How to be a Technical Writer

It’s surprising how often I’ve been asked this question over the last few months. Once upon a time — some dozen years ago — I was a technical writer. I wrote manuals, technical documentation, and various forms of other literature for a living. And, to be quite honest, I hated it.

Well, hate is a strong word. I got bored of doing it. (Long story, suffice to say, I ended up making websites for a living.) But certainly the skill has never left me (I still write documentation to this day as part of my job), and I do know a few things about writing clearly and effectively.

Sadly, it’s not something that is done particularly well…

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The Annual Review

Sorry for the long silence, folks. I’ve been a very, very busy boy the last couple of months, and … well, writing hasn’t really been a high priority for me. Family, as always, comes first, with my job (which provides for said family) a very close second. Sanity has eeked its way into third place … and anyone who knows me also knows how much attention that’s getting as of late. Writing is in fourth, which is a very sad last in terms of actual attention.

So why now? Well, let’s go back to that second point. Today is my first anniversary of (full-time) work with Evans Hunt. While I had been kicking around here since January of last year, the full-time aspect is more recent, and in this case, also important…

…it’s Annual Review Day.

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The need for the Big Picture

On Saturday, my wife Alex and I went out on our own. (We manage to do this every couple of weeks thanks to Alex’s mother, who comes over to watch the kids so we can behave more like adults for a while.) On our little excursion, we spontaneously decided to go up the Calgary Tower, for no other real reason than to take a look.

The sun was getting low in the sky, and the horizon was nearly completely obscured by haze (likely due to the city drying out from a few days of light-to-heavy rain). The shadows cast through the downtown were fantastic, the trees (most of which now have leaves) and the fields of grass were bright green, and light glinted off the glass of a hundred skyscrapers.

And I realised — almost surprisingly — that from way up there, Calgary really does look quite beautiful.

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The fork in the road

Not so long ago, when I managed a team, I used to coach people in their career directions. (How well I coached people is another matter, and I can only leave it to those people to assess my real effectiveness.) I’d help them understand their successes, their opportunities, and help them avoid the pitfalls that were common with advancement. Everyone wants to get ahead, after all.

One thing I always cautioned more senior people was the “fork in the road”, the point at which you decided on your “next” direction. One avenue would take you down the road of the specialist, the code ninja who could seemingly pull miracles out of thin air. The other avenue was expanding one’s view beyond the initial skill to encompass the Big Pictureâ„¢. In other words, management.

Watch out for that wrong turn — here be dragons.

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The development in my life

If I were to summarise the last ten years of my career prior, specifically from about June 2000 to June 2010, it would look something like this: web developer, specialised web developer, senior web developer, junior manager, manager, director, technical architect. What, in many ways, looks largely like an “upward” progression in knowledge work.

During these last ten years, and notably the latter five, I trended more and more away from programming and more into management. I managed people, I managed projects, I managed implementations, and pretty much managed to avoid coding of any kind. I convinced myself that it made more sense for me to focus on the higher-level technology planning than it did on the actual implementation — there were others who did it better than me, and it was a waste of effort to try do it all.

And suddenly, I found myself checkmated.

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Get Geeqee

Back at the beginning of the year, I took a different direction in my career. Until December, I’d been a career man — work for one company. Work your butt off, be the cog in the machine, and do the best you could to stay safe. It was what I knew, and it generally worked well. Or rather, worked me well. (I’m sure you know what I mean…)

Things changed, and I went the route of contracting, something I hadn’t really done since I left university. Initially, it was with my friends over at Evans Hunt Group. The result was Since then, I opted to take a vacation, and now it’s time for me to get my own little consultancy off and running.

It’s time for me to Get Geeqee.

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Visit Calgary: You’re Very Welcome!

When we returned from Costa Rica, our plans had been pretty simple: take off the month of December to get settled, and then head back to work in January. Plans changed shortly after arriving back home, and suddenly I found myself without a job. Bills still had to be paid, food purchased, and because we live in a city that is far too unfriendly to public transit, we also had to buy a car.

A few years ago, this probably would have put me into a panic. And a few years ago, it would have been just me to worry about. Now I have a wife and two kids (well, one at the time, and one on the way) to support. Really, that should have put me off the deep end. Having lived through a significant amount of adversity over the last couple of years, though, I found myself not even concerned about the prospect of unemployment.

I attribute that to having kept contact with just the right people.

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Mentorship is a must

No-one is ever born knowing everything. Like all animal life, we enter the world devoid of knowledge, having only the instincts innate to our species after countless eons of evolution, adaptation, and survival of the fittest. But those instincts can only grant us so much in the act of survival — they do very little for us as higher-intelligence beings. Instincts can only assist survival, in near-epic troglodytic proportions.

We need teachers to help us move past mere instinct towards self-sufficiency, and self-learning. They teach us mathematics, communication, sciences, and art. As intelligence grows, we shift away from teachers, and look more towards peers — people who are similar, but have more experience. They are our mentors, ones who offer their abilities as examples for us to learn from, and models upon which we can hope to improve ourselves.

And anyone who thinks they can survive without a mentor has truly never had one.

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What makes a Senior Developer

Every so often, someone asks me what I need to see in a senior developer. Why people ask me this is a mystery. I mean, besides the fact that I’m a Know-It-All, could it really be that several years of being a manager have really allowed me to delve into the core of the human psyche, separate the hard skills from the soft, and know what it really means to be “that” person?

Yeah, I’m having a good laugh at this one, too! But since I am a Know-It-All, and someone asks, it’s really hard for me to say “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have an opinion on it or something…

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Overtime is not a solution

Every project is defined by a schedule. That schedule determines when certain tasks start and stop, when people enter and leave a project, and ultimately how much that project will cost (because, after all, time is money).  But as we all know, the schedule you start with is almost never the one you end with.

Schedules change. No-one can predict the future. No-one can see the out-of-left-field problems, the people unable to work due to sudden illness (or worse), or the sudden changes in project direction. When a project’s schedule starts to go sour, time management rapidly becomes extremely important. In a world where deadlines are fixed and resources are limited, one of the most common solutions is to work overtime.

However, overtime is not a solution. Overtime is a problem.

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