Jonathan Saunders on Technical Writing at Uber

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and today I’m interviewing Jonathan Saunders, a technical writer at Uber, who’s going to tell us how he got into technical communication, and what his work life is like.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Jonathan, we really appreciate you joining us today and talking about your work with Uber. I guess what I’d like to know first is just kind of how you got started in technical communication?

[Jonathan Saunders] Yeah, well I guess it started back in high school, you know I wanted to be a writer and you know I just started researching different careers you could have as a writer, and I stumbled into technical writing, and it looked like it looked interesting. When I went to college, I just started taking a bunch of English and Writing courses, and started doing a couple of internships, which ended up being very helpful-working with different technical writers and stuff like that while even in college was-was very enlightening and very helpful to jumpstarting a career in technical writing.

[Weber] Great, that’s interesting, you know not a lot of people start their interest in tech writing that young. You know to like find it in high school as something they’re interested in. Once you graduated, how did your career develop after that.

[Saunders] Yeah, yeah, I-one of the internships I had while in college turned into more of a longer-term job. It was really nice working there and I worked with some very smart and talented people that really helped to explain you know-when going through classes and stuff like that it doesn’t really prepare you for working with a company or something like that. You know working with different people and getting their perspectives on-on howtowrite, it’s a different type of writing. You’re not writing analytically like you do in English classes, you’re writing more concisely. And working with technical information and people and doing different interviews with these people and trying to structure that content is unique. And so, yeah I started doing that and I worked at, I guess it was Stony Network Entertainment for a little bit and then I moved around from there to different jobs and yeah I ultimately bounced around and ended up in San Francisco working for Uber here, and it’s an interesting place here at Uber. A lot of engineers and we’re growing very rapidly so it’s a fun place to be.

[Weber] Terrific. Great, so now that you’re at Uber, what is your day-to-day work as a technical communicator? What does it involve?

[Saunders] It’s interesting and it’s changing a lot from time to time, but primarily we’re dealing with a lot of internal engineer work and so we deal a lot with the internal services and infrastructure and things like that and kind of communicating that information and trying to write all that stuff down for people. But we’re also taking on different initiatives as a team of writers. Working with-we have an engineering blog,, where we kind of produce content about what our engineering org is doing for other engineers, so they can kind of understand what’s going on here. And then we also have an open source site, and we put engineering content and documentation around that, and then there’s also a developer dot Uber site, that allows other developers to kind of leverage our AI and STK’s, so they can leverage kind of some of the things that Uber is doing for their apps that they’re working on. I guess the primary audience tends to be engineers but with that you have different types of engineers. You know you have front-end engineers, back-end engineers, you have internal vs external engineers, so it’s a variety of audiences on that front.

[Weber] Yeah and that’s interesting you know I think we often forget about the internal technical communication that companies need to be produce, you know that’s for people in the company. What kinds of relationships do you have with subject-matter experts? How do you-what strategies do you find are effective for working with the subject-matter experts that you work with?

[Saunders] Yeah, yeah definitely. It varies between the person, some people are better suited for you know online communication, other people you know they’re not as responsive, so you have to kind of maybe schedule meetings with them or interface with them or just talk to them in the breakroom and try to track them down that way.

[Weber] Where it’s just sort of person by person you have to figure out the best communication strategy for tracking them down, is that right?

[Saunders] Yeah.

[Weber] In general, what would you say are the skills that are most important for doing your job well?

[Saunders] Writing and being an effective communicator helps and you know writing differs from analytical writing that you perform in English classes, it’s more succinct, more direct, and being able to grasp technical concepts helps. You don’t necessarily need to know programming, but it can help but understanding the concepts around it like what object-oriented programming is or maybe how networking works and things like that can help on a day-to-day basis. And then visual design skills too helps out. Being able to take large quantities of information and then laying it out in a way that could be easily scannable because engineers may not have time to you know read everything, they want to just sort through it all and sift through it all very quickly. So, all those skills kind of help in a job with technical writing.

[Weber] Yeah great, and what kind of team are you on? Are you on a cross-functional team or are you on a team of technical writers? Or who do you work with most directly on a day-to-day basis?

[Saunders] We are a little pocket of writers and we’re all relatively new. We’re about five but we’re-and we all have different types of projects we work on but we all work very closely, and you know we review our own content and yeah try to make everything kind of consistent. You know our team is growing very rapidly and you know we always are looking for new engineers, we’re hiring right now, and any skillset too for entry level to senior level. We’re part of the information platform which kind of consists of technical writers and things like that, but then we also are part of an engineering org that kind of deals with, we call it “eng­ ucation,” which is educating our engineers, so “eng-ucation” so it’s like a little-.

[Weber] Cute, I like it, yeah.

[Saunders] Yeah and then there’s-they also deal with certain developer tools to kind of get our services running and then also our kind of automation and testing tools that we do from an internal perspective as well, that kind of team is what we’re on as writers.

[Weber] Great, great. So, your audience is largely different types of internal engineers, correct, for your documents. What kind of strategies do you use to understand what your audience needs?

[Saunders] What has been surprising is that with all of these different engineers, there’s a lot of engineers working with different types of programming languages. So it’s-we’re not just android or object to c­ programmers, being able to work with their kind of documentation, so-so many engineers, there’s over a few thousand of them, and we’re trying to support as many of them as we can and so we work a lot with markdown and so trying to produce that information so other developers can kind of get the ball rolling on the documentation and we kind of take it over and start altering that way or maybe we’ll start the ball rolling on the project and give them the content so they can start working with it. So that’s kind of been an interesting challenge. Because you know you might have a Python developer that could produce document-a markdown files with the-they’re using a different tool to produce that information and then you got another developer that’s doing stuff with a Go language, which is a different type of programming language and they have to produce documentation about their code. So, it’s interesting to try to figure out how to document certain aspects for different languages, which has been a bit of a challenge.

[Weber] Sure, sure I can imagine, and then lastly, you’re newer and younger in the field, so I think you have a good perspective on kind of what’s up and coming. What are some of the notable trends in technical communication? Kind of looking forward three, five years, what kind of trends do you see on the horizon?

[Saunders] Well I think that data has a huge impact on the technical community as a whole, you could see this a lot, like even the New York Times, they’re producing kind of a lot and something called data journalism, and so they have a whole slew of information that they’re producing. Even with academic research there’s data playing a huge, huge part, there’s an Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, it’s a research organization that’s kind of producing a lot of data on mortality rates for different countries and they produce visualizations around that. And then companies like Uber are producing data too, so being able to work with data instead of just laying out information in like a table of information, you know using maybe a graph or visual representation, using something like a D-3 language that could kind ofleverage data into a useful and visual chart and then somehow incorporating that with documentation is a different wave of communicating information than just throwing it out in a table or something like that. So, I think working with data and trying to integrate data and technical communications is something that’s trend that’s happening or will happen in the next few years.

[Weber] Yeah, I think you’re right. I see that too and think it’s an important skill for technical communicators to have in their skillset and you know it goes back to sort of that visualization and design elements that you talked about earlier as a skill for your job. Great well thank you so much, we really appreciate you talking with us today. Good luck at Uber and in your career and thanks for spending some time with us today.

[Saunders] Yeah thank you it was great talking to you today.

[Weber] Alright.

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Episode 20