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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

This Is How I Went From Working on Dictionaries to Working in Tech

Erin McKean
Erin McKean

Before she even reached double digits, Erin McKean—Developer Advocate at IBM and author of The Secret Lives of Dresses—knew exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up. After reading a newspaper article about The Oxford English Dictionary at age eight, she decided she wanted to work on dictionaries.

“Getting interested in something at such a young age—especially something as ubiquitous as the dictionary—is a luxury,” explains McKean. “Because it means you have lots of time to spend with the things that fascinate you.”

So, she became a lexicographer (someone who puts together dictionaries).

“I began working on dictionaries while studying at the University of Chicago, first as a volunteer at the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary,” she says. “Then, I interned at Scott Foresman (a publisher of elementary educational resources). After graduation, I worked full-time at Scott Foresman for seven years before moving on to the Oxford University Press, where I stayed until 2007.”

In 2008, the startup bug bit McKean, and she founded Wordnik, the world’s largest online English dictionary (in terms of the number of words).

“The goal of Wordnik,” she explains, “is to be a dictionary where every English word has a home. Most people don’t realize that there are actually more English words outside of our traditional dictionaries than inside them!” (Oh, and, fun fact: If adopting a road or a star isn’t your thing, you can adopt a word on Wordnik!)

Then, a few years ago, another bug bit McKean. The technology bug.

“Collaborating with great technologists and coders at Wordnik inspired me to ramp up my own skills and get more involved with tech in general,” says McKean. “They made it look like such fun!”

And that’s where IBM, the largest computer company in the world, comes in. You see, McKean did more than “get involved.” She started working for IBM in 2016 and made technology her career (in addition to running Wordnik, which is still adding words every day).

“My role right now is to learn about new technologies and answer one simple question: ‘How will this help developers?’ I find ways to make creating applications and interfaces easier, more reliable, and fun,” she explains.

To learn more about McKean’s career, keep reading.

OK—I Need to Know: What Exactly Does Putting Together a Dictionary Entail?

Ultimately, every dictionary has the same basic workflow: amass a set of candidate words for definition; look at the evidence of how the words are used; write entry; rinse; repeat. (And repeat a lot—traditional dictionaries take a long time to create!) Sometimes, people are disappointed to learn that dictionary editing involves very little rapturous research in the library or field research into slang words.

Some editors have more specialized jobs—writing etymologies (the origin and history of the word) or pronunciations—and some focus on particular subject areas or certain types of dictionaries. And, of course, there’s a lot of project management, meetings about budgets and schedules, product marketing—just like other jobs!

Tell Me a Little More About Wordnik

Wordnik doesn’t wait to include a word until there’s an official definition for it—as soon as we see any evidence of a word, we’ll show you what we’ve got, whether that’s example sentences, tweets, or comments from users.

We provide useful example sentences for every English word, such as:

Once you read a sentence like that, you have a good working knowledge of the word, and you may never need a formal definition!

How Do You Use Your Past Experience in Lexicography in Your Work at IBM?

Every modern dictionary I’ve worked on has used a lot of technology. (I mean, if you think about it, dictionaries are databases—they’re just printed on paper.) For example, dictionary data is usually represented in XML (a markup language, similar to HTML) and lexicographers often use fancy, hyper-featured editing software to juggle all the different parts of an entry. Even at my very first dictionary job, I was writing data conversion programs!

One thing that lexicographers and coders have in common is that our work is never done. There’s always another new word and another new technology, and we constantly need to update and maintain what we make. You can never sit back and say that you know all you need to know, so you’re always learning, which I find incredibly exciting. I rarely have a day where I don’t learn something new.

Full disclosure: Erin McKean works for IBM, who is a current client of The Muse.