Features

Rainmaker: A Conversation with Ken Cook

By Kelly Smith | STC Member

Ken Cook, a Fellow and Past President of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), is also President and CEO of Ken Cook Co., a family business founded by his father in 1944. In addition, he is a member of more than a dozen organizations and currently serves as treasurer for the National Association of Service Managers (NASM). Much of his career has been spent drumming up business from contacts he has made through these organizations.

Ken took a circuitous route to becoming President of Ken Cook Co. His first job was preparing procurement specifications for components of missile systems and test procedures at General Dynamics. He worked on documenting the Standard and Redeye missiles, and wrote reports on climate issues. He left General Dynamics to join Ken Cook Co. as a project manager and eventually moved into a position as Vice President of sales and marketing, where he helped write marketing materials. Even though he was VP, he would edit the brochures that came out of the marketing group.

He left Ken Cook Co. for a while to work for a Dutch technical communication company, becoming their VP of U.S. operations. He returned to Ken Cook Co. in 1975 and became Executive Vice President, then President in 2001, eventually buying out his three sisters and mother, and taking over full ownership of the company in 2005.

Early Life

From a young age, Ken had a strong interest in music and played the cello. He also loved stereo equipment, kit building, and wires. Ken’s mother was a concert pianist. and his father was the founder of Ken Cook Co. As a child, Ken would hide in the backseat of his dad’s car to sneak into work with him on Saturdays. While there, he would “help” the employees who were working on things like “page negatives, art boards, and printing.” This brought him into close contact with the type of work his father did and inspired a lifelong interest in technical communication.

When he was in high school, Ken thought he might pursue a musical career like his mother or a career in the ministry. After his minister told him, “If you don’t have a calling, you’d better not go,” Ken decided to pursue his first love and become an electrical engineer, with the knowledge that someday he might go to work for the family business.

Ken’s Technical Communication Career

His first position was as technical writer for General Dynamics’ missile division in Pomona, CA. Ken’s technical background helped in his pursuit of a technical communication career. He said, “In my business, a technical background and interest in how things work is imperative. Probing and asking applicable questions—interviewing skills—are important.” Ken was adamant that to be a good technical communicator, you have to have a strong foundation in technology. He continued, “There are some things I’m on a soapbox about [such as] technical background.” Ken said that even without an engineering degree, “You need to have a love of knowing how things work.” In the 1960s and 70s, the field was “60 percent male and 40 percent female writers. Now it’s more 80 percent female and 20 percent male.” Ken attributes this change to the swing from documenting things (such as engines and other mechanical devices) to documenting software. He said, “Women were attracted to software documentation,” and he felt that this phenomenon contributed to their rise in numbers in the field over the past 30 years.

I asked Ken if he thought industry background is important for a technical communicator. He was emphatic. “Yes. Milwaukee School of Engineering requires some basic engineering courses as part of their technical communication degree program. Do you select a subject matter expert and teach her or him how to write? Or a technical writer and teach her or him about the subject? I go with the subject matter expert or at least a writer who can address the subject proficiently.” Ken said that people can have an interest in a field and that is sometimes enough to make them effective technical communicators in that field. He cited the example of a writer he employs who previously worked at Case. The man knew all about heavy equipment and was later able to channel that knowledge into documenting a wide range of equipment.

Technology Then vs. Now

Ken described the manual process used in his early career in the following way. “We didn’t have all the tools we have today.” At General Dynamics and Ken Cook Co., they would hand write or copy from other documents. To replicate things, they used mimeograph and a thermal fax. They had a special daylight window for natural light so that the illustrators could have adequate light to make exploded views from 2D drawings. “Now we’re down to just one illustrator. They obtain models from 3D CAD systems.

“When I started, you did handwritten text, copied standard information, and turned it over to a typist.” It was then “passed along to a proofer, returned for check, then an illustrator developed illustrations to support your text. It then went to a paste–up artist (who literally pasted the text and illustrations on a sheet),” integrating the illustrations with the text. The work then went “back to the proofer/editor and was eventually replicated.”

Today, Ken says, “writers have an array of software tools to create, pick up standard text, pick up illustrations from a CAD system, and either do the page layout, or pass it on to a desktop specialist for layout. We also have many jobs in the user experience arena. The University of Washington Human Centered Design and Engineering [Department] is leading the way on this concept.”

“Software tools are available to help you with the way you word things to make sure it’s standardized terminology that’s used in that business. This type of software is used by Volvo and a couple of others in Germany.”

Ken said he wishes that Google—and the Internet in general—had existed when he started working in technical communication. “If you are writing about a piece of equipment and want to know more about a procedure, you can go to the client’s website and can also look at related equipment. We did not have that intelligence when I started.”

Project management tools have also improved. Ken Cook Co. uses a document management system designed in house to track document reviews. This allows for the electronic movement of files for development, review, and quick digital printing.

Asked how he thinks technology has influenced the technical communication industry, for good or ill, Ken said, “Obviously for good! There are so many changes in a product during the development stages that it is difficult to keep up with incorporating them in time for a release to production.”

There is a downside to this speed, however. Ken described a product safety and compliance seminar where they held a round table with 10 publications managers. “In our roundtable discussions with publication managers, this challenge is constant. Having the tools to quickly incorporate changes is a must!” The publications manager from a construction company said his team couldn’t keep up with the engineering changes. “Because we communicate so quickly electronically, engineers think the changes can be made to the documents just as quickly.”

International Experience

Ken “worked for a Dutch technical communication business with offices in Amsterdam, Milan, Frankfurt, and Leicester, England. There were cultural differences and some procedural changes in development, but all worked in the DIN standard.” (DIN is the Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. or German Institute for Standardization.)

He said, “Ken Cook Co. works with a number of international companies, and most of our effort is to re–write their translations from their language to English and also to incorporate safety messages if hazards exist in operating the equipment.”

One interesting factor of working overseas was seeing the different cultures in action at factories. In Germany, employees wore white coats and management was very structured. In England, it was just the opposite, while Italy was somewhere in between.

Some issues that arise when writing for an international audience include converting between metric and English—the European market wants metric first—and paper sizes. The DIN standard in Europe is A4, which is a little narrower and longer than the U.S. standard of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper.

Ken pointed out that there are members of STC from various countries including Sweden, Japan, and China who come to the annual conferences. He also meets engine manufacturers from all over Europe. “A common issue is with marketing managers. In other countries, they write the procedures in English, but they need to be edited and re-written because they are not understandable to a U.S. audience.”

The Importance of Professional Organizations

Ken is a member of more than a dozen professional organizations. Some are associated with technical communication, others with the industries that his company does business in, and one, the St. Andrew’s Society of Milwaukee, is associated with his Scottish heritage. Ken said that he wears a kilt, but despite his musical background, he can’t play the bagpipes.

Ken says that becoming a member of a variety of professional organizations can enhance your career or business through networking. It has enabled him to make business contacts with a number of companies who are now Ken Cook Co. clients. For example, through STC, Ken met a representative from Volvo in Sweden, and Ken Cook Co. became the technical communication resource for Volvo Cars in North America. In addition to professional development, Ken said that STC is “the most friendly” of all the organizations he belongs to. He has mentored younger STC members, helped them with résumés, and helped them find positions. He also received the STC President’s Award and supports the Senior Advisory Council of STC, a group made up of all Past Presidents.

Ken Cook Co. serves manufacturers who are members of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), including John Deere, their largest account. Ken Cook Co. got Bobcat as a client through a referral from STC and his association with AEM, where his company is an Associate Member. Again, contact via professional organizations led to a contract.

Ken is a Past President of the National Coalition for Aviation and Space Education, which he joined following the legacy of his father who was a passionate aviator and owned six airplanes. Ken’s office overlooks an airfield. Because of this connection, Raytheon and Beechcraft solicited his help in providing educational materials to get students interested in a career in aviation. Ken has presented awards to educators for their contributions to aviation education, and has partnered with astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Bonnie Dunbar.

Ken’s other memberships include the American Society for Training & Development (now the Association for Talent Development), the National Defense and Industry Association, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the National Association of Service Managers, the Society of Service Executives, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the American Boat and Yacht Council.

Advice for the Novice Technical Communicator

When asked what advice he had for a novice technical communicator, Ken said, “Meet and talk with technical writers and managers. A good place to start is with a local STC chapter. What are their experiences and challenges, and do they like their job?”

He said that the STC chapter of which he’s a member tries to be welcoming to new technical communicators. “It’s hard to get that within a company unless there is a pool of writers. I think STC is an excellent place to start. Is there anyone you can identify as a publication manager to dialog with? Maybe that person can become your mentor. Some chapters have formal mentoring programs.”

Ken said the most valuable skill he learned early in his career was patience—how to deal with the politics of a job. He said, “I started as a technical writer for missile systems at General Dynamics. I had to get six signatures on the document, and the stakeholders did not always agree with each other. That was a constructive learning process.” I asked Ken how he overcame this issue. He said, “I was patient enough to listen to what the issues were.” If that was not enough, he would bring the disagreeing parties together or bring their management in. He said he didn’t expect this kind of disagreement to happen—he was surprised, but he got through it by trial and error, and sometimes humor worked. He commented that this kind of soft skill is not something you always learn at a university.

Ken started as a technical writer then moved on to lead writer, project manager, vice president, and president. “There is a path to leadership if that is your goal in life. Some writers avoid the leadership aspiration because they just like to write!”

Even now that he is president of the company, he still writes proposals (he is helping the NASM get sponsorship to fund a learning management system). He also writes board reports and communications with clients, which he describes as sometimes being “a delicate type of written effort.”

Conclusion

When asked if his technical communication career had been everything he’d hoped for, Ken said, “It has been a rewarding and fulfilling experience for me. My goal to become President, CEO, and owner of Ken Cook Co. has been achieved. I am having fun and enjoy seeing employees develop, achieving their career goals.”

Although his Bachelor’s degree was in electrical engineering and his Master’s was in business economics, Ken said that the best education he got was public speaking and being on the debate team. “These are valuable assets to have as a leader. I address large audiences and smaller groups and am aware of the presentation skills that I have, and I put them to good use.”

Ken said that his doctor recently asked, “Are you going to retire any time soon?”

Ken said he was considering it.

His doctor asked, “Are you having fun?”

Ken said, “Yes.”

His doctor asked, “Then why the hell do you want to retire?”

It sounds like Ken plans to stay in the technical communication field for a while yet. He told me, “I’ve always been the rainmaker in business, and I want to focus more on that.”

KELLY SMITH is a Gold Member of STC and works as a Technical Writer for Dart Container Corporation. She is a student in the MS Program in Technical Communication Management at the Mercer University School of Engineering.

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