Earlier this year I stumbled upon Write the Docs, a global community of people who care about documentation, and through its Slack channel, I have learned so much from the advice and knowledge shared by its thousands of members. The discovery has been a real godsend for someone like me who has worked independently or in small teams for most of my technical writing career.
This month I was lucky enough to go halfway across the world to the annual Write the Docs conference in Portland, Oregon to meet some of the community in person and listen to some brilliantly insightful and entertaining talks from fellow technical writers. In this post, I’ll share my highlights of the conference, my favourite bits of Portland and offer some advice on how to get there.
DISCLAIMER: I didn’t attend every single presentation but all of the talks I listened to were great. I’ve highlighted a few memorable ones below:
Kat King from Twilio, who had the unenviable task of giving the first talk of the conference, delivered an entertaining and engaging talk about how she and her team were able to quantify and improve their documentation with user feedback.
Beth Aitman from Improbable spoke about how to encourage other members of your development team to contribute to the documentation. This is something I think we all struggle with and can relate to. It’s well worth a watch:
Bob Watson gave a great talk about strategic API documentation planning, with some interesting tips about your target audience and the different types of API doc consumer you might come across. These included the ‘Copy and Pasters’ and the ‘Bigfoot’, the rare developer who actually studies the documentation and applies the code!
As well as the main talks, there were some excellent Lightning Talks, five minute presentations given during the lunch breaks, that contained some real gems such as Mo Nishiyama’s resilience tips when dealing with Imposter Syndrome and Kayce Basque’s talk on improving response rates from feedback widgets:
If the talks aren’t your thing, there was also an Unconference where you could discuss topics such as API documentation, documentation testing, individual tools; whatever you want really. I just sat and talked with two technical writers about a documentation tool for half an hour!
Apart from the people, one of the best things about Write the Docs Portland was the venue, a striking 100-year-old ballroom with a “floating” dance floor that has played host to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield and James Brown. Also, if stickers are your thing then you could collect a load of stickers provided by the conference sponsors, hiring companies and Write the Docs themselves (see below):
Apart from its scenic surroundings and the views of the Tualatin Mountains, Portland has a lot to offer in the city itself. Some of my personal highlights included:
Doughnuts – Portland has a reputation for great doughnuts. We skipped the enormous queues outside Voodoo Doughnuts and went to Blue Star Donuts instead. The PB & J with habanero pepper was pretty unusual!
Coffee – Portland has developed a thriving yet relaxed coffee culture with more than 30 coffee roasters across the city. It goes without saying that the coffee here is good! Check out Heart or Barista.
Restaurants – The food in Portland was amazing. One of my favourite meals was at Life Aquatic-themed oyster bar Jacqueline in SE Portland. For sushi check out Masu on SW 13th Ave and for a relatively cheap but delicious lunch go to Nong’s Khao Man Gai thai food cart.
Washington Park – If you want to escape the sights and sounds, head to the 412-acre Washington Park which boasts a Japanese garden, a zoo, a rose garden, an amphitheatre and lots of trees!
Powell’s Books – No trip to Portland is complete without visiting the world’s largest independent bookstore. My only advice would be to pick up a map and have some idea of what you’re looking for, otherwise you’ll find yourself wandering the many colour-coded sections and aisles for hours.
How to get there
If you live in the US or Canada, it might be slightly easier to convince your boss to fund your trip to Write the Docs. If like me, you’re based in the UK, its slightly more difficult but there are a number of options:
1. Use your training budget – Ask if you can use your training budget for the trip. It cost me my annual budget but it was well worth it and I was able to combine it with a trip to my company’s head office in San Francisco.
2. Become a speaker – I met a few writers whose company paid for them to be there because they were speakers. It’s great exposure for you, your documentation team and your company.
3. Recruitment – If you’re company needs to grow its documentation team, you might be able to justify the cost by attending because there is a job fair and you have the opportunity to network and meet writers with a wide range of experience.
4. Exposure – Even if you don’t become a speaker, it’s a great way to raise your personal profile and that of your company. You never know when that visibility might come in handy in future.
5. Specific talks – Highlight a few specific talks from the schedule of the upcoming conference or a previous conference that may benefit you or your team. Write the Docs is a fantastic opportunity to learn from some of the best technical writers in the business!
If all else fails, see the sample email and other tips under the ‘Convince Your Manager‘ section of the Write the Docs website.