Amruta Ranade on Learning New Technology

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm, this is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I hear from a lot of students and aspiring technical communicators, asking how they can learn more about technologies. Often, they’re daunted or intimidated about sort of all the technical knowledge that’s required to do the job well. But today’s guest argues that they don’t need to be so intimidated at all.

[Amruta Ranade] I’m Amruta Ranade and I work as the Senior Technical Writer at Cochran Labs in New York City.

[Weber] Amruta’s blog features a regular feature called Tech Bites, and I’ll link to her blog in the show notes, and in this feature, she provides a resource for technical communicators who want to learn new technologies one piece at a time. And it’s part of her overall project to encourage technical writers to become more technical and to be less intimidated by technology. Today I talk to her about that as well as her argument that technical writers need to engage with more conversations outside of their discipline.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Amruta, I really appreciate you joining us today and I wanted to talk with you because you have this feature on your blog called Tech Bites, that encourages technical communicators to become more technically savvy. What inspired you to create this section of your blog?

[Ranade] Yes, I always encourage technical writers to become more technical because in my experience writers who can work on developer documentation are very high in demand, but we don’t have as many qualified candidates for the available positions and I see this as a tremendous opportunity, especially for technical writing students who are just getting into the field, and these are very lucrative roles as well, they pay really well. Like the six figure salaries that we heard about, I think students or technical writers don’t go for these roles mainly because of a fear of technology or like a resistance to it. So that’s why I started the Tech Bites feature on the blog. Like every week if I can just provide bite-sized information about technology and they could digest it and the skills, I was hoping that would be helpful for them.

[Weber] Great, great. You know you mentioned this intimidation factor, and I think that’s true. You know a lot of tech writers might come from ore of a liberal arts or humanities writing background and they might be kind of intimidated or fearful about learning new technologies. What advice would you give to tech writers who are kind of intimidated about how they can start learning new technologies?

[Ranade] I always recommend starting small. We have to remember that our goal here is not to become an awesome programmer or a software engineer, but just become more comfortable with technology. I heard a quote once that I love, that was “Everything is figure out-able.” Technology is something that humans created so we should be able to figure it out, but I understand that it can be overwhelming when you’re like faced with so many different technical jargon. In my work I’m always surrounded by people who talk about cloud technologies and Amazon web services and these are like technical jargon that you think that I’m to learn about them and the way to go about it in my opinion is to just start small. So, I don’t sit down and decide, “Okay today I’m going to learn all about Amazon web services,” instead what I do is that every morning while having my coffee, I just scroll through YouTube and watch one or two videos about technology, and small specific videos. Like what are SQL drawings or how does Google autocomplete work? Something that’s interesting to me and also helps me to learn about a particular piece of technology.

[Weber] These YouTube videos sound like great resources. Can you recommend anything else for people who want to start learning new technology? Kind of get their feet wet with learning new technology.

[Ranade] So, I have three recommendations for what I consider to be good starting places. The first one is YouTube, as I mentioned before, the second is Skill Share, and the third is Coursera. All three of them have free or almost free resources, like small tutorials or videos about specific technology skills. Like a crash course in SQL or a beginner’s course in Python and I find these videos to be very helpful, and as a technical communicator I find them very informative as well because they are examples of technical communication. Right? They do convey complex technical information in understandable format, so even from a technical writing perspective, I find them very informative and helpful.

[Weber] Well that’s a great point in that when you’re engaging in this kind of thing you’re sort of putting yourself in your user’s shoes to figure out, “What do I like when I’m trying to learn a new technology? What’s helpful to me, what’s not helpful.” I hadn’t really thought about that, that’s a great point. [Ranade] Thank you.

[Weber] Where do you recommend tech writers go to really practice their skills to get some hands-on experience with technology?

[Ranade] Coursera is a really good way to do that because the thing I like the most about Coursera or even Skill Share is that they’re project-based courses. So, by the end of it you’re supposed to produce a whole website in Python and you share it with the other people taking that same course and the instructor provides feedback or they provide guidance about where you could have improved or what you did right. So, these are very interactive project-based course and I’m a person who learns the most when I’m actually implementing something, so that would be my recommendation to take a Skill Share of a Coursera course.

[Weber] You know I really like what you’re up to because a lot of my students, they wat to learn technology, they’re anxious about it but they want to do it. So, I really think this is a great project and it kind of dovetails with the bigger project on your blog, which is that you advocate for members of several disciplines to learn more outside of their fields. You know people in academia learning more about the work of practitioners and that kind of thing. How can we encourage that?

[Ranade] The way I go about it is I actively seek out people from other disciplines and just talk to them. For instance, I have a friend that works at-the design part of technology; like she’s a product designer. And I have another friend who is a product manager, they figure out what features should go into the product and what are the users looking for. So once in a while, like once a month, we get together and we exchange notes about, “Okay what did you learn this month and what were your wins, and what challenges did you face?” And through these conversations we kind of spark the interest in each other’s fields. Like talking to my designer friend, I have developed an interest in typography and from my product manager friend I have developed an interest in project management, like how I can manage my own technical writing projects better. So, I think it’s just important to seek people different than you and just talk with them.

[Weber] So the impetus is kind of on us as technical communicators or academics, or whatever role we may occupy to get out of our comfort zone and really seek out people that we can talk to that are outside of our fields.

[Ranade] Definitely.

[Weber] And do you learn a lot about technology from these people that you talk? It seems like in addition to the YouTube videos and the Coursera courses that other people in your organization can be a great place to learn about new technologies.

[Ranade] For sure, especially the company that I work for, we actively promote cross-functional education. So, we have these team meetings and we have Lunch and Learns where you just get your lunch to a conference room and somebody presents something from their area of expertise. Like we have a sales engineers telling us their experience of helping the customer apply our product or we have the marketing team giving Lunch and Learns about how they go about designing a marketing campaign. So, I think I work at a place where it’s very actively promoted, so that’s kind of seeped into me now.

[Weber] That’s neat. Has your technical communication team gotten to participate in any kinds of these presentations of Lunch and Learns?

[Ranade] I have not done a Lunch and Learn, but I have done a team presentation. We attended the Write­ The-Docs Conference in Portland this year, and we had our own table at the open source day, what that means is that people from different companies come to your table and they help you write your documentation or like contribute thoughts to your project, and so I presented my experience at our team meeting. So, we presented as a dox team.

[Weber] Well hey thank you so much. This is really interesting and just inspirational. You know I think sometimes people get daunted about, “Where can I even start,” and it seems so overwhelming. You see all those technologies listed in a job ad and it seems like it’s you know too much, but I like hearing this idea kind of taking it a piece at a time and just going for it.

[Ranade] Yes, thank you so much.

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Episode 44