The dummy puffin

A few days ago, a colleague shared an article with me about the dummy puffins installed on islands to attract real puffins. I found the article fascinating and the puffins utterly cute (they are my new favorite bird). The story resonated with me more that I expected, but I couldn’t fathom why. So I filed it away in my mental cabinet and got back to work.

Until today.

Today at the company-wide team meeting, we discussed the issue of lack of female leadership and diverse representation in the tech industry, and how we, as individuals, could play our part in remedying the situation. The discussion reminded me of a time a few months ago, when I was frustrated about the lack of diverse representation.

I am fully cognizant of my privilege to do things which I could have only dreamed of a few years ago: like attending the Write the Docs conference that I yearned to attend since I first heard about it, or see my absolute favorite YouTubers (John and Hank Green) speak IRL, or work at a brilliant startup building cutting-edge tech. The 20-year-old-me would be proud of where I am now. From her perspective, I have “made it” in life. I have a seat at the table.

And yet, more often than not, I find myself being the only one at the table that looks like me or sounds like me or does what I do.

For instance, consider the Write the Docs conference. It was the most well-organized, thoughtful, inclusive conference I have ever attended. Yet, I observed a lack of ethnically and culturally diverse speakers. Knowing the organizers’ intent of making the conference as inclusive as possible, the under-representation of minority groups certainly wasn’t their fault. One possible explanation was that the organizers hadn’t received many talk proposals from people belonging to underrepresented groups. That was even more infuriating. Why weren’t more people from diverse backgrounds volunteering to speak at these events?

Another thing I found myself complaining about constantly was the YouTube tech community.  I LOVE the contemporary YouTubers in tech: Jarvis, Mayuko, Charli, and others present a realistic view of programming and design careers in tech. But there’s no substantial content about contemporary tech writing. Why wasn’t anyone making videos that I would benefit from?

The probable answer: Imposter Syndrome. As a brown, female, non-US person, I am familiar with the paralyzing fear that the Imposter Syndrome creates. The fear of being judged, being “found out”, coupled with a deep-rooted insecurity and inferiority complex – these are the demons I battle everyday. I know how scary it is to speak up, because if you are wrong, it might not only cost you your reputation and credibility, but also your job, your livelihood. Not every risk is worth taking.

But if I wasn’t willing to take the risk, what right did I have to ask someone else to do it so I could feel represented and validated? If I wasn’t willing to work through my discomfort, how could I expect someone else put themselves through it?

So I made a deal with myself: if I found myself complaining about any form of inequality or lack of representation, I would ask myself if the issue really matters to me, and if yes, I would step up and speak up. If I chose not to do that, I wouldn’t complain about it. Simple. It wasn’t enough to have a seat at the table. I had to use my newfound privilege to make room for more people at the table.

Some of the actions I took/am taking are:

  • Started my YouTube channel to talk about tech writing
  • Joined Toastmasters to work on my public speaking skills, hoping it’ll help me speak well at conferences and events
  • Participate in events (like this and this) that feature non-traditional leaders in tech
  • Currently planning a talk proposal for next year’s Write the Docs conference(s)

Every step of the way, I battle my insecurities. The Imposter Syndrome makes me question my worth: Why would my opinion matter? There are smarter, more knowledgeable people out there, why do I deserve their attention?

That’s where the dummy puffins come into the picture: I am a dummy puffin. I want to be out there on the seemingly lonely island, just representing puffins, with the hope that smarter, wiser, more knowledgeable fellow puffins will show up and be encouraged to share their experiences and perspectives with the world. Because, in the words of the great Captain Holt:

Related image
Image source: https://goo.gl/images/1aFFz3

 

 

Using audio transcriptions to overcome writer’s block

I have recently updated my technical writing process with a new technique: using audio recording apps to get over my writer’s block. I use the audio recording app to talk through a technically complex concept – this helps me gain clarity about the topic and makes writing easier. I also use the app to practice for webinars, podcasts, or presentations I give – making audio recordings of the content helps me get used to my own voice and reduces my nervousness. Recently, I came across this article published by Descript that I think might help me take my audio-recording game to the next level. Reposting it here (with permission from Descript) for your reading pleasure:


Overcoming Writer’s Block with Automatic Transcription

If you’re a writer — of books, essays, scripts, blog posts, whatever — you’re familiar with the phenomenon: the blank screen, a looming deadline, and a sinking feeling in your gut that pairs poorly with the jug of coffee you drank earlier.

If you know that rumble all too well: this post is for you. Maybe it’ll help you get out of a rut; at the very least, it’s good for a few minutes of procrastination.

Here’s the core idea: thinking out loud is often less arduous than writing. And it’s now easier than ever to combine the two, thanks to recent advances in speech recognition technology.

Of course, dictation is nothing new — and plenty of writers have taken advantage of it. Carl Sagan’s voluminous output was facilitated by his process of speaking into an audio recorder, to be transcribed later by an assistant (you can listen to some of his dictations in the Library of Congress!) And software like Dragon’s Naturally Speaking has offered automated transcription for people with the patience and budget to pursue it.

But it’s only in the last couple of years that automated transcription has reached a sweet spot — of convenience, affordability and accuracy—that makes it practical to use it more casually. And I’ve found it increasingly useful for generating a sort of proto-first draft: an alternative approach to the painful process of converting the nebulous wisps inside your head into something you can actually work with.

I call this process idea extraction (though these ideas may be more accurately dubbed brain droppings).

Part I: Extraction

Here’s how my process works. Borrow what works for you and forget the rest — and let me know how it goes!

  • Pick a voice recorder. Start talking. Try it with a topic you’ve been chewing on for weeks — or when an idea flits your head. Don’t overthink it. Just start blabbing.
  • The goal is to tug on as many threads as you come across, and to follow them as far as they go. These threads may lead to meandering tangents— and you may discover new ideas along the way.
  • A lot of those new ideas will probably be embarrassingly bad. That’s fine. You’re already talking about the next thing! And unlike with text, your bad ideas aren’t staring you in the face.
  • Consider leaving comments to yourself as you go — e.g. “Maybe that’d work for the intro”. These will come in handy later.
  • For me, these recordings run anywhere from 20–80 minutes. Sometimes they’re much shorter, in quick succession. Whatever works.

Part II: Transcription

Once I’ve finished recording, it’s time to harness ⚡️The Power of Technology⚡️

A little background: over the last couple of years there’s been an explosion of tools related to automatic speech recognition (ASR) thanks to huge steps forward in the underlying technologies.

Here’s how ASR works: you import your audio into the software, the software uses state-of-the-art machine learning to spit back a text transcript a few minutes later. That transcript won’t be perfect—the robots are currently in the ‘Write drunk’ phase of their careers. But for our purposes that’s fine: you just need it to be accurate enough that you can recognize your ideas.

Once you have your text transcript, your next step is up to you: maybe you’re exporting your transcript as a Word doc and revising from there. Maybe you’re firing up your voice recorder again to dictate a more polished take. Maybe only a few words in your audio journey are worth keeping — but that’s fine too. It probably didn’t cost you much (and good news: the price for this tech will continue to fall in the years ahead).

A few more tips:

  • Use a recorder/app that you trust. Losing a recording is painful — and the anxiety of losing another can derail your most exciting creative moments (“I hope this recorder is working. Good, it is… @#*! where was I?”)
  • Audio quality matters when it comes to automatic transcription. If your recording has a lot of background noise or you’re speaking far away from the mic, the accuracy is going to drop. Consider using earbuds (better yet: Airpods) so you can worry less about where you’re holding the recorder.
  • Find a comfortable space. Eventually you may get used to having people overhear your musings, but it’s a lot easier to let your mind “go for a walk” when you’re comfortable in your environment.
  • Speaking of walking: why not go for a stroll? The pains of writing can have just as much to do with being stationary and hunched over. Walking gets your blood flowing — and your ideas too.
  • I have a lot of ideas, good and bad, while I’m thinking out loud and playing music at the same time (in my case, guitar — but I suspect it applies more broadly). There’s something about playing the same four-chord song on auto pilot for the thousandth time that keeps my hands busy and leaves my mind free to wander.

The old ways of doing things — whether it’s with a keyboard or pen — still have their advantages. Putting words to a page can force a sort of linear thinking that is otherwise difficult to maintain. And when it comes to editing, it’s no contest: QWERTY or bust.

But for getting those first crucial paragraphs down (and maybe a few keystone ideas to build towards)? Consider talking to yourself. Even if you wind up with a transcript full of nothing but profanity — well, have you ever seen a transcript full of profanity? You could do a lot worse.

This article is originally published by Descript. Reposting here with permission.

Why and how tech writers should work on their technical skills

A few weeks ago, I was invited as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts: 10-min Tech Comm. Check out my episode about why and how tech writers should work on their technical skills:

https://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/73517/55624504?size=large&variant=twittercard&autoplay=1&auto_play=true

PS: Tom Johnson is hosting a poll based on the podcast. Cast your vote here: https://idratherbewriting.com/2018/08/10/how-much-time-devoted-to-learning-tech-is-needed/

Blog Updates (Back from hiatus)

In May, I announced a hiatus from blogging because my parents were visiting me in New York and I wanted to spend quality time with them. We had an excellent summer in the city – I have never seen them so relaxed and happy! Now they are safely back home in Pune and I am back to my routine.

The hiatus proved more beneficial and necessary than I expected. Not only did it cure my homesickness, but also gave me a chance to take a step back and rethink my purpose for this blog and its future. You see, the reason I started blogging consistently in 2018 was because I had a lot of things to say about life as a Technical Writer and the blog seemed to be the best medium to share my thoughts and experiences. But now I find that having this blog as my only platform is pretty limiting. I have so many more things to share, but not all of them fit the content structure of a blog post. Some topics are better suited to video content, while others need more long-form content, such as a full-blown course or even a book. Some topics are about my knowledge gaps that need collaboration with other content creators in the tech writing space.

So that’s what I want to do next – experiment with different content platforms that best suit the topic I want to discuss. I still want this blog to be my central platform, so I will continue writing blog posts and link to other content as and when I create it. I hope you find this experiment helpful and entertaining.

Until next week, happy creating!

Reader question: Contributing docs to open source projects

As you might know, I recently conducted a webinar about contributing docs to open source projects. In this blog post, I am answering few follow-up questions about the topic.

Vinaya Krishna asks:

How to acquire domain knowledge of these communities? (Since you work in Cockroach Labs, there are people who guided you there. But how did you start working on others? Is it just by browsing their pages? Or did you actually get KT from other fellow members?)

Acquiring domain knowledge of the project depends on the complexity of the project. For beginners, I would recommend that they start by just observing the projects that they are interested in – follow the repository, see which contributions are being made, participate in their communication channels (probably Slack or Gitter), and keep an eye out on the issues list. When you feel confident enough to make your first contribution, start small – pick the easiest issue you can find and get a win under your belt. This will help you get familiar with the process and tools, and then you can move on to handling the technical complexity of the project.

I cannot stress enough the importance of being self-motivated and self-reliant when contributing to open source projects. Remember that the project maintainers are most probably employed full-time elsewhere and are working on the project on their own time. We cannot expect them to handhold us through the project – so make sure to do your homework, try figuring stuff out on your own, and approach them only when absolutely necessary.

More details in the presentation: Contributing docs to open source projects

Can a for-profit organization use Github with their data confidential in it?

As far as I know, yes. So GitHub has two flavors: you can choose your GitHub repository private or public. The repositories that seek contributions are public repositories. But you can make your repositories private to keep your data confidential.

Can you please upload the PPT somewhere so that we can visit the links you had mentioned in the closing slides of PPT?

Yes! Here you go: Contributing docs to open source projects

Update: A helpful reader, Suzanne de Veld, suggested the following projects that accept contributions and other useful links:

 

 

Reader Question: Grad programs in Tech Comm

I am taking a break from blogging this summer, but wanted to come here real quick to answer reader questions about pursuing a Masters degree in Technical Communication.

Neha asks:

Which universities offer this course?

Surprisingly, a lot of universities offer this course. The ones that I know of are Missouri S&T, NC State University, Texas Tech University, and University of Minnesota (Twin Cities).

For a detailed list of graduate programs, see:

Applying to Grad School (This is an excellent resource about applying to graduate programs in Technical Communication. It is written by Dr. Angela Eaton, a professor at Texas State University).

Choosing a Technical Communication graduate program

What are the prospects of getting a work permit or OPT after its completion (Since I am not sure whether it falls under STEM.)

Technical communication graduate programs don’t usually fall under STEM. Which means you get one-year OPT instead of three-years. But you also get CPT in your second year of the graduate program, which allows you to do a part-time internship while studying.

Getting a work permit (by which I assume you are referring to the H1B visa) is decided by luck – literally – since it’s a lottery system. Getting a job in a company which would sponsor your work visa is even more difficult. If your purpose of pursuing a Masters program is to eventually get a job in the US, I need to warn you that it is not a sure thing. I have discussed this issue in detail here:  Frequently asked questions

Average tuition fees

Tuition fees vary from state-to-state. At Missouri S&T, the average tuition fees were $11000 per semester. But if you can get financial assistance through teaching assistantships, the burden of the fees lessens considerably.

I hope this blog post helps you make an informed decision about graduate programs in tech comm. If you have follow-up questions, feel free to comment on the post or drop me an email at hello@amrutaranade.com

Blog Hiatus

My parents are going to arrive in New York soon and I want them to have every moment I can spare from work and all my attention. Thus my blog will be on hiatus until August. Till then, happy writing and be well!

Thoughts from Places: Write the Docs 2018 Portland

I recently attended the Write the Docs 2018 conference in Portland, Oregon. For those of you who don’t know, Write the Docs is a community for everyone who writes tech docs. I have been a part of the Write the Docs Slack community for quite some time now, and I have found immense value from the interactions on the Slack channels. I was excited to meet everyone in person and put faces to names (or Slack handles). And I was not disappointed 🙂

The conference is a four-day event that consists of a hike, the Writing Day, and two action-packed days of scheduled talks, lightning talks, unconferences, reception, social, and the job fair. Not being an outdoorsy person, I skipped the hike and joined the group on Sunday for the Writing Day.

Writing Day

Writing Day is a day meant for conference attendees to contribute to open-source docs projects. This was the day I was most excited about. The entire Docs team at Cockroach Labs had prepped and planned for weeks to set up our project for the Writing Day. During our brainstorming sessions, Rich had excellent suggestions about the types of documentation tasks our contributors could work on. Lauren worked tirelessly to create an incredible style guide to help people edit or write docs for our project. Jesse and I created detailed GitHub issues for tasks we had identified and labeled them with `wtd-writing-day`. And all the preparation paid off.

On the day, we had a full table (that is 6-7 contributors) at any given time. I was impressed by how dedicated our contributors were. While a couple of contributors were already familiar with GitHub and Markdown, most of the contributors had never worked with GitHub/Markdown before. But they were determined to learn the tools and contribute to our docs. They worked through our contributing guide and Getting Started docs and made substantial first contributions. By the end of the day, we had received several contributions and the contributors had successfully learned GitHub/Markdown. It was a win-win!

Takeaways from the talks and unconferences

Since I live-tweeted the talks and unconferences that I attended, you can view my key takeaways from the conference here:

Vlog

In addition to this blog post, I attempted a vlog as well. Here it is for your viewing pleasure: