Sarah Dover Mendez has a gift for words and a knack for explaining complex technical concepts, two skills that led to her current career in information architecture and content engineering.
Although she can partially trace the origins of this career to her Rice computer science degree (B.A. ’03), her passions for clarifying the complex and communicating effectively find equal precedent in her previous career as a kindergarten teacher. In fact, teaching small children and collaborating with their parents served as a real-world laboratory for experimenting with her communication skills.
“As a teacher, I hypothesized that if students weren’t doing what I expected of them, refining my communication techniques and systems was one of the more straightforward and powerful tools I had at my disposal,” she said. “By analyzing the correlations between how I structured my lessons and student engagement, I could clearly see the effects of my communication choices on behavior and outcomes. I learned through iteration and reflection that people want to understand and meet expectations…they don’t willfully choose to misunderstand (usually).”
Mendez believes all communications have a common goal of accomplishing a task or affecting a thought — from passing the salt, to understanding a political viewpoint, to installing and using new software. Learning how to better engage children in understanding a concept and achieving a desired outcome made her a more compelling communicator. And, as much as that helped her in the classroom, it opened other career options for her as well.
“After five years in education as a teacher and then as an instructional coach for other elementary teachers, I felt overwhelmed by the challenges many educators face these days – long hours, unrealistic expectations, and a feeling that somehow all the work still wasn’t enough. Someone suggested I explore technical writing, which would harken back to my CS degree while still incorporating my teaching skills, just in written form,” said Mendez.
As an Austin area teacher, Mendez began researching openings for technical writers in the local technology industry. She found a potential fit with National Instruments, a company that produces hardware and software tools for use in a variety of engineering environments.
Mendez said, “One of NI’s products, LabVIEW, includes a proprietary graphical programming language. This subject matter seemed like a perfect fit for my programming background. I had been a labbie back at Rice, and I thought ‘How cool would it be to get to teach people about programming again, just via the documentation this time!’ Even though I didn’t have formal training in technical communications, recognizing this connection gave me confidence going into my interview.”
She was indeed hired to work on LabVIEW’s documentation and then began introducing new initiatives, tools, and processes that led to promotions: staff technical writer, senior technical writer, and principal technical writer. In 2016, Mendez became one of the initial members of the Product Documentation Strategy team, where she currently serves as a Principal Information Architect.
“Even though technical communicators continually give high marks for job satisfaction, I didn’t expect to enjoy this career as much as I have,” said Mendez. “My job as an information architect doesn’t involve technical writing on a daily basis these days, but my communication skills are still critical.
“If I am working with other stakeholders, writers, and engineers and have good conversations or come to a shared understanding, that’s a very encouraging experience. I love explaining things and taking complex ideas and making them accessible. If I show something I’m working on to others and they understand it, that’s a good day.”
Her first foray into explaining and teaching technical concepts began at Rice, when she was recruited as a student lab assistant for a computer science class.
She said, “As a freshman, I dabbled in a variety of interesting courses before declaring a major, including COMP 212. That summer, the COMP 212 professor was recruiting labbies for his course and reached out to me. I hadn’t felt that confident of myself in his class and replied that I might not be the best choice.
“He just said, ‘I think you’ll be great.’ That might seem like a small thing, but for me it was the first time anyone expressed confidence in my abilities in computer science. That encouragement came at a critical time when I was choosing a major. It gave me confidence in the direction I was heading and helped me recognize that CS might be a field in which I could be successful.”
Mendez worked as a lab assistant in COMP 212 for five of her remaining six semesters and said it gave her a broad perspective of the material as well as her own capability. By answering the same kinds of questions about the material she’d had herself, Mendez realized it was common for many students to have concerns about their capacity for mastering the topic. Whereas she had originally believed that her struggles with CS concepts were personal, labbying helped her recognize that her experiences were more universal.
She said she still hit some low points of self-doubt after declaring the CS major. Her advice for struggling students in any major is to find a community of peers.
“If you feel intimidated, you are probably not the only person feeling that way. Look for other people to connect with — in extra-curricular groups, study groups, and random connections –like enjoying the same kind of food or entertainment.
“The COMP 212 labbies provided a kind of support group for me and for each other, and the confidence I discovered through my role as a CS labbie fed the rest of my academic experience at Rice. The support of my friends and the confidence I found as a labbie all helped me prevail,” she said.
Now, she’s focused on helping NI customers prevail by improving the findability and usefulness of help content that goes along with the products they purchase. Like a physical library, the support documentation for NI products contains a large amount of information that can be difficult to navigate. As an information architect, Mendez identifies patterns to make the data more findable.
The role of an information architect dates back to library science, where efficiently storing and organizing printed information is paramount to enabling people to benefit from that information. Convert the printed material to electronic content, and the problem grows more complex.
Mendez said, “With over a million pages of documentation, NI offers lots of useful information to our customers. However, that mass of data can be its own worst enemy if we don’t provide reliable ways for customers to hone in on the exact piece of information that will answer their question at any given moment. Content engineering is the way we model, tag, organize, and relate content internally so that we can deliver it to customers in multiple ways.”
“I actually see a lot of parallels between the content engineering discipline and what I learned in the CS program at Rice. For example, some of my current projects remind me of the Model-View-Controller pattern from COMP 212. If we design a model for our content that accurately reflects its purpose and structure, we can store the content in ways that decouple it from what users see in their “view”. Then, any time users need to access the content in new ways or combinations (e.g. on a web page, in a printed manual, or as an Alexa skill), we can write the controller in the middle, translating the model’s components into the new view.”
From kindergarten teacher to instructional coach to technical writer to information architect, Mendez appreciates the variety of non-traditional careers supported by her major. She said her Rice CS courses taught her more than how to be a successful programmer. “I view my CS education as a primer in problem-solving. On the surface, my role in recognizing and recommending content patterns may seem disconnected from the problems we tackled in CS courses, but they actually have similar solutions.
“In both my teaching and technical communications careers, the benefit of my CS degree has been a way of thinking that extends to many disciplines. I am grateful to Rice for teaching me more than just programming languages; my degree gave me a foundation whose potential is still surprising me with new applications and opportunities, even 15 years later. So, for anyone who enjoys CS but might not want to program full-time, know that there are many CS-adjacent possibilities in the world. Even if you don’t go looking for them, they might still find you.”