Interview with Gaurav Nelson

Gaurav is a technical writer who transitioned from working as a software developer. He has been writing software documentation for over ten years now.

Key takeaways

  • Learn and understand technologies related to technical writing such as Git, markup languages (Markdown, AsciiDoc, RST, and others), API documentation, and associated tools.
  • Build a portfolio by writing blog posts about your learning and contributing to open source documentation projects.
  • Participate in communities, share what you know and learn what you don’t.

What is the story of your technical writing career so far?

In college, I studied computer science, and then I got my first role as a programmer. It was a software support role and involved fixing bugs that users report. It was much different from what I had expected it to be in college. However, in the same organization, there was a content writing group working on Windows 7, which hadn’t been released at that time. And I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s so cool. Their job lets them work with new technology before anyone else.” So I started talking to the different people on the content team and then transitioned into that team in around five months. That role involved creating both marketing and technical content for Microsoft, and therefore, all the documentation was in Microsoft Word. In that role I created marketing content like FAQs, competitive studies, elevator pitches, etc. I also created technical guides such as installation guides, administration guides, and user guides for different Microsoft products. Because I had a technical background, I focused on the technical writing side of things and later worked on technical documentation for products like SQL Server and Exchange Server.

I was there for about three years and worked a few other jobs afterward working in similar technical writing roles until October 2016. At that time, I was looking for a change and found this perfect opportunity from Red Hat. While working with them, I started learning about all the different documentation tools and workflows. I had experience with Git and Markdown before joining Red Hat, but I had never used it for documentation. Then in 2018, Red Hat laid off the Australian writing team. I worked on a contract for about three months, and currently, I work full-time remotely for a startup called StackRox, a container security platform. I got this job through Write the Docs #job-posts-only channel.

Did you have experience writing before studying computer science and becoming a developer?

No, didn’t have much experience. I learned everything in my first year. When I started writing, I had a lot of help from a senior content writer on my team. She would edit my articles, give me reviews. I developed a good relationship with her, and she would sit with me to review my content. And when I started, I wasn’t that good. But once you start doing it, and learn from your mistakes, eventually you’ll get it. I still study style guides, like from Google, IBM, Microsoft, Chicago, and others. Whenever I write, I make time to take three passes at my content. In the first pass, I write what I feel like writing about a topic. Then I do a second pass based on a style guide, sometimes with tools such as write-good, Vale, and the Hemmingway app. Then I’ll do a third pass for final edits.

You may not be the best writer around, but if you accept your flaws and learn from your mistakes, I think that’s all there is to it, you can learn anything.

Is software development still a part of your life and would you consider going back into that field?

Yes, I still program, but I enjoy writing more. And the software development I do now is focused on writing and developing tools for writers. After joining Red Hat, and getting to know the development tools and the DocOps tool chain, I wanted to explore that area. I noticed that people who are good at writing hate Git. Even I don’t like to use Git myself. For example, when there are merge conflicts, it’s tough to understand what’s going on. I’ve seen people spend a lot of time struggling with technical challenges when they could be writing. So I want to make life easier for writers. I see myself continuing to be a writer, but also like working on the documentation tools side of things.

What advice do you have for aspiring technical writers looking to break into the field?

First and foremost, learning technology is a must, like Git and markup languages. The second thing would be, whether you are a developer or writer in some other role, build your portfolio. For example,when you are learning about a new tool, write a blog post about what you’ve learned. Share that with the writing community and ask for reviews. By doing something like this, you can participate in tech writing communities, share your work, and also get feedback. Aside from blog posts, contributing to open source documentation is also an excellent way to build your portfolio. Look for the smaller projects when you are looking to contribute to open source documentation projects. I’m not saying you shouldn’t contribute to the big and famous projects, but it is much easier to start with a smaller project. In October, GitHub organizes Hacktoberfest. That’s an easy way to get started. The third thing I would say is to participate in communities, Write the Docs and other LinkedIn writing communities. And make sure to not only join online but also in real life, attend events, meet people. If there is a conference or a meetup that you can go to, make time to visit it. These events are great opportunities to learn, meet people, and maybe even get a job.

Gaurav goes by gnelson on the Write the Docs Slack group. You can find him in the #web-development, #testthedocs and #style-guides channels.