TCCS #2: How I became a Technical Writer with Cynthia Peter

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. The goal is to inspire, motivate, and hopefully impact you.

This month my guest was Cynthia Peter. Cynthia is currently a Technical Writer at Sterling One bank and The [at] company. At these companies, she works primarily on internal documentation.

In this episode, she talked about her journey to becoming a technical writer and some tips on how to get gigs on Upwork and scale technical writing interviews. She also talked about her struggles as an undergraduate and teaching computer science to secondary school students in a remote village in Delta State, Nigeria.

Fun fact: Cynthia knows a bit of Chinese, Spanish, and Polish.

Me: Hi Cynthia, thank you for making time out for this. First question, how did you get into technical writing?

(Disclaimer: brace yourself and maybe get some popcorn. I was hoping for a trailer, but Cynthia gave us the whole movie)

Cynthia: I studied Computer Science at Federal Polytechnic, Oko, from 2012 to 2017. At first, I didn't like the course, but I just went ahead with it because I didn't want to stay at home with my parents for a year. Back then, despite my lack of exposure, I knew I didn't want to work a 'normal' job. I wanted to work from home, but I didn't know-how. So when I found out that working from home was a possibility with computers, I became more interested in it.

Fast-forward to my internship year in 2015. My father wanted me to intern at a bank, but I refused and told him I wanted to learn programming. I was taught outdated programming languages and theory in school, so I wanted something more practical. That was how I enrolled in a program at a coding centre. It was at this program that I learnt HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and a bit of PhotoShop. But, I had a bit of a harassment issue, so I stopped going.

After my internship year, I went back to complete my degree and returned as a blogger.

Me: A blogger? How?

Cynthia: So, during my program at the centre, because I had access to unlimited internet, I was googling and learning about other stuff — copywriting, blogging, and just writing in general. I went back to school, and I started writing for this blog. My pay was two thousand naira per month to write at least 10 articles on trending news and gossip.

Me: Wait! Two thousand naira? What year was this?

Cynthia: Oh, this was 2016 - 2017, and to me, I was balling yunno. After a while, I quit and started my own blog. But I got hacked, which was quite painful because I had over $300 in my Google AdSense.

But then I finished school and went back home. My next plan was to travel abroad, but my parents couldn't afford it, so I enrolled in a Chinese class. Lol, I just thought that learning Chinese would one day give me an opportunity to travel out. I have my HSK1, HSK2, and HSK3 certificates.

After that, I went for my NYSC service. During my service year, I was posted to a remote village in Delta state to teach computer science to children who had never seen a computer before. It was crazy, I had no clue how to go about it, and it was evident that they did not understand what I was saying. But something changed. I noticed that cassava processing was a major activity in the village, so I used an analogy of processing cassava to explain how a computer works to the children. I was like, "you all know how you take cassava in bags to the processing farm, put the cassava in the processing machine, and it gives you a paste in return; that's exactly how a computer functions". And they were all like, "oh, that's what you mean by computer is an electronic device that processes data".

Now, I like to think that that was my intro to technical writing — like my technical writing 101. Being able to break down those technical concepts and processes to the level of understanding of my target audience (which were the students).

That phase passed. In 2019, I finished service, and I moved to Port Harcourt. One day, I tagged along with a friend to his workplace. While I was there, they were brainstorming about an e-store app they wanted to build. I started asking questions about scenarios that they weren't considering in their discussion from the corner where I was seated. Then the CEO beckoned on me to come closer. My friend had previously mentioned that I write, so he asked me if I'll be willing to write for them — like documenting the product. It was an unpaid engagement. But, I got free internet, and it was here that I started learning flutter because the CEO bought me a flutter course.

Me: Wow, awesome. That was literally just you being at the right place at the right time and offering value. So, what happened next?

Cynthia: So covid came, and I went back home to my parents' house. I started writing on Upwork. The day I made my first $40, I felt like a million bucks. While doing this, I was still learning flutter and tweeting about what I was learning. Then someday, a guy reaches out to me. He's like, "Hey, we're looking for a junior flutter developer to join us for a 3-month contract". That was how I got my first dev job.

Now, something interesting happened afterwards. I didn't want to stay jobless, so I started looking for jobs — anything at all. Someone referred me to this particular job (flutter dev too). After working throughout December —even on Christmas day — I was paid N15,340.

Me: Huh? N15,340?

Cynthia: Yeah, so I quit the job and took LinkedIn seriously. I revamped my profile and started putting out content regularly. Content on anything could be on how I was feeling that day or my hot take on a trending topic. It paid off, and my LinkedIn page started growing. Then one day, somebody reached out to me like, "Hey Cynthia, my company is looking for a Technical Writer, and I'd like you to apply". That was how I joined Sterling Bank. Last quarter of 2021, The @ company reached out too, and that was how I joined them.

Me: Wow, that's one hell of a story. Like, companies are the ones who reach out to you. Must be nice.

Cynthia: Really, my reality is a consolidation of all the experiences I've had in the past. So when people compliment my writing now, it's because I've had enough practice.

Me: So, let's go back a bit. You mentioned writing on Upwork. For someone who wants to try to get gigs on Upwork, what are things they can do to better position themselves?

Cynthia: Getting your first job on Upwork is hard, so I'll advise starting with the lower-priced gigs. The thing is, people will only give you jobs when you already have something to show — like reviews. My first gig was for $5. I didn't mind because the client gave me a 5-star rating and a good review after that gig. Afterwards, it was a bit easier to get slightly better-paying gigs because I had been vouched for via the review I received.

Another tip is to bring your bio down to a niche. On Upwork, employers are looking for very specific things like API Documentation, Technical Content Strategist, e.t.c. Don't just put 'Writer' on your profile.

My last tip is to make sure that the first two lines of your proposals are catchy. This is because of the layout of the Upwork employer dashboard. So employers see all applicants' proposals in a vertically card stacked layout. Each card has the freelancer's name, their title, and the first two lines of their proposals. If the employer likes what they see, they'll expand the card. Sometimes, they'll ask applicants to put certain keywords as the first word in their proposals in the job ad. They know most people don't read job ads thoroughly. So that becomes a vetting criterion.

Me: Right. Let's talk about interviewing. What tips can you give someone preparing for a technical writer interview based on your interviewing experience?

Cynthia: So, for Sterling, I was asked how much I knew about what I would be doing in the role. Before the interview day, I had done my own research about what technical writing within the confines of such an entity meant. It was all about internal documentation, recording processes and features, and so on. So when I was asked how much I knew about writing API docs, I told them that while I do not have experience writing API docs, I've used API's before, I knew how they work, so it wouldn't be difficult for me to learn how to document them. I learned on the job using Stripe, PayStack, and Flutterwave documentation as inspirations.

So, I'd say do your research, sell your strengths, and showcase willingness to learn.

For my second job in the @ company, the interview was in 3 stages. The first one was with the person that reached out to me alongside two other people. It was more of chitchat and getting to know me better. The second one was with the people who worked in marketing, social media, and QA. It was a chat too. The third stage, which was more difficult, was the three co-founders. Midway, they asked me what the last thing I wrote was, and I sent them an NFT article I wrote on my blog. They liked the article so much that they offered me the job on the spot. Meanwhile, they said that they'd get back to me in a few days with their verdict before that.

So, my next tip would be to always to be learning and have sample articles that you can show. Like a technical writing portfolio.

Me: Thanks. For my last question, what advice would you give to someone trying to break into technical writing?

Cynthia: First advice would be: if you're from a non-technical background, take an introduction to programming course, or get a programming for dummies book. You'll be working in the software development ecosystem, so it's important that you know how they work.

Next is to create a blog using something like Hashnode and start writing. Write about things you're learning. If you're from technical background then just start writing. You get better at writing by writing. And also opportunities can find you while you're doing that. For instance, that NFT article I wrote got me a discord moderator gig.

Me: Nice one. Now before I let you go, based on all the experiences you've had, what's your biggest life lesson or a mantra that you live by?

Cynthia: That would be: Be willing to learn. Be willing to test yourself. Be willing to go beyond what you know. Evolve.

You can connect with Cynthia on Twitter and checkout her blog.

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