By Shannon Brown
In this article, Uber technical writer and former intern Shannon Brown explains her work as a technical writer and answers common questions about this important role in Uber’s engineering organization.
It was just over a year ago that I stepped into Uber’s San Francisco office for the first time. I was beginning a twelve-week internship that would introduce me to the world of technical writing and I had no idea what to expect.
Recurring questions, such as What does a technical writer actually do? and Do I want to work at Uber long term? kept running through my head. Throughout my internship, the answers to these questions became increasingly clear. I finished the summer feeling confident that this was the path I wanted to pursue, a resolution capped by a job offer that I was thrilled to accept.
When choosing a job after college, my problem was never What do I want to do? but rather How can I do all of these things? I was looking for a job that allowed me to be both creative and analytical. I wanted to work with cool, technical concepts, but I wasn’t interested in constantly writing code. I hoped to have a job that would allow me to take risks and to learn daily. Amazingly, technical writing checked every box.
Technical writing can be a misunderstood career, so I have distilled my experiences into seven questions that I often found myself asking. Hopefully, future writers and technologists will find these answers helpful in deciding upon a technical writing role.
What does a technical writer actually do?
Despite hours of online research, it was not until I was knee-deep in my internship, juggling a multitude of exciting projects, that I finally felt like I had a grasp on what, exactly, a technical writer does.
Generally, technical writers document services or products built by engineers. This documentation helps onboard new users, spread information about how services work, and translate technical jargon into comprehensible prose. However, documentation is just one of many tasks that a technical writer has. In addition to documenting, tech writers create training materials, analyze data, interview users, write in-product copy, and come up with solutions to information architecture problems. Some days you have to think like an engineer and others like a project manager. The work is dynamic, challenging, and incredibly rewarding.
What is most challenging about being a technical writer? What is most rewarding?
As a technical writer at Uber, I simultaneously work with multiple teams on multiple projects, which leads to a lot of context switching and multitasking — a challenge at times! I have to be super efficient and organized with my time in order to make sure I stay on top of deadlines and serve the teams I work with well.
Because I work with multiple teams, I also have a huge opportunity to make an impact. This is very rewarding because the documentation I write and the learning content I create helps my colleagues understand, process, and learn information faster — a huge bonus for efficiency and productivity within engineering at Uber.
What are the biggest misconceptions about technical writing?
Since technical writing isn’t a super well-known career path, there are a lot of misconceptions that are thrown around. One that has stood out to me the most is that technical writing is boring.
That’s totally wrong (unless you hate to read and write and want nothing to do with cool technologies).
In fact, this job is quite the opposite of boring. As I mentioned earlier, I get to work on so many interesting projects. If I feel bored with one, I can take a few hours break by working on another. This keeps me engaged so that I never feel bored at work.
Another major misconception about technical writing is that you have to have a technical background. As you will read in the next section, that too is wrong!
Do you need an engineering degree/background to become a technical writer?
Many people believe that you need an engineering degree/background to become a technical writer, which is actually another big misconception.
In college, I studied a mix of computer science, music, and art. While my computer science courses helped introduce me to technical concepts, the most useful aspects of my education were actually learning how to learn and listen. Some of the technical tools and concepts I studied in school have helped in my role as a technical writer but, more than anything, they primed me to learn quickly and ask questions, which is crucial in a tech writing job.
Technical writers come from all different backgrounds and by no means do you need an engineering degree or background to get started in the field (although it definitely doesn’t hurt!). If you have strong writing skills and a desire to learn, technical writing may be a great fit for you.
How do I like working as a technical writer at Uber?
No matter where you are in your career, or what job title you have, you must consider whether the company you are working for aligns with your goals and values. My summer intern experience at Uber, along with these last few months as a full-time employee, have proved to me that there is nowhere I would rather be.
The best part about working at Uber are the people. When I first arrived, both as an intern and full-time employee, my team members went out of their way to welcome and mentor me—and this is not unique to my team. Everyone I have met at Uber is kind, enthusiastic, and passionate about their work. The energy in the office is infectious and the strong sense of community and pride makes me look forward to coming to work every day.
I appreciate that Uber is a place where I can build my career thanks to upward and lateral mobility. One of my colleagues just switched from a technical writer role to a software engineer role, and another to a project manager role, all within Uber. I love that Uber supports this sort of movement.
Specifically from a technical writing standpoint, I think Uber is a great company to work for. I have support from all levels of management who truly see the value in technical writing. Thanks to this support, I know my work matters. This helps keep me motivated when I am working on challenging projects.
Lastly, being part of the Uber family excites me because the work we are doing impacts not only the present but also the future in really big ways. I am thrilled to be part of a company that is revolutionizing the transportation industry.
What makes technical writing different at Uber compared to other organizations?
Because I have limited industry experience, I enlisted the help of a fellow tech writer at Uber to chime in on this topic.
Adam Pavlacka, a senior technical writer, remarks that Uber focuses on leveraging engineers to write and really encourages a culture of good documentation. While many companies hire writers solely to deliver docs or rewrite raw copy from engineers’ notes, Uber hires tech writers who learn the topics they are writing about in a much more hands-on manner.
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give an aspiring technical writer?
If you want to be a technical writer, start writing now! You don’t need to have an official job to practice your technical writing skills. Find existing documentation on products or apps you use and see how you can improve it. Work on documenting open source projects requesting documentation help. Check out online tutorials on technical concepts that excite you. These small steps will help build your portfolio and develop your skills.
I also urge you to not give up the idea of being a technical writer if you think you are not “techie” enough or you don’t fit the mold of a technical writer. There is no mold! If you are an aspiring technical writer, let your desire drive you to success.
If working with Shannon and her team to write compelling documentation appeals to you, consider applying for a role on Uber’s Technical Writing team!
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