Agile, an Awesome Alternative

By Gavin Austin

When was the last time you heard a bunch of technical writers say, "Agile is the best thing in the world"? Probably never. Since I began speaking about Agile in 2008, I’ve rarely heard writers include the words "Agile" and "awesome" in the same sentence. However, I believe that they should. No matter how painful and incorrect an Agile implementation is at a company, an Agile environment offers some awesome alternatives to the typical writer role.

Writers can use Agile to expand their role in ways that were unavailable to them in the old-fashioned waterfall approach to software development. You remember the waterfall model, right? You wait until something is developed in a test environment, and then you hunker down and write documentation according to whatever is testable. In that model, the writer’s role is literally summed up in one sentence, and who wants a one-sentence role? Not only is such a role limiting, routine, and dull, but unless you experiment, take risks, and find alternative ways to add value, you won’t grow personally or professionally. You can use Agile’s emphasis on iterative development and continuous improvement to expand your career.

Unleashed by Agile

Agile’s focus on daily face-to-face communication and close collaboration with development team members should have writers jumping up and down with joy. Those two Agile principles alone lay the foundation for writers to pursue new opportunities and develop skills that were previously out of reach. Granted, not every company extends these principles to include writers, but that’s because not every company is practicing Agile as it was intended. Since the writers I work with are considered equal members of every development team, they’ve had the chance to speak up and volunteer to work on tasks far beyond writing documentation. Here are some of the opportunities our writers have chosen to pursue that you can also try out:

  • Serve as Scrum master. If your company is practicing the Scrum methodology of Agile, you can take Scrum master certification courses to lead critical meetings and remove blockers from teams to facilitate smoother product releases. Using a bit of project management and a bit of people management, you can show that you can help manage development teams.
  • Position products. You can work closely with product managers and marketing executives to ensure that videos, online help, user interface text, and social media messaging is consistent, whether created by marketing or the documentation and user assistance team. This type of cross-department collaboration can lead to movement to other areas in the company, such as developer marketing.
  • Create campaigns. You can work with marketing to design HTML-formatted email campaigns that encourage targeted customers to try out new applications. Our marketing teams were so impressed with our writers’ content and involvement that they helped the writers create similar campaigns to distribute "Getting Started" guides to customers and potential customers.
  • Design API names. While understanding and documenting programmatic features, you can influence developers to reevaluate API names or code samples. Our user advocacy skills help us demonstrate more intuitive ways to name APIs based on product behavior and customers’ expectations, and this enhances code and API business cases as well.
  • Change the user experience. When speaking with designers or subject matter experts, voice concerns about clunky or confusing user interfaces. Offering a new perspective on how a customer might experience an application, or volunteering to test a UI as a de facto customer, can give you the ability to change how customers interact with a product used by millions of people.
  • Test for quality. To help development teams meet tight deadlines, volunteer to test applications when quality assurance engineers are swamped. Not only can this create camaraderie with teams, but you can also find major unidentified quality issues based on your unique perspective as user advocate, rather than from what can be a lofty and limiting point of view of an engineer.
  • Bridge communication gaps. Writers on multiple teams often hear conflicting or inconsistent communications on how applications will function or be rolled out to customers. By bringing these inconsistencies to the team’s attention, you can use your professional communication skills to facilitate discussions and agreements between teams who were unknowingly building duplicate or contradictory features.
  • Evangelize teams and products. With deep knowledge of a particular product or process, you can showcase your team and company by writing articles or blog posts for recruiting purposes. You can also speak at conferences outside of the technical communication realm, such as at Dreamforce, Agile 2013, Girl Geek Dinners, and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, representing your company and its approach to Agile implementation.
  • Celebrate good times. After a sprint or product release cycle has finished, consider taking on the role of coach and morale booster by organizing and hosting team parties, lunches, or excursions to cooking classes or bowling alleys. What might seem like a tiny gesture can have a big impact, showing you as a leader and contributing to company culture.
Focus on the Positive, Forget the Negative

Still not convinced that Agile can offer you some awesome alternatives to your current role? Believe me, I understand. Based on my experience with my team’s transition to Agile in 2007, and from what I’ve heard in the industry, a lot of writers feel too overwhelmed by meetings, improper planning, or incoherent user stories to want to believe that Agile is awesome. But over time, Agile can get better. It takes executive support and voicing your concerns at retrospective meetings—a key component of any successful Agile implementation. As Winston Churchill once said, "If you’re going through hell, keep going." The Salesforce.com Documentation and User Assistance team kept going, and our lives got infinitely better, especially after we came to the realization that we didn’t have to be just writers. As customer advocates, Agile lets us pursue interests outside of documentation. Agile allowed us to do more. It helped us grow. By focusing on this positive outcome, the negative side effects of a few more meetings and occasionally unclear user stories didn’t seem so bad.

Unleash Yourself

This article isn’t meant to sound like a self-help book written by a motivational speaker, but the key to our team’s accomplishments is that the writers chose to speak up. You can choose to speak up, too. Use the collaboration principle of Agile to your advantage. By voicing your opinions and volunteering to take on tasks beyond your traditional role, you can gain new career experiences and build up your resume and portfolio in ways that aren’t available to writers outside of an Agile environment.

When you attend daily standup meetings, try to do the following:

  • Listen. What do your teams and customers need help with? Can you use your unique skills as a writer, communicator, and knowledge expert to help?
  • Ask. If you don’t know what your team needs help with, ask. Often there are tasks not talked about because they’re not top of mind, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to get done. You might be the perfect person to do them. Doing them might make you a hero on the team.
  • Volunteer. Your team might think of you as just a writer, but once you start volunteering for tasks other than writing, you’ll open a door to all kinds of new possibilities. People could start recommending you for projects or positions you never thought would come your way.
  • Take risks. Maybe you won’t be able to complete some tasks perfectly, but are you willing to take risks and find out? Getting out of your comfort zone leads to growth and new opportunities.
Finding Alternatives = Awesome

The bottom line is that if you’re looking to grow personally and professionally and explore tasks, opportunities, and skill sets outside of a traditional writer role, then Agile offers you plenty of opportunities to do that. The kicker is that you have to find those alternatives. Nobody’s going to hand them to you. By listening to what your team and company needs help with, and pitching ideas or volunteering to take on new projects or responsibilities, you can create the role you want instead of working the role someone else assigns to you. If you use Agile to your benefit, you’ll find some awesome alternatives to the routine workday and career. As one colleague told me while we were chatting about Agile, "Working on so many different types of stuff helps keep my job interesting."

Gavin Austin is a lead technical writer at Salesforce.com, where he writes everything from UI text to API developer guides. He has delivered presentations on Agile at Agile2013, WritersUA, STC Summits, STC Web Seminars, Blue Shield of California, and San Francisco State University. Additionally, he coauthored A Writer’s Guide to Surviving Agile Software Development, which was featured on the Scrum Alliance website.