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Perspectives in Leadership: For technical writers, there’s more to development than developers

December 12, 2022

Pluralsight Senior Technical Writer Danielle Vansia has taken a unique route to her career in technical writing. She started out in higher education before seeing an article about the jobs available in the tech space. Over time, Danielle grew to love the documentation aspects of technical writing and pursued the new career to great success. 

In this episode of Perspectives in Leadership, Danielle sits down with host Adam Sockel to discuss the myriad of tech careers beyond “just” being a developer. Now, in addition to her job as a technical writer, she’s also writing courses for the development world.

Danielle and Adam also discuss the importance of tech fluency and how organizations can find hidden talent on their “non-tech” teams. 

What do technical writers do?

As a Senior Technical Writer at Pluralsight, Danielle receives content created by technical authors and training architects and reviews it from a student’s perspective. The key questions she asks are, “Do I understand this content? Can I learn from it?” 

She notes one of the most important traits for this role is being able to do research and know where to look for important information, such as vendor documentation and style guides, to help validate content.

There’s also the editing side, which takes shape in two forms: copyediting and proofreading. Danielle explains, “With copyediting, we are reviewing the piece as a whole and making sure it looks good from a bigger lens. With proofreading, we’re looking at grammar details, such as commas. We spend a lot of time looking at content, and we always keep the student in mind.”

A non-traditional entry point into tech

Technical writing isn’t Danielle’s first career. She began working in higher education after studying marketing in college. During her time in higher ed, she found that she enjoyed process documentation, business processes, and working in Excel and Access databases. When it came time for a career change, technical writing was a natural fit. 

Structured Query Language (SQL) was my first love. I realized there was a career where I could combine writing, documentation, and business analysis,” shares Danielle. She now works on internal documentation, as well as content for Pluralsight’s hands-on labs.

How to get into tech from a non-tech space

Danielle recommends getting immersed in the field, taking courses, obtaining certifications, and, perhaps most importantly, exposing yourself to hands-on knowledge. 

“One of the biggest tips I have for people looking to get into tech is to contribute to open source. I was able to work with two different open-source organizations,” she shares. “Open source is volunteer based, so everyone is happy to have you on board no matter what your level of experience is.”

Don’t know how to code? No problem. Danielle notes that open-source projects often need people to write articles about the product, work on product documentation, and even perform user testing. These projects are also good places to find mentors. Danielle found her mentor at an open-source project and is now mentoring a colleague through Pluralsight’s mentoring program. 

Essential skills technical writers need

Technical writers have a unique skill set. “It’s not just about words,” Danielle says. “You’re also really perceptive. You can pick up the tiniest little nuances or inconsistencies. You don't have to know how to code to get into the field, but once you learn these more advanced tech concepts, it does help you move into other roles.” 

Danielle encourages team leads to look at technical writers as potential talent pools for more technical roles. API technical writers, for instance, are often excited to learn and have the skill sets needed to work with code more closely.  

Here are some essential skills successful technical writers possess (that can carry over into other roles):

Relentless research

Technical writers are good researchers. Researching also gives them the opportunity to learn many different areas of tech. Over the years, Danielle has had the opportunity to pick up more knowledge, such as programming in Python and SQL. 

Danielle offers this advice for technical writers: “Focus on the things that can help you in your position and make your work better. For example, I’ve created several style guides throughout my work. This has helped me determine what to add to Pluralsight’s style guide and identify the important points to share with writers while creating documentation.”

Clear documentation

Technical writers also excel at documentation, as they’re constantly reviewing sources to check styles, perform research, and fact-check information. Danielle stresses how important documentation is to the health of the software development pipeline. Even the best product and code won’t perform properly if an end user doesn’t have the information they need to use it. 

To help create effective documentation, technical writers need to acquire a great deal of general knowledge about several subjects. You don’t necessarily have to be an expert in a topic to write about it, but you do need to have enough knowledge to convey key concepts clearly. 

Likewise, it’s important for them to take good notes. Danielle keeps a dedicated section on OneNote to document editing choices, style guides, and individual intricacies of each course. 

A desire to learn

For many technical writers, curiosity and a strong desire to learn lie at the heart of their work. Over the years, Danielle has asked to be placed as a writer on courses for topics she’s interested in, such as machine learning. That way, she can take the course as she edits it. 

“I’m passionate about challenging myself beyond what I thought was possible. In the past two years, I've worked on two different Pluralsight hackathons. A few years ago, I would have never imagined working with a team of developers and helping to create a  product.” 

She’s even co-published a course with training architect Amy Coughlin, called Introduction to Azure Data Studio: An Explorer’s Guide. This course uses an explorer theme to share a User Interface overview of the Azure Data Studio tool and its capabilities. 

Advice for future technical writers

What advice would Danielle give to those starting out in the field? She leaves us with plenty of wisdom for aspiring technical writers. “Do your research. Find your niche and a good mentor. Ask them questions about how they got into their role and the resources they look at. You can also take courses like Tech Foundations, to get initial knowledge and see what exactly you might be interested in. Challenge yourself and realize that everyone gets imposter syndrome. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—that’s how you learn.”

Ready to drive digital transformation at your organization? Check out our on-demand tech fluency webinar.