going from tech writer to developer: how i did it

Once, nearly ten years ago, I was a tech writer. It was how I got my start in the IT industry, and since then I’ve worked as a developer and a devops engineer. I think I’ve had quite an interesting journey in the world of technology, and this post is something I’ve kicked around for a long, long while.

This really is the blog post I wanted to find, or read about 8 or 9 years ago but didn’t exist – a former tech author who was now a developer telling me how they made the leap!

Before I go any further, this isn’t intended as a slam on the technical authoring field. Writing software documentation is an incredibly important task that I feel is sometimes unappreciated by developers, and is an incredibly important skill to have in and of itself and in fact an entire discipline of its own. I worked with incredibly skilled technical writers who had a real knack for the field, and me, well… perhaps not so much.

How I became a technical author

After I graduated from Sussex University with a degree in theoretical particle physics, and finding that funding to continue my studies was sparse, I decided that I was going to get a job in IT as well. Unfortunately, at the time physics courses taught what I have come to know as “scientist coding” (i.e. code designed to perform calculations adequately, but not up to the standards of that used for end users) and so I struggled with interviews somewhat as unlike a computer science candidate, I didn’t really know that much about algorithms or data structures. So… as you can imagine, I bombed a fair amount of interviews as I didn’t know what I was doing.

However, I did get a lucky break – I discovered the field of technical writing, which would allow me to combine my love of writing software (which was among the highlights of my degree for me) and also writing. This blog was once a home to long rants about politics from a student-y point of view, which have now been thankfully obliterated but back at the time gave me a portfolio, which along with a few technical posts I did on my attempts to make simple video games, managed to get me an interview for the position of technical writer at ION Geophysical (now Sercel) and I got the position!

What I learned as a technical author and how it applies to development

I was embedded with the development teams at ION, and my role was to take features that were in development and write documentation for them. This was where I learned some skills that I think have benefited me:

Learning to break a problem down from the point of view of someone who is not a technical expert and trying to explain it is one of the things that a good technical author must do – and this skill is very helpful as a software engineer. Sometimes it’s possible within software engineering to write a problem as a load of technical jargon that can abstract away the purpose of pretty much all software – that is, it’s written to help a person achieve a particular thing.

Technical authors are very much on the side of that, so if you are able to do this well, you’re already halfway there! Being able to mediate between non-technical and technical audiences can give you a unique edge as a developer, and when the time comes for requirement capture you might find that you’re able to find aspects of the problem that others may not. The research skills you learn as a tech author will come in very handy here.

Also, as a tech author I developed people skills – which are very useful when dealing with managers and people from other teams. A big part of being a tech author is forming a good working relationship with the development team so you can get them to review your docs, and while I’m now the one writing the code that needs to be documented, being able to form a good relationship with people from other teams is still vital for my role – I deal with people from about two or three different teams in my job in the regular, and to be honest it sometimes it still feels like I’m in the tech author role.

Several times over the past few years I’ve been in situations where perhaps a bit of diplomacy has been required to get things done, and without my time as a tech author I think I’d have had a much harder time.

How did I get closer to coding?

If you’ve got a CI/CD system that integrates your HTML help with the software, try and take ownership of it. Find ways to write useful scripts for your department – for example things like formatters for the HTML help you’ve produced to help it integrate more easily into your software. Use things like Python in order to do this, and become the team’s automator-in-chief. This is what happened to me in my team at my first job.

This is how to get yourself the experience of writing software that is actually useful to the business, rather than just continually churning out hobby projects no-one apart from you is interested in. While hobby projects can be useful to your portfolio, it’s ultimately much better to any interviewer you’ll encounter when you make the change within your company, or choose to take a shot somewhere outside.

Being the automator-in-chief of your team is the number one way to do this – you’re creating value and giving yourself the opportunity to get your feet wet in software engineering. And usually this is a role that’s open for someone on your team – the other writers, while being near to tech, might not feel so enthused about actually wading in and doing automation and development tasks themselves.

That’s where I was able to shine!

How I fell out of technical authoring and became a developer

During my time working as a technical author, I ended up becoming the one on the team who would write the scripts that would compile and integrate our HTML-based help with the rest of the project. These were mainly Python and bash, however the experience of having my code being used to deploy and build things gave me the confidence to be able to write more code.

Eventually, the company fell into financial difficulties and layoffs came around, however this turned out to be my big chance to break into coding – I found a job working as a Python developer at a local startup, and the experience I got from being code adjacent as a tech author gave me the edge I needed to convince them to give me a chance. (that being said, the experience of that was… interesting but maybe I’ll talk about that another day)

And since then – I’ve slung code rather than words for a living. But I wouldn’t have been able to get there without getting my start as a tech author.

I might come back to this with some more advice in the future… leave me a comment if you’re a tech author aspiring to make the leap to dev like I did and I’ll try to help!


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