President and chief executive officer, Manual Labour.
Bachelor degree in creative writing, UC San Diego
Swimming, snorkeling, gardening, reading, martial arts, comedy troupe
Bonni Graham Uses Her Creative
Writing Background to Make Techno-Speak Understandable
Bonni Graham hops from topic to topic, much like a bird hops from branch to branch, then tilts her head to the side like a bird before flying off on another tangent. She has a comedian’s gift for timing and quick delivery , which is no surprise, since she’s one of the founding members of the local comedy troupe Creative Urges.
A San Diego native, Graham is also the president and chief executive officer of Manual Labour. The San Diego-based company writes technical manuals for area firms.
Recently, she became the regional director for the Society for Technical Communication. In that capacity, she represents technical writers, technical illustrators and documentation project managers in the states of California, Nevada, Hawaii, as well as China, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan.
Technical writing is a trade few are familiar with. However, for anyone who’s had to deal with technical manuals, it’s easy to tell the difference between a well-written manual and a bad one, Graham says.
“We create the good ones , not the ones you want to throw across the room. The ones that actually help you do things,” she says.
Graham began helping people do things in 1994, when she founded Manual Labour. She started her business after about five years of technical writing, something Graham started while still in college.
In her last year as a creative writing major at UCSD, Graham took several easy classes to finish her degree. But one entry-level biology class didn’t work that way, she said.
The class was conducted by an organic chemistry professor who had a difficult time explaining things to entry-level students. Graham already had a grounding in the material, so she was the only student in the room who wasn’t lost.
“This was a 300-400 person class. And they were expecting, ‘This is a duck. Ducks are made out of cells. All of life is made out of cells. This is what a cell looks like. Aren’t cells great?'” she recalls. “And he’s up there drawing carbon chains. And the entire room is full of people with the Beavis and Butt-head look going, ‘Uhhhhhh .'”
Eventually, Graham spoke up, and all the other students understood her, not the professor.
“It got to sort of be, at the end of the class, like this whole U.N. thing. He’d say a sentence, and the whole room would look at me, and I would translate that back to the room. And I was thinking. ‘Oh, I like this. This is too much fun,'” she said.
Shortly after that, a friend told her about a great job he had as a technical writer. Remembering her episode in the biology classroom, Graham figured the position would be perfect for her and asked if there were any job openings.
“‘This sounds like a lot of fun, and a good way to apply my degree,'” she recalls thinking at the time. “And a really good way to thumb my nose at all the people who told me I could never make any money with a writing degree.”
By late 1993, after almost four years at the company, she was nearly exhausted. The demands on her as the only technical writer at the company had drained her, and she wasn’t satisfied with the pay.
Boston Vs. San Diego
So she went to work for a Boston-based company, which shortly thereafter announced it was closing its San Diego operations. As a San Diego native, Graham wasn’t willing to move.
“In the process of them explaining to us how great Boston was , all this cultural stuff, and we-should-come-to-Boston , I’m in shorts, this is February, right?” she says. “I’m going home and watching the news with people wading through hip-deep snow , in Boston. And I’m going, ‘Culture or no culture, water’s not supposed to do that.'”
Instead, she went to work for a game developer, which entered a round of layoffs just six weeks later. Graham figured there was a lesson to be learned there , that perhaps this was the time to honor the voice inside her saying to go into business for herself.
“I decided, ‘OK, Fate, you can stop hitting me about the head and shoulders with that particular stick. I’ll go ahead and start the business, thank you very much.’ And I never looked back from there,” she says.
So Graham launched her own company out of her own garage, growing the firm by word-of-mouth.
Three or four years later, she became more aggressive. She went to association meetings, looked through trade journals, actively sought leads and offered additional services. Clients now include HNC Software Inc., Peregrine Systems Inc., Sony and Kenwood, she says.
Graham explains the philosophy behind her company.
“Consumers deserve good documentation. The world is becoming increasingly more technical, and it’s become increasingly important that everybody be able to understand how to use technology and have it be less scary, and less the province of the nerds, if you will. And one of the ways that you can bring that to everybody is through technical documentation,” she says.
Graham can assist smaller companies that can’t afford to have a technical writer on staff. A company releasing only a handful of products a year can farm out the job of writing the manual to Manual Labour, she says.
Making Sense Of Techno-Speak
Often, a company too small to have a technical writer may assign writing the technical manual to the engineers. But in Graham’s experience, engineers, though very good at their jobs, aren’t exactly skilled at technical writing.
The engineer typically can’t think like a customer as they write. Usually, information is at too high a level for most users, she says.
“Businesses and other people buy software and they can’t use it. It doesn’t serve their business needs. The software itself is absolutely capable of doing what they bought it to do, but they can’t figure out how to use it and how to make that happen,” Graham says.
That can hurt a company’s bottom line, when customers return the product simply because the manual was poorly written, she says.
Graham gets feedback on manuals all the time. At parties and other social occasions, people ask what she does, and the minute they find out she writes technical manuals, she never hears the end of it.
“They go, ‘Oh! Let me tell you ‘ I swear, it’s like being a doctor. ‘Let me tell you about this horrible manual I bought, and I couldn’t use this thing, and I took it back to the store, and it was dreadful,'” Graham says.
Or people might go out of their way to praise a product , not knowing Graham’s company actually wrote it.
“I have heard, ‘Oh, man, I’ve always had trouble working on software, until I used such-and-such product.’ And I’m thinking, ‘We wrote that. All right! Thank you!'”
This is the gospel Graham spreads as the regional director of the STC.
Reaching A Broader Community
“It’s a chance for me to reach out to a broader community. I educate my own writers, and it’s very important to me. But I’d also like to see that happen beyond these walls,” she said.
Being involved with the STC gives Graham a chance to travel, but more importantly, it allows her to share information about technical writing, assist support groups, and encourage people who are just starting out in the field. Without that same encouragement, Graham herself would never have survived as a technical writer.
Graham recalls that six months into her first job, there was a round of layoffs, leaving her as the only technical writer in the company.
Alone, she had to deal with engineers who wouldn’t give her the information she needed or meet deadlines the company set. This is typical in the industry, although she didn’t know it at the time.
“I thought it was because I sucked, and I didn’t know what I was doing and I picked the wrong profession, and , oh, my God , what was I thinking?” she says.
Her first STC meeting changed all that.
“I’m just sitting there listening to these people complain about how the developers never give them information, and they don’t get their reviews back on time, and the deadlines don’t move, but they still have this stuff to get out. And I just thought, ‘Ahhh! It’s not me! I don’t suck! This is possible,'” Graham says.
Being able to give that same encouragement to others makes STC the second-most rewarding thing in her life. In first place is her involvement with the Creative Urges comedy troupe, which she described as similar to the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?”
“It feeds everything else, diving in. Once you’ve gone up on stage in front of 100 people who’ve paid $8 a head to watch you make up a show with suggestions like Nazi Quakers, and you did it, corporate meetings aren’t scary anymore.”