I would say it’s time for my annual update, but it’s like a year and a half now.

I actually started typing this from 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, on my way to Maui last November, where the plan was to not think about technical writing, management, or work for seven days. I did okay with that, and feel free to bug me about my Maui restaurant list if you’re headed there. Thanks to Git, I started work on this while I was on the plane. That always seems to be the example they give in Git training, right? “So it’s all in your local repo. If you get on a plane and aren’t on the internet, you can still work.” Right? Well, I never pushed my commit, and I never finished writing, so maybe it’s not perfect.

The big update: I completed an MBA last year. This was at Western Governors University, which has a fully-remote, proficiency-based program. It’s a neat model for learning; basically, you enroll by the term, but then you finish classes as slow or as fast as you want. So instead of like enrolling in twelve credit hours for a semester, you do as many classes as you want to finish in six months.

I still worked full-time (or more than full-time, really), but I type fast. I was able to finish the two-year program in about five months. I started on June 1, and my graduation date was officially October 24, although I finished my last class about a week before that.

This program was an IT Management version of the MBA, so it contained a few courses specific to IT project management. But otherwise, it had all the same classes as a regular business MBA. (I think I skipped an operations management class, and a public speaking class, which was good. When I was an undergrad and had to take a speech class, I did it at 8 am in a summer session, so it was only six people.)

I think the first question people ask me is, “Why?” I know I don’t know any other tech writers with an MBA, and I have never applied for a job that required one. But I had a few thoughts about why I wanted to do this:

  • I am a manager, and I never had any formal training as a manager. I have spent some time on Udemy watching leadership videos, and I have a whole shelf of half-read management books. But I felt like I needed something that said I was a manager, or at least something more than the few Agile crash course certification badges on my LinkedIn.
  • I’ve always vaguely wanted a graduate degree, although never knew how that would happen.
  • I don’t intend to move on to being a CTO or a PM or anything else. But I could see a future someday at some other company where another department got shoved next to the tech writing department (UX? research? QA?) and I would need to manage both. And I’d like to be prepared for that.
  • I’m not starting a company. But in working at a start-up, I’m constantly inundated with discussion about financing and organization and whatever, so maybe I need to know more about it.
  • This was way outside my wheelhouse. It would be hard. And I need to do things outside my wheelhouse that are hard.
  • It’s arguably more interesting than doing crossword puzzles in my spare time to keep my brain from turning to goo.

The basic summary of the classwork is that things fell into three buckets:

  • Classes that were things I do every day without thinking, or have been trained on to the point of absurdity, and I just needed to get them done quickly. There were leadership, ethics, and people management classes in which more than 50% of the content was the mandatory training I have to take every year that says you shouldn’t bribe a foreign government.
  • Classes that were interesting and fun. I took a marketing class where I had to write a marketing plan for releasing Taco Bell menu items in Japan. I also liked the IT classes, which involved things like doing a SWOT analysis for a company to pivot its IT infrastructure to the cloud.
  • Classes that were climbing K2 without oxygen. I never took any business as an undergrad, and had to face three classes that almost ended me: accounting, finance, and econ. These were classes with math, equations, ratios, and lots and lots of raw memorization of hundreds of terms.

The capstone project, the big thing at the end, was a lot of fun. It basically put everything together and you had to run a business in a simulation for three quarters, competing against other people. A lot of people complained that the situation was insane, but it was honestly like playing Roller Coaster Tycoon for a grade. You had to run a bicycle company and decide on everything: factories, distribution, stores, bike features, R&D, marketing, everything. You had to pitch for venture cap after the first two quarters (which meant I did not avoid public speaking), and you had to write a shareholder report. It was fun making changes to see if I could increase output or sales.

Overall, the degree had five proctored tests and seven papers which totaled about 190 pages. There was some PowerPoint, and far too much Excel. Almost everything else was Word.

(Side note: I do not like Excel. Even worse than using it for legitimate purposes like accounting, I am really not into the standard use in tech writing, which is, “Let’s do a doc plan or analysis by pouring every filename into a sheet that is immediately obsolete and then putting a bunch of random checkmarks and notes and names in 17 columns, and then in a month, we will have no idea why we did this.” If you’re in that situation, use Jira. If you can’t use Jira, use Airtable. If you can’t use Airtable, you’re probably wasting your time on something that doesn’t matter and should stop.)

The last time I wrote an academic paper, I think I had to find things in a physical card catalog and then ask a librarian to pull the microfiche for me and pay ten cents a page to photocopy the article. Everything has changed 100%. OK, I use Word (begrudgingly) and get that part. But I’d never used a reference manager to track my citations, and that all magically works, without me remembering where the parenthesis go on an APA7 cite. The course was all e-books, and the papers I had to look up and cite were all online in their library. So, search “Jack Welch GE leadership traits” and find a result in Harvard Business Review, and there’s your PDF to skim. Find what you want, and there’s a link next to it with the cite. Copy and paste it exactly and you’re up against a plagiarism checker that will nail you for doing that. It was all completely different than when I would pay my girlfriend’s roommate to type my papers on a Brother word processor for me.

So, what did I learn? I don’t know how much of this applies directly to being a tech writing manager. But I think for a person living within the wheelhouse of big tech and seeing finance and business in the news, it’s invaluable. Just in general, I think it’s twisted my brain on how companies work. The second that Albertson’s/Kroger merger was announced, I pulled 10-K reports from the SEC for both parties, drilled down to the balance sheet, and started asking my better half (the consumer packaged goods expert of the family) dozens of questions, like “why does Kroger have almost two billion dollars of cash on hand during a pandemic?” From a practical perspective, I think I knew a lot of the IT management stuff like budgeting and SWOT analysis, but it was nice to do it on paper, and the next time I have to do a major tooling acquisition, I know how to make it look.

WGU was great, too. I love the model, and everyone I worked with was awesome. I talked my sister into going back for her Master’s degree in the education school. And spoiler alert, I’m actually halfway done with another degree. More on that later.