Google technical writer, 3 months in

A number of people have asked me what it’s like to be a technical writer at Google. I became a Googler three months ago. Now, as my manager remarked so eloquently, “the Noogler sheen is wearing off” and I’m settling down to regular Googliness. So, what’s it like?

That’s a hard question to answer. It’s empowering, scary, fun, frustrating, invigorating, tiring… All the usual things you’d expect in a new job, and then some. I love it. Most days. ;)

To answer the question, I’ve started by jotting down some random thoughts, followed by a “day in the life” ramble. I hope this gives you a good idea of what I get up to.

But there’s no typical tech writing role at Google

Google campus, Mountain View

Google campus, Mountain View

I’ve just returned from an internal Google technical writing conference called Burning Pen. It was awesome! Approximately 200 writers attended, from all over Google. We  congregated at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. There were two days of sessions, running two streams all day each day. I met many great people and learned a lot about what other Google writers are doing.

It struck me that we’re all doing vastly different things: writing text on user interfaces (such as the labels on Google Maps), creating and curating content for Zagat reviews, developing API and developer-focused documentation (that’s my role), documenting internal tools for Google engineers and other staff, writing online help for Gmail and other consumer products, and more.

Random thoughts – what’s it like to be a Google technical writer?

It’s “technical”. I’m an API technical writer on Google Maps, which means that I show developers how to use the application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate Google Maps into their own applications. As well as APIs, we document other developer products such as SDKs (software development kits) and other frameworks. We need to think like engineers, and understand what sort of thing external engineers will need to know about our products.

It’s fast, exciting, challenging, all-encompassing. My laptop is never far away, and I hack away at change lists between meetings, presentations, and bites to eat. While waiting for a plane, I fix a quick bug. While on the bus, I start triaging my email.

Team work is what makes the Google world turn. There’s always someone to turn to when I have a question. I get the impression I’ll be hacking and inventing with other people throughout my career here.

Like all technical writers, I like to feel that my work is valued. I definitely get that feeling here. I’m part of a team of people who rely on each other to get the job done. Documentation is a core part of the product, not an afterthought.

Work comes in small chunks. It’s a never-ending flow, but I get to tick things off regularly. For me, that’s very satisfying.

There’s plenty of opportunity to get in the zone and write. Yes, there are meetings and activities. Sometimes the “fire hose” of information can be overwhelming, but I learned quickly to filter the flow so that I get only what’s relevant to me.

Everyone has an opinion, and most people express theirs strongly. I sometimes need a loud voice and a touch of stubbornness to make my opinion heard.

Travel opportunities abound. I’ve been here three months, and already flown to Mountain View twice. My first visit was just a week after I started work.

There are good opportunities to make your mark. I’ve already presented a session at an internal Google conference.

More? Intensely interesting technologies. Vast scale. Innovation. The good feeling that I’m part of a company that’s making a difference in the world, and that cares very much that that difference is for the good.

A day in the life

I arrive early, around 7:30 in the morning. But I’m nowhere near the first to come in. People drift in at all times of the day – whatever suits them.

Bare feet, coffee, Big Red

Coffee machine

Big Red at Google Sydney

I drop off my laptop at my desk, and make a beeline for the coffee machine. On my way past a certain meeting room, I smile at a pair of bare feet. For some reason, there’s always a guy in that meeting room at that time of day, relaxing in a chair and chatting with someone via a Google Hangout. All I can see is his feet and ankles, because the rest of the glass is shaded. I’m guessing he’s talking to family somewhere on another continent, and very early in the morning is the best time to catch them.

Next stop Big Red, for a heart-punching cup of coffee. Big Red is the famous coffee machine in the Sydney office. Rumour has it that she was the first ever machine at Google Sydney. People treat her with pride and no little protectiveness.

Email, plans, mice and men

Armed with a cup of coffee, I read and respond to my email. There’s a lot of it. Email is our primary communication tool. I use Gmail’s special inbox categories to filter messages from people, notifications from various tools, and messages from special interest groups and forums.

Next I set out a plan for the day, in the full knowledge that things are likely to change and my plan will join those of other mice and men.

Tools, travel, chocolate

My primary tools for tracking work are the issue tracker and the code review tool used by the Google engineers. The documentation lives in the same repository as the code, and follows the same workflow. The software tools are in house and tend to be a bit idiosyncratic. But once you’ve got the hang of them, they’re satisfying to use.

My dashboards on the issue tracker and code review tools show me what I’m doing, what I’m scheduled to do, and what I’ve done recently. They also offer a good way of collaborating with other writers, engineers and product managers – especially with people who are on a different continent.

Meetings are also a big thing, to consolidate plans and designs and make decisions. We meet in person, via video conferencing, and via Google Hangouts.

Here’s a weird thing that happens often: I’ll talk to someone via video conferencing one day, because they’re a few thousand miles away, and then they’ll arrive at my desk the next day and pick up the conversation as if nothing happened in between. People are travelling all the time. They often don’t even tell you they’re about to hop on a plane. It’s just the way things are.

Back to tools. I also use Remember The Milk to remind me to do things like complete my weekly report, prepare for a weekly catchup meeting (which people call a “sync”), or buy a couple of chocolate fudge brownies from the nearby Pulse cafe on Friday. They’re to die for.

Words, code, markup

Must you be able to write code, to be a technical writer at Google? That’s a much-debated point. I think it depends on the role within Google. For my role, I’d say you’d be at a disadvantage if you couldn’t hack some code together.

Most of what we create is words. We write in HTML or Markdown, depending on our choice and on the existing format if we’re updating a document.

We also craft code samples. For a developer wanting to use our APIs and frameworks, a code sample speaks a thousand words. A technical writer will usually ask an engineer for help with the code samples, but we need to lick the code into shape and judge its usefulness as an illustrative example.

My first big project was to refactor some documentation for the Google Maps JavaScript API and build out the code samples. I blogged about the results: Refactoring overlays in the Google Maps JavaScript API documentation.

APIs, Linux, the colour purple

As someone who documents APIs, I get to play with code. I do a lot of command-line stuff, which is quite different from the wiki-based work that was the focus of my previous role. The tools I use now don’t have the power of the wiki in terms of integration with social media, rich text editing, and ease of use for non-technical people. But there’s a satisfying cleanness and simplicity to command-line input and text editors.

Did you know you can colour your Linux command window? Did you even want to know that? Heh heh, it’s the kind of thing I rejoice in now. ;) Mine is currently purple with yellow text and blue highlights. I swap to a black-on-white window when I’m forced to use a Linux line editor. Most of the time, I use a text editor (Komodo) on my Mac to edit the documentation files. We’re free to use the tools of our choice, when it comes to text editors, IDEs, image manipulation tools, browsers, and so on.

Location, location, location

Sydney skyline

Sydney skyline

The Google Sydney office is in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. This picture shows the view from the balcony that surrounds the canteen.

The San Francisco office has a stunning outlook on Bay Bridge. The GooglePlex in Mountain View is restful, green, leafy and colourful. Those are the only three offices I’ve seen so far.

Three months, three offices. Not too shabby. I hope to see many more.

Food, food, food

Yes, the rumours you’ve heard are true. There’s food everywhere. We have a couple of “micro kitchens” on every floor. A micro kitchen is actually quite large, and boasts at least two types of coffee machine, a fridge full of drinks, shelves of snacks and fruit.

Each building also has a “café”, which is a deluxe staff canteen serving a full breakfast and lunch. Some cafés serve dinner too, for people who are working late. The lunch consists of a well-stocked salad bar, soups, a full cooked meal of a different variety every day, and at least two types of dessert. Amazing.

People talk about the “Google 15″ – that’s the 15 pounds you gain when you join Google!

Did that answer the question?

Please feel free to ask questions by adding comments to this post. I’ll answer as best I can, as a Google technical writer three months into the role.

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About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 29 October 2013, in Google, technical writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Thanks Sarah – nice to hear of the change. You have historically been such a big advocate for wiki based tech docs, does the change of scenery alter your take on that in any way?

    • Hallo Josh, it’s nice to “see” you!

      I think a wiki is a great fit for documentation where there’s a need for collaboration by people from different job roles, and where feedback and discussion are important inputs into the documentation. The more advanced wikis offer solutions for version control and content reuse. The resulting documentation can also look very pretty. And the workflow can be as simple or as complex as you need.

      Still, there’s no perfect documentation solution, and no one solution that fits all use cases. A tech writer will work with the stakeholders to define requirements, and match the capabilities offered by the available tools.

      I’m an advocate for wiki-based tech docs, where the wiki and the requirements are a good match. :)

      Cheers
      Sarah

      • Hey Sarah – so nice to see you settling in so well. Appreciate the feedback; was curious given your change of scenery.

      • Vlad (ex NSWP)

        I am also a big advocate of wikis for technical and business collaboration, and I use and promote (internally, where I work) the use of Confluence, However, for years, I have been disappointed with what appears to me to be a deliberate lack of interest by Atlassian in taking things to the next functional and quality level. Confluence has very annoying fundamental limitations. The UI is quite rough in places. I am currently using v5.2.5, and have used it for many years. It’s as if Atlassian has taken the Microsoft road to concentrating on adding on useless features (presumably because of feedback from their marketing department), but ignoring the need to do a serious revamp of the UI and the need to add 21st Century functionality. It’s better than Sharepoint though, for most purposes. I just wish there was something better than Confluence. It is primitive compared to what it could be. BTW, I generally don’t work in places that have the budget or time or inclination to hire a talented Confluence script language coder that can add functionality to Confluence that should already exist in Confluence in the first place.

      • @Vald – sorry to hear you’re not happy with the direction the Confluence team has taken. As the head of marketing for Confluence at Atlassian I can assure you that our product roadmap is driven by a group of talented product managers with many years of experience in the collaboration and software development space.

        What we focus on is based both on mass customer feedback (you can submit and vote on feature requests on our public issue tracker), countless customer interviews and face-to-face conversations, and our own beliefs on what we feel is important.

        With regard to Confluence’s UI, we recently completed a major redesign of both the interface and user experience with our release of Confluence 5.0 in February of this year (see https://www.atlassian.com/en/software/confluence/whats-new/confluence-50).

        On the topic of functionality, we followed up the redesign of Confluence with an overhaul of the content creation experience, focusing on bundling out of the box solutions to common business problems to help users get started faster and see value sooner. You can learn more about his release here: https://www.atlassian.com/software/confluence/whats-new/confluence-51

        If you’re looking to extend Confluence’s functionality further then I encourage you to browse the Atlassian Marketplace (http://marketplace.atlassian.com) where you’ll find hundreds of add-ons – both commercial and free – that add extra capabilities to Confluence including publishing workflows, powerful content exporters, and diagramming tools.

        As someone who worked with Sarah for many years at Atlassian, it’s great to see her enjoying her new role at Google. Thanks for sharing, Sarah.

        Cheers
        Matt

  2. This is my favourite bit “Documentation is a core part of the product, not an afterthought.”

  3. What a great summary, Sarah. Thanks for sharing! Those FF miles must be piling up ;-)

    • Hallo Rhonda
      Yes! I’m such a fan of Air New Zealand. Excellent service and good fresh air in the cabin. It makes a huge difference to my experience of the flight, and the way I feel when I get off the plane.
      Cheers
      Sarah

  4. Vlad (ex NSWP)

    Interesting & informative blog.

  5. Hey Sarah, I’m from San Francisco, moved to Stockholm for a tech writer job 2 years ago, introduced Confluence to myself and my office…we now have 2 instances and over 15k pages on our Confluence intranet. Your book has been a huge help. Thank you so much!..Oh and I studied for a year at Sydney Uni back when, um, dinosaurs roamed the earth. Professional question…I am looking to find another company/tech writer that contends with almost entirely customized, high-end software. I want to see how they handle documentation. Our issues: documentation can’t be freely available on the internet – must be behind a firewall. Yes, one could label all the modularized pieces of documentation in Confluence but how to maintain with customers changing their configuration frequently and just one tech writer…Would love to find another company with similar challenges. Any ideas on where I could connect with someone like that (conferences are good, couldn’t convince my company to send me to the SF Atlassian conference…Maybe they suspected me of trying to get a free ticket home!) Thanks for any suggestions. :)

    • Hallo Kristin

      It’s nice to “meet” you! I’m so glad the book has helped, and you’re enjoying Confluence. Sydney Uni is gorgeous. I studied at Cape Town University (South Africa) but I’ve been to a few events and lectures at Sydney Uni.

      Your question is an interesting one. There certainly are companies dealing with such modularised documentation. A good example is auto manufacturers. I think a good place to get in touch with the technical writers is Technical Writing World:
      http://technicalwritingworld.com/

      Twitter is also good, using the tag #techcomm. I’ll send out a tweet now and see if anyone responds with a comment on this post.

      Cheers
      Sarah

  6. Mrs.Haddox,
    I am an early college high school student who will simultaneously be given a high school diploma and an associates degree when I graduate. I like to write, and I am interested in becoming a technical writer. For my very first college class I have a job shadowing project, and I would like to ask if I could interview you by phone, email, or any Skype like resource to do my project. Thank you for reading this and I hope you can help me with my project.

    • Hallo Lindsay

      I’m sorry, but I’m not able to take part in an interview. I wonder if there are any technical writers working near you, with whom you could do some job shadowing? For example, if there’s a large company that employs technical writers, they may be able to offer you a short work-experience placement where you could shadow a technical writer. For contacts and ideas, Technical Writing World is a very good site:
      http://technicalwritingworld.com/

      Cheers
      Sarah

  7. Aw, my little tech writing department’s all grown up now…[Hi Sarah. Saw this due to Jed linking to it. As he can confirm, I was, as I put it, the first general Eng tech writer at Google (Sara was a few months before me but in Services, and Lana was on the Search Appliance) back 10.5 years ago. Things have definitely changed since then...]

  8. I was a former technical writer for Altium Limited for some 10 years and I worked on generating small code examples mostly in Delphi/ObjectPascal and some in Javascript from the APIs of the powerful Altium Designer package. I used many different authoring tools like RoboHelp, Microsoft Help, Microsoft HTML Help, Confluence, custom HTML and PDF based documentation.

    Currently I am working in a vastly different sector; human services! But I have been playing around with Python and Javascript/jQuery lately. I also dabbled with Processing just for fun.

    I am thinking of restarting my technical writing career. So what do you suggest to get my skills up to scratch so I can get to work for Google one day.

    I have been reading/watching your blogs and the positions at Google Sydney. Wow. The environment sounds fantastic.I am wondering if there are any deaf technical writers or engineers at Google. As I am a deaf person myself :)

    Cheers
    David.

    • Hallo David

      Thanks for visiting my blog! I see you’ve already dropped in on the post about becoming an API tech writer. And that dabbling in Python is exactly the right thing to do. I’d also get a working knowledge of Java – enough to be able to read and explain code, and give advice on best practices. The most important thing, though, is to have a passion for technology and tech writing. There are tech writers in many different areas in Google, though in Sydney we’re focused on APIs and developer tools.

      I don’t personally know of any deaf tech writers here. Google strives for and actively promotes diversity and equal opportunities for its employees. You’ve probably come across this page already in your research: http://www.google.com.au/diversity/culture.html

      It’s great that you’re planning to get back into tech writing. It’s the best job. :)

      Cheers
      Sarah

      • I don’t know if they’re still there, but there were several deaf engineers at Google in Mountain View back when I was there in 2003-2007, one of whom I knew socially with respect to chatting, having lunch together, etc. although I didn’t work with him on anything. My understanding was that Google paid for sign interpreters to be with them during working hours, but I didn’t inquire in depth about how that worked, and don’t know if that’d still be the case today.

  9. Hello Sarah,
    very nice post!

    After reading it, I’m considering applying for this position, but I’m not a native English speaker. Would that be a deal breaker?
    (I do have some experience in technical writing in my language).

    Thanks for your insight. :-)

    • Hallo Quique
      Having English as a second language isn’t a deal breaker. Fluent and correct written English is a requirement, of course. Judging by the language in your comment, it sounds as if you have a good command of English. :) I’d encourage you to apply for the position currently open in Sydney. I’ll email you personally about it.
      Cheers
      Sarah

  10. Hi Sarah,

    I’m excited to see that you’re at Google! I used to lead the developer doc team there. I left because I wanted to pursue community documentation. Now you’re there, and I’m working with the Nokia developer community, and reading your book for the second time. It’s a small world. Enjoy Google!

    Jen

    • Hallo Jen
      It’s lovely to hear from you! I love the title of your blog, WTFM. ;) I’m thoroughly enjoying my role at Google. How is the Nokia developer community treating you? That sounds like a very challenging and fascinating role too! I guess you spend much of your time at http://developer.nokia.com/?
      Cheers
      Sarah

      • Hi Sarah,
        I’m glad you’re happy at Google! Yes, that’s right. I spend my time on the discussion boards and wiki there. I love working with the Nokia developer community. I’m humbled by the generosity of people who spend their free time sharing their knowledge with others. And working with wiki docs is a lot of fun. People share some pretty neat tricks and workarounds.
        Take care,
        Jen

  11. Jonathan Couchman

    You mentioned your work on Google Maps. When I try to find places in countries that use other alphabets (China, Russia,, etc.) that are mentioned in online newspapers (SFChronicle, NYTImes,, etc.), Google Maps can’t always recognize the word or spelling. Can your people program for variant spellings in English so that places mentioned by API and Reuters and other news services can always be located? This is often so frustrating.

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