Deep Work for Tech Writers

One of the life-changing books I have read in my professional life is Deep Work (affiliate link) by Dr. Cal Newport. As I discussed in the Day-In-The-Life blog post, I start my day with one-hour (2 Pomodoros) of Deep Work. And that has been the secret to my productivity and success as a technical writer.

Following are a couple of resources that summarize the book far better than I could have. Go through the resources, try out the technique, and drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com to let me know what you think of it. And don’t forget to subscribe!

Book summary: https://fourminutebooks.com/deep-work-summary/

YouTube video:

 

Technical Communication Conferences and Communities

One of the benefits of being a part of the academic as well as practicing circles of Technical Communication is that I can participate in conferences and communities in both domains. This post lists the conferences and communities that I find useful:

For Practitioners

Online Communities

Conferences

  • STC India
  • WriteTheDocs Portland
  • STC meetups in the Bay Area
  • tcworld

For Academicians

Online Communities

  • WomenInTC Slack and Twitter
  • ATTW mailing list
  • CPTSC mailing list

Conferences

  • ATTW conference
  • CPTSC conference
  • GPACW conference
  • STC regional conferences (I attended two: one in Springfield and another in Missouri State University)

Update: Came across this incredible list of conferences. Check it out!

Containers for beginners

Last week, we learned about cloud platforms. This week, let’s discuss the next step in the technological evolution: Containers.

Two of the popular containers are Docker and Kubernetes (an incredible open-source project):

 

Pomodoro for Tech Writers

Thе Pоmоdоrо Tесhniԛuе iѕ a time mаnаgеmеnt mеthоd developed bу Frаnсеѕсо Cirillо in thе late 1980s.Thе tесhniԛuе uѕеѕ a timеr to break dоwn wоrk into 25-minute intеrvаlѕ, ѕераrаtеd bу 5-minute breaks. These intеrvаlѕ are nаmеd Pоmоdоrоѕ, thе plural in Engliѕh оf the Itаliаn word Pomodoro (tоmаtо), after the tоmаtо-ѕhареd kitchen timеr thаt Cirillо uѕеd аѕ a university ѕtudеnt.

The Pomodoro tесhniԛuе helps you асhiеvе the following:

  • Imрrоvе efficiency
  • Kеер away from diѕtrасtiоns and fосuѕ оn thе task аt hand
  • Imрrоvе timе-ѕеnѕе
  • Eliminаtе ѕtrеѕѕ burnоutѕ
  • Assist in аnаlуzing timе taken fоr tаѕkѕ

Hоw thе Pоmоdоrо Tесhniԛuе wоrkѕ

Thе Pоmоdоrо Technique rеgulаtеѕ when to diligеntlу fосuѕ оn a tаѕk аnd whеn you ѕhоuld take a brеаthеr.

This tесhniԛuе iѕ centered аrоund brеаking your timе down into роmоdоri (one Pomodoro iѕ еԛuаl tо 25 minutеѕ). You lоg a ѕресifiс tаѕk уоu are going tо work on and thеn ѕрrint уоur wау thrоugh thаt роmоdоrо. Aftеr 25 minutes of dеdiсаtеd wоrk, the timеr gоеѕ off аnd уоu tаkе a nice 5-minute brеаk frоm your wоrk.

Once your brеаk is over, уоu ѕtаrt аnоthеr 25 minutе long Pomodoro. This new роmоdоrо саn be dedicated tо thе ѕаmе tаѕk аѕ bеfоrе (if уоu did not complete it during thе previous роmоdоrо) оr a new оnе. Aftеr every 4 роmоdоri (рlurаl fоr роmоdоrо), уоu саn tаkе a lоngеr break, if уоu would like (ѕuсh аѕ fоr 15 minutеѕ).

While уоu’rе wоrking уоur way thrоugh a роmоdоrо, уоu can temporally interrupt it for uр to 45 seconds, if need bе. If thе interruption lаѕt fоr longer thаn thаt, уоur dеdiсаtеd fосuѕ оn thе mаin tаѕk iѕ viewed to bе lоѕt, аnd thuѕ thе Pomodoro iѕ rеѕеt (having tо ѕtаrt over at 25 minutеѕ) again.

Thе dеfаultѕ of 25 minutеѕ реr роmоdоrо, 5 minutеѕ реr rеgulаr breaks, 15 minutеѕ реr lоngеr break, and 45 ѕесоndѕ реr intеrruрtiоn seem to wоrk wеll for me аnd most people I knоw whо’vе triеd thiѕ hаndу tесhniԛuе оut. Hоwеvеr, that said, thоѕе arbitrary аllоtmеntѕ оf timе саn bе сhаngеd dереnding оn уоu реrѕоnаl hаbitѕ and ѕсhеdulе, ѕо аѕ lоng as уоu consistently ѕtiсk with thе аllоtmеntѕ thаt уоu’vе lаid оut. Fоr example, ѕоmе реорlе may prefer to wоrk “in the zоnе” for 50 minutеѕ, аnd then tаkе a 10 minutе break.

Why the Pomodoro Technique works

It is common experience that we can focus on a given task only for a short period of time before we get distracted (or seek out distractions). The Pomodoro technique helps to quantify and manage those focus periods. If you know you have to work for just 25-minutes, and then you can surf the web or check Facebook guilt-free, you will be more inclined to put in those 25 minutes of focused work. And you can get a lot done with 25 minutes of focus!

This technique has been a game-changer for me in terms of my productivity. As I discussed in the Day-In-The-Life blog post, I start my workday with at least 2 Pomodoros of focused work (which is almost one hour), and then I am free for the rest of the day to attend meetings, do some mundane tasks, socialize, or just goof off, because I have done the most important tasks for the day already.

The Pоmоdоrо Tесhniԛuе fоrсеѕ me to think in tеrmѕ of асtiоnѕ that nееdѕ tо bе tаkеn in order tо еffесtivеlу gеt things dоnе. It also imроѕеѕ thаt I рriоritizе аnd dесidе whiсh асtiоn I’m gоing to work оn. By hеlрing tо limit my аttеntiоn ѕраn tо a ѕinglе activity, thiѕ tесhniԛuе аidеѕ me in ѕtауing focused (instead of hopping between a handful оf diffеrеnt tаѕkѕ аnd/оr diѕtrасtiоnѕ).

Rеviѕiting my dаilу Pomodoro lоgѕ highlights whеrе I spend my timе аnd hоw рrоduсtivе I was thrоughоut a given timе period.

I now think of my tasks in terms of thе number оf роmоdоri thаt a givеn tаѕk might rеԛuirе. I diѕсоvеred that еvеn сhаllеnging tаѕkѕ саn оftеn bе tаkеn care оf in a handful of pomodori ѕеѕѕiоnѕ.

Try out the technique and let me know if it works for you. Drop me an email at hello@amrutaranade.com. And don’t forget to subscribe!

P.S: Here’s my favorite Pomodoro playlist:

 

The Academic Life in Tech Comm

Since I published the Frequently Asked Questions blog post, I have received several questions about what the academic life in Technical Communication looks like. Instead of me answering the question from my limited perspective and experience, I thought it best to share resources that give some insight into the academic life in Tech Comm:

Life at a Teaching School by Ashley Patriarca (@aspatriarca)

Reflections on Finishing a Technical Communication Graduate Program by Fer O’Neil

Expertise and Service by Michele Simmons and Pat Sullivan

Strategies for Writing Every Day by Kristen Moore

A Preview of the Luncheon, Sort Of by Lisa Meloncon

Cloud platforms for beginners

In the last post, we learned about how the internet works. This week, let’s build on that knowledge to learn about cloud computing. But before that, we need to discuss data centers:

Next, we need to understand virtualization:

Now we can learn about cloud computing:

Finally, let’s learn about two popular cloud computing platforms: Amazon Web Services (AWS) and DigitalOcean:

 

 

 

 

Getting Things Done as a Knowledge Worker

I often imagine myself greeting my tech writing students as they graduate and enter the technical communication workplace. I imagine myself saying to them, “Welcome to the professional world. You have now graduated from being a tech writing student to a knowledge worker. And the key to succeeding in this role is not writing well, or being a good team player, but knowing what work to do.”

You see, in your days as a student, you knew what work was to be done that had pre-determined success metrics. You had set courses, with defined assignments and grading rubrics. You knew if your work was finished or not, and if you met the success criteria or not.

However, in the professional world, you will not be given a well-defined assignment. Instead, you will be given a “project” – a fluid, ever-changing best-guess scenarios developed by others in the organization. The success metrics are not defined either. As David Allen puts it, “There is usually no right answers; there are choices instead”.

As a technical writer, this is the part of the job I struggled with the most. With a never-ending stream of emails and Slack messages, changing roadmaps and company priorities, I was drowning in an information overload. I couldn’t get a handle on all the things that need to be done, let alone actually doing the tasks. At a time, I was juggling three highly technical projects that each required a considerable amount of brainpower and writes and rewrites. On the brink of a breakdown, I found David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (affiliate link). The book has been my savior. It has led to massive increase in my productivity and helped me maintain my sanity.

The Concept of Stress-Free Productivity

Anxiety quickly builds up when we begin to think about all the tasks we have to complete each day. It’s impossible to rely on our brains to remember it all!  The Getting Things Done (GTD) strategy works on the premise of relieving our brains of the stress of remembering all that needs to be done by appropriately capturing everything in writing.

Capturing this information in what is dubbed our “external brain” allows us to be fully focused on what we’re doing in the present moment. This increases efficiency and creativity.

My GTD workflow

GTD Workflow
My GTD Workflow

Develop the 4 Vital Habits for GTD Success

Applying GTD effectively requires more than just recording your to-do list. Making the GTD system truly work for you means embracing the following essential habits: capturing/collecting, daily processing, organizing, and weekly reviewing.

Capturing: Record ideas immediately. Keep notepads in places you frequent, make use of your smartphone’s virtual assistant (such as Siri or Cortona), or create a bullet journal. This helps your brain release the pressure of having to hold on to something to try to remember it. This ultimately releases your mental space so that you can focus on the present.

Daily Processing: Schedule time at the end of each day where you review each captured item and determine if you want to carry out the idea. If you do, you then need to determine the subsequent actions that must be taken.  Actions that require extensive attention should be added to a project list.

Organizing: Actions that can be completed in 2 minutes or less should be further categorized into calendar lists, next actions lists, and follow-up lists. Calendar lists are for time-specific items. Next actions are important, but don’t need to be done within a specified time-frame. Follow-up list items are those that are dependent on additional information or actions from another individual.

Weekly Reviewing: Schedule about an hour at the end of each week to check the progress of your task completion. Reflect on where you see yourself in the next 3 to 5 years. Think about the projects and tasks that will help you accomplish that vision. Prioritize the action items that must be accomplished in the following week to make this vision real.

Reward Yourself

The GTD productivity strategy may seem like more work than you’re prepared to do. Hard work deserves a reward. Treat yourself to something you like at the end of your weekly review. The trick is that you can only effectively complete that weekly review to get the treat. Approaching your weekly review this way increases your motivation to get it done.

Bonus resource: An excellent YouTube video that discusses the GTD method:

 

 

So there you have it: the secret to my productivity and success as a technical writer. Next week, we will discuss another of my favorite productivity tools – the Pomodoro technique. Subscribe to stay tuned!

 

Masters in Technical Communication: Frequently Asked Questions

Last Monday, I asked you to send me your questions about pursuing a Masters in Technical Communication in the United States. Thank you for the incredible response to the blog post. Following is my attempt to collate and answer the frequently asked questions from my limited perspective as an International student in Missouri S&T’s Tech Comm grad program. Let’s start with the most repeated question:

Job prospects after graduation?

As an international student, if you are looking for a conventional, user documentation-oriented tech writing job, the prospects are quite dim. Think about it from the US companies’ perspective – they have access to native English speakers who they can hire without any visa hassles. Why would they hire us (non-native English speakers) who have just one year of work authorization after graduation? It does not make business sense. Also, to be fair, they need to give preference to their citizens, just like we would want to have preference in our home countries.

The goal of pursuing a Masters degree, not only in Technical Communication, but in general, needs to be reconsidered. The conventional reason for completing a Masters degree as a pathway to a job in the US and earning in dollars is becoming irrelevant by the day. Yes, it is still possible, but in different ways than before. The industry is maturing and is becoming very specific in its requirements. It is also branching out at an astounding rate.

So let’s reframe the question: Which skills and experiences can help me become a valuable contributor to an organization so that they find it worthwhile to invest in me and take a chance on me? Now that’s a better question.

Here’s how me and my coursemates tried to answer it:

  • Over the course of my career, I developed expertise in the niche and deeply-technical domain of software architecture documents. I proactively sought out challenging technical communication positions, especially at startups,  and built a strong portfolio around it. I maintained my interest in the changing technological landscape by contributing to open source projects and participating in on-campus engineering projects. And I never burned any bridges – the professional rapport and reputation I developed at Druva while working in Pune led to a summer internship in our California campus. And that internship prepared me for my current position at Cockroach Labs in New York. So my answer to the question of how to become a valuable member of an organization: Find your niche and develop expertise in it.
  • One of my coursemates leveraged the teaching assistantship experience into the position of a Technical Writing Instructor at another university.
  • Two of my acquaintances at other universities have enrolled in Ph.D. programs in Tech Comm. The academic positions in technical communication are competitive, yet highly viable.
  • I have met international students who have leveraged their academic careers into opportunities in allied fields such as usability and accessibility, human-computer interaction, international communication, medical and scientific communication, wearable tech comm, VR comm, and so on.

What about campus placements?

In my experience, campus placements are non-existent for technical communication students – especially international students. Don’t rely on campus placements.

What are the living costs of pursuing a Masters degree in the US?

The cost of pursuing a degree in the United States varies drastically depending on the location of the university, financial assistance you get from the university, and the program you choose.

The university I went to – Missouri S&T – is located in a small university town called Rolla, which is at a two-hour drive from the nearest city (St. Louis). It is a quiet little town with not much to do, but my living expenses were a fraction of my friends’ expenses who lived in major cities like Chicago and New York. I had comfortable accommodation in a shared house where I had my own room and bathroom, and it cost me $750 per month. Add to that groceries, utilities, internet, etc. and my total monthly expenses figured around $1250. I got paid $1600 per month as stipend for being a Teaching Assistant.

I would recommend going to university in a small town to keep the cost low, and move to a big city for work after you graduate.

Can I do part-time job outside of the college campus? If yes, how many hours per week can I work?

Not in the first year. In the second year, you can do a part-time internship for up to 20 hours per week. But that has to be related to your field.

Is it worth doing an online degree?

Yes, if your company pays for it. For instance, back when I was working at Symantec, they had a policy of funding a major chunk of an online degree. If your company provides similar benefits, definitely consider taking advantage of them.

Is it worth taking out a student loan for a Masters degree?

No. Absolutely not. I would not recommend taking out an education loan for any degree, not just a Tech Comm degree. But good Tech Comm grad programs do have financial assistance available, so if you get decent funding, then I would highly recommend pursuing a Masters degree.

Changing fields and moving to tech writing: Is the degree worth it? Am I eligible?

I think so. None of my coursemates had any background in technical writing. They all came from different backgrounds: HR, English, BioScience, to name a few. They chose the degree because they wanted to move into a practical, job-fetching field. And they found their own paths after earning their Masters. So I have seen it done, but it will be up to you to figure out how to make the most of your degree.

What about the scary political climate?

If you are on social media or listen to the news, the current political climate in the US definitely sounds scary. But in my experience, it does not affect my everyday life. The people in my life – be it in Missouri, California, or New York – are the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met. Yes, there’s racism and sexism, but it’s similar to the casteism and economic discrimination in India. The upheaval you hear about now is not unlike the upheaval we experienced in our previous election. This is democracy in action, and many good people are fighting the good fight. Don’t let the news and fear-mongering scare you away from experiencing a vibrant and evolving culture.

To summarize my thoughts:

  • Pursue a Masters degree in Technical Communication after you have considerable experience in the field already. Find out if you really like the field, which parts of it do you like the most, and build your expertise in those areas. Then seek a degree that helps you specialize in those areas.
  • Secure scholarship and financial assistance at an accredited university.
  • Be open to opportunities and allied fields that you might not have even heard of till you enter the academic circles of tech comm – I certainly hadn’t! Consider fields like communication in medical sciences, or usability and accessibility, or data science. Or consider an academic career (definitely on my horizon).
  • Your goal should be to step out of the comfort zone, experience living in a different culture and country, contribute to projects you deeply care about, and open your mind to global issues and perspectives.
  • At any point in time, be ready to go back to your home country – and be grateful we have a safe and welcoming country to go back to. Everyone’s not that blessed. (Side note: Volunteer or donate to organizations that work with refugees. We all need to help in any way possible).

If you have any follow-up questions or comments, feel free to drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com. And don’t forget to subscribe!

Day-in-the-life of a Technical Writer

In January, we discussed how to get a job in technical writing: how to search for a job, craft your resume, write a cover letter, and build your portfolio. Graduates of professional technical communicator programs tend to have a sense of ambivalence about what to expect in their new careers. Several questions flood their minds. Is the work world really like the picture my lecturers have painted it out to be? What can I expect? What should I really be looking for? This article chronicles a day in my life as a technical communicator. I hope that sharing my experiences will help you better understand what to expect when you enter the real world.

Starting the day right

Preparation for my workday begins the night before. I follow the Getting Things Done (affiliate link) method by David Allen for planning out my week and workdays (detailed blog post here). By the end of my planning session, I know the meetings I have the next day, which deliverables are due (if any), and what documentation project I need to focus on that day. I juggle several projects, so it’s important to have a focus project for each day to reduce context-switching.

I then break down the focus project into tasks I need to get done that day. Some of these tasks include: meeting people to get information, drafting, editing, reviewing and publishing.

This night-before preparation helps me start my day right. My morning routine begins with a nice, relaxing cup of coffee, cereal with oats, nuts, and apples/bananas, getting ready for work, and a half-hour commute.

Deep Work

I am lucky to work at a company that understands that every individual has different work environment and timing preferences, and encourages us to figure out a schedule that works best for us. For me, I love getting my writing tasks done in the morning even before I reach the office. Most workdays, I go to my favorite cafe at Union Square, get myself a Chai Latte, and put in an hour of Deep Work (affiliate link) (detailed blog post here). In this hour, I work on tasks that require a fresh mind and focus: drafting a technical document or studying how a piece of technology works. I time myself in Pomodoros (detailed blog post here). Once I get at least 2 Pomodoros of the most important task of the day done, I walk to my office at around 11 AM.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve
View from my favorite writing place in NYC (Peet’s Coffee – Cap One at Union Square)

At the Office

The first thing I do when I arrive in the office is pour myself a large glass of water and sift through emails and Slack messages. I adjust my task list based on these emails and messages, if required.

I then do some “shallow work” for an hour at noon. Shallow work includes editing something I had written before, processing GitHub issues, and publishing stuff to our Docs site.

At around 1 PM, I have lunch and check my emails and forums such as Reddit and Hackernews. All my meetings are usually post-lunch. This is the time to socialize, meet my colleagues, discuss work projects with them, get information, and so on. The 1 PM to 4 PM time slot is when my energy is the lowest in the day. So, I don’t do any writing tasks then. I leave work around 5 PM and head home for another Deep Work sprint.

Free Fridays

At Cockroach Labs, we have a thing called Free Fridays, which basically means you can do whatever you choose to do. You can continue working on your work projects, or put work is placed on the back burner and work on any personal projects, or just take the day off. I usually do my most difficult writing tasks at home on Fridays, and also get in an hour at the gym.

This is just a basic outline of my work day. Each technical writer may have a different experience. Following are some day-in-the-life blogs of other technical writers that I found interesting. I hope that sharing my routine and the routine of other technical writers gives you a clearer picture of what it is like to work in the industry:

https://heroictechwriting.com/2017/11/13/whats-a-day-in-the-life-of-a-technical-writer-really-like/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2007/12/21/could-you-please-tell-me-what-the-job-of-a-technical-writer-is-like/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2016/09/02/the-never-ending-list-of-tasks-to-complete/

https://kaiweber.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/a-day-in-a-tech-writers-life/

Now that we have discussed what a technical writing job looks like on a daily basis, let’s move on to how to succeed at a technical writing job. In my opinion, the most important skill for a technical writer is figuring out the scope of work and planning it well. And that’s what we will discuss in detail in next Wednesday’s blog post. Subscribe to stay tuned!