Category Archives: technical writing

Online class on technical writing principles

Google has published a few technical writing classes, which are available for people to attend and/or teach. I’ll be running one of the classes next week, at a time that’s convenient for the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. If you’re an engineer or software developer who wants to improve your technical writing skills, then this course is designed for you. The course is also useful for technical writers and others who want to brush up their tech writing skills and/or tech the class at a future date.

The dates and times of all upcoming classes are published on the Google Developers Technical Writing site. The classes are run by various people, including Googlers and others.

Here are the details of the class that I’m running:

Class title: Technical Writing One
Date: Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Time: 8:30am – 11:00am IST (India Standard Time: UTC +5.30)
11:00am – 13:30pm SGT (Singapore Time: UTC +8)
14:00pm – 16:30pm AEDT (Australian Eastern Daylight Time: UTC +11)
Meeting link: Click to join class
Class format: Instructor led, online, free of charge. Participants work with partners (online) on the class exercises.
Prework: Read the pre-class material.

The Tech Writing One course was developed by technical writers at Google to train engineers and others in the principles of effective technical writing. It’s fun and interactive. The combination of pre-class reading followed by in-class exercises and discussions works well to help the participants retain what they’ve learned.

To join the class, click the above link at the time of the class. I hope to see you there! If you’d like to let me know you’re coming, feel free to add a comment to this blog post.

Soothing Musings: A new way of communicating

Soothing Musings with Sarah is a new way of communicating for me. Using a blend of beauty, information, and story-telling, my goal is to share a sense of calm in a few short minutes. This post describes where the idea came from and introduces the latest musing, called The Humble Mushroom. I hope you enjoy the post and the musing.

It all started from a realisation that walking in the Australian bush is, for me, a very soothing experience. I see the creatures carrying on their lives, short though those lives may be, as if there’s no need to worry about tomorrow. Birds and reptiles and animals, wild and beautiful, go about their business around me, accepting me as part of their world.

Every little sound is an indication of life. It’s a possum nibbling a leaf, or a parrot gnawing at a seed pod, or a branch rubbing against a tree trunk. Swamp wallabies bound-pound away then turn to examine me, ears and paws raised. An echidna hides its nose under a bush, convinced I can’t see the rest of its body, then peers out when I’ve been quiet for a couple of minutes and bumbles over to investigate my feet. A lace monitor lizard, longer than I am tall, waddles across my path then climbs a tree, tasting the air with flickering tongue.

In the early morning, all the creatures are out and about. In the middle of the hot day, the bush is quiet while everyone rests. When rain threatens, the cockatoos scold the universe with glee. Day turns to night, ushering in the Tawny Frogmouths and the shy bandicoots.

Life goes on. For me, it’s the comfort of the inevitable.

I wanted to find a way to capture and share the feeling of calm that I get as soon as I walk onto a bush path. One day, someone asked me to put together a lightning talk. on a topic of my choice. I thought, perhaps I could do a talk that was short on words and high in atmosphere. A soupçon of information, some beautiful images, and a ton of calm.

And thus Soothing Musings with Sarah was born. By design, each musing is just a few minutes long.

The humble mushroom, with music by Philip Horwitz

Now, I’m delighted to share the latest musing, The humble mushroom. This musing includes a gorgeous musical interlude by Philip Horwitz.

Over the course of a few months recently, I wandered through the forests and woodlands near my home, eyes on the undergrowth, looking for fungus. I was amazed at how many different kinds of mushrooms I found and how beautiful they are. All the photos in The humble mushroom are from a tiny area of Australia.

Click the image below, sit back, listen to some stories about mushrooms, then relax into the musical interlude.

For those who want to experiment

Would you like to put something similar together? This communication style may even be useful for some types of technical documentation. I recently wrote some guidelines on how to record yourself in a webcam view and show a presentation at the same time.

Top tip for breaking writer’s block

My top tip for getting out of writer’s block is: Move to a different medium, temporarily. Yesterday I was struggling to get started with some writing, and I remembered that this strategy often works for me. So I tried it. It worked again!

By “moving to a different medium”, I mean opening a text editor and jotting my thoughts there, or writing on a scratch pad, or simply opening a page that is completely separated from the work that I’m trying to complete.

When I’m trying to write something, there are two decisions I need to make:

  • What do I want to say?
  • Where should I put it?

Sometimes the two decisions are so intertwined that my brain gets in a loop. I start writing, then I think, “Wait, this shouldn’t go here.” So I delete what I’ve written. But then I realise that I do need to write it, and start again, and … loop. Then I spend time trying to figure out where the content should go, which makes me lose my thread of thought and lose impetus.

This destructive loop can happen in any type of writing. Most recently, it happened to me when I was providing detailed feedback in a doc review. I wanted to help the author with the syntax and correctness of the content, but the work also needed higher-level input on the structure of the page as a whole and its location in the doc set. I started putting my feedback on the page itself, but some of the feedback was too high level to belong on the page, or so I thought. So I removed what I’d written. But then there was nowhere to put that feedback, and I lost time trying to figure out how to give the feedback rather than focusing on what the feedback actually should be.

I was stuck. I went for a walk to clear my head. In the middle of my walk, I remembered what’s worked before! I moved out of the doc review tool into a text editor and jotted down my feedback as it came to me, without trying to decide where it belonged. When I’d finished, it was easy to slot the pieces of feedback into the right place.

This type of writer’s block can happen when you’re writing a book (“should this content be in the book, or is it more like plot and character notes for me, or should it be in the blurb?”) or a technical document (“does this content belong in this doc or another doc, or should I split the doc, or does it belong in a blog post?”) and so on..

Moving to a different format or medium gives my brain the freedom to write what I need to say. After that, it’s relatively easy to decide where the content should go.

Live streaming with StreamYard to record presentation and webcam view

I’ve recently started a YouTube channel called Soothing Musings with Sarah. I’ll tell you a bit about the channel itself later. First, though, I want to share what I learned about how to record a presentation alongside a webcam view of myself. After quite a bit of investigation, I found that the best combination of services for my needs is StreamYard, Google Slides, and YouTube.

For my video format, I wanted to include a mini window showing myself talking. I therefore needed an app that would record a webcam view. Alongside the talking me, I wanted a main window showing pictures of the thing I was talking about. For the main window, I decided a slide deck would be best, so that I could include text as well as photos. So, I needed an app that would record a slide presentation, as well as the mini window of me as presenter.

Here’s the end result:

I already had a Gmail account, which gives me access to Google Slides for presentations, and YouTube for sharing videos.

Getting started with Google Slides and YouTube

You can get help from the Google documentation on how to set up an account. You can use the same account for Gmail, Google Slides, and YouTube. There’s also information on how to create presentations with Google Slides.

Setting up a named YouTube channel

When you set up a YouTube account, you automatically get a YouTube channel that has the same name as your account. For my videos, I wanted a channel with a specific name: Soothing Musings with Sarah. YouTube calls a named channel a brand account (or sometimes just an account). A brand account doesn’t need to be a business account.

The YouTube docs describe how to set up a named channel. One thing to note is that there may be a 24-hour delay before your new named channel is available. I found there was no delay for my default YouTube channel, but the delay did occur for the named channel (brand account) which I created.

StreamYard for recording of presentation and webcam view

StreamYard gives you a browser-based streaming studio. I’m using Chrome as my browser. StreamYard works by streaming your recorded video directly to YouTube. All you need to do is set up your screen layout and other options in StreamYard, then record the session. As soon as you finish the session, you can watch your video on your YouTube channel. StreamYard gives you a link to the video on YouTube, which you can find on the StreamYard dashboard.

After you finish recording your video on StreamYard, YouTube still needs to complete some post-processing, which can take a few hours. When that’s done, your video becomes visible in the list of videos in your YouTube channel. That’s also when you can set the video thumbnail and download the video. Note that you can view the video on YouTube immediately after finishing the session on StreamYard, even before YouTube’s post-processing is finished.

Connecting StreamYard to YouTube

Here’s how to connect StreamYard to your YouTube channel:

  1. Sign up for a StreamYard account. StreamYard offers free and paid plans.
  2. In StreamYard, go to the destinations page. As you can see in this screenshot, I currently have two destinations set up in Streamyard: one for my default YouTube account, and one for my brand account. Your destinations page is probably empty at this point:
  3. Click Add a Destination.
  4. On the next page, click YouTube Channel:
  5. Follow the prompts to sign in to Google and to choose your account or brand account. Make sure you use the email address that you used to set up your YouTube channel.

When that’s all done, you’re ready to create your first recording, which StreamYard calls a broadcast.

Recording your session on StreamYard

The following steps include some tips that I gleaned while experimenting with StreamYard. They may not all apply to you, but they’ll at least help you get started.

  1. Get ready to be filmed. 🙂 Brush your hair, arrange your collar, do whatever you need to do to make yourself feel comfortable. Of course, you can choose not to include a webcam view in the recording. In that case, as you were.
  2. Go to the StreamYard broadcasts page and click Create a Broadcast:
  3. If StreamYard prompts you with a dialog window named Broadcast to, choose the YouTube channel that you want as the destination for your video recording.
  4. Set the title, description, and privacy for your video. I like to set the video to private at first, so that I can review it before the general public can see it:
  5. Click Create Broadcast.
  6. Check the view from your camera and the sound from your mic, as prompted by StreamYard.
  7. Set a display name. This is the text that appears on the bottom left of the webcam view. Looking at the video at the top of this post, you can see that my display name is Sarah Maddox, and it shows up as white text on an indigo background.
  8. This is when you enter the StreamYard studio. It looks like this:
  9. Take some time to examine the options, in particular the various settings available in the strip on the right-hand side of the studio. In the above screenshot, I’ve selected the Brand option, which is where you can set your brand colour etc. Some of the options are available in the paid plans only. For my brand colour, I chose indigo, which is why my display name has an indigo background. You can find some good colours on the material design website.
  10. If you want a recording of yourself to be part of the video, click the box with the webcam view near the bottom left of the studio page. That’s the box that shows a moving picture of you. By clicking the box, you add the webcam view to the video.
  11. Check the angle of your video camera, and make sure the webcam shows just what you want it to show.
  12. Now it’s time to set up the layout of your video. Click one of the layouts that appear in a row like this:

    I like the layout that shows 2 people on the left plus the presentation on the right. That’s the one highlighted in the above screenshot. Even though I’m showing only one person (that is, one webcam view) I like the sizing ratios in this layout.
  13. Move over to your Google Slides deck, and click Present then Presenter view, so that you can use the presenter view window to drive the presentation:

  14. You’ll see a presenter view window that looks something like this:
  15. In StreamYard, click the Share Screen, option, which appears at the bottom of the StreamYard studio:

  16. Choose the option to share the Chrome tab and select the presenter view for your presentation:

  17. Bring the presenter view window for your presentation to the fore, and drag the presenter view window to a convenient position, so that it doesn’t cover any bits of the StreamYard screen that you want to see while presenting. In particular, make sure you can see the “Go Live” button. The “End Broadcast” button will appear in the same place when you’re actually broadcasting, and you’ll want to find that easily.
  18. Now it’s time to start the recording. In StreamYard, click Go Live at the top right of the studio window:

  19. Click Go Live again to confirm that you’re ready. This starts the streaming to YouTube. (It’s OK! If you’ve set the privacy option to private, no-one but you can see the video while you’re streaming or even when you’ve finished.)
  20. Press Alt+Tab (or Cmd+Tab) to bring the presenter view to the fore again.
  21. Go for it! Have your say and show your slides.
  22. When you’re ready to stop recording, click End Broadcast at top right of the StreamYard studio:

  23. Click End Broadcast again to confirm. Wait a second or so until StreamYard lets you know that it’s closed the stream.
  24. Take a look at your video! In StreamYard, you can click Links at top right of the studio window, then click View on YouTube:

  25. Alternatively, you can click Return to Dashboard and see your list of recorded videos on the Past Broadcasts tab:
  26. Click the three dots next to each recording to see various options, including the option to view the video on YouTube.

You can also see the video directly from YouTube. In your channel, Click Your videos then select Live streams from the dropdown list:

  • After some hours, the video appears in the Uploads list too.
  • In YouTube Studio, the recording appears on the Live tab.
  • Note that the Download link for the video in YouTube Studio doesn’t work immediately — it’s greyed out. It took a few hours for me before the link became active.

Other hints:

  • While recording in StreamYard, you can remove the webcam window but retain audio: Click the layout option that shows just the full screen. You can then put the webcam back again by choosing your original layout option.
  • The StreamYard docs are excellent, including a good set of FAQ.

Other services that I tried

I tried a few other services to get the layout that I needed. When live streaming with YouTube Live, I couldn’t share my screen. ScreenCastify is very easy to use and produces nice results, but I couldn’t get the onscreen camera box (webcam view) to appear when in presenter mode with Google Slides. 

My channel: Soothing Musings with Sarah

My YouTube channel is a new type of communication for me. I’m attempting to use voice mixed with beautiful pictures of nature, plus a soupçon of information, to convey a sense of calm. Hence, Soothing Musings with Sarah. At this point, the channel has a couple of videos streamed via StreamYard. I’m experimenting as I go. There’ll probably be more to come.

If you’re investigating how to record a video with a camera view and a slide deck, I hope you find this post useful.

What is Git cherry picking and how do you use it?

“Cherry pick a commit”. I’ve heard the phrase often. It sounds kind of endearing, yet scarily technical at the same time. What is cherry picking and why would you want to do it? One fine day I found that I needed it, and suddenly I appreciated the what and the why. So I figured out the how. I hope this post will help you towards the same understanding.

Here’s the scenario: I’d applied a change to the latest version of the Kubeflow docs. Specifically, the change added a banner and associated logic to inform readers if they’re reading an archived version of the docs. Now I needed to copy the same banner and logic to the older (archived) versions of the docs.

More details of the scenario

The screenshot below shows the banner that I wanted to add to all the archived versions of the docs:

The way we store archived versions of the Kubeflow docs is to make a branch of the current version (that is, a branch from the master). For example, here’s v0.6 of the docs, for which the source is in this branch on GitHub. The master branch contains the current version of the docs.

I’d added the banner and accompanying logic to the master branch in this pull request (PR). Now I needed to copy the code to all the archived branches. I didn’t want to have to copy/paste all my changes into the relevant files in every affected branch.

Enter cherry picking.

Picking sweet cherries

It’s useful to know that, when you’re using GitHub, cherry picking a commit is equivalent to cherry-picking a PR. GitHub squashes all the commits in a PR into a single commit when merging the PR into the code base.

What does a cherry-picked PR look like? No different from any other PR. It’s a collection of changes that you want to make, pointing to the branch on which you want to make them. For example, PR #1550 is a cherry pick of PR #1535, with a few extra changes added after cherry picking.

Below are the steps that I figured out to prepare and do the cherry picking. One thing to note in particular is that I had to do something different if my fork of the repository already contained a copy of the branch into which I intended to cherry pick.

The first step is to check out the master branch, which contains the updates that I want to copy to the archive branches:

git checkout master

Make sure my local working directory is up to date, by pulling all content from the remote master branch. (I’m working on a fork of the Kubeflow website repository. The convention is to give the name upstream to the repository from which you forked.)

git pull upstream master

Get a log of commits made to the master branch, to find the commit that I want to cherry pick:

git log upstream/master

A commit name consists of a long string of letters and numbers. Let’s say that I need the commit named e895a107edba5e68cc0e36fa3a05a687e806cc19.

Check to see which branches I have locally:

git branch -v

Also check my fork on GitHub to see which branches I already have there.

Now I’m ready to prepare the first archived branch for cherry picking. Let’s say I start with the version 0.6 branch of the docs, named v0.6-branch. If I don’t already have the branch on my fork, I need to get a copy of the branch from the remote master, and then push that copy up to my fork, so that I have a clean slate to apply the cherry pick to. So, I pull the branch down to my local working directory then push it up to my fork. In this example, the branch name is v0.6-branch:

git checkout master
git pull upstream v0.6-branch:v0.6-branch
git checkout v0.6-branch
git push origin v0.6-branch

(I’m working on a fork of the Kubeflow website repository. By default, the name of your fork of the repository is origin.)

In the cases where I do already have the branch on my fork, I need to copy the branch from my fork down to my local working directory, check that the branch is up to date by fetching updates from the main repository, then push the branch back up to my fork. In this example, the branch name is v0.5-branch:

git fetch origin v0.5-branch:v0.5-branch
git checkout v0.5-branch
git status
git fetch upstream v0.5-branch
git push origin v0.5-branch

Now I’m ready to cherry pick the changes I need. Remember, I’m cherry picking from master into an archive branch. Let’s say I want to cherry pick into the v0.6-branch:

git checkout v0.6-branch
git cherry-pick e895a107edba5e68cc0e36fa3a05a687e806cc19

The long string of letters and numbers is the name of the commit, which I obtained earlier by running git log.

The changes are now in my local copy of the branch. I can make extra changes if I want to. (For example, in my case I needed to update some metadata that relates specifically to the branch, including an archive flag used in the logic that determines whether to display the banner on the doc pages.)

When I’m happy with the cherry-picked updates and any other changes I’ve made, I push the updated branch up to my fork:

git push origin v0.6-branch

Then I create a PR and specify the base branch to be the name of the branch into which I’m cherry picking the changes. In the case of the above example, the base branch should be “v0.6-branch”. The screenshot below shows the base option, currently pointing to “master”, on the GitHub UI when creating a PR:

Can the cherries turn sour?

In the above scenario, I used cherry picking to apply a change going backwards in time. The requirement was to apply an update to older versions of the docs, which as a rule we don’t update very often. I didn’t cherry pick from a feature branch into the master branch. There are plenty of warnings on the web about things that could go wrong when you cherry pick. I found this post by Rob Friesel helpful in providing context in a non-scary way.

How did I make the banner itself?

That’s another story. 🙂

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