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My life story, or reflections on what shaped my life's career trajectory

by Tom Johnson on Mar 18, 2021 •
categories: technical-writing

The paths I took in life depend in part of the family dynamics of my childhood, my interest in writing, and a career in tech. In this post, I try to trace the lines from my childhood to present day to understand what pulled me in the directions I took.

Introduction

Sometimes I forget that the purpose of a blog is to be a journal of sorts, a web log. In my earlier blogging days, I would pound out an entry in an hour and publish it, whereas now I lean toward more lengthy, thought-out posts. Regardless of length or polish, sometimes I just want to write about everything that’s going on and reflect a bit on it. Writing has been a tool for reflection for me, a way to sort out and organize my thoughts, to put onto paper the ideas swimming in my head so that I can see them externally, then agree or disagree with them.

What exactly is swimming in my head? The move to Washington was a good one. I absolutely love the area and neighborhood we moved into. As a child, I grew up in Washington State but moved out after high school. Returning to the area feels a bit like coming home after traveling the world.

The other week my youngest daughter had a soccer game in Mount Vernon, which is right next to the city of Burlington where I grew up. Burlington is a small town in a dairy valley about an hour below the Canadian border. The area sits next to the Skagit River and, once you get outside the valley and farmlands, runs right into the Cascade mountains. Everything is so green and often wet. It rains a lot (more like drizzles frequently), and the temperatures are cool. It’s a moderate climate that suits me perfectly. One of my daughters loves that she can wear sweaters every day. For me, I like wearing thick cardigans.

Driving up to Skagit Valley for the soccer game sent me thinking and reflecting on my childhood. After the soccer game, we drove by the houses where I grew up. This was my first childhood home:

The house where I grew up
The house where I grew up between the ages of 0-10

Before the game, I looked up one of my childhood friends on Facebook to see what had become of him, and was surprised to see that he never left the area. We both went to the same K-through-8th school, but after 8th grade, I ended up moving to Tacoma, a much larger city below Seattle, about 1.5 hours south of Burlington. In contrast, he stayed in Burlington, went to college briefly but didn’t finish, and then returned to Skagit Valley.

As I perused his Facebook page and pictures (we now look so old), I wondered about the path my life took, and why I bounced around so many places during the past 30 years, whereas he stayed in Skagit Valley. What is it that took me out of Burlington and around so many different areas of the world?

The answer to this question will require some personal backstory and narration about my life. If you’re looking for tips on technical writing, skip this post. This is more of a post about me making sense of my childhood and life’s trajectory. I want to understand the forces that pulled me in the directions I took in life.

Growing up

I lived in the house pictured earlier until I was about 10 years old. At that age, my parents divorced and moved into two separate nearby houses — my mom moved down the block and rented another house for a while. Then when work grew scarce, she moved to Tacoma, about an hour and a half south. My dad, on the other hand, moved into a nearby trailer park. They let me choose who I wanted to stay with, so sometimes I stayed at my mom’s, and other days at my dad’s. My mom would drive me back and forth from Burlington to Tacoma.

My dad’s trailer looked like this (picture it 30 years earlier, though):

My dad's trailer
My dad's trailer

I lived alone with my dad here. My one sibling, my sister, lived with mom in Tacoma. In driving through this trailer park 30 years later, it seemed depressing and more run-down than I remember. But when I was a kid, it wasn’t so bad. All of us neighborhood boys kind of hung out together, often skateboarding on this alley or doing tricks on bikes.

My dad's trailer
The trailer alley where we skateboarded all day

Best of all, the trailer park was adjacent to a large field close to the Skagit River. In this picture, beyond the line of distant trees is a levee that runs along the river. My dad bought me a dirt motorcycle, and I would ride all around this area in a free-range, exploratory way.

The field out back
The field out back

More than anything about my childhood, I remember the freedom to go where I wanted on my bike, my motorcycle, and on foot. This was a time before social media and the Internet — you could just roam around places, freely, wherever you wanted to pedal your bike or go. There’s an exhilaration as a kid about being free and independent, making your own choices about where you go.

My parents were always amicable after the divorce, so as a child there wasn’t a lot of emotional conflict. However, my dad was taciturn and not so easy going. He suffered from bouts of anger when he would drop something (cursing a fallen pan, for instance), and often kept his thoughts to himself. He would pick up books at garage sales and read them late into the night. He maintained a lifelong love of literature and the religious aesthetic. He liked to drive his truck on long slow routes to see new areas. He was always kind of a loner and socially awkward.

Living with my dad was all right, but after I graduated from 8th grade, I decided I wanted to go to Tacoma to live with my mom. The prospect of going to a new city, outside of Burlington, excited me — the adventure of the unknown. And I guess I missed my mother. She was easier to live with, more easy going, supportive, and loving. Since my school was a K-8 school, making this transition after graduation made sense.

In Tacoma, attending Curtis High School in University Place, I became friends with another kid in an apartment complex where we lived. The kid happened to be Mormon, with a happy-looking family (at least on the surface), and that’s how I ended up becoming a Mormon in my youth — I loved the strong families. We played tennis the entire summer at the apartment’s tennis court. My mom (who never joined the Mormons) felt like the youth program in the Mormon church was a good environment for me, as it provided friends, male leaders (who were sort of a surrogate father), and a wholesome value system (no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, etc.).

In Tacoma, I also joined another group of friends through an organization called Explorer Search and Rescue, or ESAR. This was a volunteer group that looked for people who got lost in the wilderness (this was before cell phones with GPS). We had to be ready at a moment’s notice to go to some remote location and look for lost people. We kept large backpacks fully stocked and ready, with food and water and other gear that could sustain us for 48 hours.

My ESAR group of friends became my close friends (closer than the Mormon friends), and it was my good luck that they were also high-performing students. In Burlington, my GPA had always been around 3.2 or 3.3 (Bs and As), but in Tacoma I had one semester where I earned a perfect 4.0, and after that kept my grades similarly high. Being surrounded by my nerdy ESAR friends helped.

In Tacoma, my mother bought me something similar to a small computer (it was like a word processor that could print from a screen — this was before PCs were common, and before the Internet took off, around 1990-ish). I started keeping a journal, writing regularly. I found that I liked the rhythm of writing in a reflective way. As I mentioned earlier, journal writing let me use writing as a tool for thinking about and processing the day. This habit is one that would evolve into blogging later.

In high school, I also had a hippie/Beatnik poet English teacher (Mr. Mac) who exposed me to the world of creative writing, especially poetry, and we shared our writing regularly in class and later compiled them into “chapbooks.” With desks arranged in circles, after we shared a poem or other writing, we would snap our fingers just like Beatnik poet audiences.

Most good Mormons aspire to go to BYU in Utah, and that’s where I ended up going to college. It was the only college I applied to — not because I had my sights set on it or anything, but because I was only marginally aware of the college application process and timelimes, and by the time I realized when applications were due, I had to scramble to submit my application on time. It still boggles my mind why I wasn’t more aware of the college application process, given my friends.

I had motorcycle at the time (a street bike, not the dirt bike in Burlington) and I actually rode it out to Provo, Utah, after a roundabout tour through Montana, Colorado, and Texas (that’s another story). After a year at BYU, I served a two-year mission (like most male Mormons) in Venezuela (this was back in 1994-96, before Venezuela shut down to outsiders), and then returned to BYU to finish college. I got married (to a rebel), graduated with a degree in English (in the Honors program), and then decided to teach English in Japan for a summer before returning to a creative writing program at Columbia University in New York City to earn an MFA in literary nonfiction. My entry into a masters program in creative writing was really due to not knowing what else to do with a BA in English.

Moving from Provo to Harlem (where we initially lived, then later the Bronx) was quite a culture change, but one that was enlivening. After the first year in New York City, I was lucky enough to receive a graduate teaching assistant fellowship that involved teaching introductory writing courses. Otherwise, I would have never been able to repay the student loans, which were already about 30k for the first year. We had our first child in New York, and about 9 months later, 9-11 happened. We were living in the Bronx when all the events took place downtown, both Twin Towers falling and ensuing chaos. I think these events piqued an interest in the Middle East.

Having a child in college during an MFA program put pressure on me about how I would be providing for my family in the future. My wife, also an English major, worked as an administrative assistant at Columbia while I finished out the writing program. After college, I thought I would pursue teaching composition at a junior college. I applied to around 80 positions and didn’t receive interviews for any of them, but there was an opportunity to teach at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt. AUC had an office in New York City, and I interviewed there. Something in the interview gave me a strand of hope. Nearly three months after the interview, I got the job and we packed our belongings and moved to Cairo, Egypt for the next couple of years.

Egypt was a cultural experience I’ll never forget, and one of the highlights of our lives. My wife is a travel bug, and we explored so many areas of the city and country — trips down the Nile, explorations in the city bazaars, trips to pyramids and ancient cities with hieroglyphs, and more. But I realized a couple of things as a composition teacher: first, I didn’t particularly like teaching. And second, it was a dead-end job in academia. Unless you have a PhD in academia, you end up teaching lower-level writing courses all your life, and grading students essays always made me grumpy. The comments I wrote were mainly to justify the grades given, and I didn’t see students’ writing improve much. Moreover, I wanted to be the one writing. I didn’t want to be a writing coach.

After two years, we left Egypt and returned to the US, but not to Washington or Utah or New York. Instead, we moved to Florida because that’s where my family had moved (my father for retirement purposes, my mother for more work opportunities). Also, my sister’s husband was in tech and we thought we’d have good job opportunities through his connections. This turned out to be right — through those connections, I landed a job as a marketing copywriter for an alternative nutrition company called BodyHealth. I learned that I had a lot of writing energy and channeled that energy into creating copy of all sorts, from newsletter articles to press releases, product label copy, web pages, and more. Interestingly enough, the company’s main challenges were around SEO — they wanted to bury some bad press that the CEO, a Scientologist, had received after his involvement with a patient death where medical treatment had been postponed.

The marketing copywriter job didn’t pay much. I started at 32k/year and moved up to 33k/year after six months. To stay afloat, I also started teaching writing at ITT-Tech, a now defunct technical college that mostly targeted post-military people to help them get into tech careers. One day while driving from my copywriter job to my side teaching job, stuck in slow traffic across the Causeway bridge from St. Petersburg to Tampa, I had a financial “reality check” moment (really more of an emotional breakdown) where I cursed myself for being so foolish as to major in English rather than accounting or something more marketable. This was a low point in my life — realizing that I’d chosen to major in something that was going to leave me penniless, working two jobs, paying back student loans forever, always struggling to provide for my family, teaching composition on the side during evenings, etc. It was at that point that I decided to switch careers.

When I was in Egypt, one of my close colleagues told me I would be a perfect technical writer. He had been a tech writer for a few years prior to teaching at AUC. I had, in fact, created impressive interactive websites with Dreamweaver to accompany my courses, and my colleague saw some technical aptitude in me. He said he thought I would be perfect for technical writing (even though he himself hated tech writing and found it drudgery).

My only exposure to technical writing was through an undergraduate survey course where a professor of technical writing talked about formatting options in phone books for an hour, boring us all to tears. As a student, the whole path of technical writing never interested me, but this is likely because, as a student, the financial realities of life seemed irrelevant.

But I needed more money to support our growing family. I gathered up all my writing samples from my marketing copywriting job and applied at Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, Florida, to be a junior technical writer. As luck would have it, my interviewer had a PhD in Biology. She looked at one of my BodyHealth writing samples — a detailed explanation of protein, how it works, and why it’s essential (it was educational content for some protein pills the company sold), and she thought my explanation was solid. She actually understood protein and thought I handled this complex topic well. This landed me my first job as a technical writer.

Through a supportive team of about a dozen tech writers, I learned the basics of technical writing. I remember being surprised that procedures needed to be described in such exacting detail. You couldn’t just write that some task needed to be done, but you had to enumerate each of the steps in the task with exacting detail. I was like, really?

The pay was much better at Raymond James. My starting salary was 40k the first year, and then jumped up to 50k the next. I also got involved in the Suncoast STC chapter, which was a great network for the technical writing community. One seasoned technical writer, Mark Hanigan, took me under his wing and helped me feel a connection and belonging to the tech comm community. I volunteered as webmaster and refactored the chapter website using WordPress.

It was right around this time (2006) that blogging was becoming popular. I wanted the chapter to participate in a group blog, with many of the chapter members contributing posts. After a month of not getting others to write on this group blog, and realizing that the chapter blog was mostly just me writing posts, I decided to create my own blog. This was how idratherbewriting.com first got started. (See Why this blog, separate from the Suncoast Blog?, dated June 1, 2006, for my first post.)

Life was good in Florida — we had two more children and bought a house. But we made a terrible decision about the location of the house. We bought a new house in a drug neighborhood, and there were constant drug deals and shootouts. One week, during a shootout in a back alley behind our house, a stray bullet entered our daughter’s room right above her crib (luckily she was safe). The next week we were robbed. We decided to move to a safer, more family friendly area. We sold our house at a loss and moved to Utah, where my wife’s family lived.

In Utah, I worked first at a remote government facility in Dugway (two hours out into the Western desert) documenting storage arrays (which I knew nothing about). And when that job seemed unstable — they were never sure if the government would renew the contract — I switched to working as a tech writer for the Mormon church. I was still Mormon at the time, so this seemed like a dream job. And it was — I worked with friendly colleagues, learned Flare and InDesign, and honed my skills there for about five years. I had freedom and flexibility to innovate, and I continued to write on my blog the whole time. Then one day in 2013, there was a huge layoff, with about 12% of the organization let go, including the entire tech pubs team. (I wrote about this in my series Reflecting seven years later about why we were laid off).

Fortunately, the Church was generous with the layoff severance package. I’d always wanted to go to California and be in the center of tech — Silicon Valley — so we made our way out to the Bay area. We tried to sell our house, but the market wasn’t good enough, so we just contracted with a local management agency to rent the house out. (This turned out to be a great decision later, as the house quietly grew equity.)

In California, most of the jobs required more advanced technical skills than I possessed, but to my good fortune, a top recruiter in the area (Andrew Davis) was a fan of my blog. He persuaded a company to hire me even though I didn’t really have a strong knowledge of JavaScript. They trusted the recruiter, and the recruiter trusted me because of the podcasts and other content from my blog. Badgeville turned out to be a perfect job for me. I learned API documentation and enjoyed the whole gamification domain (even though gamification would fizzle).

I would have stayed for years at this company, but it was a startup, and the company was struggling to stay afloat. New CEOs were constantly brought in to fix the financials, all while employees were jumping ship or being laid off on a weekly basis. Having just been laid off in Utah not too long ago, I was wary about being stranded and jobless in an expensive area like the Bay, and so a year later, when another opportunity arose (at 41st Parameter), I took it. It was another API documentation job, this one covering much more than JavaScript. The APIs were packaged into SDKs for Java, PHP, C++, Android, and iOS. I was really swimming in code and had a hard time keeping the languages straight. Even so, this broadened my understanding of APIs beyond REST.

During this time, my wife became increasingly disillusioned with the Mormon church. We had four girls now, and it was clear that growing up in the Mormon church wasn’t good for women, as it encouraged a trajectory toward non-careers, passiveness, and second-class citizenship as members. I had cooled off as well and felt disconnected with the Mormon community for years — they weren’t curious or open-minded, and I didn’t fit in well anymore. Every Sunday School discussion was a train wreck of questions. One day we decided to cut our ties and abandon the faith.

This was a little uncomfortable because my manager at the time was also Mormon, but in another city. Although 41st Parameter had more stability (it was a startup acquired by a larger company), my recruiter friend told me I could be making a lot more than I currently was, like 30% more. I didn’t really believe him, but I decided to apply to a larger tech company (Amazon) to see if it was true. During my interview process, I was fortunate to have another blog reader on my side from the start who told me that the ideas I expressed in a certain blog post (this one — What is the technical writer’s role in content marketing?) perfectly aligned with what they were looking for. And the recruiter was right about the salary bump — I was offered a salary that had a 30% increase up from what I was currently making. Given the steep costs in the Bay area, I took the opportunity.

Working at Amazon was a great decision, and I also had a ton of freedom and flexibility to innovate in my role. I spent five years at Amazon and deepened my knowledge of APIs, processes, products, and more. I learned how big tech companies work. I also developed my API documentation course (/learnapidoc/), after being asked to give API workshops to surrounding groups and companies in the area. I started to be seen and recognized as an expert in API documentation. Many other writers were feeling the squeeze toward more technical jobs, and my focus on APIs provided content for this trend.

I think I could have worked at Amazon for the rest of my life, as I was quite content there and felt proficient with the products and docs. As with all jobs, there were pros and cons. But I built up a great rapport with our devrel team, I created our authoring system, theme, and workflow using docs-as-code tools, and I felt comfortable with the team. Things seemed to be cruising along just fine.

However, we were tired of being renters in California. We’d been in the Bay nearly 8 years, renting the whole time. This is the unfortunate fact of living in California — the houses cost more than a million dollars, so most people (who move to the area) end up renting. Each month we paid $3k to $4k in rent, with no growing equity. Additionally, financial incentives at big companies start to fizzle out after four years, after the initial RSUs vest. Eventually, I decided to explore new opportunities.

During our time in California, equity in the Utah house had been quietly growing. The housing market in Utah had turned around and was much better than when we’d left, and we had just enough for a down payment on another house. We felt it was time to leave California and find a place where we could settle down for the rest of our lives.

My wife wanted to move to Oregon, where her sister lives, and she envisioned me working permanently from home. I didn’t think companies would switch to a permanent WFH model after the pandemic, and I liked going to work anyway. I argued that Washington would be more suitable because of its proximity to several big tech companies. I interviewed with Google and was offered a job. (I flubbed the first technical interview, as I struggled to work out the logic in the programming scenario, but someone gave me a second-chance interview focusing on another technology domain, and I did much better.) After surveying my fit with different Google teams, I decided to join a team in Seattle working with maps (you join the company first, and then choose your team). I chose Maps because I wanted to work on a product that felt more worthwhile — see my post On cultivating a garden while the world is crumbling around you for some backstory there. I grew tired of writing documentation for products that seemed trivial while the world burned.

After months of research, we bought a house in Renton (which we’d never seen before purchasing, actually) that turned out to be a great place for us, in a beautiful home overlooking a small creek that flows through the backyard. We’re surrounded by green but aren’t too far from Seattle to commute in. Here’s our house, where we’re together all day since all four kids are at home and both my wife and I WFH all day:

House in Renton
House in Renton

Reflection

Come back to the beginning with me, watching the soccer game in Skagit Valley. While I was watching my youngest run about on a soccer field, right near where I grew up, I thought about my childhood friend who never left the area, who took such a different path through life than me. What uprooted me from Burlington, what pushed me toward this job and that, what prompted me to move from one state or country to the next? I feel like I’ve traveled the world and had good success in my career. What forces pushed and pulled me in the directions that I took? Were those directions inevitable, or just chance, or something else?

Although things could have gone in many directions, I believe I inherited my writing genes from my father. The writing habit I started in Tacoma, with the journal and my English class with the Beatnik poet, continued through college. But it was writing combined with the financial responsibility of providing for my Mormon family that steered me into technical writing. Almost no other writing career pays enough to allow one to be the breadwinner in a family. And job availability prompted me to live in more urban areas, where tech companies hire. I couldn’t have remained in Burlington and been a tech writer. And I couldn’t have chosen a writing career outside of tech and made enough money to support a family. Even so, it seems that many paths were due to chance, and things could have gone another way entirely.

In my career, I think a lot of doors opened for me through my blog. If someone reads my blog and liked my writing and thoughts, they were won over before they even met me. I was fortunate enough to enter the career workforce right at a time when blogging took off — blogging provided a perfect fit for my writing career, as it gave me the tools for visibility, social mobility, and community identity. My background in creative writing propelled me to write (even after a day at the office writing), and the web provided the outlet.

Even as a tech writer, I could have stayed in Washington my entire life. I could have gone to a local college, earned a degree in writing and then have moved to Seattle and worked for Microsoft or Amazon in a writing path, climbing the ladder locally. But I didn’t have this career trajectory early on. I didn’t find myself on this path until many years after college, similar to many others who meander into technical writing. I had to be bent by the financial realities of life to steer my career into tech writing.

Also, I did want to see the world and experience what was outside of Washington. When presented with the option to join my mother in Tacoma, I couldn’t hold back. I didn’t want to stay in the trailer park where my dad lived, in a tiny mobile home doing skateboard tricks with other kids in the area. I had a curiosity about the new area, a desire to see and explore something more. That desire helped pull me out of Burlington and set me about on the course I took. I like to think that I bounced around the world in part due to some curiosity about the world.

But now that I’ve lived in so many places — Utah, Venezuela, Japan, New York, Egypt, Florida, and California — I’m ready to settle down. My wife and I are making plans to be here, in this house, for the rest of our lives. Is this a temporary feeling, which might change in 5 years when we grow restless and hungry to experience more of the world? Or have we reached a point where we’ve seen enough to know that we’re in a good place now? I’m not sure. Moving requires so many changes. It changes you as much as anything.

At some point, I will get the courage to reach out to my old childhood friend. A “hello there” after 30 years of silence. I kind of want to know and understand his life trajectory, what decisions and paths he took and why. Maybe this will help me understand that not all journeys are physical, that one can explore worlds within the same backyard, and find wonder in seemingly small changes and observations. But my guess is that a satisfying life follows more of the archetypical journey — as you grow up, you leave home, travel the world and have many adventures, struggle a bit, find yourself being moved about from place to place due to various circumstances, and then gradually, after many years gone, like Odysseus, you set your sails toward home, feeling a sense of triumph.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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