Write the Docs EU Berlin Unconference 2014 - Taking the Plunge

Written on July 27, 2014

Welcome to WTD Berlin Unconf

What do a technical writer, a JavaScript developer, a Drupal architect, a Plone hacker, and a Doctor of Philosophy have in common? Well, for one weekend in Berlin it was one thing: They all wanted to make better docs. And at the Write the Docs EU Unconference, they got to meet and share knowledge with other like-minded folks who wanted the same thing.

How did we get here?

Back in March I attended the first Write the Docs EU conference, and immediately knew I found my community. The attendees represented most walks of tech life and the atmosphere was collaborative and inclusive no matter which programming language you preferred or whether your client base was enterprise or home users.

When Kristof and I decided to organize the unconference, we knew that we wanted to recreate that same welcoming feeling but with the added twist of the unconference format, which would provide a more flexible framework for the attendees and would be easier to organize in the six weeks or so that we had.

Unconferences are fairly common in the FOSS communities, and they work in quite a simple way: You turn up in the morning, pitch your open-space session, and get sorted into a time slot. The sessions can take up any format *except* presentation, which means that the participants get a chance to actively contribute to discussions instead of sitting in the audience while one or two people are speaking.

The only deviation we had from the format was that we decided to invite a few speakers to talk about several key themes that we wanted to highlight throughout the event. We wanted the talks to act as catalysts for open-space session ideas and help encourage more focused discussions.

Community building

Write the Docs is an emerging community, having existed officially for less than two years. There are a lot of open questions and uncertainties that we need to address concerning our mission, organizational structure, and guidelines. But unlike most of the FOSS communities, Write the Docs has been growing out of the existing communities, which means that we can learn from the knowledge, experience, and horror stories of our predecessors.

Our speaker for this theme was Dr. Paul Adams from KDAB, who not only has been managing the KDE community for many years but actually wrote his PhD thesis on measuring communities. Paul’s talk was more focused on emerging communities (because we are), and he gave a great overview on the different focal points to consider when you examine how a community functions, what are its strong points and in which areas can it improve.

Tone and style

In a world where anyone can contribute to an open source project, oftentimes without a formal style guide or prior technical writing background, we tend to run into as many writing styles as there are contributors. Even in the enterprise market, the experience and knowledge levels of our users are getting so intricate that matching the tone of your content to the target audience is a delicate balancing act.

Back in Budapest, we got to hear Jessica Rose from Young Rewired State share her point of view on the good, bad, and ugly of documentation tone, and we believed that the topic would kick-start some interesting discussions around the topic. She gave great examples of end-user vs. developer documentation tones as well as tips on determining which tone is most appropriate.

We also brought back David Hooker from Prezi, who used amusing anecdotes from his life as a technical writer in a developer’s world to bring us some solid guidelines on communicating your message effectively to your readers. His talk delivered more general tips and tricks (keep it simple.. simple!), and resonated with the general trends in the tech fields towards lean, concise, no-nonsense content for readers who are getting smarter and less patient at roughly the same rate.

Life in the development ecosystem

As much as we love to geek out about docs, we don’t write in a vacuum. We are (or would like to be, in some cases) integrated with the software development cycle, and there are many gaps both in philosophy and practical workflow when we work with our developers that WTD aims to bridge.

One of the best aspects of WTD is that we have a strong presence of developers who feel exactly the same way. I was personally very happy to include two developer-driven talks this weekend, because I felt that they reflect the diverse professions and roles that WTD events attract.

The first talk was by Thomas Parisot, a JavaScript developer from BBC UK, who brought us a case-study on README-driven development. Thomas talked about how creating the README first forces the development team to examine the success criteria of the project from the users’ perspective: If we can’t describe what our code can do for our users, then how can we be sure that it is useful?

The second talk was by Honza Král from ElasticSearch (our Saturday party sponsors, more detailed thanks at the end of the post), who gave us an interesting look into ElasticSearch’s journey to create multilingual API specs and descriptions. Even though the talk didn’t directly discuss end-user documentation, it was a great example of the steps that open source companies are taking to encourage contributors by creating well-documented templates and guidelines.

Open-space sessions

Unfortunately, being the event organizer meant that I didn’t get a chance to attend many of the sessions. Luckily, our attendees took care to document the discussions in Etherpads, and we now have a great database of topics and ideas that all can enjoy! I’ll be studying these in the next weeks to try and extrapolate ideas for future projects and experiments.

The session topics were wonderfully diverse, ranging from community building to continuous integration and even a session on how to become a technical writer! The session attendance was around 7-12 people per session, which seemed to be a great size for focused brainstorming and knowledge-sharing.

Ok ok, there’s no graceful way to segway into the post-conference thanks, so I’m just going to dive right in:

Venue

Wikimedia Deutschland’s dedicated event space was the perfect setting for us. The multi-room, multi-functional, well-equipped (albeit a bit warm in the afternoons) venue gave us the freedom to set up the session spaces in a flexible way while the large room served the main talks.

Their organization was impeccable and we are extremely lucky to have been able to book the space in such short notice, especially considering the multitute of Open Knowledge Festival and EuroPython fringe events that were happening during that weekend.

Sponsors

Thanks to Red Hat we were able to offer our attendees drinks and snacks throughout the days of the conference (even Club Mate! geeking out in style). ElasticSearch joined the fun too and sponsored our Saturday party, and our community sponsorship tickets helped us treat our folks to a few rounds on Friday and Sunday.

Media partner

We were very fortunate to partner with VoiceRepublic, who’ve streamed massive conferences such as LinuxTag, to stream and record our main talks during the weekend. They perform a great service for the tech communities by making the content accessible to all, whether you’re listening live or checking it out later.

What’s next?

There are many lessons to be learned from this experience, both for us as a growing community and for me personally as an organizer. The feedback we received from our attendees was both positive and constructive, and we’ve been having some internal discussions about how we can fine-tune the format to make the next unconference even better!

Even though the unconference was relatively small compared to the main WTD conferences, we had a good percentage of newcomers who were as excited to discover their new community home as I was back in Budapest, and that’s one of my personal missions for the foreseeable future: To introduce Write the Docs to the tech world, one user group at a time.

But before we can announce more details about the next unconference (although I will give you a subtle hint as to the location and the date-range), I still had a Django Girls workshop to complete and EuroPython to attend. More blog posts on those mind-blowing experiences in the coming days! For now, you can go through the Write the Docs Twitter feed to reminisce on all the fun memories…