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One year later after moving to Seattle

by Tom Johnson on Dec 22, 2021 •
categories: writing

A few people have asked me how I like Seattle and how things are going after the move. Given that it's been a year since we moved to Seattle, I thought this would be a good topic to write about. Overall, the move was a good decision, and we've all adjusted well. As I head into the next year, one thing that concerns me is that I've been writing less, so in 2022 I plan to rekindle that energy.

When we moved

We moved from Santa Clara, California, to Renton, Washington (South Seattle) last winter, on December 19, and I transitioned jobs from Amazon to Google at the same time. I brought my entire family (wife + 4 children) in tow to the new adventure. We’d been in California for 8 years before that. Before California, we lived for 5 years in Utah, and before that, for about 5 years in Florida. (For more on my career trajectory, see My life story.)

The change to Seattle has been a good move. There were a lot of adjustments to make, not just to the rainy weather, but to new schools, new friends, a new home and neighborhood, a new commute, new workplace, new products to document, new tools and workflows, new manager, new colleagues, and more — all during a pandemic, which made it harder to reintegrate to the new environment. But now that a year has passed, I feel like we’ve all more or less adjusted to our new lives.

Some months ago, I wrote a post called Trying to get back to normal, in which I said I was trying to get back into rhythm after the pandemic by focusing on several areas:

  • Returning to the workplace
  • Playing basketball
  • Commuting
  • Getting the kids out for the summer
  • Ramping up at work

Let me review our progress by touching on these topics.

Returning to the workplace

During the pandemic, a lot of us found out if we liked working from home or the office. I realized I fall in the latter camp — working from the office. Staying at home all day makes me feel like I’m on house arrest. I’d rather go out into the world each day. I like to think this psychology stems from some primordial hunter instinct, but no. My real motivation to go into the office is related to being able to play basketball early in the morning (6:30 am) in the city (South Downtown, SoDo). And once I’ve journeyed into the city, it’s natural to go from the court to the workplace. Plus, Google gives employees free food (breakfast, lunch, and unlimited coffee drinks) which is also an incentive. And I think my brain enjoys the warm-up and cool-down of the commute as well (to a degree).

When some of the Google workplace buildings first re-opened, I started going in 3-4 days a week, each time reserving a desk that was randomly assigned (different floors and areas each day, surrounded by different people each time). After a few months of “hot desk booking” in South Lake Union (SLU), my home office in Fremont finally opened, so I now have a dedicated desk co-located with the group I’m working with. (Google’s Return to Office was mid-January, though any hard-date for return was recently blurred.)

Playing basketball

I’m sorry that I subject my readers to so much basketball talk, so I’ll be brief. I went through a spate of calf injuries a while ago, but I hope I have finally turned the corner on those injuries, as I described in Barefoot shoes, basketball, and how to avoid recurring calf strains. I’ve been playing 3-4 times a week through the Puget Sound Basketball Leagues (PSBL) group, which is the best structure for pickup basketball in Seattle. The PSBL model avoids the uncertainty of whether there will be enough people for a game, what the teams will be, when people will show up, how to get in the next game, and more.

Also, I don’t know why, but I think I have a “sports brain.” Whereas my other family members usually want nothing less than to watch sports (basketball, football, or others), I gravitate toward this as my main form of entertainment. I’ve honestly contemplated starting another blog focused on pickup basketball strategies, but I doubt I’ll ever do that. (I could fit all my strategies into a single post, and they’re constantly changing because they never really work.) But I seem to have found my groove again on the court and am currently injury-free, at least for now. I’m just old and slow, but that can’t really be fixed (not easily anyway). Every day that I play and don’t get injured, I count that as a win.

Commuting

I found the sweet spot for my commute into Seattle by combining a car with a bike and light rail. I described this combination in Biking and public transportation in Renton and Seattle: Solving the first-mile and last-mile problems. I was commuting into South Lake Union (SLU), but now that my home office reopened, I’m commuting into Fremont, which is about 2 miles north of the SLU location.

Since my Fremont office location opened, my commute looks like this:

  • Car. Drive my car to the Tukwila Link Light Rail station and park it there all day. (20-min drive)
  • Light rail. Take the Link Light Rail to the University of Washington (UW) station (if playing ball, stop at the SoDo station). (30-min ride)
  • Bike. Bike from the UW station along the Burke-Gilman trail 3.5 miles to the Google Fremont campus. (20-min bike ride)

The Link Light Rail has some advantages over the Sounder train. With the Light Rail, schedules run every 8 minutes, all day long. There are more stops and stations. And it’s still just as dependable as the train, since the light rail isn’t subject to traffic congestion. The 30-minute ride is actually just enough to get immersed in a task of some kind. The light rail cars are still fairly empty, so it’s not hard to get a seat. Thirty minutes goes by quickly on a computer, and I’m not as tired from driving. (Driving during rush hour requires a lot of mental energy.)

The bike segment is entirely along a multi-path trail (the Burke Gilman) that follows a large waterway, where boats, kayaks, and others travel. It’s very picturesque. Here’s the view coming home in the evening at dusk.

Burke Gilman trail at dusk in Fremont, Seattle
Burke Gilman trail at dusk in Fremont, Seattle

The commute still takes about 1 hr and 10 minutes, though, which is not an insignificant amount of time. That’s 2 hrs and 20 minutes of my day sitting in a car/light-rail/bike. I find that doing this every weekday is a bit much, so usually 3-4 days a week is enough.

With Omicron ramping up, I have to wonder if the return to work will be delayed again and whether offices will close and we’ll have to return to working fully remote. If so, I’ll need to figure out a plan for that because, like I said, I dislike working from home. I’m not sure why, and now that the world is back in the uncertainty stage, I might need to crack the psychology of WFH.

Getting the kids out for summer

I should have broadened this topic to “Get the kids integrated into their new environment.” We did send our kids off to summer camps (mostly in Idaho, which was the closest location with overnight camps), but their summer experiences were cut short due to nearby wildfires.

I have four kids, ranging in ages from 11 to 20. My 11-year-old plays for a nearby soccer club (at Starfire, which is a high-quality facility where the Seattle Sounders actually practice). She has excelled a lot in soccer, so much that she’s almost ready to move up to the next level. (There are three levels at her age, and she’s in the middle.) She has also found some good friends who live nearby and she interacts a lot with them, especially online through Roblox and Discord.

My 15-year-old is also doing well. We talked her into continuing band, and it was a good move. She now plays saxophone at high school concerts as well as at football and basketball games. She’s extremely studious and responsible, with nearly perfect grades, attendance, and completed assignments. She has a clever sense of humor and likes going to thrift stores as well as giving detailed summaries of movie plots. Currently, she’s into oversized flannel shirt jackets.

My 17-year-old has also re-adjusted well. She had a close circle of friends in Santa Clara, and we were most concerned about how the move might affect her. But she literally made new friends during her first day at high school (getting a ride home with them, even). She’s socially gifted and ends up being everyone’s best friend. Her trick? She listens and cares about others, and feels a lot of empathy. She has her struggles, same as the other kids, but she’s re-integrated socially here and finds a lot of strength and motivation through her friends.

My 20-year-old spent an entire semester back on campus at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), living with some roommates in off-campus housing. She was so glad to be back on campus, after nearly a year of online learning at home. She recently returned for winter break, and she seems to have matured into a responsible, productive, functional adult. She wakes up on time, helps out with cooking, has taken to reading and writing poetry for fun, washes her own dishes sometimes, and gets good grades. At college, she even got a part-time job at a sandwich shop to work a couple of days a week between studies. She’s about to enter the next phase of life after completing an undergraduate degree.

My wife, Shannon, is also doing well. Shortly after we moved here, she found a nearby hiking trail that she loves. She hikes there almost every day (it’s 3 miles up to a peak, which offers a vista of Mt. Rainier in the distance). She’s been working on a master’s thesis for her Masters of Liberal Arts (MLA) program at Stanford, and she’s now in the thesis-writing phase. After reading dozens of books for research and preparation, she finally honed in on a thesis argument and has begun writing. She finished her first chapter last week and has a strict schedule to finish by March.

She also continues to work remotely in her administrative role at Stanford’s Europe Center. We all want her to finish her thesis so much because it gets painfully clear at the Johnson home when she’s angry/upset due to being behind in her writing schedule. But she’ll get through it. She’s 10x smarter than I am and can crunch through long academic texts even with a tired brain, all while doing so much around the home.

Ramping up at work

Over the past year, I’ve certainly ramped up at work. I found my area of focus, built up relationships with those around me, devoted time to learning products and testing them, added some much-needed overviews and getting started tutorials to our dev portal, and more. I still have a lot to learn and more to write, but I’ve become oriented and now understand the right directions to take.

What’s next – rekindling more blogging energy

As I think about what’s next, one issue on my mind is to figure out why I’ve been blogging less than usual. My frequency of posts has gone down this year. Each year, I average about 80 articles a year on my blog. This year, I wrote only 47 blog posts.

However, sometimes it’s hard to tell because I often sink time into articles on my API documentation site, which seems to have more value and recognition than content on my blog. I keep expanding my API course with new articles and directions, so much that many sections aren’t API-related. For example, Processes and methodology, Metrics and measurement, and The writing process aren’t API specific, though some dev docs themes surface. I wanted to put this content there because they’re all aspects of being a tech writer no matter the domain, but I realize this dilutes the API focus. It’s hard to tell if I’m actually writing less or just writing more on my API doc site than blog.

I wondered how working for Google might impact my blogging. I’d seen others start working at Google and watched their blogs attrition. I’ve always felt tremendous value in the writing process, as it helps me sort out my thoughts and organize my ideas. A good post is one that causes me to think differently afterward, so I never foresee any kind of attrition-process happening with my blog.

The dev portal I work on at Google is gated behind a login, so maybe that has put me less in the public space. Also, perhaps I don’t have the same writing fodder I had while working at Amazon, which prompted series such as Value arguments for docs and tech comm, or Reflecting seven years later on why we were laid off.

I’m not sure I’m itching to write about anything Google-specific. Google makes a few things easier as a tech writer. First, you don’t have to worry about your toolset or publishing workflow. This is all set up and works beautifully, for the most part. Second, teams are well resourced, so you don’t end up being spread so thin. There’s good management support, internal communities, opportunities for growth, and meaningful projects. You can really focus on content.

The challenge I face is staying on top of all dimensions of large projects. Google Maps has dozens of different teams and feature roadmaps, and even though I’m focusing on a small sliver (maps and map data in cars), many times the data structures and other information span outside of my group. Figuring out how to operate across division boundaries (for example, into Android or Assistant groups) has been challenging, as well as testing some of the products. But it’s not a huge struggle or point of interest to write about, at this point.

Perhaps I haven’t focused on some of these workplace challenges as I could. My current role is “tech lead,” which is like a team lead (but not manager) for a specific group. We have 3 writers in our group (focused on auto), and I suppose I could maybe write more about the tech lead role as well as leadership in general, but I haven’t. I covered a lot of these topics in my Processes and methodology section already. I am noodling on a series about influence, though, and perhaps that will spark a lot of content in a new direction. I do like working more on a living book/course rather than one-off blog posts, though. Maybe it’s time to create a new book/course?

To expand on that last point, maybe I’ve given less attention to my blog precisely because I enjoy having a more coherent set of content like my API doc course. It’s more fun to build something larger, more interconnected, sequential, and holistic like this. My API doc course site is unique in scope and coverage. I like tweaking pieces of it, adding to it, shaping it, coming back to content, updating parts of it, archiving other parts, etc. With blog posts, I rarely re-visit content after posting it, and it just sort of fades into the distance. Maybe I haven’t written less but rather shifted my focus to another online medium: the developer portal.

The fizzle in my blogging productivity might have some other reasons. I think the tech comm blogosphere has also become less active. There aren’t as many people reading and commenting on blog posts as in previous years. I haven’t measured this decline — it’s just a general sense I’ve felt. More people have moved into podcasting than blogging. Podcasting actually seems like it hit a resurgence, though I often struggle to be engaged by tech comm podcasts.

Another reason for writing less might be due to my move and transition. For a few months, I prioritized ramping up in my new role over anything extracurricular. There was also a tremendous amount of adjustment to make in moving to Seattle. Then after I ramped up and settled in, I think I got out of my writing rhythm.

Some of the fatigue could be attributed to the pandemic. I think many creatives experienced some burnout and dropped their normal productivity. This one is kind of perplexing. I’ve never felt a lack of topics to write about, and sometimes I go off-topic to pursue what interests me at the moment. I’d rather write about something I’m interested in, even if not tech-comm related, than not write at all. Presumably, all of us had more time as we worked from home. But to deny the creative burnout from the despair and endless isolation from the pandemic would be wrong. Sure, like others, the pandemic has worn on me as well.

Giving presentations usually got me more into the writing groove, and I didn’t give many presentations last year. I gave only 3 presentations in 2021, compared to my usual average of about 8 presentations a year. Preparing for a presentation usually drives some writing focus. A few years ago, much of my writing caught fire when I started focusing on API documentation, and I had a plethora of topics to write about. Now that I’ve more or less saturated that space with content, I’ve been looking to turn over a new leaf, to find some other topic just as fascinating and rewarding.

This past year I searched for a new topic to present on. I dabbled in a few different directions. I presented on product overviews and getting started tutorials and tech comm and marketing. Neither of these presentations seemed like they could serve as a regular focus (unlike the trends topic that I focused on for about a year). I’m now working on a presentation about visibility and influence (for a conference in Israel), but I’m not sure if it will have the same industry engagement.

One other thing impacted me in 2021 — watching Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics, and how she got the twisties/yips and lost her ability to focus. During that time, she said something about how gymnastics had lost its appeal because she was no longer performing for herself but for others. In one of the interviews after pulling out of an event, she said:

“I know that this Olympic Games I want it to be for myself,” she told Reuters. “I came in and it felt like I was still doing it for other people, so that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people” (Commentary: Simone Biles stepped back from the Olympics for her own self-care. The world should pay attention).

Of course I don’t have anywhere near the visibility, pressure, or fame as her, but her words made me wonder whether I was writing for myself or for others. Over the past several years, I’d seen so much traction with API topics, I felt a tremendous pull toward that direction. For everyone that buys me coffee, if they write a note it’s usually to say thanks for the API documentation resources. I felt like I needed to continue pumping out resources in that direction because that’s sort of what we’re taught as tech writers — focus on the user and their needs. Write with the user in mind. User-centered design. User-centered documentation. User-empathy.

But when you start writing for others and not yourself, it’s easy to lose motivation to write. I don’t want to devote my next year writing only about API documentation. I’d like to dig into another topic and expand that out. My current focus is on visibility and influence, and I think there might be enough there to make a go of it. But I can’t simply keep shoving these topics into my API course and expect them to have relevance and coherence with API themes.

Another question: If I’m writing for myself, what if I want to move in another direction entirely, such as writing about non-tech comm topics? I’m not a fiction writer nor do I have aspirations to write fiction. But I do like personal essays. If I were to erase all sense of audience, what would I write about? What topics would be my own? Would all my advertisers abandon me? Would my lack of authority and experience with non-tech-comm topics make my writing plummet? Would I have anything to say beyond a superficial level? I don’t know. But one thing is for sure: if I’m not writing for myself on my blog, writing might not be worth it. I need to rekindle this sense of writing for me, focusing on the topics I want to dive into and understand. And writing about it in an honest, informed, enthusiastic way.

Naturally, I’m drawn to write about topics related to my current experience. And since I spend most of the day focused on tech comm, I’ll probably always have that as a focus. But this coming year, I’d like to more fully question the motivations around the topics I write about and make sure they align with what I would write even if I didn’t have any audience at all. In other words, I want to write more authentic content that is meaningful to me on a deep level.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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