Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Did I Say to Larry Ellison?

Continuing on from yesterday's theme.

Shortly before I started my somewhat unsuccessful career as a game maker, I had a somewhat unsuccessful career as a technical writer.  If you don't know what a technical writer does, buy a toaster, get out the manual, and flip to the end.  You see those "Frequently Asked Questions" that only morons would ask?  For example:
Q: The toaster doesn't work.  What do I do?
A: Confirm toaster is plugged in.
or
Q: I've plugged the toaster in, but it still doesn't work.  What do I do?
A: Have you tried turning it on, dumbass?
That's what technical writers do.  We interview engineers and try to figure out what they're doing and then write it down in a way that the average person can understand.  Of course, engineers change their minds, so we have to constantly update what we're writing until the time of release.  The moment the engineers finish, they ship the product out with our manuals, even if we haven't had time to document all the changes.  As a coworker once said: "It's like frosting a cake while it's still in the oven."

Anyway, I used to work at Oracle writing manuals for massive, relational databases.  (Don't know what a relational database is?  Neither do I.)  One day, Larry Ellison -- our billionaire CEO and a man famous for dating supermodels and having a cameo in Iron Man 2 -- invited everyone to a rare,Town-Hall-style meeting.  He stood on a stage and talked about racing boats, wrestling Olympic athletes, and the future of the company.  Then he asked if anyone had any questions.  I raised my hand.

(Here's a useful technique.  Always raise your hand immediately when someone asks for questions.  You're sure to get called on because it takes most people half an hour to carefully construct a question.  By then, it's too late, since everyone else has a hand up, too.)

I got the microphone an asked: "What do you see as the future of Oracle documentation?"

Big laugh from the crowd.  Really big laugh.

In Larry's defense, he answered the question well, speaking about getting away from paper manuals and moving to just-in-time documentation.  Then he asked me if he had answered my question.  To this day, I wish I had said: "Yes, but did you notice that everyone in this room laughed when I asked about the future of my career at your company?  That's how technical writers are treated at Oracle."  Perhaps it's best I didn't say that.  Maybe they weren't laughing at my career.  Maybe I had made a joke that I, to this day, don't get.  However, I just nodded and handed the microphone on to one of the other thousand people who had figured out what they wanted to ask.

A week later, I quit my job.

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