publishing and Sams
With a Bachelor’s degree
in Journalism, Gina started in technical writing ten years ago
writing software documentation, developing online help, and Web
sites. Since then, she has continued to grow and prosper as a
technical writer and editor along with the computer technology age.
Gina, with the help of seven other select, senior-level technical
writers, and a USF administrator, developed the Technical
Communications Certificate Program at the University of South
Florida, Tampa. Gina became an instructor co-teaching the RoboHelp
session and solely teaching the Technical Editing session in the
program. Due to demand and the success of the program, the RoboHelp
class has expanded and will be offered as an independent class,
which Gina will teach this spring.
Gina’s book credits as
technical editor or author include:
- Easy FrontPage 2000
- Teach Yourself
FrontPage 2000 in 10 Minutes
- Teach Yourself to
Create Web Pages in 24 Hours
- Easy Microsoft Money
- Easy Web Pages, Second
Gina continues to work
full-time developing online help, writing, and editing technical
documentation for various government and private-industry technology
Q: Gina, you have a
successful and varied background that will provide many insights to
our readers. Thank you for doing this interview!
A: My pleasure.
Q: You have an
educational background in journalism, however, you work in
computing. Provide more details about your career choices,
challenges faced, and lessons you have learned along the way.
A: Well, I sort of fell
into technical writing, like most people who have been in the
technical writing business as long as I have. There weren’t any
degrees for technical writing when I was in college. I had never
even heard of a technical writer until after I graduated from
I didn’t know what I
wanted to do for a career when I started college, so I took several
classes to see what most appealed to me. I think I always knew that
I would end up in writing somehow, but didn’t know how, when, or
where. When I took the Introduction to Journalism class, I knew that
was the route for me. Throughout college though, I just couldn’t
picture myself as a reporter. I really liked the layout and design
aspect of journalism and editing seemed to come very naturally to me
as well. Still, I couldn’t see myself working for a newspaper or
I had to work to pay for
my education and living expenses and worked doing various clerical
and administrative tasks, including some computer work, for the same
company throughout college. I realized that I learned new systems
and computer technology easily, and really enjoyed it as much as I
enjoyed writing and editing. Six months after graduation, I saw an
internal posting at my work for a technical writer. I had never even
heard of a technical writer, but when I read the job description, it
immediately appealed to me because of the need for an English or
Journalism degree, computer experience, and company system
knowledge; all of which I had. The job description sounded like it
was written for me. To make a long story short, I applied and my
career in technical writing began. That was over 10 years ago.
The road hasn’t been
easy. Even though I had gone to college for a Journalism degree,
technical writing is a whole different ball of wax. The writing
styles and composition of the documentation are very different. In
addition, I didn’t have the best mentor, which was intimidating for
me. There was no time for swimming lessons - I was thrown in and it
was either sink or swim. After struggling for almost two years under
oppression by a very domineering, negative, and difficult
mentor/lead writer, I started doubting my abilities. Nevertheless, I
stuck it out and it paid off. I switched writing teams to get out
from under Broom Hilda, and was finally able to show my true colors.
I even helped my team win an award from an STC (Society for
Technical Communication) competition for the layout and design that
I did for a computer manual. That helped my confidence a great deal
and from there I got into online documentation, such as Windows help
and Web development. I learned quickly and took to online forms of
documentation like a fish to water. I felt back in my element again.
After learning some valuable skills, I took a great job in Dunedin,
Florida, in the Tampa Bay area and have lived there ever since
working for various technology and government-based companies,
sometimes traveling pretty far to work on projects. It’s been tough,
a lot of long hours, and stress, but has been worth it. I find my
work very gratifying. However, true gratification, I’ve learned, has
been through teaching and writing books.
All those years of
struggle and strife added to my knowledge base and lead me to help
develop the Technical Communications Certificate Program at the
University of South Florida. I sort of fell into that roll as well.
I actually went looking for certificate programs for technical
writers because the company I worked for wanted me to find
educational paths for junior writers in the company. I researched
all over Florida and couldn’t find a one that was true technical
writing (most programs and degrees were business writing). That’s
when I saw that my local STC chapter was going to have a guest
speaker at USF and the discussion was about a new technical writing
certificate program. I thought I was going to get information about
the program, but ended up being asked to participate in developing
and teaching in this continuing education, non-credit program. It
took a year to develop and get the program off the ground. It was
very successful at first, but as the economy worsened, companies and
individuals didn’t have the funds to pay for education, and we’ve
had to put the program on hold until enrollment improves.
However, great things
have come out of that program. I wish I had access to such a program
to teach me the ins and outs of technical writing when I started
out. I had to fumble my way through the learning curve, learn tools,
technology, and methodologies on my own or on the job. It was a
great honor for my fellow instructors and me to develop a customized
program like this. It was a much needed program too because the
degree program for technical writers at USF did not teach aspiring
technical writers information architecture, how to develop online
help using RoboHelp, how to create software manuals, technical
editing, how to utilize graphics in their documentation, etc. I am
very proud of our accomplishments and hope that the program is able
to get off the ground again when the economy improves. We (the
instructors) put all of our collaborative year’s experience into
that program and offered a program like no other. That’s something
to be proud of indeed. All the years I spent struggling before I got
involved in the program were well worth it because I think had I not
struggled like that, I would not have had the passion to get
involved and help others coming up through the ranks.
Soon after I moved to
Florida, I was working full-time as a technical writer and editor
and ended up once again to be in the right place at the right time.
I knew one of the authors that wrote for Que and Sams and he knew my
writing abilities, my experience as a technical editor, and
experience with Web design. He was writing a Web book and his
acquisitions editor (AE) needed a technical editor. I was referred
to the AE, who reviewed my resume, and next thing I knew, I was
being offered freelance editing opportunities. Those opportunities
eventually lead to becoming an author for them as well. I’ve worked
on and off doing freelance books for Que and Sams for five to six
years now. I really enjoy writing books especially. The writing
style is very different from the end-user type technical writing I
do on a daily basis. It’s a refreshing change.
You are probably
wondering when I have time to sleep and I sometimes wonder why I
expect so much out of myself. My drive is all about the passion and
continual growth and gratification I get when a project is complete,
and I’ve made a difference. If you don’t love what you do, it makes
it difficult to commit long hours and constantly challenge yourself.
I have to have a creative outlet and writing books and teaching
fulfill my creative desires and are both very gratifying as well.
However, I cannot do those things on a full-time basis, so that’s
why I continue to work as a full-time technical writer and editor
for technology companies. That work is also gratifying as well, but
I must say I do prefer teaching and writing books.
The biggest lesson I’ve
learned over the years is to follow your instincts because they
won’t let you down and can lead to wonderful things.
Q: From your extensive
writing background, can you provide valuable tips for software
documentation, and on-line help?
A: If I had to sum up the
most important tip for software documentation, I’d have to say
simplicity. With all the technology out there, you can develop some
cool online help with special effects. However, one rule of thumb I
always teach my students and one I always abide by myself is this:
just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Most of the time less
is more. I know that sounds clichï¿½, but it is so very true.
Designing a site to be clean, simple, and easy to use is of key
importance. People don’t like to read and have short attention
spans. Therefore, if documentation is intimidating by being too
detailed, hard to navigate through, or is blinking, moving, or
zooming in and out, people won’t use it.
Q: Describe your
experiences with RoboHelp.
A: I started using
RoboHelp back in the Windows 3.1 days. I started developing
Windows-based online help, then moved to HTML-based and Web Help a
few years afterwards. I’ve played around with the Java and Oracle
Help but find it very limiting with what you can do with it (for
example, secondary windows, pop-ups, etc.). RoboHelp as a tool has
vastly improved over the years and is (in my opinion), the best
online help development tool on the market. I enjoy teaching it as
well. It’s a lot of fun to develop help and most end-users love
using it. Now there is a fairly new feature that RoboHelp offers
called WebHelp Pro, which allows you to monitor usage of a help
system by installing the RoboEngine on the server where the help
resides. You can run reports that show you how your help system is
being used and maybe where improvements need to be made. With all
the years I’ve used RoboHelp, there’s always something new to learn.
Q: Can you share a few
stories from your development of the Technical Communications
Certificate Program? What would you change and improve?
A: I think the only area
I would want to improve for the Technical Communications Certificate
Program is the length. It really needs to be longer and in my
wildest dreams, I would love to see it become the degreed program,
expanded of course. We are only given six, three-hour sessions for
example, for the RoboHelp class. This only allows time for the very
basics and unless you’re a quick learner, the time restriction can
be intimidating and stressful. Most students work full-time and take
our classes, which are evening and weekend classes, to improve or
change their skill set. So, they are usually tired at the end of the
day. The entire program is pass/fail and students are required to
create a portfolio, which they turn in at the end of the program for
the instructors to review and rate. The portfolio consists of one
printed manual and an online help system.
In the RoboHelp class,
where I co-teach with another instructor (I teach one week and the
other instructor teaches a week), I only had one student that didn’t
pass the program and that’s because he just gave up. He didn’t
attend classes and even if you miss one class, you miss a great deal
of information. Instructors are required to cover a lot of ground in
a short period of time. We ask students to rate us at the end of
each program and almost all reviewers say that they would like for
the program to be longer. But, that will not happen as long as the
program is a continuing education, non-credit program. We do not get
the grants and state funding that credited programs get. Therefore,
we are very limited to the time and resources we have to offer. I
think this is my only regret about the program. Overall, it’s been a
great experience and I love the feeling at the end of the program
when I’m reviewing portfolios and I can actually see on my computer
screen the result of my teaching. What a wonderful feeling. If
you’ve never experienced the gratifying experience of teaching, it’s
very much like watching your child learn to walk for the first time.
You gave them the encouragement and taught them the basics, and they
take it from there.
Q: As a Web site
developer and with several books to your credit in this area, share
your most important tips.
A: Web development is
very much like any online documentation - simplicity is again the
key. The design and navigation of a site is as important as the
content. If the content is not logically designed and easy to
navigate, people are not going to use it. And as I said with
software documentation and online help, there are lots of cool
techniques you can use to make a graphic or text blink, swirl, or do
something funky, but if it’s not conducive to the overall purpose of
the site, then it is not needed. That doesn’t mean that you can’t
use some cool special effects, but use them wisely and sparingly.
The design should serve the purpose and the purpose should serve the
design of a site.
Q: Amongst your recent
books is Easy Microsoft Money 2004. Why should our readers purchase
A: Easy Microsoft Money
2004 is a very useful book. Most everyone could use a little help
managing their finances. And even if you have your finances under
control, you can still learn how to forecast your money for future
purchase, stocks, etc. This book is very user friendly and easy to
follow. I love all the screen shots because you don’t have to read a
lot to learn how to use Money and it has some great tips that you
don’t find in the online help programs in the MS Money software.
Q: Can you provide five
guidelines from this book?
A: 1) Manage all of your
financial accounts (this includes bills, stocks, bank accounts,
2) Monitor your credit
and receive updates when something changes.
3) Create budgets and
4) Pay bills online and
download financial statements into MS Money.
5) Set future financial
Q: Describe your latest
A: My latest, full-time
projects have been developing online (HTML-based) guides using
RoboHTML for a national sales group of a technical and professional
recruiting company. I’ve been working on two major projects for the
past four months and have finally just finished them. From here, I
will be working on other online and Web-based documentation for the
same company. I don’t have any books on my plate at the moment, but
need to be thinking about and documenting revisions for the next
version of the Easy Microsoft Money. If enrollment is sufficient, I
will be teaching RoboHelp at USF mid-March.
Q: Where do you see
yourself in five years time?
A: Hmmm, good question. I
really can’t say. I don’t have any huge long-term goals set for
myself. I am the sort of person that takes one project at a time,
put everything I have into it, and I always seem to end up precisely
where I need to be for the next project. So, I will let the wind in
my sails take me wherever it is I am supposed to go and will just
enjoy the scenery and wonderful people I will meet along the way.
Q: List the ten best
resources for professionals.
There are many more great
resources out there on the Web and in hard book form, but the
following resources are the ones I use most. They also lead to other
A: 1) STC at
2) WinWriters at
3) W3C at
4) The Technical Editor’s
5) Microsoft Manual for
6) User Interface
7) Technical Editing by
8) The Chicago Manual of
9) Hodges' Harbrace
College Handbook by John C. Hodges and Mary E. Whitten
10) Elements of Style by
William Strunk and E. B. White
Q: What are the most
important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?
A: Unfortunately, the
technical writing field has taken a big hit the past few years
because of the economy. I do believe it is on the rise, but it will
be slow. I am seeing more and more jobs opening up for technical
writers and editors, however, our salary ranges have also been hit.
I’ve seen salaries drop from 10-15K from where they used to be a few
years ago. My recommendation would be if you are already in a job,
stay there, unless you find something that you know without a shadow
of a doubt is better and more stable. Also, I’m seeing a lot of
short-term contracts out there for consultants, and even though they
are risky, if there’s nothing else out there, take it. It almost
always leads to other things if you do a good job and make a good
impression. I think once companies see the value technical writers
and editors can make, they will fight to keep them employed.
Q: What kind of computer
setup do you have?
A: I have a 7000 series
Presario 533 MHz processor with a 30 gig hard drive, CD read/write
and DVD drives, and 312 MB of RAM. For software, I have most
technical writing and Web tools such as RoboHelp, FrameMaker,
DreamWeaver, FrontPage, etc., MS Office software, and of course MS
Money 2004. I have some tools to create demos using RoboDemo,
graphic design tools, such as CorelDraw, and a Web cam for virtual
Q: If you were doing this
interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your
position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: For aspiring
technical writers and editors, please provide some advice on how to
get started in the technical communications profession.
A1: The most important
thing you can do is get an education in a good technical
writing/communications program. Companies today all require at least
a Bachelor’s Degree in technical communications/writing. Be sure the
school you choose offers technical skills, such as learning RoboHelp
or other documentation development tools. Also, even if the school
does not require you to take courses in development, choose to take
an intro-to-computer programming class. Secondly, I would get
involved in the local student STC program. Networking opportunities
and seminars are very useful. I once had someone call me to ask if I
recommended online courses. My advice was yes, if they are already
familiar with technical writing and no, if they are not familiar
with technical writing. Nothing can replace the value of having an
instructor in a classroom with you when you are just starting out.
Once you know what learning environment is best for you (for
example, in-class vs. online), learning online may or may not be
suitable for you.
Q2: What would you want
for people not familiar with technical communications to know about
A2: Great question! I
think the biggest thing I would want for someone outside of the
profession to know is that we are a unique and valuable resource. It
does not take just writing and editing skills to be a technical
writer/communicator. We are not glorified secretaries that make
documents look pretty. We have to have technical skills, layout and
design abilities, organization and project management skills, and
good communication skills (verbal and written). We are also
translators; not only for spoken languages, but also for translating
technical jargon into useful information that enables a person to
learn and use a system, for example. We are technology-based modern
educators, developers, writers, designers, and editors all rolled
into one. We are indeed a unique breed of technical professionals.
Q3: What do you
like/dislike most about being a technical writer and editor?
A3: I think the thing I
like most about the technical communications field is the diversity
of projects and technology I am exposed to. Technology is always
changing. Therefore, I am always learning something new and
challenging myself. It never gets old to me. However, on the other
hand, I am not very partial to analyst or technical documentation,
such as writing development specs or requirements. It is okay work,
but I do prefer more creative work, such as Web design, online help,
and writing books. Another dislike is that not all companies value
or respect the work technical writers and editors lend to an
institution. I’ve run across my fair share of those situations, but
fortunately, I’ve experienced more positive than negative
experiences over the past 10 years.
Q: Gina, thank you again
for your time and consideration in doing this interview, and
providing your many thoughtful answers.
A: It has been my
pleasure. I hope I can be of some help and inspiration to other
writers and editors out there either already in the profession or
considering technical writing as a profession. It’s a great place to