Kristin Cantrell on Technical Writing at Southwest Airlines

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and today I’m happy to bring to you and interview with Kristin Cantrell, a technical writer at Southwest Airlines. She’ll talk with us about her work writing in the aviation industry and trends that she sees for the field. I hope you enjoy the interview.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Kristin. We’re really glad you can join us today and talk about your experiences as a technical writer in the aviation field. To get started though, can we talk about kind of how you got your start in technical communication?

[Kristin Cantrell] First of all, thank you for asking me to do this. It’s always good to be able to share some information outside of my normal job duties. My entry into the world of technical publications was quite accidental. I kind of stumbled on to it. I started my career actually in the apparel industry, a long time ago. It can be a brutal industry. It turned out to be overwhelming and by the time I was in my late twenties, early thirties, I was ready to move on to something else. So, I actually just kind of threw caution to the wind and took a temp job and the first place that they sent me was where I’m working now, which is Southwest Airlines, and I got my foot in the door eventually and you know in a permanent position in the department that produced the manuals for aircraft maintenance documents. So that’s kind of how I fell into it and just a little background, I’ve been with Southwest for twenty years now.

[Weber] Wow! Congratulations.

[Cantrell] Thanks. Seventeen of those years have been in technical communication so.

[Weber] That’s great so I’m sure you’ve seen a lot.

[Cantrell] A lot of changes.

[Weber] Yes.

[Cantrell] Yes, technology wise.

[Weber] Well so tell us now that you’re well established there, you know working at Southwest, what does a typical week on the job like? What kind of tasks do you take on? What kind of documents do you create? That kind of thing.

[Cantrell] Now in my technical writing capacity here, I work primarily on policies and procedures. There was a time in my career, like I mentioned before that I was working on aircraft maintenance documents, and those tend to be very step one, step two.

[Weber] Right.

[Cantrell] You know, do—flrst do this, do that, and there are checklists, there are task cards. I’ve moved over more into the policies and procedures manuals, kind of the more of the soft content that’s always required regulatory oversight. For example, our company employee guidelines.

[Weber] Okay.

[Cantrell] That is a document that I write for the SME’s. Many of the workgroups themselves, like our training department, has its own manual, or actually it’s about to produce its own manual, and it’s not necessarily the training manual, it’s the policies and procedures for the employees who work in the training department. So that’s the kind of thing that I’ve been working on.

[Weber] So largely an audience of internal, people internal to Southwest then?

[Cantrell] Yes, rarely do we-nah I shouldn’t say that. I was going to say rarely do we have documents that goes externally because we do have documents that are viewed on FM. For the most part our documents are internal.

[Weber] And you mentioned the FM, I’m curious about sort of some of the unique aspects of tech writing for the aviation industry. You know what’s different about that than maybe other technology or engineering industries?

[Cantrell] We do have FM oversight. Not all of our documents are required to have FM oversight. The aircraft maintenance documents, those did always have to go through some sort of FM review. A lot of the pilot stuff or flight ops group. Our inflight group, which is our flight attendants, they also have their own regulations and most of these work groups will have documents. For example, our flight attendant manual, this particular chapter, this is agreed on by us and the FM, and this is procedure and it must be done this way and it is regulated; there is no getting around it. This chapter over here, these are suggestions on how to carry out great service or whatever.

[Weber] Sure.

[Cantrell] So some-some of our content will be regulated and some is not.

[Weber] I imagine given the complexities of getting FM approval that the content that needs regulation is not edited very often. Is that correct? Kind of once you get it approved, you kind of want to avoid that process again?

[Cantrell] Oh we’d love too, but it’s not quite like that. (chuckle)

[Weber] Sure. (chuckle)

[Cantrell] We have a-we truly have established a relationship with our, you know, with a local FM. And FM is not you know okay lets send what we’ve wrote off to some guys in Washington and you know hope we hear back. The FM has offices, especially when their you know, big airlines in the area and for us there’s, of course there’s us, Southwest Airlines, in the Fort Worth area, there’s American Airlines. So, there is an FM office here.

[Weber] Okay.

[Cantrell] And we have dedicated FM people who you know [unclear] our airline. So, we end up with a relationship with them. We end up you know communicating with them sometimes probably on a daily basis. The manuals I work on nowadays I rarely have contact with them. I do know that within our central publications group, we are working with them on a daily basis.

[Weber] So they’re not sort of, you know you often think, you picture sort of these faceless bureaucrats somewhere that are you know just signing off on things or you know some Kafka-esque bureaucracy. It sounds like you know them very well, you interact with them and that they’re sort of part of the writing process.

[Cantrell] Very much so. Now they’re oversight. up, throw it away

[Weber] Sure.

[Cantrell] They cannot tell us how to run our company, but we have guidelines and regulations that we have to be aware of. We have regulatory and compliance department here at Southwest Airlines that focuses specifically on that, they’re kind of the experts on that, so that we can write our own documents and have a good confidence that this is going to you know go through the FM. When I do, or the last time I worked on some documents that required some FM approval, they may send a letter back saying, “We have some questions about this,” you know they never say, “Oh you know tear this up, throw it away.”

[Weber] Okay.

[Cantrell] You know, “We have some questions about this, this, and this, can you answer those for us or can you make those changes to the document?” It’s a simple process and I think it’s based on a good working relationship with them.

[Weber] That’s great, that’s great. That’s interesting, it’s a different kind of team and a different kind of subject matter expert. I think a lot of people are used to working with, but I’m glad to hear that the relationship is productive.

[Cantrell] Yes. Yes. We try to make it that way and I, I, I rarely see any time when it’s not.

[Weber] Moving away from that, sort of what other kinds of skills do you find to be really important in your job? What-and especially as someone who came into technical communication from elsewhere, what kinds of skills have you needed to develop and have you found to be the most valuable?

[Cantrell] You know just some basic grammar and writing skills. You know I could go into, and I will, list some software programs and things like that that I work with, and have worked with over the years, but I have to say just brushing up on a little grammar; you know good ol’ grade-school grammar. I think that any of us, you know, as we go on and even you know past college, you know we get those college papers done, and we just kind of pick up the language of our friends and you know of our family and we tend to write like that. But in writing, even in the more softer writing, you know there are still some real basic grammar things, some language that I think that tends to get lost and just sort of the casual writing, you know the 140 characters [unclear] to reduce our thoughts to. And there are some podcasts out there actually.

[Weber] Oh great.

[Cantrell] There are, there are emails, I get a daily email from Grammar Girl.

[Weber] Oh nice, I like Grammar Girl as well.

[Cantrell] Yeah that’s a good one. So I get that daily email, always keeps me up to date, helps me remember some things and also encourages me when I realize, “Oh okay I’ve been doing right, that’s great.”

[Weber] Right, a little validation. And you mentioned some software programs as well.

[Cantrell] Adobe FrameMaker is probably the one that-that I see that’s most used. We do use that a little bit still in our department but for the most part, we have switched over to ArborText and it’s an excellent authoring tool and it also has a publishing engine. For the most part all of our manuals, if they haven’t already, they’re in the process of being converted.

[Weber] Do you do your authoring in XML or do you use the tools like ArborText? So, in other words do you have a strong XML knowledge or is it mostly sort of the wizzy wig stuff of ArborText.

[Cantrell] Yes it’s probably a bit more of the wizzy wig of the ArborText, but we’re authoring all of the text that’s shown. We are-we don’t have a blank XML screen where we’re you know-we’ re actually typing out source codes. But yeah it would probably be considered a bit more of wizzy wig. You know putting sentences or paragraphs or just information in between tags and sections and list items.

[Weber] Great and as far as what’s coming in the future, what kinds of trends do you see in technical communication? What do you think will be the most notable trends over the next say three to five years?

[Cantrell] You know you always hear a lot about, and have for several years, is the content radius. We talk about that a lot within our department as far as you know having the ability to have documents that are linked up to when there is the exact same information, exact paragraph. Let’s say in both a manual that applies to the pilots and to the flight attendants, because they’re both crew on an aircraft, that if one gets updated that the other one will be updated or at least there can be an immediate notification that these two are now out of sync.

[Weber] Right.

[Cantrell] We’re always striving to get our products to where they can speak to each other.

[Weber] I’m curious with that, if you know going back to the FAA stuff, if that would be helpful because you would essentially be getting a piece of content approved once by the FAA that then can be reused several times. Is that the case?

[Cantrell] Our approvals are always per document.

[Weber] I see.

[Cantrell] So even though they have-they have said, “Okay we approve that information in the flight attendant manual and it does affect the exact same thing in the, in the flight ops manual, we’ll need to approve that one too.”

[Weber] Sure. Right for good measure.

[Cantrell] Yeah.

[Weber] Great, well thanks so much Kristin. I really appreciate you joining us today and talking about what you do and giving us insight on your work.

[Cantrell] You’re welcome.

[Weber] Thanks so much and good luck in your career and we’ll keep in touch.

[Cantrell] Thank you.

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Episode 22