Name: Rick Wiedeman
College & Majors/Minors: Pitzer College (Claremont Colleges), BA English
Current Location: Dallas, Texas
Current Form of Employment: Instructional Designer
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I’m an instructional designer for Hitachi Consulting, the IT and business consulting division of Hitachi, which is one of the largest companies in the world (330,000 employees), based in Tokyo. Our division is in Dallas, with offices worldwide. I’m basically a teacher in a company, instead of a teacher at a school—I write curricula, teach classes in person and over the web, and create elearning on a variety of topics. It’s a lot of fun.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
My first job was as a subrights and special sales assistant at Viking-Penguin Books in New York. I fell in love with creative writing in college, and wanted to be involved in the publishing industry. On my first day there, we got a death threat for publishing Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and had to evacuate the building. That was a fun welcome to New York.
Being in publishing was one of those experiences that looked neat on paper, but in reality was rather boring, and had little to do with my skills or interests. I did light typing and filing, and answered phones. My salary was $15,000 a year, and as you can imagine, you can’t live in New York on that—even in the late 1980s. It’s one thing to pay your dues, but it’s another to be miserable all the time. After a few months there, I took a job as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster—$17,000 a year—and the work atmosphere was even worse. The woman who worked next to me jumped off the George Washington Bridge just before Christmas, and my boss mostly went to long lunches and schmoozed with people. I stuck it out for a year, got to be editor for one book, and left.
After this experience, I felt lost. I returned to my college town, Claremont, California, and got into the PhD program for English literature, but this wasn’t what I expected, either. Grad studies are nothing like undergrad—it was applying obscure philosophical principles to books nobody reads outside of academia. I didn’t see the point in going into debt for this, especially with the poor prospects for recent grads (at this time, fewer than 5% of PhDs in humanities were finding fulltime work).
I don’t blame publishing or grad school for either of these experiences—I didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted. I was still searching. For me, I learn by doing, and two years out of college I’d learned two things I didn’t want to do: publishing and grad school.
I went back to my hometown of Dallas, Texas, mostly to see old friends. I hadn’t lived at home since I was 18, and didn’t want to be one of those people who got a liberal arts degree and went back to live with their parents, so I slept on a friend’s couch and got temp work. The computer skills I’d developed, combined with my English degree, made me attractive for tech writing jobs. I think my first gig paid $10/hour, or about $20,000 a year, which was livable in Dallas back then. I worked for the technical training division of American Airlines, creating course catalogues and instructor guides. This was mostly layout in Quark and Adobe Pagemaker, which I’d learned working on the college newspaper, but also involved interviewing subject matter experts to build lessons, which I found interesting.
The neat thing about corporate training is, you learn about a lot of different things -- technology, law, project management, organizational psychology. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys random documentaries, likes people, and who’s good at trivia, it can be a natural fit for a busy mind. Equally important, it paid a living wage, and I didn’t have to share a one bedroom apartment with two other guys on the Upper West Side and eat bologna sandwiches. I could be happy doing this in Dallas, and I was.
Due to my natural interest in technology, I’ve ended up working in corporate training for Microsoft, Siemens, McAfee, and now Hitachi, where I’ve been for six years -- the longest I’ve ever been at the same place. Maybe in middle age, I’m finally settling down. They give me great freedom to approach projects as I see fit, and it’s satisfying work.
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
Everything I’ve done (teaching, ad copy, tech writing, corporate training) has been shaped and supported by my writing skills. To me, good writing is the result of clear thinking. What I really learned in college was how to think clearly. I’d argue that if you can’t write well, you’re not thinking well. Writing is the evidence. People who approach it as a separate skill are missing the point.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
I was on a work-study program at Pitzer College—my financial aid was tied to keeping a job on campus that worked around my schedule. The first two years of college, I was a security escort. I mostly accompanied young women to the library, which was across three other campuses (Claremont has five colleges, a grad school, and a school of theology). That was a good gig.
My second job, junior and senior years, was running the computer lab. This was in the days before everyone had a personal computer. Pitzer is a liberal arts college, and most students went to the lab to type their papers. I was given the key to the lab. That was my entire training experience. Basically, I was guarding the equipment. As students complained about losing papers or not being able to print -- these were the days where the operating system and the word processing program were on the same 5 1/4 inch floppy disk—I slowly figured out how these damn machines worked, and found I liked helping people. It turned out to be two valuable career skills that I’ve maintained throughout my life.
So, it was really the combination of writing skill and technical skill that shaped my career, though at the time I didn’t think of it in such formal terms. I just enjoyed writing, and needed a college job for gas money.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
Don’t leap into grad programs expecting you’ll find work afterward. I’ve had several English MAs and PhDs work for me on various projects over the years. Check the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and pay attention to job projections. It’s fine to have a passion -- mine is creative writing, and I do it every week, if not every day—but I don’t try to pay the bills with it. You need to live. And you probably don’t need a Masters or PhD to do that.
I think a lot of people go into grad school to feel good about themselves—grad degrees are like grown up merit badges. There are more fulfilling, and less expensive, ways to expand your mind and use your talents. For me, that’s writing. All I need is a library and the internet, both of which are practically free.
The great thing about writing and publishing today is, you don’t need to be in New York to do it, and frankly, you don’t need an agent and a publisher taking 87.5% of your royalties to get your stories out there. Though at first I resisted self-publishing, since diving into it four years ago, it’s been one of the best experiences of my life. The first thing I wrote -- a short novel about a father and daughter trying to get from Dallas to Galveston after an apocalypse—did surprisingly well. I made two thousand dollars. The follow up novels did OK, but were a bit indulgent, and got mixed reviews; that’s OK, too. I’ve learned from that. I wrote a supernatural horror novella, which did poorly, and am now at work on a psychological suspense novel. The only investment has been my time and effort, and it’s been a great satisfaction to me. Getting that first royalty check the month after publishing the first book made me feel like a real writer. (That’s my definition of “real.” If you got paid, you’re a pro.)
If I were going the traditional route, I’d have to spend at least a year getting an agent. She’d spend at least a year marketing my book. If it sold, the publisher would spend a year doing covers and editing and scheduling production... and all that assumes perfect success each step of the way, which seldom happens. You’re about as likely to succeed in traditional publishing as you are to be a movie star.
I’m not anti-traditional publishing. I may try that route it someday. But I know enough about the industry to have realistic expectations, and I love the full control self-publishing offers.