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Report from Write the Docs Sydney, March meetup

We held the second Write the Docs meetup in Sydney on 2 March. The presentations were on moving into API technical writing, and the story of the Corilla documentation platform.

There was a good crowd at this meetup – around 20 technical writers descended on the Campaign Monitor offices in central Sydney. We were treated to a breath-taking 360-degree panorama of Sydney from the 38th floor of the building, and a couple of entertaining, informative, very different talks.

The recording of the session includes both talks, and is available on YouTube:

Presentation 1: Transitioning into API Tech Writing

The first presentation was from Priya Varghese, a technical writer at Google. Her talk was titled Transitioning into API Tech Writing. A year ago, Priya started work at Google as an API technical writer. Before that, she had many years’ experience as a tech writer for other audiences in the medical, security and education industries.

Priya talked about the questions she had before embarking on this new role, such as: How different is it from tech writing for other audiences? Do I know enough to explain APIs to developers? What if I don’t know how to code? Can API tech writing be fun? Her presentation gives an overview of APIs and the developer audience, the role of an API tech writer, the things you need to know, and the skills you need to acquire. One thing Priya strongly recommends is a mentor, and she finishes her talk by wondering if we should develop mentorship programs to guide and instruct technical writers.

Presentation 2: The Corilla Story

David Ryan, co-founder of Corilla, told the story of the development of Corilla and the forming of a startup. Corilla is an online documentation platform for technical writers, providing documentation authoring, publication and version-control tools. David’s talk was fun and educational, with intriguing glimpses of the roller-coaster ride of a startup founder.

David described how he and his team had the original idea for a new tool while working with a set of tools that was bloated, clumsy, and not designed for technical writing. Their new tool quickly became popular at Red Hat, where David was working at the time. With Red Hat’s blessing, he and his colleague branched out to form their own startup. And the rest is history. Two years later, Corilla is an alumni of the NUMA accelerator in Paris and has customers in more than 80 countries. Watch the video to hear David talk about the journey from then to now.

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Designing tutorials – some insights for API documentation

I’ve just published a blog post on the Google Geo Developers Blog, about a new design for the Google Maps API tutorials. I’d love some feedback from technical writers. If you have a few minutes, would you head on over there and let us know what you think?

What does Stack Overflow’s new documentation feature mean for tech writing?

Stack Overflow has recently announced the public beta release of its new documentation feature. That is, Stack Overflow now provides a platform for crowd-sourced documentation relating to any number of products, for the people, by the people.

For those of us managing the docs for widely-used products in particular, this means our customers may soon have access to an alternative, crowd-sourced documentation set.

What an awesome experiment for us as technical writers to follow! We’ll be able to see at first hand what our customers know they need, in terms of information about our products. Because this is Stack Overflow, the documented products are likely to be APIs, SDKs, and other developer-focused tools and technologies.

What if the documentation on Stack Overflow turns out to be voluminous and extremely useful – where would that leave us as technical writers working on proprietary doc sets? I think it will give us the opportunity to streamline our content, focusing even more than we do now on ensuring our information is up to date, and that our information architecture is the best we can make it.

In other words, we can ensure our target audiences can find what they need, even when they don’t know yet what that is.

Technical writing is hard. Information architecture is hard. The Q&A side of Stack Overflow works extremely well, because it focuses on short snippets of content that answer a particular question. It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see how well the new documentation feature works, with the more narrative demands of technical documentation.

An issue I foresee is that people will be tempted to kick off a topic, and then tire half way through and end up providing a link to the official documentation. Is that a bad thing? Tech writing know-how says our readers find it disconcerting to have to click around to find their information. It’s OK in a Q&A format, but not so good in a tutorial or step-by-step guide.

I really like Stack Overflow’s focus on sample-driven documentation!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this development. Where do you think it’ll go within the next few months, and how about within the next two years? Will it fizzle into nothingness, or explode into something huge and beautiful? Will the original Q&A form of Stack Overflow merge into the new documentation form, becoming something new?

Write the Docs NA 2016 wrapup

This week I attended Write the Docs NA 2016, which wrapped up a couple of hours ago. This post is a summary of impressions, with links to my notes on some of the sessions I attended.

One thing that strikes me about Write the Docs is that I’ve spent much of my time talking to people. This is partly because half of each day is devoted to unconference sessions as well as formal presentations. In the unconference sessions there’s a facilitator rather than a speaker, so everyone can contribute to the discussion. Another reason I’ve done so much talking to people is that there are so many interesting, friendly, enthusiastic people to talk to.

There were approximately 400 attendees. They’re people who love documentation – that is, people who know its value. Based on a show of hands at the introductory session, approximately 60% of the attendees are technical writers and about 15% are software developers. Others are UX specialists, support engineers, librarians, knowledge management specialists and more.

Another thing that strikes me is that the pre-conference activity was a half-day hike through the forested hills around Portland. Now, that’s my kind of activity.

The sessions

These are the notes I took from some of the sessions I attended:

For recordings of most of the talks, take a look at the Write the Docs 2016 YouTube channel. Here’s State of the Docs by Eric Holscher:

Doc sprints and API doc meetup

On the first day of Write the Docs, we gathered at Centrl Office to write docs and talk about API documentation. It was great chatting to so many enthusiastic, knowledgable writers. People got together and contributed to open source documentation with Mozilla, Google, and more. We filled three rooms to the brim. This photo shows the scene early in the day, before most people had arrived.

write-the-docs-writing-day

Conference venue

Days two and three were at the Crystal Ballroom. What a lovely venue! Here’s the view from the stage looking out across the conference attendees.

write-the-docs-ballroom

A closer view of the murals:

write-the-docs-murals

A chandelier:

write-the-docs-chandelier

More about Portland

My travelling bookmark, Mark Wordsworm, has some pictures and words about the city: Lost in Portland, Oregon.

Thanks

A huge thank you to the organisers of Write the Docs NA 2016. This is my first experience of a Write the Docs conference. I’ve wanted to attend for a couple of years, but it’s a long way from Sydney, Australia, to any of the conference venues. This year, everything came together and here I am. It was a great experience, and well worth the trip. Thanks!

Interactive document environments at Write the Docs NA 2016

This week I’m attending Write the Docs NA 2016. I’ve just attended a fast-paced, exciting session: “Code the Docs: Interactive Document Environments”, by Tim Nugent & Paris Buttfield-Addison. These are my notes from the session. All kudos goes to Tim and Paris, and any mistakes are mine.

Tim and Paris warned us up front that they speak Australian. Suddenly I feel right at home. 🙂 They also write books, are academics, train people in coding, and do other stuff. They’ve noticed that we need better linking between the documentation and the code. Otherwise things break too quickly.

What is an interactive document environment?

Interactive document environments put live code and documentation side by side. You can write content and embed code that runs within the doc.

This talk looked at two examples in particular: Jupyter Notebook (formerly known as IPython Notebook) and Swift Playgrounds.

In the Apple environment, before Tim and Paris started using Swift Playgrounds, they noticed that people got lost. People were switching between docs, code, notes, and couldn’t keep up. So Paris and Tim investigated the tools and made up the term, interactive document environment.

The code, the person’s own notes, and the official documentation all in one place.

Core features:

  • Live code
  • Pretty formatting
  • You can add notes
  • You can add media such as gifs, videos, etc
  • It’s real code that you can play with

Swift Playgrounds

Swift is Apple’s new language. Paris and Tim think Swift is the bee’s knees. Swift Playgrounds is a core part of Swift. It’s an interactive coding environment, designed for prototyping, learning and experimenting.

To use Playgrounds, download Xcode from the Apple Store.

Playgrounds currently supports basic HTML and Markdown for content development.

Tim and Paris gave a demo of Swift Playgrounds. It was impressive to see how you can embed code and see it execute right on the page.

Swift supports emoji, so of course the demo included emoji. 🙂 You can also add pagination, with a “Next” link at the end of the page. The code is running all the time, and you see the output on a panel next to the page.

We also saw Apple’s example, called Newton’s Cradle and UIKit Dynamics, which runs in Xcode. (Apple’s announcement blog post has a screenshot and a link to the downloadable demo as a zip file.) The code is live, so you can change it and play with it.

IPython Notebooks, now Project Jupyter

Project Jupyter is an interactive Python coding environment.

It’s used by O’Reilly Media for project Oriole, a learning environment that blends executable code, data, text, and video.

Tim and Paris showed us Regex Golf with Peter Norvig. (Sign in, scroll down the page, and run the code. Change the code and run it again. It’s worth it.)

To try creating content in this environment yourself, download Jupyter Notebook. (The process is a little tricky.)

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths:

  • The code and the docs are together, and the code is live. It’s easy to keep them in sync.
  • You can mix in your own notes. Paris and Tim say it was a real surprise to see how useful people found it, to be able to add their own notes on the docs.
  • People don’t have to context switch.

Weaknesses:

  • These environments are new and thus prone to crashing.
  • They support only Markdown and HTML for content development.
  • Limited support for languages and frameworks.
  • No hooks into existing doc tools.
  • Only really relevant for narrative docs.

Paris and Tim predict that these environments will become more stable and will support more languages and projects. These environments will replace books and articles. There’ll be better support for non-narrative docs. It’s a natural evolution of API guidelines where you give the developers a cURL command to try the API, and even those more advanced docs that supply a button to run the code live.

Thanks Tim and Paris, this was an entertaining and informative talk. Notes and slides will be at lonely.coffee and blog.paris.id.au.

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