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?
Today’s post in this month’s series of guest posts is by Swapnil Ogale, a contract technical writer residing in Australia. I follow Swapnil on social media, and find his insights and experiences of the Australian technical writing community interesting and informative. I am so glad he’s here to give us a deeper insight into the Australian Tech Comm culture. Here’s Swapnil’s post:
When Amruta contacted me a couple of weeks back for this guest post, I wasn’t sure how to approach this. As a Technical Writer who contracts, I am often working a couple of jobs most of the days. In addition, I also organise the Write the Docs Australia meetups across a few cities, so I am constantly looking for speakers and thinking of topics that would interest the attendees.
If you are in the fortunate position of working on exciting projects simultaneously, here are some of my experiences on how you could make it work.
The Early Bird
I like starting early (around 5.30am), because the peace and quiet (and a fresh cup of chai) helps me focus into getting a mental list of tasks ready. Often, early in the mornings, I like reading through my Slack channels to get a sense of the conversations that have happened overnight. Some days, it could just be reviewers getting back to me with feedback, whereas some days it could the developers talking about bug fixes or designers prototyping new interfaces.
This short early morning ritual helps me schedule and priortise work for later in the day.
Public transport, social media, opportunities
My workplace (day job) is a 45 min ride and 2 train connections away. I usually catch up on documentation news via Twitter, looking for tips, hints and any other interesting chats around documentation. I also initiated the Write the Docs Australia meetups a couple of years back, so I follow up on potential speakers, conversations and other themes around this.
I also use this time to search for projects needing documentation or potential consulting opportunities and Twitter surprisingly provides a lot of interesting material for this.
At my last workplace, work hours were pretty flexible, and since I was already up early, I got into work before the rest of my team did (around 7.30 am). For the last couple of years, I was documenting processes for a number of internal teams. Process documentation is not unlike product documentation, but it is slightly more chaotic. While product or software documentation is reliant on periodic changes (such as sprints or releases), process documentation is driven by continuous changes to the processes. These changes come about due to refinement or improvement to existing processes.
I spent a few minutes to understand these process changes, compare them with existing processes and update or create new documentation (work instructions, quick reference guides). We used Confluence to create documentation and JIRA and Trello to track our projects.
Plan, design and innovate
Along with process changes, I also spent time looking at our existing documentation and making improvements to make the content more useful, readable and reusable. If there was something that I really needed to focus on without distractions, I use the Pomodoro timer.
If the documentation changes required talking to the engineers or operators, I would set up one-on-one meetings to source this information and/or review the documentation.
Work from home afternoons
The flexibility at work made it possible for me to head home mid-afternoon (for my son’s school bus pick up) and work from home for the afternoon. I would usually schedule any meetings in the afternoon, usually done via Skype.
Spending time away from the desk, also gave me a chance to catch up on emails or requests for changes to the content without any interruptions.
In addition to my regular day job as a Tech Writer, I also work part time on documentation projects remotely. Most nights, I usually work a couple of hours, planning, creating or curating content for software applications. These projects could be local (Australian) or anywhere across US, UK, Europe or Asia.
I currently document online help, release notes and other content for a project management tool for architects and engineering firms.
I use a range of tools to plan (Trello, JIRA, Mindmaps),create (Madcap Flare, Zendesk, Confluence, Google Docs), and curate (JIRA, Slack) for my projects, depending on the customers need and setup.
Working in Australia
Over the last 12 years, I have been lucky to work in some terrific Australian born and bred organisations across a range of industries. A lot of organisations reflect the same kind of multicultural mix that is now a large part of the nation. This provides some great opportunities to work with, understand and collaborate a range of thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
The work culture also largely reflects the core Australian values of mateship, fair go and a sense of integrity. While Technical Writing is not a new concept here, I’ve found, in my contracting experience, that it still not fully understood and lacks the same amount of support from management resultantly. The value of a technical writer or what they bring to the table is still a bit unclear. Also, a large number of companies are still reluctant to support remote working due to various reasons. From my own personal experience, Australia is still a few years behind in catching up with the tools and technologies that can be adopted to make documentation an entirely fulfilling experience, both for the writers and the users alike.
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to subscribe!
P.S: Here’s my favorite Pomodoro playlist: