I am back from my very first Write The Docs (WTD) conference in Portland. I represented Cockroach Labs at the Writing Day. We set up our project for open source contributions and the response was amazing! And we were in good company – the other open source Writing Day projects included Kubernetes, Write The Docs, and Netlify. I also met up with Mike Lewis from GitLab and had a productive discussion about their open source contribution process. To summarize, I am pumped up about all things open source docs, and want to share all I learned with you!
Which brings me to an exciting announcement: I am teaming up with Information Developers Foundation to conduct a webinar about “Contributing docs to open source projects”. This is a topic I am passionate about because I have benefited immensely from working with open source projects. But my pet peeve is that while everyone agrees that contributing to open source is a great idea, nobody really talks about how to actually go about it. What is an open source project? How do you get started with one? What do you need to know to make meaningful contributions? What are the things to look out for, or things not to do? I intend to answer all these questions and also walk you through a few open source projects I personally like. So join me on May 19 at 8:30 PM IST to discuss how to contribute to open source projects. Here’s the registration link:
Also, feel free to send in any questions or topic suggestions you might have and I will try to answer them in the webinar:
In April, I had the privilege of sharing with you the day-in-the-life posts from four inspiring technical writers. To wrap up the series, I wanted to do something special. Which is why I made my very first day-in-my-life vlog! Here it is for your viewing pleasure:
Don’t forget to check out the day-in-the-life posts of our amazing guests:
Bart Leahy: Day in the life of a freelance technical writer (who previously worked at NASA and Disney)
Jason Tham: Life of a PhD student in Technical Communication
Swapnil Ogale: Day in the life of a contract technical writer in Australia
Larry Kunz: Day in the life of a technical writing veteran
Special announcement: There will be no post next week because I will be at the Write The Docs conference. However, I am planning to live-tweet the conference. Follow me on Twitter to keep up with the live updates!
The last post in this month’s series of guest posts is by Larry Kunz, a technical writing pro for 39 years! I have been a follower of Larry’s insightful blog for quite some time now, and it is an honor for me to have Larry share his perspective here on my blog. So let’s get to it! Here’s Larry’s post:
I’ve worked in technical writing, and in closely related fields, like project management or marketing, for almost 39 years. Today I’m a Lead Technical Writer at Extreme Networks.
We make and sell equipment for data networks — switches, routers, wireless access points — and the software that controls them. I write the documentation for installing, customizing, and maintaining the physical equipment.
You might’ve heard that technical writing is humdrum, that we do the same work day in and day out. That isn’t my experience.
One of the things I love about working in technical writing, in fact, is that every day is unique. We serve our employers and our customers in so many ways, and we use so many processes and tools, that every day presents new variety.
Let me show you what I mean, by stepping through a day in my life.
Knowing the technology
You might’ve heard that technical writers only need to know the basics of the technologies they work with. That isn’t my experience.
Today I’ll read the design specs for a new product the company hopes to introduce. I’ll read with two purposes in mind: to learn about the product, and to return comments to the designer if anything seems out of whack or is unclear. I might challenge the author to explain the app in terms that a customer would understand — to help me (and the customer I represent) understand how to use the app, not how the app works.
Working on teams
You might’ve heard that technical writing is a solitary profession — that you spend most of the time by yourself. That isn’t my experience.
Today I’ll meet with a software designer to get a big-picture understanding of a new app that customers will use to monitor our equipment. I’ll visit the hardware lab, where one of our test engineers will show me how our new switches are cabled together. In both cases, my colleague will help me gain the understanding I’ll need to describe our products to our customers.
You might’ve heard that technical writers aren’t respected by subject-matter experts, or accepted as colleagues. That isn’t my experience.
Today I’ll meet with three colleagues from Engineering, one from Tech Support, and one from Marketing to discuss a white paper I’m developing. This particular piece was inspired by something a customer wrote on the company’s user forum. It looked so good that I suggested touching it up and publishing it on the company website. But now, questions have arisen about whether its recommendations are in sync with the company’s overall marketing themes. I’m sure we’ll have a lively discussion, with each constituency being heard before I try to lead the group to consensus.
Solving problems creatively
You might’ve heard that technical writing isn’t a creative endeavor. That isn’t my experience.
Today I have to write instructions for mounting switches in a rack, when three different switch models come with three different mounting brackets. Some of the steps will be common to all three models, but some will vary. Making each step clear and not leaving anything out will require cleverness and imagination. It’ll require creativity.
Creativity is the art of solving problems, whether the problem is how to paint the creation of Adam on a curved surface (as it was for Michelangelo) or how to document the best way to mount three switch models with different mounting brackets. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that I have even a tiny fraction of Michelangelo’s genius or talent. But I’m saying that he would recognize the creative process involved in doing the job of a technical writer.
A new day tomorrow
After a day of delving into technical details, of talking – and leading a conversation – with subject-matter experts, of solving problems creatively, I’ll rest up for tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s tasks will be different. I’ll post the final, approved version of a Hardware Configuration Guide. I’ll meet with the team that maintains the Confluence wiki we use to communicate throughout the Tech Pubs organization. Since I hold a senior-level position within my team, I’ll also be helping to rewrite the template our organization uses for documentation plans.
See what I mean? Every day is different. But every day makes use of my technical knowledge, every day has me working on teams, and every day gives me a chance to solve problems creatively.
Is technical writing the life for you?
This is the first post in the guest post series announced previously. Today’s guest blogger is Bart Leahy, a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. His diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, small businesses, nonprofits, and the Science Cheerleaders. His blog, Heroic Technical Writing, discusses the business end of technical communication. I have been following Bart’s blog almost since the beginning of my career and have found his blog incredibly helpful. Here’s Bart:
One thing I’ve learned about the freelance life is that there is rarely such a thing as a “typical day,” especially when you have multiple clients.
I’ve had company in town for the past week or so. Before they arrived, I did my best to get ahead of the curve on work for my primary client so I could play in the theme parks. Company left Tuesday, however, bringing me back to reality supporting other customers.
So Tuesday’s “typical day” looked something like this:
I’ve been helping the Science Cheerleaders gear up for the USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF) in Washington, DC, next month. The Science Cheerleaders are current and former pro and college cheerleaders pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Their presence at USASEF includes signing trading cards (akin to baseball cards) for the Festival attendees. My technical writing task was to review and update the personal information on the cheerleaders’ cards: name, team, degrees, reasons they chose STEM careers, etc. Once everyone has approved her personal info, that information is handed off to the graphic designer to make the cards. As the cards are created, I’ll do some back-and-forth editing before they go to the printer.
Another side job I have is journalism for a space industry news blog called Spaceflight Insider. In this case, I volunteered to write a story about NASA and other space agencies releasing a new set of standards for future space missions. Using the NASA press release as a starting point, I translated the Engineerish into English, explained what the standards meant, and incorporated relevant and links to related stories. Once I submit my story into the approval queue, one of the editors will review the story for clarity, style, mechanics, and technical accuracy (space fans/readers are notoriously meticulous about catching any error of fact or citation).
Lastly I checked in with another aerospace client, Advanced Space, who had two or three short proposals due Wednesday. I reviewed those Tuesday night until 10:30 or so and finished Wednesday morning before heading off to a mid-afternoon doctor’s appointment. On those proposals, I reviewed some highly technical content, mostly for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. However, because I’m familiar enough with the company’s content, they trust me to review it for general understanding/flow as well. When I find content or wording that appears confusing, I leave a comment in the margins of the Google Drive document for one of the engineers to handle. My primary business contacts are with the CEO for work assignments and the business manager for invoicing questions or issues.
In the midst of all that, I also wrote the first draft of this blog during the 7-8 p.m. hour.
I recently tried to set my office hours to a more regular 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern Time, but obviously reality sometimes causes those hours to shift. I can’t control what a “typical day” looks like, but I can at least try to enforce when that day happens, right? It’s important to do your work well when you get it, but it’s important to have a life, outside of work too. Good luck with that.
Since January 2018, I have been blogging thrice a week about pursuing a Masters in Technical Communication, being a Technical Writer, and becoming “more technical”. However, all the posts were based solely on my experience, thereby providing only my limited perspective about the field of technical communication. I wanted to know more about others’ experiences and provide diverse perspectives on the blog. So I invited the technical communicators that I have admired and learned from over the years, to share their experiences on this blog, and they accepted my invitation!
Hence in April, I am tuning down the frequency of my posts from thrice a week to once a week to focus the spotlight on our guest bloggers each week. Here’s the schedule:
April 4: Bart Leahy – Former technical writer at NASA and Disney, currently freelancing. In his post, Bart gives us a sneak peek into the day-in-the-life of a freelancer juggling multiple projects.
April 11: Jason Tham – A student pursuing a Ph.D. in Technical Communication. In his post, Jason gives us an insight into the collaborative projects in technical communication across academia, service, research, and publishing.
April 18: Swapnil Ogale – A technical writer in Australia, Swapnil shares a day in his life as a contract technical writer in Australia.
April 25: Larry Kunz – A veteran technical writer with 30 years of experience, he is a treasurehouse of knowledge!
I am so excited to share their knowledge and insights with you! Stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe.
After last week’s post about Docs FixIt Day at Cockroach Labs, I received several requests asking me to suggest open source projects that people can contribute docs to. As far as I know, almost all open source projects accept docs contributions. The following list includes some open source projects I find interesting:
- Mermaid (Docs: https://github.com/mermaidjs/mermaidjs.github.io)
- Typo 3 Documentation
- OpenStack Docs
- Microsoft Docs
If you have any favorite docs-friendly open source projects, tell me about them in the comments. And don’t forget to subscribe!
Update 1: Suggestions from the community:
Update 2: Came across this article: Open Source Maintainers Owe You Nothing, which I thought was a mandatory read for anyone who wants to contribute to open source projects. It is important to remember that developers and maintainers of open source projects usually work on these projects on their own time and dime, and it is not their responsibility to help us understand how the project works. We need to put in our own efforts, read all available documentation, learn about the project on our own, before we ask for their help.
This week, I interrupt your regularly scheduled programming of technical writing techniques to brag about the incredible people I work with, who exemplify a company-wide culture of good documentation.
Let me give you some context: As most of you know, I work as a Senior Technical Writer at Cockroach Labs. For a major product release coming up in April, we had around 163 open issues to be documented for the release. Some of the issues were big-ticket items while a considerable number of issues were small but time-consuming fixes. It wasn’t humanly possible for our team of 4 technical writers to document all the issues before April. While brainstorming possible strategies to complete the documentation tasks, we thought of enlisting the help of our fellow Roachers* to contribute to our docs. The Engineering team had previously organized a successful Bugs FixIt Day, so we decided to replicate their model and announced a Docs FixIt Day.
We planned and prepped for days – announcing the Docs FixIt Day at the weekly team meeting, sorting through the issues and marking the ones we thought the engineers can take up, and of course arranging for snacks. Our fearless leader, Jesse Seldess, brought delicious Babka, and my fellow tech writer, Lauren, baked out-of-the-world, drool-worthy cookies.
We started the day with Jesse’s “Getting Started with Docs” presentation. He discussed the purpose of the FixIt Day, walked the engineers through the Docs toolset (GitHub and Jekyll), and announced the prizes – a Docs-team authored poem** and an Amazon gift card. The prizes would be given to the person who resolved the most Docs issues, and also to the person who resolved the Docs issue with the biggest impact.
We had 24 people in attendance for the kickoff session – in office as well as remotely. At the start of the day, we had 83 open issues marked as FixItDay. The participants included interns, engineers, engineering managers, and our CEO as well! They self-assigned the issues they wanted to work on and wrote docs all through the day till 6 PM. The last I checked on the day, we had 52 open PRs ! And people were contributing PRs even after that, so the final count might have been higher. (IMO, Jesse deserves an award for reviewing all the PRs).
To say the day was a success is an understatement. Not only did we get a big chunk of our documentation done, but the event also fostered cross-functional team collaboration. The engineers’ enthusiasm was infectious – they were totally invested and involved in the whole Docs process. We had given them the option of either working on the Docs end-to-end (as in they write, edit, revise the content), or just provide the raw content and the Docs team takes over the PR for them. But almost all engineers opted to complete the docs themselves, asking us for assistance with our GitHub process and SQL diagram generators and so on. This gave them a chance to understand the Docs toolset and they voluntarily helped us figure out how we can optimize the toolchain.
I have never been prouder to be a part of a company as I am now. As a technical writer, I am intensely aware of how big of an anomaly our company culture is. In most companies, docs are added as an afterthought and technical writers are considered a pesky annoyance. At Cockroach Labs, however, the importance of good, sound documentation is deeply ingrained in our DNA. And that is evident in all forms of documentation we produce – RFCs, user docs, training materials, or even meeting notes. That is also evident from the fact that we already have a team of 4 technical writers for a team of around 35-40 engineers, when it is not unheard of at other companies to have one technical writer for 120 engineers. It is a privilege to work at a company where people genuinely care about good documentation and are willing to do everything they can to ensure we maintain the quality documentation we have. And I am thankful to be a part of an immensely talented team that is rooted in our core values: “Aim High and Build to Last”.
You can check out the awesome work our team did for Docs FixIt Day here.
*Roachers n. People who work at Cockroach Labs
**Poems written to express our appreciation for our peers is a time-honored tradition at Cockroach Labs.
As an engineer-turned-tech writer, I have repeatedly heard “Writing is so hard; how do you do it?” and “Anyone can write”. Both statements are fallacious. Yes, anyone can write, but not everyone can write well. And yes, writing is hard, and it is made harder by the romanticized notions of inspiration striking, wooden cabins in the middle of nowhere, and solitude.
In reality, writing is a methodical, multi-step process. In this blog post, I attempt to break down my technical writing process so as to demystify it and hopefully make you think about your own process. The following image depicts my writing workflow for any technical document:
As the image shows, my writing workflow consists of four phases:
Phase One: Research
My research phase consists of the following steps.
- Use the Cornell Note-taking System to briefly record the key points gathered from sources (reading materials, talking to engineers, attending meetings, and so on).
- Use the Feynman technique to ensure that you understand the information.
- Setup CockroachDB.
- Try out the feature being written about.
Phase Two: Draft
I use the 5-draft method while writing documents.
Phase Three: Editing and Reviews
Once I am satisfied with the rough draft, I edit my document using several techniques. Each technique helps uncover and correct different facets of the document:
- Grammarly: Check spelling, grammar, adherence to technical writing conventions
- Text-to-speech: I use the text-to-speech feature on my Macbook Pro to listen to the document. It helps me catch awkward sentence constructions, missing words, and so on.
- Elements of Style: This little book sits on my desk and reminds me of my personal pitfalls/repeated mistakes. I have earmarked the style guidelines that I know I forget. Going through the book helps me ensure I am not repeating my mistakes.
- Style guide: I go through the company style guide to ensure I adhered to it.
Once I am done self-editing, I open a Pull Request in GitHub which enables others to review my document. My review process is iterative, wherein my draft goes through technical and editorial reviews multiple times before it can be published. At Cockroach Labs, our engineers and other stakeholders (Product Managers, Sales, etc.) review the document for technical accuracy and completeness, and my manager and fellow technical writers review the document for editorial as well as technical completeness and correctness. The perks of working at a company that is deeply interested in good documentation 🙂
Phase Four: Publish
Once the reviews are done and everyone gives the LGTM (Looks Good To Me), it’s time to merge the document on GitHub and celebrate! Check out my Git profile here.
Try out the process, form your own, and share it with me at email@example.com. And don’t forget to subscribe!
Bonus: I track the various phases of each document in my bullet journal:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you think of it. And don’t forget to subscribe!
Book summary: https://fourminutebooks.com/deep-work-summary/