Friday, July 8, 2011

The 48 Hour Power Plant Job

I write training modules for power plants around the country – from home.  I am just completing my first work order, which consists of six modules with six documents each (system description, system operating procedure, job performance measure, facilitator’s guide, system questions, and in-process control sheet) for Unit 8 of the El Paso Electric Company Rio Grande Power Plant.  I get paid only when a module is finished so the more efficiently I work, the more profitable the job.

For this first assignment, I planned a two day visit to the plant.  Two days to get all the photographs and documents I would need to complete the entire assignment.  I have to pay all my own expenses, including travel and hotels, so two days seemed like the minimum I could get away with to get everything I needed with the least possible expense.  I would have to fly to El Paso the night before so I could have a full first day at the plant, then fly out late the next afternoon.

I took a Canon PowerShot SX130IS digital camera.  That model is well suited for power plant work.  It has a very good zoom lens, can be operated one-handed (for those times you need to hang onto a railing or ladder with the other), and it uses AA batteries.  AA batteries are good because they are cheap, I can buy them anywhere, and it is easy to carry enough for a whole day of shooting.  I do not want to be out in the middle of nowhere with a fancy lithium battery that could run out of juice on you and require half a day to recharge.

With an eight gigabyte memory card, I can take all the photos I want without running out of space.  For this job, I took over 750 high-resolution photographs.

I also took my MacBook Pro, a hard hat and steel-toed boots.

The first day I had someone from the plant give me a tour of the whole unit I was working on.  We covered every piece of equipment from the ground to the roof, climbing on top of the vertical deaerator, hiking out to the cooling towers, and getting close and personal with the boiler furnace.  El Paso was over 100 degrees that day, but after examining the burners, it felt like a cool breeze when we stepped outside into the noon sunshine.  I didn’t take any photos the first day, just took it all in.

That afternoon I spent with a copier, making copies of all the engineering drawings and manuals I could get my hands on.

The second day, I went into the plant by myself, retracing the route my guide and I took the day before.  I photographed everything I could possibly need.  In the weeks since then, I have gone through those photos dozens of times and it is amazing how many things I got shots of, more or less by accident, that ended up saving me later.

I spent the whole morning in the unit going through some areas several times, always looking for new details.  After lunch, I walked back out, reshot some areas, got shots in the control room, and made sure I had photos of all the remote control panels and data plates I could find.

By the time I was ready to fly back home, I had my laptop case crammed with drawings and documents.  My previous power plant experience was on site.  I could go out into the plant anytime I wanted for the whole time I worked on the project.  Having to fit all the research into two days was a valuable exercise in the discipline and organization.  I prefer having free access to the equipment I am writing about, but this has been a great learning experience.  What I learned on this assignment will help me be better prepared for the next one.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Be Prepared, Be Flexible, and You Will Be Employable

Working as a contractor, you need to have a wide range of skills. Every company and every job situation presents new challenges and the more prepared you are to meet them, the more valuable you will be as a contractor.

Despite what many beginning technical writers seem to believe, there are no established formats or guidelines that have been adapted by all companies for technical writing. My experience is that every company has its own set of requirements for technical publications. Some are informal and some are set out in specifications hundreds of pages long, but all are different. Even in military technical publications, which all follow the same specifications, companies and even technical publications departments within the same company, will apply their own interpretations to the specifications.

You need to be familiar with a wide variety of software. While Word is the most common software used for writing, different companies use different versions. You may also find companies that want writers who have experience with FrameMaker, InDesign, Open Office Writer, or Word Perfect. They may also want you to be able to handle spreadsheets, databases, presentation software, and software to create online training modules.

It has come in handy for me to have some programming background and experience with relational databases. I got this building web sites as a hobby. Knowing how to work with HTML, XML, SQL, and other web scripting languages helps when you are writing about software.

In my current contract, I am not doing any actual technical writing. I was contracted by the agency as a technical writer, but the client (a mortgage company) calls me a “data consultant”. In the position, I convert documents templates from PowerBuilder database to custom XML templates for CaseAware (another database system). This involves writing queries for MySQL, translating the PowerBuilder logic to work in CaseAware, and testing the translated templates. I also find myself leading a team of writers who I need to mentor because they don’t have the experience with SQL, XML, and databases that I do.

Every bit of experience and education you can pick up will serve you sooner or later. In this job you cannot afford to specialize. You need to be an expert in every industry in which you may be hired. For that you need to constantly be learning and developing skills. Follow your curiosity wherever it may lead you and you just may end up with a job or jobs you will love.