Tribute to a fellow tech writer

PJ, a colleague and fellow tech writer, died last Thursday. It’s the first time that someone who I’ve worked with has died, and it’s made me pause and think about how well I know and appreciate my colleagues.

He was the first tech writer I met when I joined the company in 2008. He had covered the area that was to become my responsibility, so I inherited some of the documentation he had written.

It soon became apparent that we approached documentation from opposite angles. PJ had been with the company for several decades already. He knew developments and details of our product that no one else knows and did documentation with a lot of common sense and in the way “we’ve always done it”. I arrived with convictions about how to do documentation efficiently, but no product knowledge.

While the whole writing team agreed that the documentation and the way we maintain it needed to be improved, PJ and I sometimes argued over the way to proceed. We would disagree over the usability and usefulness of printed release notes and online help. We could bicker over the Oxford comma or whether “check box” is one word or two. I must admit that my pedantry sometime got the better of me: I focused on the comma more than on the mutual respect that is due to any colleague.

There’s also the simple fact that my contributions of best practices and methods are easily available outside the company and sort of generic. His knowledge of the product on the other hand was unique as his experience had honed his wit and his equanimity. I had come to realize that, if we were to succeed as a team, I needed PJ more than he needed me.

Working mostly in different locations, we couldn’t just walk up to each other’s desk to chat or even hang out after work. The few times I talked to him about personal things, I was impressed by his passion for music and for mountain railways. And I’m sure he had a life worth of other passions I still have no clue about, though he would have shared them freely.

PJ had been ill last year, but seemed to have gotten better in recent months until a recent relapse. I don’t even know the last time I saw him. A week ago, I heard he was worse than ever, but that we could keep in touch via Facebook. I choked when I saw on his Facebook page that we liked the same bands – though we had never talked about most of them.

When I heard he had died, I realized how unprepared I was, despite everything: “Grandparents die – but not colleagues,” I thought. And it reminded me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – though PJ was nothing like Willy Loman:

He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. … Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

I regret not paying attention to my colleague soon enough. And I won’t forget PJ.