Write the Docs EU 2014, the beginning of my journey as a documentarian

Written on May 17, 2014

Welcome to the first post in my new blog! Here I shall attempt to document my journey as a writer and documentarian in the world of open source communities, hopefully with some degree of entertainment and insight.

Also, I’m aware that I’m extremely late to jump on the post-conference blogsphere, but I only decided to start blogging last week, so I’m actually pretty snappy. And besides that, without the back-story that this conference provides, how will my potential readers (all 3 of them) know what kick-started my adventures as a documentarian?

Write the Docs EU was the first European conference dedicated to documentation that wasn’t organized by one of the old-time writers guilds (STC et al). It was run by Eric Holscher from Read the Docs, Troy Howard from Twitter, and Ruth Buchanan from Atlassian.

They already unlocked the achievement of the first Write the Docs conference in Portland, OR, which just celebrated its 2nd edition last week. Write the Docs also has a growing number of meetups in the US, with EU meetups coming up *very* soon (hint hint, nudge wink wink).

The documentarians come to Europe

The 2-day conference was held in Budapest, Hungary, and was kindly hosted by Prezi (a very cool company who makes presentation software) in their self-titled “House of Ideas” (apparently it’s what the kids call “company headquarters” nowadays).

One of the advantages of the venue was that, being home to presentation software makers, it had superb infrastructure for giving presentations. So we got to enjoy things like head mics, clickers, a bright white wall as the “screen”, 16:9 projectors, and monitors (to help the presenter avoid the usual neck twists).

The only thing they didn’t have was a VGA cable, so I had to apologize to my dumbed-down Lenovo and use a MacBook. Which reminds me, I’m now on the hunt for a good and affordable clicker. Suggestions?

How did I end up there?

About 2 months before the conference, my manager approached me out of the blue and announced that there’s a cool new conference about documentation and that he wants me to give a talk.

Having been a performer all my life I’m not unfamiliar with the stage, so making the transition from singing and dancing to standing around talking about technology seemed like a natural extension of my existing skills.

Now I just needed to figure out what I can talk about without sounding like the n00b that I was! I only joined Red Hat in October 2013, which was my first glimpse into the open source world, and I’m hardly an engineer or technical guru.

After digging around my mental database, I realized that the best starting point for me would be to talk about what was, up until recently, a highly critical part of my job – Agile development.

In my previous job I was a scrum master as well as a technical writer in a ScrumBan product team, and I always found the agile principles relevant and applicable to other areas of my job.

One thing led to another, and I ended up gave a talk about Agile methodologies and how I, as a writer, can incorporate them into my daily workflow and use them as inspiration to make my job easier.

How did it go?

Well, it being my first-ever tech talk, I made lots of n00b mistakes (apparently you need your slides to have content in order to remember what you’re talking about), but the audience was friendly and forgiving, and I feel like I managed to engage them, whether with information or with theatrical flare. Oh yeah, and I made people get up and do stuff. That (almost) always works!

I won’t post the slides from my talk in this post, as I updated and improved them since and gave the same talk at LinuxTag Berlin (and that’s a different blog post altogether). I will, however, share a summary of my talk as written and posted by Andrew Spittle, who was a ninja at summarizing all the talks at the conference!

I also gave an impromptu lightning talk with Kristof van Tomme, a brilliant Drupal-head Belgian living in Hungary, who turned out to be another DITA authoring enthusiast and decided that between the two of us we could give a quick overview of DITA and why it’s cool. (Why *is* it cool??? Maybe I’ll write a post about it at some point…).

That was an exciting experience on its own, because we didn’t practice anything and I had no idea what was in his slides! But it went smoothly and we managed to survive a 5-minute slot. It almost felt like PowerPoint karaoke, and I was happy to have the chance to improvise and think on my feet.

The emerging documentarian community

WTD EU brought around 120 attendees from all over Europe and the US, and held about 26 talks (as well as around 12 impromptu lightning talks). Red Hat had a pretty respectable delegation from our Brno, CZ office, including my doc team leader Fintan Bolton, who also gave a great talk about community documentation. Represent!

One of the greatest advantages of this conference was that it had a single track, which meant that everyone got a chance to hear all the talks and people didn’t have to start picking and choosing between talks.

This led to a lot of inside jokes in later talks that referred to earlier talks, which made the presenters very happy to know that the information they communicated to the attendees was retained at least to a degree that it can be made fun of.

The organizers who brought the conference to Europe from the US explained that the reason they’re getting these events up and running is because they see that the ”word people” don’t have a home. Troy summed it up perfectly in this blog post where he defines the term “Documentarian” for the first time in this new context:

A documentarian is someone who wants to share something with someone, looks at a blank screen, and knows what should be there.

A documentarian uses the tools of code, technical writing, and visual design to create engaging learning experiences that work well for a wide variety of people.

A documentarian is more than an intersection of skills; it’s someone with empathy for the learner, and a unique vision for the accessibility of difficult topics.

A documentarian does more than describing what’s there; they explain how to use it in a way that you can understand it.

I love this post and I constantly re-read it every time I need some inspiration or motivation to pursue my plan for world domination with documentation (for da nation). And when you think about it, Troy and the other organizers are absolutely right.

Why do I even care?

As a technical writer, I always felt like a second-class citizen in the development process. Now that I’m an open source writer the gap is even more blatant, and when I travel to a tech conferences I am often greeted with a lukewarm shoulder when folks find out that I’m “that doc person”.

This was the first time that we had non-writers as guests at OUR conference, and we were much friendlier to them, because we know how they feel! Besides, if you shove 120 communicators into a single conference and they *don’t* interact well with others, then they should consider a change of career!

So you end up spending 2 days (or in my case, more like 5 because I arrived early) with some of the best technical communicators in Europe and the US (whether it’s writers, editors, designers, community managers), listening to their experience and insight, sharing ideas and brainstorming during the breaks.

After Prezi kicked us out every evening, the documentarian tribe continued to bond informally, mostly roaming around Budapest, eating and drinking, laughing a lot and generally have a brilliant fun time!

I mean, how often do you go to a conference where someone uses the conference hashtag to announce dinner plans and 10 people actually show up and end up pub crawling until the wee hours of the night?

I think there may have only been 1 or 2 people that I didn’t personally shake their hands or had an interesting or funny conversation with at some point during the conference, and at no point did I feel like I didn’t belong, which was refreshing and welcome to this “docs person”.

Why doesn’t everybody else also care?

Having been a writer since 2009 for different companies, I’ve seen how documentation is normally positioned within the company and how it’s perceived in the tech world. Most of the time we’re shoved between R&D, enablement, ops, or some other “miscellaneous” department.

Since I joined Red Hat and discovered the open source community, I’m happy that I’m at a company that probably nurtures and invests the most in their writers out of all the companies that I know. Not so much in the open source community, though…

I see now that technical communicators don’t really have their own voice in the communities, even though the need for coherent, concise, and *useful* content increases all the time. Why don’t the documentarians have a home?

There are folks out there who contribute documentation to open source projects without nearly as much support as their developer counterparts. I met community managers in conferences like FOSDEM and DevConf.cz who desperately asked me for advice on not only how to improve their community docs, but also how to engage more contributors.

Many communities lack unified tooling and standards, and some of the more established communities lack contributors because the tooling and standards involve such a steep learning curve that on-boarding new writers doesn’t seem like it’s worth the hassle. Try to find a hackathon with a documentation sprint in Europe, and you’ll end up with a pretty short list.

The new documentarians care!

Many talks at WTD EU discussed possible tooling solutions and standards for writing, delivering, and optimizing content, and you can really see the pain bubbling up from the communities and companies.

After the talks ended, we would sit there for hours brainstorming cross-technology collaborations, interesting new tricks for achieving this process or that, without so much as a hint of competitiveness or self-righteousness, a-la “you’re doing it wrong”, because we all just want to do it *well*, together.

Every single person I met at the conference really cared about the words that we share with the world. It’s not just product documentation, it’s Web typography, FAQ tone, UX design, and the list goes on.

Every single person that I spoke with during that conference seemed to express their frustration with the lack of a unified voice, standards, and tools in the community, not to mention the lack of a community feeling among the documentarians. As Troy described it, it’s a “community that doesn’t see itself”.

I believe that as a Red Hatter, where the heart of open source software beats (not bleeds), I’m quite lucky to be at a central hub for technology innovation and community collaboration. I can’t predict the future (that wouldn’t be very agile of me!), but I hope to contribute to a future where documentarians from all open source communities collaborate and innovate around technical communication of all kinds.

Whether I act upon this vision within Red Hat or in my spare time (whatever is left of it), is yet to be seen. There are a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head, and only two hands to type them all up with… But I drank the documentarian kool-aid. I’m already involved, and I will contribute to raising documentation awareness in the European tech communities, one perfectly-formatted and proofred task step at a time.

Docs or it didn’t happen!