Eric Shepherd on Technical Communication at Mozilla

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and as you know I often like to feature interviews with working technical communicators, to get a sense of what’s going on in the industry right now. And today I’m happy to feature yet another technical communicator from the field.

[Eric Shepherd] My name is Eric Shepherd, I’m a Senior Technical Writer at Mozilla Corporation.

[Weber] Eric Joins us today to talk about his work documenting the entire web and working with the volunteers who are making documentation at Mozilla happen.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Well welcome to the podcast Eric. I really appreciate you joining us today and I’d love to talk just kind of about your work and Mozilla and the field of technical communication in general and I guess to start out, can you just briefly tell us about your job? What do you do at Mozilla? What kinds of responsibilities do you have and maybe what a typical day or if you needed a typical week looks like for you?

[Shepherd] My primary role is to participate in the process of documenting the enormity of the web. All the technologies that make the web work, how you create websites, how you build services and applications on the web, all of that. There’s a lot there, there’s a lot going on there, and so my-my daily routine involves maybe a few more meetings than I would like, but it helps us keep organized with the enormous amount of stuff going on just because there are so many technologies and there’s so much activity there, and also because we work with a lot of volunteers in our process, which I’m sure we’ll talk about at some point. And we also have to have discussion with them, a lot of our meetings, most of our meetings are open to them, and so we have to make sure that we-we kind of sometimes have to kind of double up on meetings because we have some things that are company only stuff that has to be dealt with. So, we wind up with more meetings because of it but it’s worth it. But I’m not only-do I work on documenting, like the latest new web technologies but I also have to work on updating documentation of existing technologies that are evolving, documentation that was never finished from years ago, copyediting, cleaning up work from not only other staff writers, I think five of us now, but also helping volunteers make sure that their work is-is you know consistent with style guidelines and things like that. Mentoring contributors, triaging upcoming work, working with our development team to make sure that work on the platform that drives our website, you know kind of goes in directions that are useful, that kind of thing. So its-there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on every day.

[Weber] You know that’s fascinating and I’m wondering you know you describe your job as documenting the web, that seems like it could be daunting for a lot of people, you know that there’s so much to cover and then it’s never going to be finished, by definition. How do you approach such a monumental task?

[Shepherd] Terror. A lot of terror and angst. It’s actually very exciting, there is some fear involved really honestly but there’s, there’s a-it’s very exciting because, because of the fact that there’s always something new and interesting to do and not all of it is interesting. I mean there are bits of it that are you know, “oh okay this is just tedious.” Like I’m right now redoing our documentation on keyboard events and I’m building these tables of what key codes go to what keys on which computers and their huge boring tables, but it needs to be done because it’s incredible useful information that we’ve never really had a good set up. But then there’s you know on the other hand right now I’m writing documentation about the latest technology for creating browser add-ons that are going to be compatible with Chrome and Firefox and Edge, all together. Because we’re working together on this new you know big technology and this is very exciting stuff, because it’s new, it’s interesting, and it’s going to make developing you know customizations for web browsers easier for everybody going forward and that’s kind of exciting work. So, I mean there’s a little of everything and the fact that we have other writers that have other interests helps too because everybody can kind of find what they’re good at and what they enjoy.

[Weber] Nobody’s thrilled by the keyboard shortcuts table but it’s got to be done as you say. Well you mentioned that you work with volunteer contributors, and I would love to hear more about that process and what that entails.

[Shepherd] Sure. Well Mozilla’s-obviously we’re an open source project, we have been since the beginning. One of the first truly successful large-scale open source projects, and just like the code, the documentations entirely open sourced. Anybody can log into, create an account, and start editing the documentation. There’s no moderation process, it all goes live immediately, which you know has it’s-has it’s risk but you know we’re aware of them and-and we watch for problems quite vigorously. But the fact that there’s so much to document on the web, Mozilla does not have the kind of budget to hire enough writers. Nobody has the budget to hire enough writers to document all of it. Nobody has ever documented all of it, and so by having volunteers, some of whom are active in actually developing these technologies, it’s a big help. By encouraging people from other companies to come and participate, I mean we get writers from companies, you know not only other, you know, technology companies, but-but you know just general companies, pharmaceutical companies, everybody I mean, just all kinds. We have students that are a big part of our, you know, our contribution-kind of our contributor force of writers. A lot of our biggest contributors are college students for example who are doing it either to kind of get some experience that they can talk about or some of them even for course credit at certain schools, that kind of thing.

[Weber] I’m interested to hear that, you know I recommend that students do that, that they cut their teeth documenting open source stuff, because you know to give them samples and portfolio work and to get some experience. So, I’m interested to hear you say that a lot of students are indeed doing that.

[Shepherd] Yeah, it’s-it’s very, very common. In fact, one of our staff writers actually started as a volunteer contributor when he was a student in college. So-and three, three of our writers started out as volunteer contributors and are now on staff. So out of what five of us, so yeah, and it’s-so it’s a great way to get experience, just to get practice with the you know writing about technology, but also working with people, how to deal with a community driven project, how to work with developers, all of this. And so, there’s a lot that you know students can get from contributing to an open source documentation project like ours, it’s wonderful.

[Weber] Fantastic. What kind of interaction do you have with the volunteers? You mentioned that some of them participate in meetings, that you help maybe mentor or guide some of those folks. So, what is your interaction with those volunteers like?

[Shepherd] We have a-an open IRC chat channel that we use for discussing documentation work and anybody can come in and talk so we interact nonstop with our community through that. Also, obviously there are things like on twitter, we interact with contributors or potential contributors there. Somebody will say, “Hey such and such is busted on this page,” and we’ll say, “Well we can fix that, it might be a few days, or you can log in and fix it yourself,” and sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but I mean you got to take the shot. But on top of that I mentioned before, with meetings, we have multiple video conferences each week and we allow you know anybody who wants to, to pop in. We publish the link to join the conference and they can come in and join our meetings, our weekly documentation team meetings, things like that. We also have a biweekly, chat-based meeting, where people come in and talk about what they are doing, what they would like to be doing, introduce themselves if they’re new, get help if they’re stuck with something, that kind of thing.

[Weber] That’s interesting. How many people, so you’re talking about this weekly documentation team meeting, how many volunteers would you guess hop in on that every week?

[Shepherd] Not many. The video calls are not frequently used by volunteers, it’s usually the ones who’ve been around a little longer or have a very specific point they want to bring up because that could feel a little weird I’m sure to pop into what feels like a company meeting, even though we’re inviting them, it still feels a little strange. More often they come in and they just kind of listen in instead of joining the video portion, they’ll just listen, but usually it’s no more than one or two. Sometimes it’s more, depends on what’s going on, and I would love to see more. I would love to see everybody come. I mean it’s a wonderful way to kind of share what’s going on and help with team building and just getting to know each other. Certainly in the chat room, in IRC, we’re constantly just chitchatting about things because it’s a great way to get to know people and kind of build that familiarity and that comfort level that makes it easier to work together.

[Weber] Yeah and definitely, well I’m thinking too it might be interesting for someone again who wants to get started out to just see kind of what a meeting like that is like and kind of how documentation teams interact. Where would you, if you wanted to join the meeting, where would you go to find it?

[Shepherd] Yeah if you-actually if you just go to, that will get you to the page that has all the stuff about how to participate and helping to document the web on MDN and join our meetings and everything, so that’s a good place to start.

[Weber] Alright fantastic, well hey thanks so much for joining us today Eric. I really appreciate you telling us what you do, and I’ve been really interested in this relationship between you know companies andvolunteer writers, so it’s great to get a little bit of insight on that. And where can we, are you on twitter as well, where can people find you there?

[Shepherd] I’m sheppy on Twitter, s-h-e-p-p-y.

[Weber] Alright great. Well thanks and good luck with documenting the web. Let us know when you finish.

[Shepherd] Yeah I’ll get right on that [chuckle], thank you.

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Episode 27