Mid-July couldn’t look more different than mid-June.
A month ago, I was lying by the pool in Santorini, Greece, riding the wave that was the aftermath of a five-week international reporting trip with Northeastern’s journalism program. The program – termed a “Dialogue of Civilizations” in Northeastern jargon – involved intensive reporting in two of Greece’s major cities: Thessaloniki and Athens. It was exciting, enriching, and exhausting all at once. Read my blog about that experience here.
Today, I am in the midst of my second week of work at Smartleaf, a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts that makes automated rebalancing software for wealth management firms. Essentially, the goal of Smartleaf’s technology is to make it easier for financial advisors to manage their clients’ portfolios: the software makes automatic recommendations for financial trades that it would take hours or maybe even days to do manually.
My position as a Junior Technical Writer and Product Management Associate is to write material that identifies new features, articulates things that have been fixed, or defines parts of the technology that may not be well understood by clients. At least, this is what I’ve gathered from my few days on the job, which have been a melting pot of introductions, jargon, and free lunch (perks of working at a small company!).
My days are full of words that I’ve never heard before, and Investopedia searches to figure out what those words mean. In the words of my oh-so-eloquent boyfriend, “you know a lot less about finance than I thought.”
In some ways, I feel like a completely different person than I did a month ago. My setting has changed from Greece to Boston, my days have gone from scattered to structured, and my surrounding community has changed. I keep looking back on my trip abroad and thinking, “that must have been someone else.” But it wasn’t. All the proof is here.
Even though I am still the same person, my lifestyle since last month has changed in many ways, the most dramatic of which is the industry in which I am primarily operating, at least for the next six months.
Since starting at Northeastern, I have almost single-mindedly pursued my goal of becoming a science communicator, and have been extremely impressed with the resources my university has offered to reach that objective. That includes the existence of a student-run science magazine – of which I will be the president this fall – a selection of classes that have allowed me to build my science writing skills, and a variety of co-op opportunities that have helped demonstrate how those skills can be applied in the real world.
In this co-op at Smartleaf, I am seeing a completely different side of the communication world: I am now working in technical writing, not journalism, and am writing about finance, not science. However, even in these few days, I have observed some interesting parallels between my co-op at Smartleaf and my previous experiences as a science communicator.
One is the overall importance of communication. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the gap between scientific experts and the general public, and how I can help to bridge that gap. What I’ve learned in the past week is that there’s a similar gap in the finance world. According to Investopedia, communication is one of the Top 7 Non-Financial Skills Required in Finance. Jerry Michael, Smartleaf CEO, points out that not everyone using Smartleaf’s software will have a technical background, so cohesive and accessible communication is key. As he put it, “Bad writing that is unclear…I find it personally offensive.” I agree.
Good communication is just as important in finance as it is in the science world. Almost everyone I’ve met at Smartleaf so far has a unique ability to explain technical and financial concepts in a way that I am able to understand, even though I know very little. Hopefully soon I can rise to that same level.
Another, related parallel is the need to avoid jargon. One of the things I often encounter when I’m interviewing a scientist is that they use a lot of big words that I might have never heard before, but that they’re accustomed to using every day. Excessive use of jargon makes for stiff quotes with awkward explanations. One of Michael’s goals is that everything the company does should be understandable for someone of my background. Doing so means using less jargon, and when it’s unavoidable, defining complex terms with simple explanations.
Finally, there’s an element of storytelling in technical writing that I wasn’t aware of. One of my assignments for this week is to review release notes, otherwise known as patch notes, for a type of software, and take notes on things I like about the writing style and readability. Before last week, I’d never read release notes in my life. Little did I know that many of those who write them – a group of which I will soon be a part – are making a valiant attempt to make bug fixes and software updates accessible to a lay audience. This quote from Slack’s blog illustrates it well:
If you want to produce something that people will want to read, it’s only polite to make it enjoyable to read it. So in release notes — as in everything else we do — a large love for language, and a little humor, go a long way.
This mission, which mirrors the approach that I’ve learned to take when writing about science, is clear from Slack’s release notes, which balance humor and simplicity.
I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I know that I want to be a storyteller. It’s always exciting to learn about unconventional avenues through which I can reach that goal. Last year, I wrote about how teaching organic chemistry is like telling a story. Last month, I built my journalistic storytelling skills through interviews with refugee families and sea turtle experts. Now, I’m going to learn how to write release notes in a way that is explanatory but not overwhelming.
Mid-July couldn’t look any more different than mid-June, but I’m not a different person. In many ways, I’m working towards the same goal.