The Unseen Advantage of UX Education for Technical Writers

The Unseen Advantage of UX Education for Technical Writers

The Tech Content Creator Series is a monthly interview series where I chat with industry leaders in various technical content creation roles (technical writers, documentation engineers, developer advocates, and what have you) about their careers. It's like chatting over a cup of coffee with a mentor.

“…When I started in technical writing, I strictly followed best practices and prescriptive grammar rules because everyone else did. However, gaining experience in user experience design taught me the reasons behind these practices and their benefits to users. This not only deepened my understanding, but also sparked my passion for these principles. It also led me to question some of the best practices that were without base that I had previously blindly followed.”

From Intern to Associate, Principal, Manager, and now Senior Technical Writer at MongoDB, Corry Root has climbed through all possible career levels and emerged victorious.

On a random Friday afternoon in January 2024, Corry and I got to chat about her impressive career and the lessons she's learned while scaling through levels. We discussed a range of topics, including mentorship, transitioning into management, AI and other emerging trends in technical communication, and the use of self-directed learning as a tool for success.

This article summarizes the key insights gained from our conversation.

Corry's Career Journey into Technical Writing

One thing I find fascinating is uncovering how people came to settle on their career choices. It’s such an intriguing discovery for me because as a high schooler and even up to my college days, I never knew what career I wanted to venture into. My career seems to have found me rather than the other way around.

By asking people how they came about their career choice, I hope to uncover patterns that might guide others in discovering their strengths and potential careers too.

From high school, Corry knew she wanted to write, but wasn't sure which genre to focus on. So, she decided to major in English for her undergraduate studies. The major covered various writing styles, including creative writing, nonfiction, and technical communication. It was here that she discovered her affinity for technical writing.

While exploring these specialization, she discovered her interest in the technical writing track. As she stated, "I love writing. I love being creative. But I also am very logical and gravitate towards technology.”

To further test out if technical writing was really the career for her, in her junior year of college, she got an internship with a company called Phase Forward (now acquired by Oracle), a company building clinical trial software, where she helped out with writing documentation. She ended up loving it, and went back for her senior year with a hard conviction that technical writing was exactly what she wanted.

After her senior year, Phase Forward made Corry an offer to join them. She accepted, and as they say, the rest is history.

Some key learnings from Corry’s career discovery process:

  • Consider experimenting with available internships or volunteer opportunities to explore a specific career paths you may be curious about. No knowledge is ever wasted and you get to find out what you like and don’t like.

The Role of User Experience Education in Technical Writing

Understanding UX design principles aids technical communicators in creating user-centered documentation, which ensures that the people who use (or should use) what you write, can find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they find to meet their needs.

After several years at Phase Forward, Corry began to reconsider her future in technical writing. She was developing an interest in usability testing and user experience design and was contemplating shifting her focus in that direction.

Fortunately, Phase Forward offered tuition reimbursement, so she enrolled in a Master's program in Human Factors and Information Design at Bentley University. She pursued her Master's degree for three years while working full time.

Eventually, she realized that although she appreciated and gained much from her masters, she truly enjoyed writing and was not as interested in transitioning to UX design. Nevertheless, she believes that this foundation allowed her to view technical writing in a new light.

I asked her if her user experience knowledge gave her an edge as a technical writer, and she readily confirmed saying:

“Absolutely. It set me apart. When I started in technical writing, I strictly followed best practices and prescriptive grammar rules because everyone else did. However, gaining experience in user experience design taught me the reasons behind these practices and their benefits to users. This not only deepened my understanding, but also sparked my passion for these principles. It also led me to question some of the best practices that were without base that I had previously blindly followed.”

In my opinion, user experience and psychology principles are essential for any technical communicator interested in creating accessible and effective content. Psychology is being incorporated across various technology fields to optimize results. Marketers use psychological techniques, like the scarcity principle, to entice potential customers to click links, sign up for trials, and become paying customers. UX designers apply principles such as the principle of least effort to design appealing user experiences that prompt desired actions. So, why aren't more technical writers doing the same?

User experience knowledge helps technical communicators start writing user centred documentation and content for people as they truly are, not as we wish they were or as we think they are. The difference is always visible and would give you an edge.

If you’d like to dip your feet into some UX content perfect for technical writers, here’s some places to start:

Some key learnings from Corry’s stint into user experience design:

  • Never get too comfortable with what you know. Continual growth and learning is beneficial. Follow your passions, areas of interest, pursue them with the opportunities available to you, and see what doors they open for you.

Lessons on becoming a Technical Writing Manager

One impressive thing about Corry’s career trajectory is how she rose from individual contributor to manager and then voluntarily went back to being an individual contributor.

Management had always been a dream for her. So, when a managerial role became available at CA Technologies, (the company she moved to after Phase Forward got acquired by Oracle, and she could no longer see prospects for career growth there), she immediately applied. Despite feeling uncertain and acknowledging that she had much to learn, she took the leap.

I asked her what she did to give her an edge over other candidates and she said: “

  • First, internal applicants were given priority.
  • Secondly, in my interviews, I spoke confidently about my experiences and the management courses I had taken during my master's degree.
  • Thirdly, I had also expressed my interest in management to my current manager and mentor, who provided me with numerous tips and advice on improving in my current role to achieve my career goals. I took her advice and made the most of it.
  • During the interview, I was asked questions such as: How would you support the team? What areas could the team improve upon? What are some of the challenges the team faces? in an effort to assess my understanding of the group and my ability to be a supportive manager. It helped that I had intimate knowledge of the workings of the group.”

For Corry, transitioning to management came with a lot of impostor syndrome which is totally normal when entering new terrains and shows that you care. To ensure that you give your best as a manager, Corry recommends seeking lots of feedback. Find out the needs of your team members and understand the expectations from upper management. If there's someone skilled you can learn from, reach out and ask for advice.

After about 3 years in that managerial role, Corry went back to being an individual contributor because, in her words: “I did a gut check to determine if I was still happy in the role, and I wasn’t. I enjoyed mentoring my peers and helping them succeed. However, I didn't enjoy handling HR matters or layoffs. I also missed writing. As a team manager, you don't get to write as much as when you're an individual contributor. So, I decided to transition back to a principal writing role.”

Key learnings from Corry’s stint into management:

  • Don’t persist in something that is not the right fit. Experiment and stay open to new opportunities, but have the courage to leave when your time is due.
  • If you’re looking to get promoted or transition roles, the first place to start is to keep track of opportunities available within your current company. Understand what the expectations are for the next role. Nine times out of ten, that's just talking to your manager and saying, “hey, I would like to be a senior technical writer. What kinds of things do I need to be doing today to be a senior technical writer?”.  Sometimes you're ready for a role somewhere and it's just not available for you at the company or it’s not in the budget, then you know it’s time to start looking at other places.

If you want to read more about climbing the managerial ladder, read this: Climbing the DevRel career ladder.

Finding Career Mentors

All through our chat, Corry stressed the importance of mentorship in overcoming career hurdles. Here are some of the tips she shared for finding mentors and maintaining mentorship relationships:

  • Don't hesitate to reach out, ask questions, and seek mentorship both within and outside your organization. Many people have benefited from informal mentorship throughout their careers and are eager to give back. So, just courteously ask questions.
  • Your current manager can be a good starting point for finding mentorship. Inform them about the type of guidance you're seeking; they might be able to connect you with someone or provide ideas. For example, when Corry needed design mentorship, she asked her managers if there was a design professional she could connect with. They recommended a suitable contact, which proved beneficial.
  • To maintain relationships without becoming burdensome, don't hold on to a mentor indefinitely.

Challenges in a Technical Writing Career and how to Overcome

Going from intern to manager to principal technical writer, Corry has seen all but everything, and she’s able to come out on top. She shares some challenges she’s encountered in the course of her career and how she navigated it:

  1. Feeling stuck in a role? Stay proactive in interviewing and seeking opportunities outside, and stay informed about potential growth paths.
  2. Navigating growth in a bigger company? Faced with the vastness of a larger company, identifying growth opportunities can become a challenge. Actively track available opportunities, understand the company’s landscape, and develop strong relationships with stakeholders.
  3. Dealing with organizational changes like acquisitions? Embrace change as inevitable, let go of preconceptions, recognizing that change, though challenging, can bring new opportunities.
  4. Do not have a technical foundation? As a technical writer, it’s good to have some technical foundation, so you can respect the time of your engineers and their knowledge by educating yourself enough so that you can communicate effectively with them. To help, embrace self directed learning, where you actively seek out information, educate yourself, and pursue your areas of interest.

Once a technical writer, always a technical writer

To round off, I asked Corry what the future holds for her, and if she sees herself in any other profession, to which she replied “I know I love to write, so I don't think I'm going to be moving away from it.”

This blog is a synthesis of all the insights from my chat with Corry Root, Senior Technical Writer at Mongo DB, and aims to inspire and educate individuals navigating the fascinating terrain of technical writing. If you enjoyed it, share it with a colleague or fellow technical writer. Sharing is caring :)

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