Career Focus: Community Documentation

I gave this interview via email to Mandy Morgan, a senior at Missouri State University this year, majoring in technical writing with a journalism minor. She wrote up a memo for a career focus class based on the interview and I’m repurposing the Q & A here.

Q: For starters, I was wondering what skills you have that you didn’t learn in schooling that helped you succeed in the professional world?

A: There are pretty specific web and server skills that I had to learn after finishing my education – mostly because they’re very fast-moving technology that I had not needed to try out during college and grad school. Every tech writer I’ve met has a different path into tech writing, but mine is a bit traditional. I got an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and spent a summer in a test lab, doing quality checks on infant formula. I found I was interested in the instrumentation manuals and how they were written, so in my final year of undergrad I started researching technical communication. As it turned out, there are graduate programs in tech comm so I went to Miami University in Ohio and got a degree. Part of the degree program was an internship, and I learned about online writing and HTML had just started to be a standard for the web. Since then, I’ve always worked in software documentation at large and small companies. I have had to pick up technology skills constantly along the way.

Q: How important was it for you to learn the technology before you started your job and what systems have you learned during your professional experience?

A: In my current job I learned much of the technology on the job because I hadn’t needed to know cloud computing prior to joining Rackspace. One attribute of technical writers in general is that we learn quickly. So in my case, it was more important that I could grasp concepts quickly rather than learn the technology prior to starting the job. I took this job about 2 months after the OpenStack project was launched, so really it would have been impossible to learn about
OpenStack, open source cloud computing, prior to starting. A clear understanding concepts and systems should be applicable no matter how the technology changes through the years (or months or days!).

Q: How often do you get feedback on the work that you do, and what form do you receive your feedback in? Who are the main people that you interact with (whether this be a team or SMEs, etc.)?

A: Getting feedback (and future direction) can be tricky in documentation because you want to write for certain users and audiences rather than for the team that wrote the product itself. I love it when I hear people say, “I no longer work for development. I work for the user.” They say it with disruption and evolution in their hearts and minds. They fully intend to serve the user the best they can, and user feedback is the most valuable type. I also believe in using web analytics to gather feedback on how effective your deliverables are.

Comments are a great way to get feedback immediately on a page you’ve written. Comments connect users to each other and to the authors of the content.

So in my case, I try to interact with community members and users as much as I do with developers who are subject matter experts.

Q: How important would you say knowing grammar and mechanics rules are?

Honestly, as quickly as the code moves, the documentation also has to move, so knowing grammar and getting mechanics right the first time are essential to having high-quality docs done quickly. I also review a lot of community contributions and need them to write English very well. I can serve as a grammatical editor during the review process but ideally the writer is very good at it already.

Q: Did networking play a large role in the job process for you and where you are today?

A: Absolutely – every job I’ve gotten has been a direct result of networking either through professional associations or through volunteer work on open source projects. I hold strong beliefs in networking being a constant activity – not for my own sake but for the good feelings I get from helping others, which I suppose is still self-centered.

Q: How much time did you have to devote outside of the work place to your job when you first started and now?

A: I love the flexibility that writing as a core skill in my career gives me – I can write from home, write at any hour, and the equipment I need is something I own and like to use already. I also love that I can attend user group meetings outside of regular work hours. I also get to attend twice-yearly in-person meetings with the community project contributors, which is just part of the job, not necessarily outside of the work place. I guess my answer is, the job doesn’t have an “inside” and “outside” of the workplace since it is so collaborative and community-oriented.

Q: And the ever famous questions, what struggles do you face with your job and what is the most rewarding aspect of it? Is the track that you’re on now, the one you planned to be on after school?

A: The struggle isn’t so much with the job itself but with the need to raise a family and have a home life when we’re so connected constantly. My daily  prioritization and focus is something I struggle with. This job is a dream job for me, though, it’s so rewarding to work in a community towards common goals. Plus Rackspace firmly believes in using your strengths to do work you love. I’m surrounded by really smart helpful people.

A graduate degree was my path to get to the awesome job I have now, but I don’t know that it has to be the “right” path. With the upsurge in open source documentation groups, it seems an apprenticeship in open source doc would still lead you to the right jobs and connections. After undergrad, I discovered technical writing, and had a very planned track through grad school to get to where I wanted to be. Even so, the career paths in technical writing in particular have a stodgy character to them sometimes. I’m more innovative and experimental with technical writing than the general group of technical writers subscribe to, and sometimes that causes twists and turns in the path.

Q: What is your title?

A: My business cards read “Content Stacker” which is a play on words – at Rackspace we are called Rackers and when you work on OpenStack we are called Stackers. So since I create, curate, source, and sort content for OpenStack, I call myself a Content Stacker. My title at Rackspace is Technical Writer.

Q: What piece of advice could you offer to students on being successful in the tech writing world?

Become as technical as possible while maintaining a user advocacy viewpoint. Be willing to experiment and definitely embrace the web and mobile devices as delivery mechanisms for information. Do what you love!

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