The brains behind the books: Frank Sundermeyer
The content of this article has been contributed by Frank Sundermeyer, Project Manager of the SUSE Documentation Team. It is part of a series of articles focusing on SUSE Documentation and the great minds that create the manuals, guides, quick starts, and many more helpful documents.
Biology – or IT?
My name is Frank Sundermeyer, and I am the Project Manager for Documentation. As I have been working at SUSE for about 22 years, most SUSEans might already know me.
I was born in Bad Oeynhausen in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, roughly half a century ago – and I grew up and visited primary and secondary school named Immanuel-Kant–Gymnasium there. That was also where I first got in contact with the IT world: I learned Pascal programming in computer science at school on a Commodore Pet. But my favorite subjects were biology and chemistry. Believe it or not: even in primary school I knew I wanted to study biology afterwards – this was as sure as eggs is eggs. Fortunately my parents always supported this fixed idea. As a prerequisite for studying biology I also had to learn Latin – and I hated it. I always considered (and still consider) it a waste of time. Originally, I wanted to focus on genetics and microbiology. But after school, while doing my alternative civilian service, I worked for two years in nature protection. As a consequence, I changed my goal towards getting a job in nature protection or landscape conservation. With this masterplan in mind, I started my studies in biology at the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg.
During that period of time, I had several jobs in nature conservation and at the university – and strangely somehow all of them had to do with computers. For example, back in 1991, I prepared an expert assessment for a planned nature reserve (including biotope mapping and landscape conservation plan) – 200 pages of text which I wrote in LaTeX on DOS! What’s more, I:
- wrote a database application (in MS Access) for storing customer data of an EU nature conservation program,
- wrote thick volumes of illustrated botanical excursion reports with WordPerfect 5.2,
- worked with GIS (the Geo Information System) at the university,
- learned how to process data of ecological botanical surveys on VAX terminals,
- and finally wrote my diploma thesis with LaTeX and provided the accompanying cartographic work with GIS.
In each and every little job I had I learned a lot and I do not want to miss any of these experiences. For example, starting at the age of 15, I worked at a plumber as a helpmate during my summer vacation, more or less each year until I finished school. It was hard but good work. I liked the camaraderie among the workers on building sites, and it was great to earn my own money. At the same time, I was also glad to know that I would not have to do this kind of work for the rest of my life. In short, I had much fun and learned a lot. However, there is one thing I missed to do: I was offered to live on a small unmanned island for half a year to watch over breeding birds. It would have been just me, the birds and a ship every two weeks. I declined the offer in favor of my studies – and I still regret it.
Unfortunately I finished university a bit too late. The public sector had created a large amount of jobs in nature conservation until the mid-90s. But by the time I finished, all positions were filled with other “fresh young people”. It seemed I had worked towards a dead-end job.
A very special ecosystem – SUSE
But then, a good friend told me that the small company he was working for (yes – SUSE!) was looking for a webmaster. In a two-day crash course, he taught me HTML – I applied for the job and was hired. In November 1996, after 6 weeks of probation, I was offered a permanent position as SUSE employee number 17.
In a very funny coincidence, just about half a year before I joined SUSE, I installed S.u.S.E. Linux 4.2, my first Linux. The open-source idea influenced me quite a bit, and my strong will to understand and “conquer” computers and software did their part to make me end up in IT, at an open-source company. Since I joined SUSE, I worked as webmaster, did presales for SUSE Linux and third-party products, was product manager for O’Reilly books and Walnut Creek CDROMs, worked in marketing, and created the SUSE brochure, designed a few product covers, was responsible for database and backup products as a product manager, led the web team, ultimately moved to the documentation team as a technical writer, and for more than two years I am working as the project manager for documentation.
In retrospect, switching from webmastering to documentation was the best decision in my career. Not only because of the job as such, but also because of the people. I am now part of the best team I have ever worked with at SUSE, and as a team we strive to achieve common goals. My teammates are all dedicated, highly self-organized and responsible people with a broad common knowledge, but also tons of expert knowledge. The team spirit is amazing – they are really friends, not just colleagues. And my colleague Dima’s (also known as Dmitri Popov) special humor frequently cracks me up.
My job requires deep technical understanding and know-how. “Learning by doing” was always a straightforward teacher, interest in the technical topics and probably 70 percent self-study combined with help from colleagues and some “official” technical training have taken me to where I am today. One achievement I am really proud of is the “invention” of the DocBook Authoring and Publishing Suite (DAPS), the framework we use to publish our entire documentation in different formats (which, by the way, it is used by some other companies, too). I don’t want to go into details here – but you will hear more about DAPS soon, so stay tuned.
In my role, I function as an “API” of sorts between the documentation team and many other departments. Sometimes it feels like herding cats. But one of my strengths (at least this is what colleagues are telling me) is the fact that I stay calm and organized even when things go helter-skelter. Being the project manager for all of SUSE documentation and a technical writer at the same time, I do not only organize the projects, I also actively participate. This gives me the chance to look at the projects in their entirety, which is very satisfying. In our business, there is no self-explanatory solution. The ever-growing complexity of IT products and projects requires profound comprehension of technical contexts and the ability to explain those in a clear and intelligible language. Fortunately, awareness for the significance of documentation within SUSE has grown a lot during the past few years – and that makes my job easier.
“Reality is always controlled by the people who are most insane” …
… from Dogbert is one of my favorite quotes. Far too often true – also for this blog post 😉 : Usually I would not share additional personal details at this point– but my adamant colleague (!!) forced me to do so. Even though I am working in IT, I am still a “real reader” – my favorite author is sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. And I definitely like Jim Jarmusch’s movie ‘Dead Man’. The monochrome shooting, Neil Young’s brilliant soundtrack and the actors create an atmosphere that is unmatched. If you’d ask for my favorite songs, it heavily depends on my mood and the day (time). My Last Night a Record Changed my Life song is ‘Walking with Jesus’ from Spacemen 3. One of my favorite Sunday morning songs is ‘Winter’ by Tori Amos, one of my favorite Saturday evening songs is ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ by The Chocolate Watch Band, my favorite Beatles song is ‘Helter Skelter’, and my favorite Rolling Stones song is ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. I am a passionate vinyl record collector (if you still recall what vinyl is …) – thus music literally takes up quite “some space in my life”. I love driving my motorbike. Finally, I have a lot in common with my kids: I very much enjoy playing computer games.
If you happen to be at the Nuremberg office, just stop by at the documentation offices to discuss the one or other topic with us in more detail – be it our product documentation, DAPS, music, movies, motorbikes or computer games!