Defense Industry Jobs

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

[update: this has become much more relevant since 9/11]

I wrote:
> If your husband is going into MI, one thing you might consider is
>going into technical writing in the defense industry. Normally I
>wouldn't recommend it, but then again if your husband is going into MI
>you know what you're getting into and have already committed yourself.

Somebody asked:
>Why would you not recommend a person going into the defence industry
>for their first job. This has me intrigued.

No mystery, I wouldn't recommend any person going into the defense industry, whether for a first job or not. I've never liked the attitudes I've seen promulgated in the United State defense industry, whether from the outside (what I've read and heard about it through third-hand sources) or from the inside (what I've heard directly from many defense industry folks I've worked with).

I also don't like the way the defense industry tends to intrude into their employees personal lives. Again, that's a personal feeling, but one based on valid reasons. I've always been vaguely repulsed by the defense industry, but I think what brought it home to me was a scene from a novel. A defense industry tech writer on a short week-off vacation runs into a foreign national in a park, and realizes how much he's jepoardized his career and his personal freedom.

Fiction or not, the scenario is very plausible and it gave me chills. Not merely because of the story, but because as I read it, I realized just how plausible it was. As a technical writer I found it very easy to imagine myself in that situation. At that point, my vague feelings crystallized into a decision that I would never enter the defense industry or do classified work.

It's only a book, and you can easily say that I'm over-reacting, but for whatever reason, that was the first time that I realized just how much entering into that kind of employment involves a conscious abrogation of a person's rights. The fictitious scenario is not at all implausible, it is in fact probably a little mild, given the institutional paranoia endemic to the defense industry. Even military personnel aren't required to live such circumscribed lives. Not to mention that any such job would certainly involve routine drug testing and make any sort of non-mainstream activity fraught with personal consequences.

A life in this setting means either going about with blinders on or second-guessing the implications of a random conversation with a person at a party because of that person's nationality. I don't do drugs, mostly because I find people far more interesting, but I don't take kindly to being told to piss in a cup on demand. Some people prefer limits, because limits imply the fiction of security and stability. A lot of circumstances can make this very desirable - raising a family, for instance.

I don't choose to live my life that way

Moving to practical issues, I also don't like the general atmosphere of the defense industry. It tends to be overburdened with bureacracy and I think that can be dangerous for an inexperienced person in the process of becoming a technical writer. It has also historically tended to be rife with, hm, well let's call it nepotism and influence peddling, rather than straight-out corruption.

I've heard stats put it at 50% of technical writers working in the computer industry. Therefore, given that if you're a technical writer, you're most likely to be working in the computer field, I usually recommend that young people entering the computer field try to get their first job or two with a medium-small technology firm, two or more years old.

Somebody who does computers - soft or hard - rather than somebody in a "one-off" area of the market (for example an accounting firm that has an MIS department).

Somebody around long enough to be a survivor (90% of startups fail within a year).

Somebody big enough to have an experienced person or two to mentor the beginner.

Somebody small enough to be much faster-paced and expose the beginner to cutting-edge technology (larger companies, just like larger countries, cannot switch over to newer technologies as quickly).

After a 2-4 year stint in companies like that, it can be good for a junior writer or programmer to work in a more structured environment, usually found in more of a medium-to-large company. Large companies almost never have a decently structured formal engineering environment, for the same reason they almost never work with cutting-edge technology. They're too large to throw away their legacy of COBOL and FORTRAN programmers from the infancy of computing, and have too many political issues to sort out (see Ed Yourdon's Death March). This goes double for MIS departments.

I personally lucked out, in that I spent my first stint working for a small company in the process of becoming a medium-sized company (grew from 60 to 180 employees, went through five reorganizations). I was also lucky in that the people I worked with, both when I started and when I left, were all very intelligent and talented.

I was the third writer, hired a month after the second writer (the first writer became the tech writing manager). We got to be very much hands on in building both the doc section, and in working with the engineering department. The doc section was the one section in engineering that consistently met deadlines and performed beyond expectations. In large part this was because my boss was extremely careful in building the section person by person, hiring complementary skill sets and personalities. In another large part it was because she was given a chance to do the job and each of the members of the doc section was given the chance to contribute in their area of expertise.

For example, I contributed a lot of technical advancements, being the most technology-oriented person in the doc team. I coded the online help system (from scratch, in ANSI C - I never did manage to get the rest of engineering over to ANSI C, though I helped another young engineer draft a very good white paper on the advantages). When I arrived, we were printing out and pasting up photo-ready drafts for the printer. I took us to Postscript, shipping the 100 meg book files via couriered syquest drives and correction pages via network.

When I started, my co-workers were smart and talented, but without a great deal of formal education. From them I got a chance to really sink my teeth into technological areas that made a difference for the department, but for which "real" engineers couldn't be spared (it also earned me a hell of a lot of respect from the engineers). Over the duration of my employment, the engineering team was slowly rebuilt with very sharp, experienced engineers who got their grounding at companies like Digital Equipment Corporation and Martin-Marietta. From them, I learned a lot more about formal project management and larger engineering projects.

Noting that you spell the word "defence", I'm going to add the caveat that this is all in relation to the U.S. defense industry as seen through the eyes of a 31-year old, fairly middle-class person with an excellent and eclectic education. Both of my parents were professional teachers, which gave me a bit more exposure to the world, both of academia and of reality; my father was also an air force officer before he retired from active duty, which means I got an inside and very realistic view of the military as well. Your mileage may vary.

See original (unformatted) article


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