I’ve been doing what I do for a long time now.
I still love it.
I’m not shy about my passion for wielding communication and technology to deliver content that enables user success. I actually look forward to each workday. My schedule and plans excite me. I even feel a little thrill when I think about the surprises that each day can bring, the challenges and opportunities that are sure to pop up: a question from Support, a request from a Technical Account Manager, an invitation to join a new product scrum.
In other words, this tech-writing thing is a lot of fun, which reminds me of that old saying: “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day of your life.”
No, I’m not trying to sell you on the idea. In fact, I think that old saying is mostly garbage on a par with “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Blergh.
Sure, there’s a nugget of truth embedded in there, and that makes it so appealing and enduring. Of course you’re going to enjoy a job you love to do, but never having to do any work ever in your entire life? Not likely. Anything worth loving involves some actual work, either to get or to keep it going. Usually both. Focusing on the love leaves out the hard parts and that’s deceptive and dishonest.
I want to talk about the hard parts and I want to share how I’ve stayed an enthusiastic users’ advocate through the less peachy times.
The Hard Parts
Doing the Time
I like my coworkers, but I spend too much time with them. I’d rather spend time with my wife and kids. I don’t think I’m unique in this and I also don’t think it shows a lack of commitment to my work.
More than likely, time away from your loved ones is always going to take a little lustre from even the best job. It’s actually supposed to be that way.
I love my kids. I did not love changing diapers.
You’re not going to adore absolutely every part of your job. When you start, everything is new, interesting, and exciting. After that first flush, some of those fascinating little idiosyncrasies start to grate. Sometimes there’s stuff that needs to get done that isn’t all that compelling. Sometimes it’s downright unpleasant. Nearly all of my writer pals hate release notes, but I know that my users would hate a release without them even more.
The Revolving Door
People leave. This can suck.
When you work as a content professional, you form relationships: the QA engineer who always goes out of her way to help you with an issue, the IT guy you can count on for support for your doc distribution server, the executive who agrees that success includes good docs for your users. These relationships often go beyond job functions. You chat with the QA engineer about international travel and all the must-see spots in Yucatán. The IT guy’s favorite beer styles closely align with yours. The executive shares your appreciation for musical theater.
When a coworker moves on or is let go, it can be like losing a member of the family.
Practically, the hole that the dearly departed coworker leaves in the org chart represents a hole in your personal intranet of sources. Count on your stress level increasing as you either try to find a replacement or struggle to fill the gap yourself. One example of the struggle: mounting a forensic investigation of an ex-coworker’s code, combing through their check-in history in the version control system to document a change in functionality. Painful.
Zeus punished Sisyphus, the treacherous, murderous king of ancient Corinth, forcing him to push a huge boulder up a hill only to have it roll down when he neared the top, repeating this action for eternity.
I mention the condemned king here because we use his name to describe work that is laborious and futile. These are my most dispiriting situations, my lowest times, the times when I work to produce something to the best of my ability, something that I know is helpful, and it never sees the light of day. Maybe the company does a quick pivot and the product with my content is left in the dust. Sometimes a product is just a dud, dead on arrival, and all my tasty content languishes like a casserole with no serving spoon at a church potluck.
Luckily these times are rare. Not many businesses can afford to waste that much time, treasure, and good will.
My solutions don’t map perfectly one-to-one with the hard parts. I have more solutions than problems because the solutions are like tools in my toolbox: I’ll often use more than one to fix a problem.
Get that Worm!
I can’t do much about the amount of time I spend at my job. As a lone writer, the documentation buck stops with me. Luckily, the nature of my work allows me to flex my hours well outside the traditional working day. My ideal schedule runs from 4:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Yes I can hear some of you gasping in disbelief.
- Traffic in the San Francisco Bay area is a killer and public transit is not a solution for me. If I hit the road at 6:30 am, I’m facing an hour or more of hair pulling, tooth grinding, and deep-breathing exercises. Starting at 4:30 am means 25 minutes of stress-free commuting.
- The start of my workday conveniently brackets two important time zones in my company: the beginning of the day for our offices in New York City and the tail end for our offices in London.
- Nearly half of my workday is uninterrupted by typical office distractions. I can focus on emptying my inbox and preparing to catch coworkers as they filter in.
- I can typically knock off around 2 pm and be home in time to meet the kids as they come home from school and my wife from her work.
- At 4:30 am in a deserted office, I can roll out the company’s mobile PA system and blast whatever music I need to hear. Very motivational and therapeutic.
- Perception: Of course I’ve communicated and cleared my schedule with my managers. My coworkers, however, see me leave at 2 pm They don’t see me arrive before 6 am. This causes confusion that I’ve had to manage over the years. I educate folks who remark about my early exit with a friendly “Yeah, well, I started at five this morning so I am so done.” When coworkers crawl in super early for some release heroics, I get way too much satisfaction from greeting them with a chipper “good morning!”
- Compressed availability: The few hours of schedule overlap with my on-site coworkers mean a narrower window of opportunity for meeting and coordination. My key folks know my schedule, accept it, and we’re both usually motivated enough to compensate.
- My bedtime is 8 pm. Thank goodness for streaming TV.
I know my schedule sounds insane. I’m not recommending it to everyone, just demonstrating how I worked out a solution within my job’s parameters.
Also, when appropriate, I work from home, with all the attendant pros and cons I examine in another column.
I’m an outgoing introvert. When the hard stuff happens and starts kicking me around, the impulse to retreat and bunker in is hard to resist. This is not a successful response for a tech writer.
So when I’m feeling burned out or overwhelmed, I pull out my list of small tasks, a collection of housekeeping and minor to-do items, small things that no one cares about but me. Before I know it those little things have me so busy and engaged that I’m motivated to move on to the bigger, harder things.
A stroll with my phone turned off can be like a moving meditation. The physical activity gets my juices flowing whenever the hard stuff gets me down or whenever I feel intimidated, overwhelmed, or just plain stuck. The outdoors can distract me and free my mind just enough to push my thoughts towards new solutions and new paths to explore.
Sometimes it just takes a little time for the mojo to happen. Deadlines and development schedules seldom stake out time for creative introspection. Still, there are almost always gaps and pauses as schedules accordion and as deliverables are delivered. Don’t sit at your cubicle, stare at your belly button, and obsess. Get out there. Some of my most fruitful ideas and creative solutions have coalesced on early morning walks through business parks and corporate campuses.
You live in a galaxy of communities brimming with amazing, talented, supportive, creative, experienced documentarians out there. Misery loves company? Yes, but the company of your peers also reminds you that you’re not alone in your challenges. Plug into a professional group like Write the Docs or the TechWr-l list, or explore the tech-writer hashtags on Twitter and it’s quite possible that someone else has already worked out a solution to your problem. At the very least, you’ll find a community of awesome, generous folks who are eager to support you and to help you derive your own solution.
Every healthy organization has headcount turnover. The best way to account for that natural revolving door is to engage with your organization’s social culture.
Attend and participate in formal company events like launch parties, holiday parties, and summer picnics. On an informal level, maybe the engineers head out to a local watering hole on Friday afternoons. The opportunity to forge new relationships outside of the cubicle farm are one of the many reasons your organization spends its money and time on these outings.
Take a moment at lunchtime and look around the break room or the tables outside. Take note of the de facto groups and cliques: the database folks, the hardware group, accounting, IT, the app developers. Sitting in on a new group of folks can be intimidating and uncomfortable, but these new folks all have something to offer.
Socializing requires time and energy. It can be downright exhausting for an introvert. I sometimes resent the time and energy spent away from the parts of the job I love and the deliverables languishing as I enjoy a beer with our chief architect. I console myself in the confidence that the time and energy are investments that render me and my work less vulnerable to the departure of key personnel and more emotionally and practically resilient.
Praise can be rare and ephemeral. An account manager might thank you for a document or customer might give you a thumbs up or a manager might recognize your clutch work. Save the thanks and praise. Refer to it. Praise can be a shield to deflect the effects of the hard stuff and as a balm when the hard stuff gets through and leaves a mark.
And don’t forget that praise and recommendations are a critical part of your professional social media presence.
Treat Yo’ Self
Make time for personal projects. I don’t mean finishing your novel or posting to your Mediterranean cooking blog. I mean those work-related projects, the fun, interesting, and new techniques and technologies that you can’t wait to dig into. Make it the stretch-goal stuff that helps you and users, that you can build into your schedule, and that you can justify to your manager or CFO.
Wrangle the Data
In the early days of my career, we frantically paddled down the well-worn cascades of our waterfall development model, trusting in the documentation requirements that had set our course. We printed and bound fat manuals, tossed them over the fence, and crossed our fingers. We found disappointment at the end of our journey when we learned that our users thought our fat manuals made fantastic monitor stands.
I don’t produce monitor stands anymore, not because I don’t bind and distribute stacks of paper, but because I have analytics built into my content and my delivery. My analytics are simple, but I can see who is using what content when and where, and the tidy pile of data is solid gold. Few things motivate and persuade like data. I can confirm or disprove impressions with a graph. Technical and executive minds crave data and now I can feed them objective, empirical measures of the value of my work.
Head for Greener Pastures
If your job is hectic and destructive and depressing and it crushes all the love and passion and fun out of something loving, passionate, and fun like tech writing, maybe it’s time to move on. I’m lucky that I haven’t exercised this solution much myself, but from my friends’ experiences, I know that there are lots of healthy, exciting, supportive companies that are hungry for your skills and for your passion and for you.
Decorate your Interior
I’m not a glass-half-full guy or a glass-half-empty guy and I’m amused by the “glass completely full of water and air” contingent. My point is that I’m not a naturally sunny, optimistic person, but I recognize that focusing on defeat and anxiety doesn’t help anyone.
You spend a lot of time in your head. I hope it’s a good place for you.
Ultimately, you decide whether you’re happy in your job or not. If you’re not happy, do something about it. You’re really the only one in charge of your life.
You don’t have to make dramatic changes. Every solution, large or small, helps. For example, the thing about Sisyphus? Sure his situation sucked. That’s undeniable, but if you think about it, every time he pushed that blasted boulder up the hill, he would dig a clearer path. In all the rolling and tumbling, the boulder would get a little rounded off each time, a bit lighter, and a tiny bit easier to push. After each back-breaking, soul-crushing cycle, Sisyphus would be that much stronger and adept at pushing boulders.
Luckily, we’re not mythical boulder pushers doomed to an eternity of futility (well, except maybe for release notes.). We can get through the hard parts and use the experience we’ve gained and the skills we’ve honed to be better users’ advocates.