Richard Lander knows how to maximize things: he definitely got the most out of his UWaterloo English degree in Rhetoric and Professional Writing (now Rhetoric, Media and Professional Communication). And he appears to have utilized every classroom and co-op experience in his position as Principal Program Manager Lead on the .NET Team at Microsoft. Read on to learn more about his time at UWaterloo, his appreciation for Dr. Paul Beam (now deceased), and what he’s hoping to leave to his children. Thank you to Richard for participating!–JLH
JLH: Can you tell us how you ended up studying English Rhetoric and Professional Writing at the University of Waterloo?
RL: In high school, I was interested in three topics: computers, politics, and writing. As it came time to look at universities, in grade 12 and OAC, I explored all three of those options. In the end, I decided to select a university based on an Arts degree and then add computer science (CS) as a secondary focus. I already had a lot of technological experience – my brother and I ran a pirate BBS during high school – but I still felt like my strengths were in the liberal arts.
Waterloo was an easy choice. My older friends went there, it was only an hour away from home, and the school had an incredible general reputation. Also, I was well aware of the strong CS program, so it seemed like an excellent place to get the CS education I was looking for as a non-major.
At first, I was more focussed on political science at UW and had vague ideas on becoming a lawyer. I was very interested in both Canadian and US politics and a huge fan of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. I also followed Conrad Black and his writings. Then, in first and second year, I had some eye-opening English courses with Drs. Neil Randall and Paul Beam. That got me fully focussed on English and I dropped the idea of continuing with political science.
JLH: Thinking back, what stands out from your time at UWaterloo?
RL: Everything about Waterloo was amazing. I loved my classes, co-op was a major game changer for me professionally, and I met my wife! If I’m to really pin it down, I have to talk about my work with Paul Beam. I worked for his online learning company during a couple of my work terms and while I was on campus. He put a lot of trust in me, giving me fairly vague marching orders and just letting me execute my own (more specific) version of his requests. I spent most of my time work on an online course called “Professional XML Authoring.” I created the course (content and software), marketed it globally, and then taught it as well, to students on four continents. It was strange to be preparing for a test in Hagey Hall and marking an assignment from a student in Europe as part of a commercial online course, all in the same evening. It was also really challenging from a time and stress management standpoint.
As my professor, Paul let me do more than my fair share of “independent study courses” in the English department. I used those to study XML and related technologies, which were very new in the mid- to -late 90s. I was able to take a bunch of that work and add it to the courses I was producing for his company. That might sound oddly circular, but to me it was a great opportunity to get my work published and gain experience. In many cases, I was learning the technology as I created the content, too. You hear students complain about being taken advantage of by professors. That wasn’t the case at all. I was the primary beneficiary, unknowingly building a strong resume for an employer in Seattle, WA.
I also got to present about XML and related technologies to companies Paul had relationships with and at the local Society for Technical Communication on campus. We also presented papers we worked on together at Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conferences. Needless to say, I was privileged to get these rare opportunities. I remain incredibly thankful for that.
JLH: How did your course of study influence your career? Were there specific experiences that proved more useful?
RL: We have two roles in the product groups at Microsoft: developers and program managers (PM). If I wanted to be a developer, I should have taken CS (as a major). There are tons of successful Waterloo CS folks at Microsoft. My choice of RPW + CS was great academic preparation for becoming a PM at Microsoft. You need to be a great communicator and technical.
The technical part of the job is often the easy part. Often, you have a variety of options on the table to solve a problem and you like one best. You have to decide how to convince others that this choice is the best, sometimes through straightforward and other times less than straightforward techniques. This is where the Rhetoric part of RPW comes in, although the Professional Writing comes closely behind as a poorly written great argument is never a winning strategy.
Other times, I need to be more introspective, particularly when reading or listening to a proposal that is outside my area of strength. I use skills I learned in a critical analysis course to help navigate these more challenging situations. In that class, we had to analyze works according to a given (often unfamiliar) analytical style, for example a feminist analysis. That experience is always a good reminder that there are multiple points of view that are objectively equal in nature. Further inspection can uncover biases, assumptions, and other flaws in each of these points of view. From that vantage point, the points of view remain equal in nature. It’s sometimes important to keep my initial thoughts and opinions in check as I analyze a proposal. I will search for a set of “first principles” that I can use to consider and analyze the proposal to develop an opinion. This approach usually results in a strong opinion that I have confidence in because it’s not based on an emotional response, but on values that are broadly shared and durable.
JLH: You seem to do a fair amount of outreach in your current position: can you tell us a bit about what you do and how that came about?
RL: For the first few years after school, I just focussed on my core job and didn’t do any external outreach at all. I was absorbing so much new information that it felt like I was doing a Masters degree at “Microsoft University.” We also had our first child relatively early on, after moving to Seattle. After catching my breath, I started writing for the .NET blog, the primary public outreach for the .NET Team at Microsoft. I later started the @dotnet twitter account. I’ve also written a bunch of documentation.
In terms of outreach, I’d say my primary activity is blogging. Every time we release a new version of the product, I write an approximately ten-page blog post that describes why you should care about the release and how you can use it. I have a few simple goals with each of those posts: tell a compelling story about the product, describe the state of the product at a point in time, and answer all of the obvious questions.
When I’m writing those posts, I try to answer most of the questions that appear in my head as I work through the various topics that need to be covered. I get feedback from my team that I’m “wordy” but I feel strongly about answering the main questions in the body of the document as opposed to in a disconnected FAQ. Also, while we have a ton of customers in Western English-language countries, we have another large set that have to work harder to get meaning out of blog posts written in English that may contain Western phrases and jokes. I try really hard to make sure that people in Japan, China, Egypt, and Germany, for example, can read my blog posts, assuming a base level of English competency. It is an exercise for the reader if I’m successful at that.
JLH: Finally, are there any books you are really looking forward to reading?
RL: I’m a fan of Patrick Rothfuss and his Kingkiller Chronicle series. The first book, in particular, was intellectually really exciting for me. Like many other people, I’m waiting for his third book in the series. The series is apparently going to become a movie, so I’m worried that he’ll get distracted finishing the last book. I did get to see him speak at Emerald City Comicon. He’s a great speaker and a very interesting and compelling personality.
I’m also interested in reading more from Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I’ve been watching youtube videos and listening to podcasts by them recently, but I think it is time to dig in a bit deeper with those folks. Sam Harris is a bit controversial, and I’d like to understand that further and be able to participate in that conversation. I’m almost planning on going back to reading Noam Chomsky and some of the ancient philosophers. I plan to do that while taking time off in December. The recent election in the US is part of my motivation for reaching for these writers and topics.
I just read The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster. It’s a novella from 1909. A bit like works by H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, it’s an early but incredibly prescient dystopian tale. You can read it in little more than an hour. Recommended. While I like and appreciate dystopia, I think the genre is a bit overdone in contemporary novels and film, probably because it sells well. The recent movie Arrival is an example. I’d like to see more focus on possible futures and shared societal experiences that are compelling and possible and that I might want to leave to my children. That’s very much an open landscape for writers and artists.