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!

 

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!

Everyday Tech Jargon

In January, we focused on building our tech skillset:

Now that you have familiarized yourself with the basic architecture and programming of apps and websites, you might want to scale your app, host it on a cloud platform, and deploy it on a orchestration platforms such as containers. Sounds daunting? That’s because it is.

Yet that is what deeply-technical writers do at their everyday jobs. The technologically complex products that our companies develop do not work in isolation. These products are used in an even more technologically complex environment. And to document these products well, it is imperative to understand the ecosystem they are used in. For instance, to document CockroachDB, me and my fellow technical writers at Cockroach Labs need to learn how to deploy CockroachDB on AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, and how to use orchestration technologies such as Kubernetes and Docker. And we have to evolve our knowledge in parallel with the evolving technological landscape.

This can definitely seem daunting for a beginner tech writer, and rightly so. But the important thing to remember is you can never familiarize yourself with all the technology out there – no one can. What you can do, however, is become comfortable with the technology and its ever-evolving nature. In my experience, learning how to learn is the mandatory skill for a technologically-literate writer.

To that end, let’s familiarize ourselves with the common tech jargon that forms the everyday vernacular of developers. Understanding these technical concepts will help you to communicate better with the developers and take on technically challenging documentation projects with confidence. This month’s resources will discuss:

  • How does the internet work? (Scheduled for 02/09/2018)
  • Cloud computing for beginners (What is cloud computing? Introduction to AWS and DigitalOcean) (Scheduled for 02/16/2018)
  • Containers for beginners (What are containers? Introduction to Kubernetes) (Scheduled for 02/23/2018)

Building your technical writing portfolio

A portfolio of relevant and professional technical writing samples can be the deal-sealer while applying for technical writing jobs. Check out the following posts from Tom Johnson’s for ideas to build your tech writing portfolio:

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/18/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-1-learn-the-basics-of-technical-writing/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/19/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-2-get-real-experience-doing-technical-writing/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/20/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-3-learn-some-tools/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/21/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-4-put-together-a-portfolio/

Bonus tip:

For every sample document you create, add a cover letter that describes what the document is about, who’s the audience for the document, which tools you used, and which of you skills does the document demonstrate.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process, but the techniques here might be useful for other students as well.

A cover letter is an essential component of your job application that helps you discuss why you should be considered for the position and demonstrates your communication skills.

The keys to a good letter are selectivity and results.

  • Select two or three points of greatest interest to the potential employer and develop them into paragraphs.
  • Emphasize results.

Elements of a cover letter:

  • Introductory paragraph:
    • Identify your source of information: State about how you heard about the position.
    • Identify the position you are interested in.
    • State that you wish to apply for the position.
    • Choose a few phrases that forecast the body of the letter so that the rest of the letter flows smoothly.
  • Education paragraph:
    • Focus on the courses, projects, and extra-curricular activities that are relevant to the job you are applying for.
    • Discuss the skills and knowledge gained from advanced coursework in your major field.
    • If you haven’t already specified your major and your college or university in the introductory paragraph, be sure to include that here.
  • Employment paragraph:
    • Like the education paragraph, the employment paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and develop into a single idea.
    • Choose only the relevant employment experience.
  • Concluding paragraph:
    • A reference to your resume
    • A polite but confident request for an interview
    • Your phone number and email address

Examples of good cover letters:

http://www.ccp.rpi.edu/resources/careers-and-graduate-school/cover-letters/

Update: As Larry Kunz (technical writer extraordinaire) advised in the comment below, the first sample is of the appropriate length, but the second one is longer than optimal.

Good resource:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/698/01/

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Crafting your technical writing resume

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process, but the techniques here might be useful for other students as well.

In this blog post, let’s discuss how to craft your technical writing resume.

The most important thing to remember is that your resume is NOT your autobiography. The recruiter does not need to know all that you have done or achieved in your life so far. They have a limited amount of time to go through hundreds of resumes. Your job is to make it easy for them to select your resume from the massive pile in front of them. Use your resume as a rhetorical tool to present concise, clear, to-the-point facts about why you are a good candidate for the position. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about what the company’s looking for.

Know Thyself

Before you start writing your resume, take a pen and paper, and do a self-inventory:

  • What courses do you like?
  • What type of organization would you like to work for?
  • What are your geographical preferences?
  • What is your employment history?
  • What professional organizations/associations do you belong to?
  • What social/extracurricular organizations/activities do you associate with?
  • What are your accomplishments/honors/awards?
  • What software/hardware/technical skills do you have?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Know your audience

In the previous post, we discussed why it’s important to customize your job application materials for each job you apply for. I am aware of the fact that this is an inefficient method of job application. But I have a workaround: Create a base resume based on the self-inventory, and then tweak it for every job you apply for.

Build your base resume

In his textbook, “Technical Communication”, Mike Markel discusses the  essential components of a resume:

Identifying information

  • Full name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Link to LinkedIn profile

Objective

Education

Include the following elements in the education section:

  • The degree
  • The institution
  • The location of the institution
  • The date of graduation
  • Information about other schools you attended
  • Your grade-point average
  • List of relevant courses

Employment history

Present at least basic information about every job you held:

  • Dates of employment
  • Organization’s name and location
  • Your position or title

Add carefully selected details of your job and experience. Provide at least a one-line description for each position. For particularly important or relevant jobs, present the following details:

  • Skills: What technical skills did you use on the job?
  • Equipment: What equipment did you operate or oversee?
  • Money: How much money were you responsible for?
  • Documents: What important documents did you write or assist in writing?
  • Personnel: How many people did you supervise or work with?
  • Clients: What kinds of, and how many, clients did you do business with in representing your organization?

Note:

  • Be specific when you write your experiences on a resume.
  • Whenever possible, emphasize results.
  • When you describe positions, functions, or responsibilities, use the active voice. The active voice highlights action.
  • Practice your bulleted lists.
  • Use the form .
  • If you have not held a professional position, list the jobs you have held, even if they are unrelated to your career plans. If the job title is self-explanatory, like waitperson or service-station attendant, don’t elaborate. If you can write that you contributed to your tuition or expenses, such as by earning 50 percent of your annual expenses through your job, include that.
  • If you have held a number of nonprofessional positions, group them together. Example: Other employment: Cashier (summer 2007), salesperson (part-time, 2008), clerk (summer 2009)

Interests and activities

Include information about your interests and activities:

  • Participation in community-service organizations
  • hobbies related to your career
  • Sports, especially those that might be socially useful in your professional career
  • University-sanctioned activities

Additional Information

You can also include:

  • Computer skills
  • Military experience
    • Dates
    • Locations
    • Positions
    • Ranks
    • Tasks
  • Language ability
  • Willingness to relocate

Customizing your base resume for every job application

Once you have your base resume, it’s easy to customize it for every job you apply for. For every job advertisement, identify the keywords in the advertisement. Understand the core requirements for the job. Then customize the following sections of your resume:

Objective:

State only the goals or duties explicitly mentioned, or clearly implied, in the job advertisement.

For example, if your base resume’s objective is “To obtain a position as a software engineer”, then while applying for a Full-Stack Developer position at say, Google, reword your objective to “To obtain the position of a Full-Stack Developer at Google”. Just insert the position title and name of the company in your objective statement.

Focus on the reader’s needs, not on your goals.

Education:

The education section is the easiest part of the resume to adapt in applying for different positions.

Emphasize those aspects of your education that meet the requirements for the particular job.

Your base resume would probably list your courses in a random order. To customize your resume for a particular job, reorder the courses so that the most relevant courses are at the top of the list.

Experience:

Your base resume would include details of all positions/projects you held in equal weightage. To customize your resume for a particular job, rearrange the experience section so that the most relevant projects/positions are highlighted, and others are mentioned briefly.

There you have it. Easy steps to customize your resume for every job you apply to. In the next post, we will discuss how to write a cover letter for each position. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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How to conduct an effective job search in technical writing

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process,  the techniques here might be useful for experienced professionals as well.

If you have recently graduated or are about to graduate with a technical writing degree – Congratulations! You’ve made it and you have the paper to prove it! It’s now time to enter the professional world.

There are many resources out on the Internet about how to search for a technical writing job. But in my experience, those resources are quite generic, and as a result, ineffective. In this post, I want to discuss the techniques I used to get my job at Cockroach Labs, and the tips I used to share with my tech writing students.

Learn how the job search process works on the company’s side

To conduct an effective job search, you first need to understand the system.

First audience – The job portal algorithm:

When you submit your resume to a company’s job portal, it might not directly reach a human. Especially at big companies, your first barrier is a machine – an algorithm that parses resumes, matches the keywords in the job ad to the words in your resume,  and decides if your resume is relevant to the job posting. So the first step in the job search process is to study each job advertisement carefully, identify the keywords, and customize your resume and cover letter to match those keywords. Don’t stash the keywords in your application materials – after all, a human will eventually read it. However, do pay attention to relevant keywords and strategically use them throughout your résumé and cover letter. Once the algorithm finds the relevant keywords in your application materials, increases your chances of being put in touch with a human.

Second audience – Human resources:

The second level of the recruitment process is the Human Resources folks. Again, they are not the final audience for your job application materials, but they are the gatekeepers. If you stuff your materials with industry jargon that they do not understand, chances of your materials not being forwarded increase. Don’t dumb down your résumé; include an easy to understand summary of what you’re describing and then follow-up with industry jargon if necessary.

Final audience – Hiring manager:

The hiring manager is your main audience. This person is your primary audience and knows what is required for the position. These requirements are specified in the job ad.  Your task is to ensure that your résumé and cover letter clearly explain why you are a good fit for the position based on the stated requirements.

Find the Right Job

A common mistake I’ve observed people making is sending out mass applications. Some people visit LinkedIn or Glassdoor, or some other popular online job search site, and apply for all possible jobs they can find. This one-size-fits-all approach ultimately leads to frustration and anxiety when companies don’t respond. A better approach is to identify your niche and target jobs specifically relating to that niche.

My own job search experience demonstrates the effectiveness of targeted job search. My niche is startups and developer documentation. When I began my job search in Spring 2017, I applied to general technical writing jobs on LinkedIn and startup developer docs jobs at startups on AngelList. I got no interview calls from LinkedIn. However, I got 7 interview calls from the 8 companies I applied to on AngelList. Find your niche and focus your job search in that area. Casting too wide a net causes you to lose focus and use too general an approach for applying for jobs.

Caveat: If you are just starting out in the technical writing field, this advice might not apply to you. At the beginning of your career, you do want to cast a wider net, try out different jobs, and along the way, find your niche.

Consider academic jobs

If you’ve completed a graduate program in technical communication, you can also consider applying to academia.

Portals for academic jobs:

Update: As Dr. Northcut for pointed out of Facebook, “It’s hard to get a really good academic position without a PhD.”

Considerations for International Students

Students in non-STEM university programs can get a one-year OPT after graduation. You have 3 choices:

  • Apply to companies that you know will sponsor your H1B. This pool is very limited and, therefore, extremely competitive.
  • Apply for academic jobs. These jobs don’t have an H1B cap.
  • Decide if you’re okay with having only one year of work experience in the US. This means that you would apply to all jobs knowing that you will probably only be able to work for a year. You can still talk to HR about it during final negotiations.

Prepare Your Application Materials

In the upcoming blog posts, we will discuss how to tailor your résumé, cover letter, and portfolio to reflect the requirements of each job to apply to:

  • Crafting your technical writing resume (Scheduled for 01/17/18)
  • Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job (Scheduled for 01/24/18)
  • Building your technical writing portfolio (Scheduled for 01/31/18)

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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Why “be more technical”?

On the topic of how “technical” should technical writers need to be, the Technical Communication (TC) community is divided into two camps: Those who think it is absolutely essential to be tech-savvy to be a good technical writer, and those who think being too tech-savvy is actually a handicap for a technical writer. I belong to the camp that says being technical is a blessing for your career.

The camp you end up in depends on the product and company you work at and your end audience. If the product is a UI-based product, then yes, being technical is not a requirement. You need to explain the terminology and workflows, which does not require technological knowledge. But in today’s usability-focused world, products are getting intuitive and not needing extensive documentation. And to simplify the user-experience, the complexity is moved to the backend. With the rise of modular software architectures and plug-and-play software modules, the need to good technical writers is increasing in the developer documentation arena. Developers now don’t need to tell users how to use the products; instead, they need to tell other developers how to integrate the products with their own. And this is where, in my opinion, the lucrative opportunities for technical writers lie.

My experience so far validates my belief. Granted, my academic background is in engineering, so I am naturally inclined to the technical side of things. However, I think even if I was not an engineer, I would still have learned all things technical that I possibly could. Let me show you how “being technical” has helped me in my career so far:

I started my career as a VLSI engineer at Wipro. There, I was asked to document the Application Notes for the Integrated Circuits we were designing, and thus began my love affair with technical writing. After a year, I switched fields and moved to Symantec as a Technical Writer. At Symantec, I learned the on-the-job skills required for good technical writing. But the job wasn’t technical enough to retain my interest and the engineer in me started cribbing about it. So I moved to Druva as the Engineering Technical Writer and this proved to be the inflection point in my career. At Druva, I documented the software architecture and design of our products for internal developers. I reported to the VP of Engineering and worked closely with the CTO and the developers. The documents I created helped developers understand the overall architecture of the product, know what their colleagues were working on, learn what design decisions were made and why, and helped them better collaborate with their peers. Also, they were relieved that they didn’t have to write the design docs anymore. At most, they would have to write a rough draft and I would take it from there. As a result, I became a valued and highly visible member of the Engineering team. The position opened up several growth avenues for me, one of which led me to the MS in Technical Communication program at Missouri S&T. My work helped me develop an amazing rapport with our CTO – he offered me a summer internship in the California office, which was later extended to a remote part-time internship that lasted throughout my second year at Missouri S&T.

In the last semester of my grad program, I started looking for jobs. I didn’t want to go back to California. This time, my heart was set on New York. As an international student, I knew I would have to prove my worth for a company to take a chance on me. And the way to do that was to build my portfolio. So I researched open source projects where I could contribute documentation and build my portfolio. I came across an interesting project – CourseWorld – and started contributing software design docs to the project. This project helped me demonstrate not only my ability to understand and document technology, but also my knowledge of GitHub and online collaboration tools. In short, it helped me “show, don’t tell”. And it worked! I got interview calls from exciting startups for deeply technical positions. One of the calls that got me super-excited was from Cockroach Labs. After an intense interviewing day, I was hired as a Senior Technical Writer at the New York office and offered a six-figure salary. So you can see why I am biased to being more technical 🙂

Being technical has helped me leap through my career. It has opened up avenues of career growth that I didn’t know existed. And honestly, it’s just fun to dive into the inner workings of a product and understand how the magic happens.

Update: I made a video to discuss how tech writers can work on becoming more tech-savvy. Check it out:

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Stuff I want my students to know

Me at GPACW
Me at GPACW 2017 (Image credit: Dr. Dawn Armfield)

While pursuing the MS degree in Technical Communication at Missouri S&T, I taught a section of the technical writing service course for three semesters. In the course, we discussed all the essentials of tech writing – audience analysis, research and information gathering, drafting, editing, getting feedback, and so on.

Several of my students were interested in pursuing technical writing as a full-time career. They often asked insightful questions about how do you get a technical writing job, what does a tech writer’s typical day look like, what skills can I learn now that will help me succeed in the job and so on. I enjoyed our lively discussions, but more often than not I had to cut the conversations short to focus on the assignment at hand.

Even now, when I am back in the corporate world, I find myself wishing I was still teaching so I could share the techniques and skills I learn at the job with my students.

So this blog series is my attempt to carry on the conversation and open up the discussion to a larger audience.

Every Wednesday, I will post about one topic that I want my students to know about applying for and succeeding at technical writing jobs. In January, I will post my experience of getting a job at Cockroach Labs, resources I found useful, and sample documents. The posting schedule is as follows:

  • How to conduct an effective job search in technical writing (Scheduled for 01/10/18)
  • Crafting your technical writing resume (Scheduled for 01/17/18)
  • Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job (Scheduled for 01/24/18)
  • Building your technical writing portfolio (Scheduled for 01/31/18)

Once we discuss how to get a job, we will move on to things to do on when you land a new job, productivity techniques for surviving at a technical writing job, and so on.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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