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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2011, A Year In Review

I like long years. Really. Yes, I complain about when things seem to drag out far longer than they should, or if I’m busting my arse far harder than I think I should. That’s part of being human, no? In the end, though, I like long years because I get to look back and not worry about how quickly time has flown by. Time should never fly by quickly — it means I’ve missed something, and … well, darn it, I just hate missing things!
This last year was a big one for me in one major way: it was a redefinition of my professional existence. Since the end of 2009, I’ve transformed from a professional manager to a … hmm … well, my title (however formal it needs to be) is “Solutions Lead”, but that belies a lot of what I do every day, and just using “web developer” or “programmer” — even with a “Senior” prefix — completely understates the reality. This year was really about taking all the skills and knowledge I’d acquired as a leader, and merging that back into my day-to-day development practices.
And that, as the saying goes, was only the tip of the iceberg…
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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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2010, A Year in Review

Man, it feels like a year ago since I last wrote one of these … oh, wait.  (Yes, it’s a stupid joke. You should know me by now…)
2010 was the year we made contact … wait, sorry, wrong catchline. 2010 was the year my family welcomed new members, notably my youngest, a daughter (code)named Choo Choo. It was a year I changed my career outlook (yes, again), and found that I’m not (completely) useless. This was a year of family, for me, and that’s perhaps the most important aspect.
But despite all that, I hesitate to call it “a year of change”.
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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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My WordPress pet peeve

I have a pet peeve with WordPress. (Actually, I have a few, but we’ll get to the rest later.) This one, I’ll admit, is limited to those of us who develop with WordPress. In short, WordPress hard-codes domains in its database. Worse-still, some parts of WordPress (and a few plugins) save the server’s full internal filepath as part of their operations.
The average person who just installs and starts using WordPress right away won’t ever see this. It’s only when you try to move the installation to another domain name (such as if you moved your blog from “www.mysite.com” to “blog.mysite.com”), or if you move to a new service provider (and the internal file paths change) that it becomes painfully visible.
And, although I do love you WordPress, this is something that’s gotta change.
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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 VisitCalgary.com. 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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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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A good programmer is lazy, not stupid

I say this, in one form or another, to developers I manage. I’ve said it for years, and I’ll continue to say it until I’m proven horribly, horribly wrong. Which, until I leave this industry, is not likely to happen.  My belief is simple: when you work in a time and materials-based industry, such as marketing, you’re not being paid to do everything new. You’re being paid to deliver a solid solution as quickly and effectively as possible.
The problem, however, is that programmers like to create. It’s what makes a programmer a programmer — I know, because I used to be one. (Then I turned to the Dark Side, but that’s another story.) Programmers like to do things themselves.
But good programmers — at least in this business — try to as little work as possible.
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I wouldn't have done it that way

I’ve recently run into a common programming problem. While turning a development project over to another development agency, we heard that worst of comments:

Why did you build it that way?

It seems like a simple question. But it belies it’s true meaning. What they’re really saying is:

We wouldn’t have done that. This design is bad.

It’s a completely valid point. And you know what? I probably already thought that same thing.
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