About Sree Pattabiraman: Sree Pattabiraman is a Senior Technical Writer in the Information Development Department at Extreme Networks in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has extensive experience as a technical communicator, having worked for companies such as NetApp, Allscripts, and Cognizant Technology Solutions. In addition to this, Ms. Pattabiraman also serves as Vice President for her local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC).
Ms. Pattabiraman earned a bachelor’s degree in Commerce with a specialization in Corporate Secretaryship from M.O.P. Varishnav College for Woman in India, an affiliate of the University of Madras. In 2015, she graduated from the Master of Science in Technical Communication (MSTC) program at North Carolina State University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Sree Pattabiraman] I hold a bachelor’s degree in Commerce with a specialization in Corporate Secretaryship from MOP Vaishnav College (part of Madras University) in India. During my undergraduate program, I held the post of Communications Director for a non-profit that had a tie-up with my university. Volunteering for this job helped me gain insights into the world of public relations and marketing communication. I opted for courses on Mass Communication and Public Relations before completing my undergraduate degree.
My first job out of college was as a Software Technical Writer in India for a tech company based out of New Jersey. After two years, I moved to North Carolina to pursue my Master’s in Technical Communication from North Carolina State University.
Upon graduation, my field of expertise shifted to hardware technical writing and I have since been, a Hardware Technical Writer.
I currently manage the hardware documentation for the Wireless Products produced by a large computer networking organization in Raleigh, North Carolina. I am responsible for taking care of the entire documentation development lifecycle and producing high-quality customer facing document sets (consisting of Quick Reference Guides, Install Guides, Installation Videos to name a few). Apart from my full-time job, I also enjoy working as the Vice President of the local STC (Society for Technical Communication) Carolina chapter.
[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?
[Sree Pattabiraman] While working as a technical writer in India, I realized that it was something that I really enjoyed doing. However, I was not professionally trained to be a technical writer. This made me want to specialize in the field and build a strong foundation of my technical communication skills. After doing a lot of research and writing qualifying exams to study abroad, I applied to universities in the UK and the United States.
One of the things that made me pick North Carolina State University for the MSTC program was the course structure. It was one of the very few courses that gave equal importance to theory and practical courses and offered the flexibility to pick electives in any branch of technical communication that a student wanted to pursue.
Since I already had experience as a software writer, I had a good background in getting a grasp of what courses I wanted to take to carve out my own niche.
[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?
[Sree Pattabiraman] The MSTC courses are structured into required core courses, application courses, and theories and methods courses. The required courses, as the name suggests, are required to be taken by all students to ensure that they have a good understanding of the basics of technical communication.
The faculty suggest the list of required courses that students need to complete in their first semester. The program also works closely with the graduate school to give first preference to the MSTC students to enroll for the required courses. Each student is expected to take three or four application courses and two or three theories and methods courses. Since students have the flexibility to pick 18 credits from the English department as well as other disciplines, a lot of them choose to specialize in a particular field within technical communication such as health comm, science writing, and medical writing.
Since I wanted to be my own tech comm manager and function independently as part of a documentation team, other than my required courses I took courses such as online information design and evaluation, qualitative research methods, and organizational training and development.
The skills I picked up in the MSTC program ranged from project management to usability to critical analysis of rhetoric in technical communication. Each course assignment had different challenges to tackle and the weekly assignments were heavily based on what we read for class the previous week. My project management skills came in handy for organizing my work and planning my assignments around deadlines and meeting them within the stipulated time. As a technical communicator, I have always paid close attention to usability designs of every project and this has in turn helped me present my assignments in a user-centric way. Courses like rhetoric of science and technology made me use ethos, pathos, and logos effectively for producing technical documents that helped the audience better navigate documentation and solve problems.
[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?
[Sree Pattabiraman] My capstone project was a WordPress website on “Technical Communication Tools.” It essentially listed the tools available to students via the university; open source and proprietary. It gave a full description of tools taught in the MSTC Program and their corresponding courses, uses of each tool, and how to obtain them at the university. It also listed out the tools used by organizations in the Research Triangle Park that had documentation teams. The reason why I chose this as my capstone was to create an online resource that current and future students could use to learn about all the technical communication tools, how they were categorized, and what tools were widely used in the industry. The biggest dilemma I faced before picking this topic was ensuring that I stayed relevant and making sure the tools I listed did not go obsolete in the near future.
When I started putting together ideas for my capstone, I realized that a lot of students in the MSTC program were starting to look for full-time positions and we constantly kept discussing about the emphasis given for tools in job listings. While some of our courses taught some of these tools, there was no way for us to know about them all. This led me to create a proposal on creating a unified resource for information on these tools and how to learn them. I put this across to my capstone committee and addressed the need for this. After constructive suggestions from my faculty advisors, I used qualitative research methods such as ethnography and phenomenological study to warrant my claims. Between my own observations as a primary user of the tools and the extensive interviews I conducted from documentation managers, I was able to conclude that a resource like the Technical Communication Tools website for students will prove useful and address the problem of what tools are used by the industry experts to produce documentation and their expectations from graduates to know these tools.
Based on multiple interviews, I was able to transcribe, code, and form common themes on technical communication tools. This helped me build my website. For learning about the tools taught in the MSTC Program and in the English Department, I participated as an observer in all the courses that taught tools for graduate and undergraduate students respectively. I went through the course syllabi for all these courses and compared the intensity of the tools taught.
During the course of my research, I also realized that it will be a great idea for me to go back and share my findings on tools used by the documentation managers to the faculties for them to modify and update the tools taught in the program to match the industry standards. My faculties and committee members were very supportive and encouraging of my ideas throughout my research and helped me immensely by sharing their feedback. I also wanted to ensure that my website stayed relevant and sustainable, so it is now a crowdsourced internal resource within the MSTC program maintained and updated by the students in the Online Information Design and Evaluation course. I presented my capstone project to my faculty members, MSTC students, and a potential employer. When I defended my capstone, not only did I successfully complete it, but I also landed the job with the potential employer.
[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?
[Sree Pattabiraman] My favorite courses from the program were Publication Management for Technical Communicators and Online Information Design and Evaluation. These courses not only help you prepare great portfolio pieces but also prepare you to be a good documentation specialist. For instance, one of the class assignments I had to do as part of the Publication Management for Technical Communicators course was a project plan that covered the entire documentation development lifecycle. This challenging assignment definitely prepared me to think critically about project planning and documentation planning for a wide variety of deliverables. As a follow-up to this assignment, students were required to create documentation deliverables that were listed as part of the project plan. This is exactly how things work in a large corporation when you are expected to handle documentation deliverables independently.
The Online Information Design and Evaluation course laid emphasis on DITA (Darwin Information Type Architecture) and single-source based content authoring. When I graduated, it was one of the required skills that was listed on almost all job descriptions and it definitely helped me secure a job by having that skill listed on my resume. Courses like these helped me build on my technical skills and prepared me to be a better technical communicator. I still find myself using the cardinal rules of documentation development on the job every day.
One of the other nice things about living in the area is the constant connection with the MSTC program, faculties, and new students. I use every opportunity that comes my way to be back at the university to share my knowledge and experience in the field with fellow MSTC students.
[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?
[Sree Pattabiraman] My biggest advice to students wanting to pursue a master’s program in the communication field is pick difficult courses. Take courses that scare you because those will be the ones that help you learn the most! They test your skills and potential to the fullest extent.
For students starting their MSTC program at NC State, make full use of all the resources available at your disposal through NC State. It is located in the heart of the Research Triangle and make use of every opportunity thrown your way to network with fellow technical communicators in the area.
More importantly, don’t forget to have fun. Master’s programs are a lot of hard work but at the same time you will never get these days back, so try to enjoy every minute while it lasts!
Thank you, Ms. Pattabiraman, for your excellent insights on North Carolina State University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication program!