Gallifreyan for the workplace

He was so excited when saw my Dr. Who mug. But, it’s to be expected. Most geek men are thrilled when they meet a woman with social skills who loves sci-fi. I came about it innocently as a kid, stumbling onto the original Star Trek reruns. This morphed into Star Wars, and then, as I hit college, more Star Trek.

My parents worried about me.

I would have left it at that. But then I got sucked into IT (that’s information technology, the computer stuff), and had to let the geek love morph. Call it sink-or-swim. As a technical writer—the gal who creates instruction manuals you never read—if I don’t regularly flame my inner geek, I’ll never get work done.

I’ll explain.

To write about operating software, I first need to learn how it works. Doing that requires training from the software and sometimes hardware engineers who develop the product. Engineers tend to be the guys who transitioned their love of video games to career in software development. Sometimes, making a tech writer’s job hell in the process. There’s a bit of snobbery involved. Mistrusting someone who knows more about iambic pentameter and sentence structure than coding. Expressing uncertainty: will those wordy Luddite represent their work well? 

(Not understanding that if Engineering put more effort into educating the tech writer, their work would exponentially be represented better.)

 Pac-Man. A contributor to tech writer hell.

Pac-Man. A contributor to tech writer hell.

That means that for me to hit deadlines, it requires a bit of finessing. Most days, I use more diplomatic than writing skills. Regularly compensating for my lack of programming knowledge by building relationships with engineering. All tech writers need to do this. When we congregate, we exchange frustrated stories about what I have to do to get engineering to work with me. It means we have to build commonalities. For me, it means talking about sci-fi. I stumbled on that life skill in my first job, at a start up company from hell. Back when software startups shook the universe. New to the profession, new to even Windows, I struggled getting engineering, recent college grads like myself, to effing review my documentation already.

I realized how little they valued my documentation the day one of my engineering contacts came into work a bit shame-faced. Had to do with a fight with his girlfriend, also named Amy. He needed to back up his code. Finding a floppy disk with “Amy” written on it, he assumed it was mine. Decided my work wasn’t important. Overwrote the floppy with his code. Turns out, he destroyed Girlfriend Amy’s homework. The engineer didn’t understand why I started yelling at him. He rebutted, “What? It wasn’t your work, was it?”

If anyone ever films the story of my life, for the tech writing segment, I’m pitching the idea that Neanderthals play engineering.

After that moment, getting work done became a matter of survival. Salvation somewhat came by way of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The company president posted lyrics from the theme song on the corporate bulletin board to inspire us. "We don’t need another hero. We don’t need to know the way home. All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.” It spurred engineering to bellow, while in transit to meetings, “Two men enter. One man leaves. Two men enter. One man leaves,” in between scratching themselves and beating their clubs on the ground.

Seeing I was the only member of the team who couldn't join the rallying cry, I went home and watched Mad Max. Turned off the thinking part of my brain. Ignored everything that my literary education said made for good writing and memorable story. Forced my way through the so-bad-it’s good camp that is Mad Max. Then, started quoting Mad Max at work. Oddly, I found a newfound layer of respect and a measure of camaraderie from the engineers. Before I finally reached my limit and left the company, screaming.


I learned something. How to speak engineering. Applied that knowledge to the next position. It’s rare for a woman to like sci-fi. I know it. Playing up that love made me one of the geeks. After we make that connection, I'm no longer a pesky tech writer. What they see instead is their friend who likes really cool stuff, like sci-fi, just like me. And when that cool girlneeds their help, they fall over themselves to provide it. My software questions are  quickly answered. Fifteen years, and too many discussions about Batman later, I’ve managed to hit deadlines and pull steady paychecks. 

Consequently, my nerd knowledge has exploded, as engineering, wanting to explore the anomaly of girl who knows way too much Star Wars trivia, tests my limits. Consequently, I’ve become somewhat a shamefaced hardcore geek. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and blah and blah, all added to my repertoire because I needed to hit a deadline.

It even gave me an edge in job interviews. Specifically, the one where I watched engineering's eyes glaze over as I discussed my writing skills. Then switching tactics, interrupted myself and said, “I’m also looking forward to the new Star Wars.” Watching them leap to attention and engage. What did I think of the Lucas redos? The Battlestar Galactica reboot—Starbuck a woman? The remainder of the interview became geek banter. Out of 100 applicants, I was their second choice.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

So, last week. The latest nerd held the elevator open as I dashed in. On my way to a meeting. He listed, with admiration, my skills at balancing open laptop, notebook, mouse with dangling cord in one hand, and in the other hand … that’s when he gasped, “A Doctor Who mug! You’re a girl and you like Doctor Who!” He then proudly pointed at his forearm tattoos, a series of concentric circles, saying, “It’s my kids’ names! In Gallifreyan!

 The Internet says this is the Doctor's name in Gallifreyan. I don't know this for sure. My work nerds haven't educated me yet.

The Internet says this is the Doctor's name in Gallifreyan. I don't know this for sure. My work nerds haven't educated me yet.

For you non-nerds, Gallifrey is the planet Doctor Who is from, and therefore, Gallifreyan is his native tongue. I had no idea some nerd took the time to develop a language for the good Doctor, but wait, I should have known. As with any segue into All Things Nerd, I've just encountered a new level that I can explore with that engineer. If we ever need to work together.