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How can technical writers thrive in agile environments? Event recording and details

Sep 20, 2016 • podcasts, stitcher, general, beginners

Last Monday we had a record turnout at our STC Silicon Valley chapter (with about 40 attendees). The topic was a panel discussion on how to thrive in agile environments as a technical writer. With 5 panelists all from different companies, the perspectives and practices they shared varied a bit, which showed the adaptations different writers and companies have made with agile to make the process work for them. This post contains a full description and recording of the event.

Audio Recording

Listen to the recording:

You can download the MP3 file, subscribe in iTunes, or listen with Stitcher.

Agile panel event description

Here’s a description of the agile panel event:

How can technical writers can thrive in agile environments?

Most engineers in IT departments follow an agile scrum process: they track issues in sprints, assign and scope story points, meet daily to provide short updates on their work, and release updates every 2-3 weeks.

Technical writers who work with engineers usually find that being productive requires them to become familiar with the engineer’s agile scrum workflow. Whether you want to keep abreast of engineering work, factor in time for doc reviews during the sprint, or have documentation be managed like other IT work, you need to know how to integrate or work with the agile scrum workflow.

In this chapter meeting, we will have a panel discussion about how technical writers can thrive in agile environments. (See the STC SV event post for more details.)

Panelists

The following 5 people were panelists:

Bonnie Clark has almost 20 years of experience in the technical communication field. She is currently a Director of Technical Publications at FICO, a leading analytics software company.

Rosemary Picado is the Documentation Team Lead at Sumo Logic, and works with agile and non-agile teams within the company to document their cloud-based log management platform. Formerly at Recommind, she transitioned from Tech Writer to Scrum Master while the platform was being re-architected, learning the value of Agile first hand, and how the skill sets intersect and complement each other.

Daniel Doornbos has been a technical communicator since 1982. He most recently worked as a Senior Technical Writer at HEAT Software on its IT Service Management product. The company is in the process of transitioning to agile development.

Jane Wilson leads the technical writing team for GE Digital’s Applications Engineering group. GE Digital develops in an Agile environment, and, as the team has grown, she has developed processes for fitting writers and the writing process into Agile methodologies. Along the way, she became a certified scrum master. Jane belongs to the East Bay and Atlanta chapters, and she currently serves on the STC Board as Treasurer.

Gina Blednyh is a Staff Technical Writer at Salesforce. She’s worked in an Agile environment for almost six years. She’s also been a scrum master for both a writing team and an engineering team and is an Agile convert.

I moderated the panel.

Questions discussed

Here are some of the questions about agile and tech comm that we discussed:

  • Should documentation be managed as items in an engineering sprint?
  • Should doc reviews be assigned story points?
  • Do you still create a documentation plan at the project kickoff if you are following an agile scrum process?
  • How can you keep pace in documenting features during the sprint if the features don’t get finished until the end of the sprint?
  • How can you reduce the tedium of daily standups when engineers seem to rattle on endlessly about coding issues?
  • How can you stay updated about JIRA items when engineers don’t take the time to articulate the issue but rather hastily add a quick title that only they and other engineers who are already familiar with the issue understand?
  • How can you persuade engineers to dedicate time for doc reviews if there’s no points allocated for the work in the sprint?
  • Logging bugs changes the role tech writers play on teams. Should tech writers log bugs when they find them, or simply send emails to the QA engineers to log the bugs?
  • What processes should tech writers follow in order to publish rapidly during the two-week cycles, especially when tech writers have several projects at once, all of which have two-week release cadences?
  • How can technical writers be valuable participants in the agile process when they are part of 3+ different teams, each of which has its own daily standups, sprint planning, and retrospective meetings?
  • Agile teams often follow a “fail quickly” approach that leads to coding in a lot of different directions in order to find something that works in the market. How can you avoid massive revisions of your documentation with each major direction during this highly volatile period of coding?
  • Agile teams often want to minimize the amount of documentation in order to stay agile and flexible (the principle is “working software over comprehensive documentation”). How do technical writers negotiate the de-valuation of documentation on agile teams (even if the docs mostly refer to project documentation instead of user documentation)? How does minimalism factor into agile practices?
  • What time management techniques can you implement to be more efficient in order to meet the fast-paced demands of agile teams? What can you ignore or cut out of your day? Are all meetings necessary to attend in order to convey the importance of your role on the team?

Share your experience

If you want to share your experiences with agile, you can do so in the comments on this post.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.