Content, Community and Conferences – My techcomm journey 2019

Compared to my last such blog post in 2017, here is how my techcomm journey went this year.

It has been a tough year, professionally and personally.

Professionally, I’ve had the opportunity to work on 2 projects that will shape Australia’s energy landscape in terms of distributed energy resources. While the projects have had huge learning opportunities for me as a Technical Writer, they have also caused stress (unlike known before) and a lot of work grief and health issues.

Personally, I lost family members (yes, multiple unfortunately, including our pet Labrador, Benji) to that inevitable transition at the end of life. I don’t feel I’ve had enough time to grieve these losses and something has to give.

I digress.

API Documentation

One of my aims at the start of this year was to try and get exposure to API documentation. With the proliferation of APIs across industries and projects, chances are a tech writer will be expected to document API contextual information at some point.

While my previous interaction to API documentation was via a guide that was handed to me for updates, over the year, I found myself increasingly involved in reading API designs, documenting technical specifications around APIs and writing API contextual content. Working on a project, the technical specifications set the cadence for API development and became the resource for future development work around user APIs.

I also got an opportunity to test API calls using Postman and write content for API developer portal, which I rather enjoyed. From a personal viewpoint, it would be awesome if we can somehow involve more diagrams or visuals in API docs.

As a side hustle, I got a chance to work on restructuring and creating some API docs for a fintech product, adding to my knowledge of documenting use cases and installation material.

All of this is thanks to Tom Johnson’s fantastic API material and Peter Gruenbaum’s courses on Udemy.

Working on agile teams

For the latter half of the year, I worked on 2 agile teams simultaneously and let me tell you first up – it is not fun.

While the projects were related to each other, it was still a challenge to keep up with multiple teams, stand ups and issue tracking via different mechanisms. Prioritising, scheduling and planning deliverables around conflicting deadlines -ain’t that the tech writing dream? Happy to report that the documentation was delivered within expected timeframes, though we had to lower the quality expectation (I know, not ideal) and use alternative communication to address concerns and meet our commitments.

Here’s what I learned working on these projects:

  • Set up expectations early, even if you have to make some hard decisions and displease some people along the way.
  • Be open to anything. I certainly wasn’t and I think that may have contributed to the unnecessary stress.
  • Always advocate for the user (the people you are designing the system for). In the short term, it may rub off the project teams the wrong way, but in the long term, it helps deliver a successful project/product.
  • There is still a long way to go when it comes to treating the technical writer on par with other project members. (Maybe this is specific to some projects or industries, but it does happen)
  • Never stop the conversations – they are the fuel in the project management engine.

Presenting and networking at conferences

This year, I got an opportunity to present at 2 conferences: STC Summit in Denver and TechCommNZ in Tauranga. I spoke about the importance of Release Notes at the STC Summit and Sustainable Content at the TechCommNZ conference. I also chaired and was part of the 3rd Write the Docs Australia conference in Sydney.

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Presenting at conferences with varying levels of audience numbers (roughly 60 attended my talk at STC – it was a multi-track event, and 80 at TechCommNZ) has greatly added to my confidence in public speaking.

I also enjoyed the networking and social aspect of the conferences – particularly the Hot Dogs dinner in Denver and the awesome trivia night hosted by 2 tremendous trivia masters in Tauranga (Tony Self and Dave Gash). The Write The Docs AU social night at the Harts Pub at The Rocks was equally fantastic.

Here are some personal observations and notes:

  • Personally, I prefer the theatre style seating when presenting, as I feel the cabaret style seems more closed and non-inclusive.
  • While I am not a big mover while presenting, I don’t mind using the space around the lectern for effect and also aerate a bit (Confession: I tend to sweat a lot, and I think that’s more due to the fact that I like dressing up a bit than stress!)
  • Always carry lip balm!
  • Big conferences (STC with 500+ attendees) can be intimidating, but breakfasts (if included) are a great way to interact with as many people as possible. Tea/coffee breaks and lunches can get chaotic, but with sit-down breakfast, you can learn a lot about what people are up to, in a relaxed manner. I sat with a group of tech writers from at least 5 different states (US) and we spoke about so many interesting things, including places with no natural water bodies, best hiking routes, and of course, Nebraska.
  • The 2-3 days after a conference are always the best and the worst. Best because I have learnt so much over the conference, and worst because the brain and the body really feels drained (like hit with a mac truck) after the conference.
    I found it best to de-stress by going on long walks/hikes to recharge. I climbed the awesome Mt Manganui mountain and was treated to this splendid site.

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  • Unplanned lunches are the best. I had a chance to finally meet the legendary Tom Johnson (after having followed his blog since 2007). What an amazingly cool person!

Google Season of Docs

This year, I was selected to work on a long term project for GeoNetwork, as part of the Google Season of Docs 2019. My role on the project is to help create templates and set up a documentation strategy for the project, in addition to addressing some immediate content gaps. The project finishes in Feb 2020 and I will be submitting a report as part of this experience.

Write the Docs Australia

We have had a great 3.5 years of building a strong community Down Under. The Write the Docs Australia meetups now run regularly every couple of months across Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. In the last 3 years, we have had close to 40 events, including remote meetups and webinars from speakers from US and Singapore.

We organised our 3rd Write the Docs Australia conference in Sydney this year and it was sold out! I’ve greatly enjoyed organising and managing the community and hope to continue contributing to this.

Self-learning

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying out the Hugo+Git+Netlfiy toolchain to build a portfolio as a side project and have been having fun working in Markdown and the Command Line Interface.

I’ve also had some interesting train commutes, learning about Python, Git and some of its applications.

Wishlist for 2020

  • I’d like to challenge myself by presenting at events, be they meetups or conferences, outside my immediate comfort zone (tech writing). In 2020, I will be actively pursuing Call for Papers for non tech writing events.
  • I’ve always been in awe of sketchnotes and wouldn’t mind learning some of this form of penmanship!
  • Over the last few years, I feel I have contributed a lot to overall product docs strategy and managing writing teams and hope to continue adding to this experience.
  • Lastly, I hope I’ll get a chance to work on more open source documentation.

My Techcomm Journey – 2017

Yet another year has come and gone. This year, I have seen the rise of the term UX writer, chatbots making an appearance in the most interesting of places, and Markdown becoming the favourite tool for many writers.

My professional journey was slightly different to the last one I blogged about, but it was still a step further in more ways than one.

Here’s a summary of my career in 2017 (in no particular order)

Turning non-believers into believers

Last year, I blogged about how hard it was to turn some non-believers (in documentation) into people who appreciate what we (as tech writers) do, so this year, we took it upon ourselves (my team and I) by putting things into action. Instead of simply talking about it, we took it upon ourselves to prototype, test and demonstrate.

At work, we had operated as a Word/PDF and Sharepoint shop, but we brought in Confluence, Trello and JIRA into our mix of content tools and made an immediate impact on the way our teams accessed and used our content. Having a responsive, always relevant and device-independent tool translated to instant productivity gains. The teams were reviewing content faster, the content was easy to access, use, share, and the information experience was wholesome.

Public speaking

I’ve not been entirely petrified of public speaking in the past, but I was always wary of not being able to say something that would be of relevance to others. I was clearly wrong. There are plenty of meetups and conferences out there who want to hear your story and perspectives. There are people in similar predicaments who are eager to hear how you solved a particular issue.

Working with Write the Docs gave me an excellent opportunity to not only speak publicly, it also helped me hone my organisational and networking skills. Over the past year, I have spoken to many attendees and potential speakers and sponsors.

I also presented my experiences in documenting a product I use, at the ASTC conference. Presenting for the first time for well over 40 minutes has now given me enough confidence in speaking publicly, that I can carry into 2018 and beyond.

Write the Docs Australia

What started off on a good footing in 2016, we managed to build a strong community Down Under.

The Write the Docs Australia meetups now run regularly every couple of months across Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. We have had our first remote session recently and it was very well received by the people who attended.

Having the confidence in the Write the Docs Australia members, I decided to host a one day event with help from members of the community. We hosted our first Write the Docs Day Australia in November and it was attended by about 45 people.

Here is a recap of the event: http://www.writethedocs.org/conf/au/2017/news/event-recap-feedback/

Tools

I was exposed to a few tools I hadn’t used before, and I feel this added lots to my skills (and adaptability at using them).

Working on Write the Docs Day event, I was exposed to tools such as Github, Atom editor and Markdown in greater detail. The whole experience of updating website content via Markdown and Pull Requests was fun and challenging.

Self-learning

With some free time between projects, I started reading up and learning to add to my skills. I’ve travelled a fair bit on the API documentation path via Tom Johnson’s blog and also courses on Udemy.

In addition to this, Content Strategy and Information Architecture are 2 other skill areas that I am brushing up on coming towards the end of the year. Volunteering for the Content Strategy Forum last year gave me a good insight into the world of Content Strategy and it is an area I am keen on expanding into.

Wishlist for 2018

Chatbots – I would relish the opportunity to document chatbots. Chatbots are taking over a number of areas and it would be interesting to work on projects that incorporate clear, concise content with the bot mechanism.

Learn a programming language – While I’ve had some background in learning programming in the late 90s, so much has changed that I almost feel the need for a refresher. I’d like to start with something simple, something that allows me to automate tasks and work more effectively.

Remote work – I currently work remotely (part-time) on a technical writing project. It has been a great experience working with this team for the last 2.5 years. I’d like to work on more remote projects and build my expertise working on a wide range of content.

Create, work with or curious about documentation? You don’t want to miss this!

It was 2005 when I enrolled in the Graduate Diploma of Technical Communications course at Swinburne. Documentation (especially the part where you create it) had been around for years before that, but yet somehow, it was still getting treated like a secondary citizen.

I learnt so many amazing things with the Grad Dip and by the time the course had finished, I had secured my first gig as a Technical Writer. I met so many wonderful people at and outside Uni who were passionate about documentation.

As a newbie tech writer, it was crucial for me to meet other people in similar positions so that we could share experiences and learn from each other. I wanted to be a part of the technical writing community, just sit and absorb all that knowledge out there. I wanted to work with companies where documentation was valued and the company took pride in this aspect of the customer experience.

About 5 years back, I got an opportunity to participate in a documentation sprint. Working with a team of developers, product owners and other writers over a period of 3 days to create documentation for users. This was not for a company I worked for. This wasn’t even in the city I lived in. I travelled 2 consecutive days (self-funded) to spend 8-10 hours learning the product, playing around with it, troubleshooting it and documenting it for their users. It was perhaps the most exciting thing I did at that point in my career. Read my experiences here.

11 years later, I have worked through a number of permanent and contract roles across a range of industries and know what still bothers me? The lack of understanding around the role documentation plays in the whole customer experience.

For many companies I worked for, I was the first technical writer and they had no idea of what to expect in terms of documentation. For a number of big organisations, the role documentation played was minuscule and not that significant. There were only a handful of places I worked where the people that mattered got it. They understood how providing good documentation, be it internal or external, made a huge difference to their reputation, to their user satisfaction and even within the organisation. These were places where the culture brewed right out of a user guide, wikis, knowledge bases, and a system of good documentation habits.

As technology proliferates and customer and user experience drives businesses to come up with better, faster and efficient products, documentation is the thread that binds everything together.

Why am I rambling on about this?

Over the last 15 months, I’ve been working to get a community of documentarians (that’s what we call ourselves) going in Australia. Write the Docs is a worldwide community of documentarians and they are growing in numbers exponentially. In Australia, we have had around 13 events so far across Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. But that’s only half the story.

We have a whole day of documentation goodness coming to Melbourne on 24th Nov (Friday).

You want to participate in a live documentation sprint and contribute to open source projects at Google? We’ve got that covered.

You want to hear about how chatbots UIs will influence writers or writing documentation that meets the requirements for all levels of users. We’ve got speakers from overseas sharing their views.

Feel overwhelmed before writing and want to know how to make use of all that information, or want to know how to supercharge your docs, or maybe try to use the principles of minimalism in your docs? We’ve got some great speakers helping you out there.

I would have given my right arm to participate in something like this when I started out as a technical writer. The good thing is it won’t cost you that. You can buy tickets now and enjoy all of this at a price you would normally spend on an airport shuttle to get you to the city and back.

Here’s the schedule: http://www.writethedocs.org/conf/au/2017/schedule/

Here’s the link to buy tickets: http://www.writethedocs.org/conf/au/2017/tickets/

Over to you. Go.

A year of documentation goodness

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the Write the Docs Australia community. We’ve come a long way and have even a longer way to go yet. 300+ members and counting.

A big thanks to everyone who has made this possible – attendees, speakers and hosts.

Where it all began…

To me personally, Australia seemed to have fallen behind in organising meetups, conferences or any events around documentation. We don’t even have any university level programs teaching the basics of documentation. There is an ever increasing demand on creating clear, consistent and useful documentation and we just didn’t seem to be doing enough to address it.

I came across the Write the Docs community when I was looking for a group to network, a place to belong and a tribe to identify with. Having heard of the Write the Docs Prague conference, I put in a presentation proposal which was accepted and I was on my way to the Czech Republic.
When I first signed up to the Write the Docs Slack channel, there were just about 700 people in the #general channel, and just about a dozen in the #australia one. (For reference, they now stand at 2206 and 67).

Here was a community that had its roots in developer/software docs, but had expanded over the years to include anyone who created, appreciated and understood the value of documentation.

Sometimes, as they say, the best way to be involved is to start something. So, I initiated the Write the Docs Australia meetup group on July 20, 2016.

Looking back over the last 12 months, it has certainly been an exciting ride.

Tribe of documentarians

Anyone who cares about the quality of documentation and its impact on the users is someone we think of as a documentarian.

Over the last 12 months, we have had 7 events across Australia. 2 in Brisbane and Melbourne, and 3 in Sydney. The Adelaide one is not far away.

With a little help from the wonderful Content Strategy and User Experience friends, we are headed to Write the Docs Adelaide on 7th Aug.

The very idea of having an inclusive, vibrant community of people who create documentation as part of their roles drove us to talk about all things documentation.

  • We talked about APIs, Interacting with Developers, Roles in Product teams, Visual documentation, Analytics, Doc-a-thons, Localisation, Markdowns, Storyboarding, Data, Product Development docs and more.
  • We had writers, developers, UXers, QA, Product owners and Engineers attend, network, speak and share their experiences.
  • We got some solid support from companies like Google, Atlassian, Campaign Monitor, General Assembly, Red Hat, and River City Labs who hosted our events and sponsored food/drinks generously.
  • We streamed most events live and almost all recordings are available on the Write the Docs Australia Youtube channel

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What’s coming?

The first ever Write the Docs Adelaide takes place on Monday, 7th Aug. We are already planning for events across Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney in Aug and September.

A 1-day mini conference sometime late November is already beginning to sound like a possibility.

A very wise person (Eric Holscher) once said:

My personal techcomm journey – 2016

What a year it has been. I feel I have personally gained a lot during the last 12 months in my technical writing journey than I have in the years before.

Now that it is time to unwind a little bit with the holidays well within sight, I’ve finally found some time to put down my thoughts here.

Summary of 2016 (in no particular order)

Toolchain

I definitely feel a lot more confident using a range of tools, largely due to the fact that I could use them for my various projects.

While I am largely stuck using MS Word at work, along with SharePoint for publishing, I’ve had the chance to use Madcap Flare + Git (via BitBucket) for my part-time project with Planifi. In the last few weeks, I also started using GitBook for creating online help for Rounded (an accounting app/tool for sole traders and freelancers) and I think it’s an amazing tool to use for lightweight documentation.

Snagit still remains the best tool I use, day in, day out. It sits quietly in the background and every time I hit the PrintScreen for it to fire up, I feel like Thor calling on his Mjolnir to do some grunt work.

Believers and non believers

This is always a tough one. While my current team and especially my team lead believes in the value of good documentation, there exists some in the larger business unit who do not see any real value in documentation and are reluctant to come to the party, so to speak.

It is always a challenge to make people see the value in documenting, be it processes, systems or pretty UIs, but so far with a fair amount of persuasion and a little bit of name dropping (desperate times!), I’ve been able to get things documented.

Git

I don’t know how doc projects existed before Git. I use Git fairly regularly for my freelance projects and couldn’t dream of having documentation without any sort of .git associations with it.

I work across 2 different devices (a PC and a hybrid tablet/laptop), so picking up where I left is never hard if I have managed to push through my changes to the central repo using Git. I would like to use the Git Bash Prompt to do this, but most days I prefer SourceTree to push doc changes to GitHub or BitBucket based repositories.

Pro bono docs

Ever use a really cool tool and feel you could contribute to their journey? I came across Rounded while I was trying to find something to help me manage my invoices for freelancing projects. Rounded was founded with exactly the same idea – accounting for freelancers and sole traders (and it was Australian based).

I got in touch with the founder and offered to write their documentation for them, simply because I believed I could help them while getting a chance to try out their product for my projects. I have started on the documentation and am using GitBook to create some basic online documentation for new users of the tool.

Write the Docs (meetups+conf)

This was, and is, by far the best thing that has happened to me this year – becoming a part of this large, and rapidly growing, community of people passionate about the art and science of documentation. The community may have started off with a focus on software documentation, but I think it has clearly gone way beyond that.

Growing a little disillusioned with the ASTC and what it offered to members, I admit I was struggling a bit to feel a part of any community (a tribe essentially) and this was when I came across Write the Docs 6 months back. I joined the Slack channel with a little anxiety, but it was and is a great place to be. The amount of ideas and the free-flowing nature of conversations on the Slack channels have been inspirational.

Soon after I connected with the Write the Docs community, I felt it was the right time to get these meetup events to Australia. With a little help and encouragement from my techcomm friends (a big thanks to Sarah Maddox), we kicked off Write the Docs Australia in Melbourne, followed by an even bigger event in Google offices Sydney. The idea is to take the events nationally and hence the next event is scheduled for Brisbane for Feb 2017.

While I was planning to attend the Write the Docs Europe conference, I received notification that my conference proposal was accepted. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of presenting at an overseas conference and the audience was excellent. I spoke about what bad screenshots do to good writers, largely from experience and also deriving some inputs from other writers.

Flare User Group

All while I was getting involved with Write the Docs, the other group I started 2.5 years back was still around and kicking – the Melbourne Flare User Group. What started off as a local Melbourne event has long surpassed the geographical boundaries and we now have members regularly join in from Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, New Zealand and one from Bangkok, Thailand on Skype.

The group is still going strong and we have covered a number of interesting topics around Madcap Flare. We meet every alternate month via Skype.

API courses

While I had some free time between projects, I signed up for a couple of API courses on Udemy, particularly ones around API documentation. While they are far from being completed, I have liked what I have done so far (have completed the JSON/XML component) and would like to pursue this further. It is definitely on my to-do list for 2017.

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To-do list for 2017

Better tools – While I am largely happy with the range of tools I am using, I have enjoyed working with tools that allow me to focus on writing than being worried about the look-and-feel and wouldn’t mind working with such tools more.

I would love to design or collaborate with someone who could create a dashboard for tech writing projects (regardless of the toolchain). A dashboard showing the status, estimation of effort, costs (if that is something that can be easily worked out) and tasks.

Raising the profile of tech writers – This is not going to be an easy task and is certainly not a one-person thing. I would like to get help from as many communicators as possible to raise the profile of technical writers here in Australia. A fair number of organisations still do not understand the value tech writers bring to a project and I would like to work on changing that, if I can.

API docs – I would like to spend some time learning and practicing API documentation. I feel there is a great amount of work in this sphere for technical writers and I want to use my technical skills and experience writing documentation help teams write clear, consistent documentation.

Different projects – Variety is what keeps me going and I love dabbling in different projects at the same time, time and health permitting. This is one of the reasons why I like taking on projects on the side, to keep the creative juices flowing. For 2017, while I may cut down on my project work to dedicate more time to learning, I would still like to be involved in a project of a nature I have never worked on before.

Meetups – What started off in 2016 will definitely continue in 2017 with more techcomm focussed events. The Write the Docs Australia roadshow next rolls into Brisbane and will make its way back to Melbourne via Sydney. Who knows, even Adelaide could be in the mix.

Remote work – This year, I have been lucky to work with a company and a team lead who are extremely flexible with my working style and consequently work hours. I like early starts, so most mornings, I get a lot of work done between 4.30 am and 6.30 am on my freelance projects, before my family gets up. I would like to take on projects that allow me a fair amount of remote work, as it suits my working style.

Volunteering – Last month, someone got in touch with me to ask me if I was keen on volunteer with their organisation teaching kids how to code. While I can’t (or won’t perhaps) code to save my life, I am interested in the challenge because I may yet learn how to teach coding.

This idea could be extended further to get kids aware of documentation from an early age, though personally I struggle to see why my 5.5 year old would want to write more than what is absolutely essential. Those shiny metallic buses and trucks are not going to play themselves!