About Arthur Berger: Arthur Berger works as a Technical Writer for IBM, where he helps create technical documentation for the company’s cloud services. He and his team produce a wide range of products, including instructions, training materials, application program interface (API) documents, user interface (UI) text, command line interface (CLI) strings, error messages, videos, infographics, and more. Mr. Berger also has experience in technical proposal writing from his time working at companies such as K3 Enterprises, Inc. and Red Hat, Inc.
Mr. Berger earned his bachelor’s degree from Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina with a major in English and minor in Spanish. In 2017, he graduated from the Master of Science in Technical Communication (MSTC) program at North Carolina State University. While at NC State, he served as a Teaching Assistant and Instructor for the 300-level course Professional Communication for Business and Management. He is currently a member of the Society for Technical Communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Arthur Berger] I spent my college years at Campbell University in little Buies Creek, NC, contemplating how T.S. Eliot could go from The Waste Land to the Four Quartets and reading Aztec poetry. From this, perhaps you’ve gathered that I was an English major with a Spanish minor. Throw in a little Mendelssohn on the piano for good measure, and you’ve got my academic interests.
Alas, no one would pay me to do these things full-time, so shortly after I graduated, I got a job at a dynamic small business in the government contracting field as a proposal writer. While it’s true that Requests for Proposals (RFPs) aren’t quite as interesting as English lit, it is also true that RFPs cover nearly every topic under the sun, just like literature does. I enjoyed the challenge of having to sift through complex subject matters and put together a coherent, persuasive narrative that explains why the customer should award the contract to us, all before the “clock strikes twelve” (or in business jargon, “all submissions must be uploaded by 1700 E.S.T.”).
Still interested in how words change what people think and do, I enrolled in NC State’s MS in Technical Communication program. In addition to the degree, I graduated with two certificates in Digital Humanities and Accomplishment in Teaching.
Now, I work as a technical writer for a multinational enterprise technology company in their cloud division. I enjoy the variety of writing challenges in my current position. My team provides product documentation, API documentation, CLI help and error text, GUI strings, and training materials. We also put in a lot of effort optimizing our docs by applying research and analysis across a variety of areas such as content strategy, information architecture, user testing/UX, search engine optimization (SEO), web traffic analysis, automation of doc tooling, style guides, and more. In such a fast-pace, agile environment, I do sometimes feel like my to-do list is more like a weather app: you thought it’d be sunny, but suddenly there’s a storm on the horizon and you need to quickly adapt your plan for the day. The variety keeps me challenged, engaged, and learning; and I think it helps me produce better technical writing products by forcing me to focus on what matters most for users right now.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master of Science in Technical Communication (MSTC) program at North Carolina State University?
[Arthur Berger] I debated between getting an MBA or getting a different type of master’s degree. Some reasons that I didn’t get an MBA are that I felt they are very broad in scope, with the subject matter, methods, and expectations varying widely depending on the program—all of which I think puts more burden on you to argue for the uniqueness and value that you could bring a company. It also seemed that many degrees have become more of a credentialing and networking exercise rather than a serious academic pursuit into research and practice. Plus, most of the better MBA programs were very expensive and offered limited financial assistance, possibly because they figure that the attendees’ employers can help contribute to the costs. These reasons might not be fair, but they represent my general impression.
When I considered communication degrees, I felt that it was important to get an MS and decidedly not an MA. I didn’t view this so much as a knock against an Arts degree, rather as an extension of my skillset: I already had a Bachelor of Arts and I wanted to diversify. In particular, I wanted to move more into the technology field, as the company that I worked for did a lot in the STEM-world. I felt that I could be both challenged by the important work taking place in this field, as well as challenge the way things are done in STEM by bringing a liberal arts perspective.
Additionally, an in-person program was very important to me. There is no substitution to real people in real life (sorry Facebook! sorry every other book!). This might have been the most important consideration to me at the time, and even if it wasn’t, looking back, I can say that it should have been. Faculty, staff, peers, students, mentors, coworkers…besides the usual “professionalization” opportunities such relationships offer (such as a job, which I did get through connections I made during my time at NC State), these people can touch your lives in so many other ways. I traveled to India with a friend I met in the program. I play on a volleyball rec league with my industry mentor. I keep meaning to go out for drinks with a group of alumni (I’ll make it one day to happy hour, I promise!). I wouldn’t have gotten any of these in-person experiences if I hadn’t attended an in-person program.
NC State’s program was exactly what I was looking for. It is the leading technical communication program in the Southeast. It offers teaching assistantships to cover finances. The faculty excel in leading research around topics such as technical communication, user experience and user assistance, verbal data analysis, knowledge transfer, strategy and publication management, genre studies, and intercultural communication. With its location near the Research Triangle Park technology hub, the MSTC program has strong ties with many local alumni, professional organizations, and companies from all industries. Our mascot’s name is Mr. Wuf and we have our own Wolfpack handsign (those weren’t technically criteria, but worth your consideration, IMHO).
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is NC State’s MSTC program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Arthur Berger] The MSTC program is an evening program, which gives you a lot of flexibility to work full-time, part-time, or teach if you get an assistantship. If you take a full load of classes (at least three per semester), you can graduate in two years.
One concept I learned is that, in tech writing, “concept” is one of your three best friends (along with task and reference, thanks DITA!). Grasping a concept can be one of the most challenging things when you become a technical writer…and then you have to communicate it even more clearly to your users! I think the program stresses that you need to think through what you want to say, how you want to say, but most importantly, whom you want to say it to.
Who’s your audience? What do they want? (Hint: it’s not to read your docs.) What do they fear? (Slightly more reassuring hint: it’s the same as you often do: I’m doing this wrong, it’s all my fault, there’s no hope.) Your job is to anticipate users’ questions and their overall goals, to provide answers and guidance in an organized fashion, and to encourage a better overall product design that prevents user pain as much as possible.
I think this approach of user-centered design permeated the strategies that I applied to my classes. Think strategically about the outcome you’re trying to achieve and how that aligns with the outcome your audience wants. Do your research to make sure you know what you’re talking about. Quickly prototype a few initial designs and talk it over with people. Implement feedback and submit your writing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your capstone project? What communication issue or challenge did it address, and what were your primary deliverables (i.e. communications plan, tutorial, video, visual marketing materials, etc.)? What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully completing their project?
[Arthur Berger] For my capstone, I did a genre and verbal data analysis of winning federal proposals that took the form of a research article. The methods involved categorizing proposal documents to look at the overall structure of the proposal writing process, as well as categorizing the sentences of three individual proposal submissions across a variety of data points, from grammatical verbal tenses to persuasive appeals. The results and discussion from the article centered around understanding collaborative writing practices and how persuasive language can be used to make more competitive communication products in a business environment.
The capstone was sort of a blend of academic and corporate interests. I drew upon my working experience and produced research that could benefit the company I worked for, but it wasn’t commissioned by the company, so to speak. My courses prepared me to conduct this type of research, particularly the program-mandatory 512 Theory course and 506 Verbal Data Analysis course. My faculty advisor, Dr. Ding, had published a couple key studies in collaborative grant writing, so she was invaluable in helping me take a step back from my work experience and approach it with a critical eye. We met at several stages throughout the project. She helped me turn the idea into a research study, reviewed some of the artifacts, and gave me feedback on the draft before I submitted. She also looked over the presentation I delivered for the defense of my project before other faculty and my graduating peers. The capstone presentations are open to others, and clients come to them as well.
In terms of advice to students, I would say to brainstorm early with your advisor on your project and to do something that you are interested in. You have to propose your capstone the semester before you graduate, and if you wait until the last minute, it can be challenging. Sometimes the faculty are sent projects by other departments for communication challenges that they’d like help with, and students will just accept one of those projects. That can definitely work out well; however, it seemed to me just from hearing the capstone presentations of all my peers that the ones who did something they chose got much more out of the experience. The capstone for them became a portfolio piece or an opportunity to help them enter a new field or profession.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from NC State’s Master of Science in Technical Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Arthur Berger] The biggest thing that I’ll take away from the program with me are the relationships that I’ve made: with the faculty (I’m still in touch and bouncing ideas off them!), with my peers (some of my best friends are from the program, and I work with many of them), and with people I met throughout the program. In fact, I landed my current job through a mentor I met while at NC State MSTC. I’m also part of the Society of Technical Communication (STC), which I was able to participate in and join while at MSTC.
Possibly one of the most rewarding experiences I had was being the Treasurer of the MSTC student org, Technical Communication Association (TCA). My friends and I did a lot with TCA. With the help of the faculty and the amazing English Dept. admins and staff, we brought back the TCA and its annual “unconference,” SpeedCon, after it had been dormant for a few years. I worked to secure thousands of dollars in funding and establish the organization as a nonprofit. We set up many campus-wide, interdepartmental meetings, such as a collaboration with the engineering department on giving technical presentations for MS/PhD students. We had movie nights, game nights, virtual reality nights, workshops to help students with things like résumés…and of course, we had the obligatory, corny club t-shirts and group selfies to prove it!
What does a student club have to do with my career path, you might ask? Well, besides the fact that I work today with three of the club officers (NC State’s called Wolfpack for a reason!), I think it taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned to-date about succeeding in a team environment. Make your team your priority, even if it means putting in a little extra time here and there. Invest in each other’s success, because your success is the team’s success. Go through the ups and downs of a long, hard project with clear communication, equitable division of labor, and yes, maybe even a little commiseration that borders on watercooler gossip. Somewhat oddly, learn how to let people go and have a great transition process in place so that the next team of people are poised for success instead of playing catch-up.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting North Carolina State University’s MS in Technical Communication program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at NC State or another university?
[Arthur Berger] For students at NC State’s MSTC program, get involved early. Day one, at orientation, you’ll be practically bombarded with faculty, fellow students, alumni, and guest speakers pitching things like industry-academic pathfinder programs, STC, TCA, GSA, and other programs. I would honestly tell you to do ALL THE THINGS!!! (All caps and exclamation points necessary.) I did, and don’t regret a single one of them.
For both Wolfpack MSTCers and those unlucky enough to be elsewhere, I would say to put those communication skills to work by building relationships with people (bet you didn’t see that one coming!). Seek opportunities outside your comfort zone. Set up some time to speak one-on-one with each professor you have and discuss things like their research interests, what they think of your skills in class, what you’d like to get out of their class, what classes or groups or activities they’d recommend. Get in a little early or stay a little late to chat with your classmates. If you’re working full-time while going to school, resist the mentality of “I’m just in it for the credential”—you’ll get the credential, but you might miss out on a lot more if that’s all you’re concerned about. Take some classes in departments outside communication. I really enjoyed an instructional design course I took, and wish that I’d been able to take a statistics course (didn’t have time, what are the odds of that?). Finally, enjoy it: it goes by fast!
Thank you, Mr. Berger, for your excellent insights on North Carolina State University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication program!