The Tech Content Creator Series is a monthly interview series in which I interview people in technical content creation roles (i.e. technical writers, documentation engineers, developer advocates, and what have you) about their careers. My hope is for their stories to inspire, motivate, and hopefully impact you.
My guest for this episode was Amruta Ranade. Amruta is an OG in the technical writing field. She holds a masters degree in technical communication and has worked as a Technical Writer for over ten years, progressing from Technical Writer to Senior Technical Writer to Staff Technical Writer to Developer Advocate and back to Staff Technical Writer.
In this episode, she talks about how her transition from Technical Writer to Developer Advocate back to Technical Writer. She also shares how she ensures growth in her career and other insightful career advice that you would find helpful.
Sit back and enjoy!
Me: Let's talk about your career journey. How did you get started in technical writing up to where you are now?
Amruta: So, my first degree was in Electronic Engineering back in 2009 and my first job out of college was as a VLSI Project Engineer. At this job, one of my responsibilities was to create datasheets for VLSI Power chips. I realised that I enjoyed the datasheet writing aspect of the job to the electronics side of the job.
So, I quit that job and got my first full-time job as a technical writer for Symantec. I did a summer course on technical writing in college, so I knew what was expected. At Symantec, I worked on end-user documentation.
After working at Symantec for about 2 years, I came across this opportunity for internal engineering documentation for a startup called Druva. The CTO of the company designed the entire system. He found himself talking about the same thing repeatedly, so he decided to hire a technical writer to write all of that stuff, so he could focus on his actual job. As someone with an engineering background, this sounded more exciting, so I quit my job at Symantec.
After I had worked as a self-taught technical writer for about 5 years, I said to myself "if I am going to do this for the rest of my career, I should probably get some education on this". At that time, there were no technical writing graduate programs that I knew of in India, so I started looking abroad. I found one in Missouri, USA. I applied and was accepted, and after two years of study, I received my masters degree in Technical Communication.
Following my graduation, I applied for and was hired for a developer documentation position at Cockroach Labs, which had a mix of internal engineering and end-user documentation. I worked there for almost 5 years and recently left to join Airbyte as their first technical writer to build out the technical writing team.
Me: Did getting a masters in Technical communication significantly impact your career? Also, is it something you think people that want to really invest in building a robust Technical Writing based career should go for?
Amruta: It did, but not in the way that you would expect. It helped me understand and unpack why all the best practices of technical writing that I knew of were, in fact, the best practices.
I think I gained a lot from my masters degree because I already had experience as a technical writer. It made me a better technical writer. But, if I didn't have a degree in technical writing, the masters degree would not have served me as well as it did.
So a masters is not a prerequisite to having a successful technical writing career. But it's an option to consider if your want to expand your knowledge after you've gotten fundamental experience.
Me: Do you think your masters degree tips the scales in your favour in the job hunting phase?
Amruta: That's a very good question considering that I'm hiring now, and I'm wondering if I should give more attention to resumes with certificates.
Honestly, I think I would base the decision on their portfolio. If you have a master's degree and don't have a strong portfolio, it is merely a stamp on a paper.
Me: OK. Tricky question. Assume you have two candidates with comparable portfolios and depth of expertise. However, one holds a master's degree in technical communication while the other does not. Which will you choose?
Amruta: I will invite both of them to the interview. Again a master's degree can get you in the door for an interview. Still, if you don't perform well, it's equivalent to having a degree but not being able to do the job.
The interview will show who is more suited to the job. The interview will evaluate collaboration skills, time management skills, and other important skills that you don't necessarily get from a masters degree.
Me: Let's talk about your career switch from technical writer to developer advocate. How did that happen and what inspired you to take that decision?
Amruta: I had spent like 10 years in Technical Writing, and I got bored. I had moved from senior to staff, and it felt like I had climbed every career ladder, and the next thing was to move to management. But I was way too burnt out on tech writing to be a good manager at that point.
Developer advocacy is the shiny thing at this time. I had a youtube channel that I so much enjoy, so I thought to myself, 'hey, my current skills align with the necessary skills for this role'.
My manager was incredibly supportive, and so he was like, "OK, go try it, if you don't like it, you can come back". As I found out, I didn't really enjoy it, but I feel like I would have regretted it if I didn't try it out.
Me: When you became a developer advocate at Cockroach Labs, were they hiring for the role, or was the role created just for you?
Amruta: Before I officially became a developer advocate role at Cockroach Labs, I had been doing the duties of a developer advocate for a year.
At Cockroach Labs, we have a culture where Fridays are reserved for experimenting or doing something outside your everyday job obligations. So, during my time as a Staff Tech writer, I used my Fridays to dabble into the duties of a developer advocate for a whole year (creating articles, Twitter memes, hackathons, e.t.c), before I convinced the company that it should be an actual role.
When they agreed to the role, they interviewed me and passed because I mean, I had been doing the job for a year. I held the developer advocate role officially for a year before deciding that it wasn't for me.
Me: What made you realise that dev advocacy was not for you?
Amruta: In my opinion, the developer advocacy role needs to evolve. Currently, there are a lot of blurry lines, and a lot of things get dumped on developer advocates, which can get very overwhelming. Also, the job involves a lot of administration.
The thing I missed the most with tech writing is there is an end date; you have a release, you write the documentation, and you're done. With developer advocacy, it was like there was never an end in sight.
However, this experience helped me become a better technical writer. I got to see how developers used the documentation I had written actually to do the things they needed. It gave me a developer awareness that I previously did not have.
Me: While writing documentation, have you had to write demo code? And how did you handle that?
Amruta: I ask the developers to do it or contract it out to a development agency. I can build a demo app, but that wouldn't be a very good use of my time because there are other people who can do it better and faster than me. So, I let them, and I focus on creating the content.
Me: Does your company make provision for funds to hire agencies?
Amruta: Yes. As an immigrant, I am quite frugal. Initially, I was like, 'I should learn it and do it'. But my CMO at Cockroach and my manager at Airbyte were like, "that's not a good use of time. We have the money, and we need you to focus on the job that you're good at".
Me: How do you measure the relevance of what you do. What gives you satisfaction? For example, software developers build products and can see users use it and how it impacts them.
Amruta: I'll answer this on a personal level because I don't have a universal answer. At Cockroach, my satisfaction came from feedback from our users calling out how good our documentation is. That was the motivation for me, seeing that what I do makes someone's life easier.
Before that at Druva, which was like an internal thing, I'd have engineers walk up to me like, 'oh hey, that document you created yesterday, thank you'. I even won an award.
Me: Based on your experiences, what resources would you recommend for someone who wants to pursue a career in technical writing?
Amruta: I have resources in the form of books and communities.
However, you can watch videos and read all the blogs, but you won't get far if you don't practice.
If you want to become a technical writer, write technical documents. There's no other way around it. Write a how-to guide on how to play wordle or a conceptual document on what NFTs are. This will help you find out if its something you even like.
You don't become a technical writer by getting a technical writing job. You become a technical writer before getting the official title. I feel like people get too hung up on how do I get a job without wanting to do what it takes to become a technical writer who can now get a job as a tech writer.
Also, hang out in forums where technical writers hang out. Participate in discussions, and learn more about the industry.
Me: How do you ensure growth in this career path? What does one need to do to ensure that they keep on growing in skills and rank?
Amruta: This may sound quite controversial, but my answer is job-hopping. The longest I've stayed in a company was Cockroach Labs, and that's cos I moved roles.
I think 2 - 3 years is enough time to learn what you can in a company or a particular role. For me, every 2-3 years, I re-evaluate to see if it's still what I want to do. You have to be honest with yourself. You'll know when you're getting stagnant.
There are two aspects of growth in a career: title and pay. It's easier to get a title level-up at your current company but if you want a salary level-up, go to another company.
I went from Senior to Staff in Cockroach Labs, but the significant pay raise came when I switched jobs. Every time I job hopped, my salary has almost always doubled. In the tech industry, that's the only substantial way that I know of to get significant raises.
Me: You've moved from technical writer to senior technical writer to staff technical writer. How did you convince management that it was time for you to move to the next level?
Amruta: I'm always honest with my managers. Suppose there's a performance review coming up next year, and I'm expecting a promotion. I start letting them know from this year that I would like to be promoted, asking what I can do to get there.
You get a promotion when you're already performing at that level. It's not an 'oh come and do this job', it's an 'oh you're already doing this job, alright, here's the title to go along with it'.
Me: Let's talk about career progression. Say someone has been a technical writer for a few years and wants to move into another vertical in the software industry. What roles can they comfortably move into based on their skillset (I know developer advocacy is one)?
Amruta: You can move in product management or agile coaching (popular in the indian ecosystem). There's also UX writing roles or full time management.
Me: Last question, do you have any tips or unpopular opinions you would like to share?
Amruta: Oh, I have a popular opinion that I don't tend to voice out a lot. Technical writing is a very nice field, with a really really welcoming community.
If you're interested in building your technical writing portfolio, Amruta has a portfolio building workshop. Also, check out her YouTube channel.
See you at the next episode!