Features January/February 2024

Reflections on an Interwoven Path between Academia and Practice

A glimpse into how the identities of researcher and practitioner played a role in shaping my career, and what technical communicators can learn from this interesting intersection.

By Alexandra Cata-Ross | STC Member

When I describe “what I do,” it depends on who I’m talking to–either I’m researching professional technical communication work in the video games industry for my dissertation, I’m an Information Architect at Epic Games, or, most simply, I’m a technical writer on Fortnite.

In some ways, this seems relatively straightforward. There’s a clear delineation between my identity as an academic, as a practitioner, or trying to explain my job in the simplest terms possible to someone completely outside of tech. In reality, my identities and career paths are far more woven and intertwined than I expected: It’s about one path nudging or overtly influencing the other, but all of these paths intersect. On reflection, my practitioner work has largely influenced the way I approach my research and pedagogical practices, while I can take and apply the theories I learned through my research into my practitioner work.

In this essay, I describe my paths and show where these entanglements have benefitted me throughout my career. I close with some thoughts about the relationship between academic and practitioner work and practices, and I provide some recommendations for those on a similar journey.

A Brief History

Like many technical writers, I fell into the profession by circumstance. Graduating in 2011 with a BA in English Literature in the wake of the 2008 recession, finding a job was a struggle. I was fortunate enough to have two professional summer internships, so I applied for jobs as a technical writer while barely knowing anything about the field. I started working in government defense with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) later that year on program documentation. In 2013, I transferred jobs to a more traditional technical writing position at United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) editing and content managing IT and other technical documentation. In 2015, I started working as an information developer at Omnicell, Inc. in the medication adherence division on machinery for packaging pills into blister packs. In summer of 2019, I started my internship as a Technical Writing Intern for Unreal Engine at Epic Games. Later in fall of 2020 I transitioned to supporting the now Fortnite Ecosystem as an information architect and I’ve been in that role since.

In general, I’ve written and produced a wide range of genres such as project management documentation, user guides for hardware and software, online help systems, UI writing, content management documentation, keyword taxonomies, and more.

As an academic, I started my journey through the MA in Technical Communication program while working for SAIC and finished while at Omnicell. There were certain courses I had to take, but I took advantage of the course offerings that I didn’t have direct access to within my own day-to-day work environment. The Rhetoric of Science class is one I still remember fondly, and actually enabled me to teach a similar class while in my PhD. I also took hypertext theory and learned how to code a website by hand with HTML5 and CSS3. While I don’t use it everyday, knowing how HTML works at a basic level and being able to read it has been immensely valuable.

The video games connection comes in for my MA Thesis. At the time, about 2017–2018, mobile usability and design was a big topic of discussion in the field. With my MA thesis, I applied Joe Welinske’s mobile usability heuristics to the mobile games Hearthstone and Clash of Clans. My thesis posited that good mobile games are great examples of core mobile usability design concepts, as they are highly technical systems conveying a lot of information to users quickly and efficiently.

I enjoyed working on my master’s thesis. I was finally getting to combine my career passions in usability and user experience with my leisure interests of video games. I had tried searching for technical writing jobs within the games industry, but the jobs were so few (and still are, largely). Even when I was qualified for a position, they preferred someone with a background in video games or entertainment more broadly. Getting a PhD was the only reliable way of continuing to work at the intersection of video games and tech comm. I was looking for a change, career-wise anyway, so getting into the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media PhD program at NC State University was the perfect opportunity.

In the interdisciplinary program at NC State, I explored a variety of topics between video games and technical communication. I dabbled in feminism in esports and live streaming, chatbot design, game menu design and affect, and microtransactions in mobile games. Dissertation wise, I always was interested in technical communication practices within video game development. My initial ideas morphed into exploring formal practitioner work within Epic Games to understand technical communication work in the video games industry, leveraging my goodwill and positionality as a worker (intern and contractor) who had been there for three years by the time I started working on my dissertation.

Throughout this time, I published a few papers, wrote a book chapter, and participated in service activities like being a journal editor for Press Start and being a member of NC State’s Esports Charter Committee. While my practitioner experiences affected the kinds of theories I was interested in, I found that it more directly impacted my pedagogical approaches. In my technical writing for engineers’ course and my technical communication courses, I brought my experiences into my curriculum and the classroom. But during my time as a full-time PhD student and candidate, I still largely considered my practitioner and academic work separate. In reflection, it may have been because during most of my time in the PhD program, I thought I was going to go into academia.

As it turns out, while I enjoy being in the classroom, I realized I preferred mentorship to teaching. I really enjoyed sitting down with students and helping them navigate their early careers and giving advice, as opposed to classroom teaching. Additionally, at Epic, I was given the opportunity to be a full-time employee as an information architect while staying part time as I used up my Graduate Student Support Plan (GSSP). I really enjoy working on the Fortnite Ecosystem and Epic’s version of the metaverse, and of course, nothing replaces an amazing team and manager. I decided to stay at Epic and switch to full time while going part time on the PhD as I finished out my dissertation.

A Woven Path

As I briefly mentioned above, my practitioner work overtly bled into my pedagogical practices as a teaching assistant within the PhD program. This was, in part, because of my time at Omnicell working on hardware and machinery; I have many fond memories of laying at an awkward angle on the concrete floor with a camera taking pictures for a maintenance or installation manual or catching the electrical engineer out on the manufacturing floor and getting an impromptu rundown of the machine startup sequence (CB101 is the first switch you flip!).

It was my work here with the machinery that brought an attentiveness to the material interactions we have as users—thinking about how the physical “thinginess of the thing” mediates user experiences and interactions in different contexts depending on the level of expertise and environment. For example, when is it appropriate for a user to fix an error of the robotic arm not correctly grabbing a canister and what precautions are needed? When does a technician need to be called? How does this disruption affect the flow of work?

This led me to think about what it means to be hands on as a technical writer—in order to write documentation, I was often at the machines, playing with the software, sometimes identifying bugs and suggesting UI designs by adjusting verbiage or positioning of elements. The material interaction, whether physical or digital, drove the underlying underpinning of “playing” with the products and understanding them as a user within my teaching.

Less abstractly, this translated directly into my pedagogy. I asked my engineering students to pick their own technologies, real or imagined, to write documentation for and asked them to put themselves in the shoes of the users. For my introduction to technical writing and editing course, I brought Fortnite into the classroom with the intention to force the students to encounter a technology they were unfamiliar with and document it (to great success). For my Analysis of Scientific and Technical Communication course, I brought in interdisciplinary readings on media critiques, new materialism, and materiality as one way to give a humanistic view to the technologies we interact with around us.

Within my practitioner work, the influences are more subtle. I did take an information architecture class which was helpful from a theoretical standpoint—understanding the limitation of classifications and the politics embedded in them—but this is perhaps the only overt example. Instead, I find myself thinking more critically about information, access, and equity, particularly since all the Fortnite Ecosystem documentation and official learning content is available online for free.

This leads me to the broader topic this issue of Intercom seeks to address—how do we connect practitioner and academic technical communication work? Simply, we need both, the theoretical and practical.

Looking Forward at the Intersection

Interweaving theory into what I do on a routine basis and why has always not only enhanced my work as a practitioner, but I feel more invested in what I’m doing. Academically, I feel my research is grounded in the perspective of the average technical writer and helps me think critically about how I can take some of these broader ideas and distill them into practice.

It’s not easy, and most individuals on either side are not in my position. It doesn’t help that technology changes so rapidly that practitioners are forced to adapt or move on. On the other side, getting a research project approved, executed and completed, especially with human participants, takes months, if not years. So what are we to do?

Understanding the roles each group inhabits is useful here. To me, practitioners are proactive about shifts and changes within the field by necessity. Researchers tend to be reactive when it comes to applied theory. However, I do think that technical communication as an academic field is on the edge, or proactive, about understanding technical communication practices outside of the profession.

I believe this is in part because, as a field, we know what good document design is. We know, generally, what good web, mobile, and even micro content design looks like. There’s always more to learn as systems become more dependent on micro-content and technologies shift and change, but the foundation of what supports technical communication work is the same–audience analysis, strong communication skills, with other things sprinkled in: written communication skills, media editing, coding. As such, academics don’t need to focus on that as much anymore and have been able to focus on sites of technical communication practices, instead of professional technical communication within a workplace. For example, social media as outlets of technical or risk communication (which has overlap with existing literature and researchers in sociology and media studies), or social justice work that involves accessing information and how that access, or lack of, affects the lived experiences of people in need.

Where I see the benefits between the two sides merging is for academics to take those forward thinking concepts and theories and also consider ways of how this connects back to technical communication work. There are applications depending on the field, topic, or technology to name a few. In turn, practitioners can keep their fellow academics abreast of the issues they currently face and how their work is changing. For example, going all remote during COVID lockdown and then subsequent varied return to office policies greatly impact the way work is done. What does this mean for technical communicators? Are they removed from the products they work on? How can they continue to communicate efficiently? I strongly believe and know there is a plethora of research on the usage of social applications within workplaces to draw from and share.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

Intentionally merging academic and practitioner knowledge requires three shifts in current interactions. First, we need spaces where academics and practitioners can come together and just talk shop, that is, to discuss the work they do, changes in the field, and their goals for the profession’s development and growth. The 2021 SIGDOC conference’s hybrid model held several local in-person sites, and it was a nice way to bring both local practitioners and academics together.

Second, there needs to be a willingness to engage, which also means considering the other audience when talking or presenting information. For example, the academic journal Technical Communication is focused on applied theory and purposefully includes practitioner takeaways in the abstracts. However, the research articles are still written for academics (which is why most practitioners don’t read any peer-reviewed journals, per a 2018 survey report). On the practitioner side, incentivizing academics to attend conferences with talks, events, and lower costs is a great start—academics often go to conferences, but travel budgets are typically far more limited than corporate travel budgets.

The third shift is more difficult and has more to do with the structural boundaries that incentivize interaction. Academic tenure is based on strict rules set by each university that don’t build in support for applied research or service-based activities that involve practitioners. In fact, in order to publish quickly to meet a tenure quota or to publish a book for tenure, doing additional research with human participants can be too time consuming. To be clear, if you don’t make tenure, in many cases you have to leave the university. This is a significant financial and life-altering outcome of failure that essentially means deviation from tenure is punished.

On the other side, practitioners just want to do their job as seamlessly as possible. Speaking from experience, it can be hard to focus on things I want to learn more about, as opposed to what I am required to get done. Carving out time for these interactions and efforts has to be rewarded and prioritized. Unfortunately that’s largely on an individual basis, as opposed to organizational (much like the tenure system to academics).

For me, throughout most of my PhD, I thought I would end up in academia doing research and teaching. However, while at Epic, I was afforded the opportunity to transition from a technical writer creating end-user procedures and guides to the more strategic information architect role. I ended up on a great team in a role that I love, and by staying at Epic, my family gets to stay in North Carolina, which we love. Ultimately, once I finish my PhD, I’m looking forward to continuing in my current role at Epic (and making everyone call me Dr. Catá for at least a month).

I still want to continue to work with my dissertation research and present it to both academic and practitioners alike, and work on projects like this Intercom issue—the intersection of academia and practice will always be important to both the field of technical communication and to me. I look forward to contributing towards this intersection in the future.

Alexandra Cata-Ross is an Information Architect and Documentation Manager at Epic Games. She is a long-time technical communicator, member of STC, and has worked in several industries producing and supporting IT, cybersecurity, and hardware/software development. She’s currently a PhD Candidate in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State University where she researched and published on intersections between technical communication and video games. Her dissertation project is a workplace study focused on professional technical communication work at Epic Games.