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My path to technical writing

I recently mentioned on Mastodon that I have had an… unorthodox journey into the tech world. I have no formal qualifications or training, I just kind of fell into it. Someone requested I write up my experience for people who are feeling like they missed out by not studying a technical subject, so here it is.

The beginning

Let me preface this by saying that I have led a privileged life. My parents both worked full time and had the money to afford things like computers. Therefore, I was exposed to technology early on despite being raised a rural area during the 1990s. My dad in particular was fascinated by computers and even completed qualifications in computing to help him build machines for people. His enthusiasm quickly spread to me and my sister, but mostly to me.

I never really did anything technical with our computer, I just developed an early interest in the idea of technology. Every time my dad got a new device I would watch him set it up with fascination. At some point my parents got my sister and me a computer to share, which we could use for about 10 minutes at a time. This was around the time we first got dial-up internet, so my sister and I spent a huge amount of time downloading animations from Newgrounds to watch over and over again. I started to poke around a bit more on message boards and forums, whereas my sister spent all of her time writing stories.

So yes, I grew up with computers, and was among the first generation to grow up with access to the internet. Nowadays this is much more common, but back in the 90s it was fairly uncommon. This early introduction to computers was instrumental in building my confidence with machines, and as they say: confidence is key!

School sucks

I was a fairly good student at school. I did well in science and the arts, and had a real interest in linguistics. Unfortunately, my school offered little in the way of computer education. We had a very basic introduction to “I.T.”, which amounted to learning how to use Microsoft Office and email. We never delved into programming or networking. As such, I wasn’t even aware that computing was a subject you could study. I decided instead to focus on physics, then realized I hated it. I switched over to film and music and found myself enjoying it much more.

After some soul searching, I decided to pursue film at university. I chose a small coastal university in Aberystwth due to its proximity to the sea and the focus on student experience. One of my roommates there was studying computer science and immediately reignited my interest in computers by breaking my computer with a Linux install. Reading the Arch wiki while trying to save a £2000 gaming PC was… fun.

I had a pretty nice time studying film at Aberystwth, and was afforded the opportunity to study in 香港浸會大學 in Hong Kong for a semester. Upon arrival I was informed there weren’t enough film classes to make up my credits for the semester and that I’d need to pick some other subjects. I mulled over the options, leaning towards studying English and French for the sake of my grades. Eventually, however, I decided I’d probably never get this experience again and should probably study something totally new. I took classes in Japanese, Cantonese, and computer science in addition to film.

I was terrible at computer science.

I managed to scrape a C at the end of the semester, most likely because they don’t like failing foreign students. But surprisingly I found myself enjoying the idea of computer science even if I hated writing ANSI C. I tucked this experience in the back of my mind for later.

In my final year I wrote my thesis on the Japanese Onryō and its place in the international film market, and started weighing my career options. Most career advisors suggested becoming a teacher, but having watched my mother suffer through the utter atrocity that is the British education system I was pretty against this. One person eventually suggested I try looking at companies like IBM to see if they could train me. So I did.

Immediate failure

When I turned up to my interview at IBM I quickly realized I was a long way out of my depth. Every other programming candidate had at least an MSc in computer science. One even had a PhD in astrophysics. I sat there with my basic knowledge of computers and my BA in film from a second-rate university wondering what the hell I was doing. Obviously, I wasn’t offered the job (none of us were, in the end), but I’d found the experience pretty enlightening. I decided that no matter what I ended up pursuing, I needed more education and time. I decided to go back to university.

I ended up applying for an MA course in English at the University of Exeter, which made sense as my mother was doing her PhD there and I could easily room with her. I continued where my undergraduate left off, focusing on Yōkai and how they are used in transnational media.

(As an aside, this is where the joke about “tensile strength of mammal genitalia in children’s media” comes from. I wrote essays about the shapeshifting Tanuki and the physical properties of its malleable scrotum.)

During this time, Brexit happened. I was absolutely furious and heartbroken by the utter stupidity of the decision my country had made and knew I couldn’t stay. When I eventually graduated I knew I needed to find work that would allow me to move back to Europe, and I knew tech was the best sector for it.

First steps

With some peer review help from my parents (thanks, guys), I threw together an application to be an entry-level I.T. tech at Exeter College. I was successful and started learning about Windows on-the-job. Mostly, I was helping people work out basic Windows/Office-related issues, but I also did quite a lot of hardware repairs. Importantly, I recognized how much good help articles reduced our workload.

By examining our most common tickets, I was able to put together a pretty comprehensive set of help documents that enabled users to fix a lot of issues themselves. This was my first experience with technical writing. The writing was poor, but the essentials were all there.

After about a year I managed to get promoted to Applications Engineer. I initially failed the interview as my technical knowledge was, well, lacking. But the head of I.T. saw potential and gave me some pointers on where I could improve and how I could study. The second time around I nailed the interview and was put in as a deputy to the senior Applications Engineer working on app deployment and operating system management across the entire fleet. A lot of my early blog posts are about this work!

Becoming a tech hippy

So now I was firmly on my way to working in tech. I was learning a lot, particularly information relating to Windows and Powershell, but I wanted to improve my general sysadmin knowledge. One thing I knew I needed to learn was Docker, so I set about trying to find something to do with Docker so I could learn through practical experience. One of the first things I was interested by was Mastodon, by then in its second year of life and already a fascinating idea. I threw a Mastodon server up and managed to understand everything pretty well.

Around this time, Spotify removed something from my library. I don’t remember what it was (I think a They Might Be Giants album), but it spooked me. I didn’t like that I had no ownership of my content, so I decided that I’d find a self-hosted solution to replace it. While looking through Reddit a comment pointed me to Funkwhale. Not only did it allow you to host your music, but it was about to support ActivityPub! That sounded cool! I went to set it up.

I failed. The instructions were a bit confusing and my basic knowledge couldn’t fill the gap. I headed to the chatroom where the lead developer at the time, Agate, helped me through the whole process. After going through it, I started helping others and eventually approached Agate to offer a rewrite of the documentation for people like myself. She enthusiastically agreed, and I set to it. This was my first foray into technical writing for open source.

The positive reaction I received prompted me to start exploring a bit more. I noticed some bugs in the tracker were pretty simple and I asked Agate if she would mind me having a go at fixing them. She welcomed the contribution, and I had a go. A lot of my work was wrong, but she was always there to explain why things were wrong and point me to the correct documentation. Through this process, I started to understand the project much more deeply and – as a consequence – notice how inadequate the documentation was. I set about rewriting the documentation while continuing to contribute code to the project, and my confidence grew and grew. Eventually, I was even made a maintainer.

Moving on up

During this time I’d quit working at the college and gone into the private sector. The confidence and portfolio I’d built up at Funkwhale saw me going from working as a support agent and documentarian to working as an integrations developer. I used my knowledge of writing and of programming to write comprehensive integration specifications and then deliver them quickly, with robust testing and a defined set of behaviors. After a while, I decided to start looking at jobs in Europe in earnest.

I knew that my biggest selling point abroad was not coding. After all, Europe has many talented coders. Instead, I focused on technical writing. My ability to write clear English combined with my knowledge of software made me a decent candidate, and my portfolio of work with Funkwhale acted as proof of both. I was eventually hired at a company in Germany as a technical writer, and this is where I am today. I have a good position as an SDK/API documentation specialist, I’ve rewritten Funkwhale’s documentation again, and I even met my girlfriend during my time in Berlin.

To this day I have no real qualifications or education in technical subjects. Instead, I’ve been able to build up my experience with the help of open source projects and their supportive communities. I always recommend giving open source a go, even if you have no experience. Most projects are thankful for the interest and help, and building up new contributors is often a priority.

Tl;dr

You don’t need a degree in computing, computer science, or technical communication to get into the tech industry. These certainly help, but a good history of open source contribution is often just as good. Please give it a go if you’re interested in it. You may find it pleasantly surprising.