Tech Writers Talk

Brent Malone

Brent Malone Tech Writers Talk

Tech Writers Talk is the monthly series where OCSTC Secretary, Amoreen Armetta, meets up with an OC-area tech writer to talk about what they do and how they got started. Thanks to Brent Malone for for carving out some time at 8:30 a.m. to chat. Brent has been working as a technical communication professional for 10 years. He is currently eight months into his tenure as Content Manager at Zwift in Long Beach, a digital destination for fitness enthusiasts, which game-ifies the at-home training experience by connecting cyclists and runners with each other around the world.

He gets to run at work.  


Did you always want to be a tech writer?

No, not even close (laughs). I actually have a bachelor’s degree in Biological Anthropology from Cal State Fullerton. As I went through college and started to find that I really enjoyed my anthropology courses, I just focused on them because I knew that's how I would be the most successful at finishing school. So I tried to find something that I could leverage my degree to actually create a career out of, and I was really lucky that this opportunity—or this field—opened up as I was wrapping up my education. I started my senior year in high school working in attractions for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. It took me—how should I say—a little bit to get through my undergraduate (both laughing). Then when I really got serious about my education, I was working 40 to 50 hours a week and taking a whole load of classes, too. It was very accelerated on both ends. I was in the senior year of my undergraduate and I was a supervisor in the attractions division, so I was the subject matter expert for all of their SOPs. Working with the tech writers on that end, I just made the transition to the other end. There was an opening in their documentation department. It just was perfect timing.

Although I didn't go to school for tech writing, I found a lot of overlap with anthropology since it is such a research- and writing-intensive discipline. It was really cool to be able to leverage that. Anthropology is about understanding the perspectives of people all over the world who have different experiences than you. And I get to fuel that interest through tech writing. In every company that I've worked for, I've interacted with individuals who do a job that I, most likely, have never done. I get to really understand what their day-to-day is like and what they contribute to the organization.

After Disney

I was working for Disney for—my total time with the company was 17 years. I spent six years working in their documentation department and I just reached a point where—our work was very project funded—and I had to find some stability. I was fortunate that I always had something to fall back on, I always had a position at that department. But I just felt sort of capped out, so at that point I began to look outside and see what I could find.

That led me to a medical device company in Irvine [Glidewell Dental]. I was there for about two years and it was a good experience in the sense that I was able to take what I had learned at Disney, my foundational experience, and figure out how to transfer that into the real world—to figure out what sort of tools and resources exist outside of the Disney ecosystem. It's a unique culture—I mean there's many, many great experiences and I wouldn't be where I am today without them. I would say it's almost like a community college because they tell you exactly what you need to do, all the resources are there, there's a process for everything.

After that I went to a software company in Irvine [Weedmaps] that was less 9 to 5, much more casual, more flexible when it comes to remote working, and just a little more forward-thinking. Again, a really good experience. I had a very supportive leader and she was very talented—but she also wasn't going anywhere (both laugh). So I was really capped out there. I did two years working for that company, it was a hard decision to leave.

Running at Work: Zwift is an at-home training app connecting cyclists and runners around the world.

Then I found Zwift. We started with cycling, initially, and then we added running earlier last year. It's really cool to see it expand. You know, by no means can I claim to be an avid cyclist, but I did bike commute for a long time. I have kids, though, and I had to give it up 'cause you can't strap a baby on your back—I guess you could try but it's probably not the safest thing (both laughing). Had something like Zwift existed back then, I may have kept up with cycling.

And, had Zwift not added running, I may have not have made it here. One of the most important things in my life is running, probably second only to meditation. These are integral parts of who I am as a person. Zwift really is a fitness company that has taken something that a lot of active people don't typically enjoy, which is indoor training, and they gamified it and made it really exciting and fun and social. Even when the weather is bad, I find that I'm not depressed about completing my runs inside, I'm really excited that I have a good alternative. I run about three days a week and I typically do two to three runs in Zwift. I get to be a part of our community and run with people from all over the world, which is a really cool experience. We have people who are exceptional athletes and then we have everyday people like myself, who are here for a multitude of reasons. I think everybody's very welcoming and inclusive.

No average day

It's hard to say exactly what my day-to-day is going to look like. As we continue to expand our products and offerings and have to stay up-to-date with those releases or features we're adding, that will dictate what my workflow looks like. Localization is a huge priority, as well. We're a very international community. Our goal is to try to make our content accessible to as many members of our community as possible, and so there's a lot of back-end work that I'm doing to map out what our localization pipelines look like and planning that long-term initiative.

My day-to-day is typically one of three things: I'm either meeting with a subject matter expert to gather our initial content or review a draft. Or I'm heads-down actually writing and creating the content. Or I'm doing long-term planning and strategy as we look at how to scale and localize the content.

Currently, I'm heavily focused on our community-facing content: articles to help members of our community understand how to use our product, what they're going need for our product, and how to troubleshoot if something's not working exactly as they expect. And I am currently using MadCap Flare, which I've actually been using for about the last five years. Right when I left Disney I found Flare and it's been a great product. It's been really good to see it expand and improve over the years—they have not remained stagnant. I don't know if I would be able to do this work without a tool like Flare. It gives us the ability to share content across multiple documents. It gives us the ability to add snippets of text variables—especially when you're working with product development, the names of different features can change from week to week. It just gives us a lot of robust functionality as far as the formatting and the output scale.

Gamification and Localization

Zwift is really using gamification to make indoor training addictive and social, so you have the ability to take an act that is typically very solitary and give a social, community feel to it. At any given time you'll see a large number of people from all over the world engaging in Zwift.

Coming back to the localization piece, and as far as the work that I'm contributing, it's about getting our content into the native language of those users or the language that they’re most comfortable with. An extension of that, too, is not just understanding the language that those users are most comfortable with, it's also, what platform are they using to access the content? Are they viewing the content on a mobile device or their PC? You have to keep all those things in mind to make sure that it is accessible for everyone.

We actually do track traffic on our site and use tools like Google Analytics—I won't necessarily give away specific details—but there's a very large number of our users that access our support site on a mobile device. So, everything that I produce has to go through the filter of how it looks—every single time I publish something, I have to look at it in the mobile view and make sure that it scales appropriately.

Also, we definitely embrace that we are a California company. That's our voice and that's our tone. Which, being a Californian helps. I produce the content through the filter of my perspectives and it's definitely a Californian, English voice. We rely on localization teams to make it appropriate and clear for those intended audiences. We're currently in the exploratory phase with MadCap Lingo, as well, but we rely heavily on those localization teams.

We're still ramping up, but some of our localization is in-house, our own employees, and then we also use a variety of localization services. We continually look to expand our localization efforts—which is really exciting, but it's also really challenging because we want to make sure that we scale appropriately. No software platform is going to solve all your problems, but it definitely can help you scale in a more responsible fashion.

The most challenging part of your job?

Technology is changing so rapidly. With us, what's really challenging is that we constantly strive to make our experience, at least from our support side, as seamless as possible and reduce user effort to get to our content. Sometimes it can be difficult because we definitely embrace newer technologies—we're using an AI powered natural language processing search engine called Solvvy on our support site, so when you enter in a request, it'll come through our support hub and identify what content feels appropriate to try to increase our self-service and get answers to our users faster. The technology is really cool, it's really exciting, but sometimes it can be really challenging to chase the latest and greatest. We're never standing still, we're constantly trying to push the envelope and see how we can continue to leverage technology to get our content into our users' hands as seamlessly as possible.

February 22, 2019

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Tech Writers Talk

Carrie Chambers

Carrie Chambers Headshot resized

Tech Writers Talk is the monthly series where OCSTC Secretary, Amoreen Armetta, meets up with an OC-area tech writer to talk about what they do and how they got started. Thanks to Carrie Chambers for taking the time out her busy workday to call and talk. Carrie has been a technical writer for 16 years, for nearly 15 she’s been at Eyefinity in Irvine, and for a little over 13 years she’s been teaching at Cal State. 


Tell us about yourself

I actually have a master’s degree in Technical and Scientific Communication, so a very specific degree in our field. I started as the lone technical writer at Eyefinity and now we have, let’s see, seven of us. We create electronic medical records and practice management systems for, mostly independent, optometrists and ophthalmologists. I help write the documentation that supports those software systems.

Did you know you wanted to be a tech writer when you were in college?

I knew from junior high or high school that I was a good writer. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with that quite yet. So when I started college, I started as an English major. And—I still remember this—I sat with my advisor and he said, “What do you wanna do, do you wanna teach?” And I said, “No, no I don’t wanna be a teacher.” And I said, “I’d love to just—is there some sort of job, where I can just kind of sit and read books all day and say, ‘We should publish this, we shouldn’t publish that?’” (Both laughing). And he guided me toward a woman who taught Tech Comm. So I took her first Tech Comm class and I realized, ‘OK, wow, this is an area where I can use the skills that I know that I have and actually make a living.’ So I minored in Tech Comm in undergrad and then immediately went on to get my master’s degree in Tech Comm.

The job search

As soon as I got all that great education I left Ohio and came to California, ‘cause this is where the jobs are. I was 22 and it was January 2003—looking back, I’ve always been very, very, very lucky. In my last semester of coursework, I started applying for jobs—at least a hundred jobs. I interviewed at three companies and one was for an internship and I ended up choosing the internship, actually. I started work in January—right away, had it all lined up. I only worked at that internship for four months and I was offered a fulltime job at another company and so I started there. I worked there for 13 months and then I started my current job. So, you know, I’m a huge proponent of networking and I tell my students a lot, too, it’s really through networking and perseverance that I’ve always been able to easily find jobs.

What else do you tell your students?

Most of my students don’t want to be technical writers, but the ones who do, I tell them that you don’t have to know how to use Framemaker or Flare or anything because all of those tools are going to change as you move through your career. When I’m hiring people, I don’t really care about that at all. Obviously, you have to be able to write well, follow style guides—I think now you have to be very comfortable in an agile environment, you have to know how to work well with developers. But I feel like some tech writers you meet—people have this vision of tech writers being nerds who sit in corners and just type all day, right? But I think the more successful tech writers, they get out of that corner. They’re out there, they’re chatting with people, they’re building relationships with developers and customer care reps, and people on other teams, so that when they need information they can get it. And when they are trying to publish content that will help end-users, other people from other teams are advocating for the writer’s goals, also.

What’s a typical work day?

Usually I start my day off checking emails—I work with people across the US, typically. So, for example, when I got in this morning I had a request from someone in our Louisiana office to update some files that our clients download, so I did that. And then I go to a stand-up meeting—here the writers are integrated in with the development teams, so we attend all the regular scrum meetings, standups, planning, sprint reviews, retrospectives. Let’s see, I’m working on a major project right now so I’ll allocate some time to research and work on that. And then I’m looking at our JIRA development board throughout the day, watching tickets from development and documenting those for an upcoming release. I also have team meetings at various times. Today we had a meeting about the templates that we’re going be using in [MadCap] Flare and, you know, we need to agree on all sorts of different things about those templates, what the wording is going to be, the look, all sorts of little, nitty-gritty things. 

What Tools do you use?

We’ve been using Framemaker and RoboHelp for a very long time, and we are currently transitioning to MadCap Flare. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to learning a new, little bit more modern, tool and publishing our content in a more responsive and user-friendly way.

When I started we had one product, and then we added two, and then we bought companies, and then we built new products, so we’ve grown a lot—we got acquired, all this stuff happened. Now we have a handful of products and we have content all over the place, so one of our goals is to consolidate content so users can more easily find it. And then another goal is to really push users to use that content and get it in front of their faces so they don’t really have to go out there and search for it.

So how do you consolidate content?

You tell me! (Both laughing…)

We don’t have a content management system so that’s a little bit of a challenge, but moving to Flare will help a little bit with consolidation. We still have other challenges out there. We still have content in multiple places. We’re working with other teams, too: customer care, training, marketing, and other teams that create content and deliver it to clients, so it’s trying to work with other teams to consolidate all training and user-facing content. Other teams are using different tools, pushing different products, and different delivery methods for clients. So I don’t have a perfect answer, I wish I did.

If I were to pare it down I would say that having one place for users to go to and having content just be available for users when they need it are our two biggest challenges—and getting users to use that content when they need help as opposed to picking up the phone and calling support.

What I didn’t tell you about my day

I just came back from maternity leave—I guess it’s been three months now—this is my third child. So what I didn’t tell you about my day is I have to stop what I’m doing every three hours and pump milk. I’m working on the next release of our software and it’s—right now my days are very disrupted so it can be a little frustrating because I want to be more productive than I am, but this is just life right now.

December 14, 2018

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