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Leslie Robertson: Sun on the Coast
Joe Devlin and Emily Berk

Leslie Robertson's technical writing career keeps a bit of sun here on our coast most of the time, even when it's foggy. "When the slide went out, my morning commute to Taligent (a joint venture between IBM and Apple) in Cupertino, became just horrendous. I told my boss that I couldn't do it. All of a sudden, I found myself telecommuting three days a week." It didn't take Leslie long to learn that work was a lot more enjoyable when you avoid the office altogether. "So," she recalls, "when I left Taligent and went freelance, I made it a point to find clients who let me work off-site all the time. I would never have had the guts to go whole hog had I not been able to try it out during the slide."

For the past two years, Sun Microsystems has taken up most of Leslie's work time. "Sun gives me lots of different types of projects, and that's exciting. I get the a chance to try different kinds of writing, to deal with lots of different people, lots of different subjects." Most of the time, email and phone keep her in touch with the people she works with.

"I am lucky to have a certain amount of latitude in the sort of projects I take on," Leslie says. "My first project for Sun was to co-author Java Studio By Example, a retail book on the Java programming language that was published by Prentice-Hall. I also worked on Inside Java Workshop, another Prentice-Hall title. I finished indexing that book just hours before I went into labor for the birth of my younger daughter. Talk about deadline pressure!" Both Java projects were model telecommuting situations. Leslie's publisher was in New Jersey, her editor in New Mexico, and her co-author, Lynn Weaver and she worked in California. She just finished updating a help system for a Sun product developed by engineers in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"Compared to them," she laughs, "I was practically on-site. Right now, I am writing an evaluation guide that demonstrates how to use a new software development environment that Sun is about to release." Leslie finds working on more than one technical writing assignment at a time impractical, but she does accept other choice assignments. "For example, my husband, Richard works for educational software vendor, Tenth Planet, of Half Moon Bay. I find that writing scripts for Tenth Planet provides a really fun diversion from the stuff I do for Sun. For example, I recently wrote a script for an animation that teaches kids about fractions. We turned it into a mini-soap opera. 1/5 and 1/3 are in love, but their parents oppose their dating since they have nothing in common. Of course, love must triumph, which leads to discussion of their common denominator. It's a fun way of dealing with the topic, and writing for elementary grade kids is a satisfying change from writing for software developers."

Does Leslie get lonely working at home? Not likely. She is constantly surrounded by her loving family. "I have two daughters. While I am working hard in my office, my kids are playing hard with our wonderful baby sitter. Two days a week, my husband also works at home. Making it all work out takes disciplined coordination and two home offices, each with its own computer setup, telephone lines, fax machines." Working at home seems natural in Leslie's home. When her older daughter got a dollhouse, she seemed disappointed with it. "What kind of house is this?" she scoffed. "It doesn't have an office!"

One of the advantages of telecommuting is that you can live anywhere. How did the Robertsons choose the coast? "We moved to the coast in 1992. I admit we love being surrounded by all the natural beauty but that is not really what keeps us here. We had lived in several beautiful parts of California before we moved to the coast. But we never really felt at home until we moved here. Maybe it's because I have kids here and they root you in the community. Maybe this community is more welcoming. What I know is that I like the fact that as I walk around Half Moon Bay I am constantly meeting people who know me by name, who know that my children and my husband belong with me and I with them. We've also had the opportunity to become involved. For example, we were asked to serve on an advisory panel for the library to help it better serve families and children. You don't get to participate in those sorts of things until you become part of the community. An active, dedicated community of homescholars is another powerful draw here, Leslie says. "We wouldn't homeschool without all the wonderful support we find here. That's why we're in the process of buying a house here. We plan to stay."

So, does everyone in the family work on a computer all day long? "I'm ambivalent about the use of computers in classrooms because it may come at the expense of one-on-one time with a teacher and genuine human contact, but I'm not a zealot in any direction. My kids see me sitting at my computers. Of course they want to use them too. Anna, age five, works the Macintosh like a pro and since Daddy works for a curriculum company, she uses his work a lot, which is neat." Meantime, Grace, the one-year old, has learned which button "makes the computer go away. We have learned to back up often," smiles Leslie.

Technical writing is a cyclical business. Sometimes things are slow; then, when the software is about to be released, the crunch begins. "You just do it. There are times when I have to be available for work, when I have to attend meetings either by phone or in person. But my family and clients are sufficiently flexible that I always manage to have someone here to watch the kids on those rare occasions when I have to be away. Of course, none of us is ever allowed to get sick," Leslie jokes.

"I am always in touch with my craft. I write every day, and it's a real blessing to be able to make my living writing regardless of what I am writing about at this particular time. I have found that I am quite happy off by myself writing what I write. And there is no doubt that I am a lot happier working at home than in an office environment surrounded by all the bickering, politics and fear offices bring with them. More importantly, whenever the kids need me, I am here."

"Someday I'll have time to write my novel, but at the moment I'm deeply committed to mothering and homeschooling. It is high-tech that lets us live our life as we want to. It has been very very good to us. I can't complain."

You can reach Leslie Robertson at

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