Although much of my life has been lived in urban environments, I have a lifelong (if often frustrated) love of growing things. I’m not sure exactly how that came about.
The time I remember most in my early childhood was spent in Bangkok, even then a large and very urban city. But it was also tropical, and, for the latter half of our five years there, we lived in a large house surrounded by a lush tropical garden filled with plants that I came to love and now identify with the happier parts of my childhood.
Our front fence was entirely covered in bougainvillea, which produced masses of magenta petals surrounding tiny white blossoms. It was also abundantly provided with thorns – an additional deterrent to burglars.
There was a bed of monstera or something like it near the back porch. It never produced any flowers that I can recall, but I loved the big, fleshy leaves.
There were clumps of spider lilies, whose delicate white blooms only lasted a day or two, and less than an hour if cut and put in water (I tried, because they were so beautiful that I wanted to be able to look at them always).
There were trees as well. One produced a fruit called rose apple, of a roughly conical shape with a waxy white and pink skin (hence, perhaps, the name). It was edible, though not particularly tasty, but I ate it anyway, because I liked that I could just go pick something off a tree and eat it.
We also had a huge rubber tree, towering over our two-story house. Like all rubber plants, it tried to propagate via long roots that trailed down from its branches. I used to climb up into the crotch of the tree, about eight feet off the ground. I wound the roots around and filled the resulting nest with cloth scraps. This nest was for myself, though I don’t recall how long it lasted – presumably not through a rainy season.
I suppose we had someone who took care of the garden, mowed the lawn, etc., but this probably took place during my school day; I don’t remember doing any hands-on gardening myself, nor observing anyone doing it. But I kept a loving eye on my favorite plants.
I was envious of friends who had banana trees in their yards, not for the fruit (which we could easily get anyway) but because someone showed me how to make a hobbyhorse out of a banana leaf. Sections of banana trunk were also used to create the floating candle boats that would be set out on the river for Loi Krathong, the festival of lights.
A favorite family getaway spot was Khao Yai National Park, where we’d go for long hikes through untouched rainforest. There I learned to look, but not touch: a great deal of the tropical rainforest vegetation would fight back with thorns and stings. And I learned to walk carefully on the narrow trails, avoiding vines that looped down and thorny branches obtruding on the path.
Then we moved to a dingy apartment in Pittsburgh. Fortunately, my soon-acquired stepmother liked houseplants, so we had several of the types that were popular in those days, like wandering jew and Swedish ivy. People would trade around cuttings; perhaps easy propagation accounted for the popularity of these particular kinds of houseplants among broke hippie students – I rarely see them around anymore.
During the Pittsburgh years we used to visit a friend who lived on a farm a few hours away in western Pennsylvania, so I saw something of the cycles of farm life, learned to curse the blackberry brambles that grew in low loops like croquet hoops always ready to catch your feet as you walked over the rolling hills, and kept up my tree-climbing skills.
When we moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, we lived at first in the same house as my dad’s office, which had coconut trees growing around it. I observed their lifecycle: growing new palms, shedding old ones, growing coconuts and dropping them, often when the nuts were too immature to develop into trees (I was never sure why they did that).
It was decided that we should
have private quarters away from the office, so we moved into a house across the
street, on a double lot which meant that we had a huge, empty back yard, dominated
by an enormous mango tree. The smaller front yard had been made into a flower
garden. When we arrived, there was a plumeria tree – one of my lifelong
favorites for its beautiful scent and association with Hawaii, where we’d lived
for a year when I was small. I was devastated when the tree soon died of some
But there were also two magnificent white rose bushes flanking the front door, and lots of room for other flowers. There was also Bapak, the ancient caretaker/gardener whom I could work with and learn from. I was doing correspondence school on my own while both my father and stepmother worked. That only took me two or three hours a day, and there were no kids my age living nearby, so I had plenty of time to dedicate to the garden. I experimented on the rose bushes, learning to encourage them to change their shape by pruning, and watched over other flowers and plants which I chose in the market.
Bapak suggested that we plant vegetables in part of the backyard, which we did, though I don’t recall exactly what. I also wanted pets. After several disasters with dogs (two puppies that both got hit by cars, one dying in drawn-out agony), I decided on goats. We went to the market and got two black goats. The female was much larger, but the male made up for his diminutive stature in testicle size and sexual enthusiasm.
Bapak warned me that goats are difficult to pen, and he was right. Oddly, and much to my annoyance, the many times they escaped, they would ignore the vegetable patch right next to their pen and make their way into the front yard to eat my flowers. By the time I went off to boarding school, it had been decided that the goats were too much trouble to keep, so we donated them to Bapak’s Buddhist temple, where presumably they would be kept for milk and breeding, rather than to be eaten.
I then lived for four years in the Indian Himalayas, surrounded by mountain forest. Oddly, I did not learn much about the local vegetation at the time (I was too busy being a teenager), but the magnificent red rhododendron trees were unmissable in their season. (The photo at the top shows the red rhododendron I got for our new San Jose garden. It will take decades to achieve tree height.)
I did not have much opportunity to grow anything after that until I was married and settled with my family in a small apartment in Milan. It was not the most promising place to garden, but I was not alone in my determination to make our two tiny balconies flourish. Italian balconies, no matter how small, are often vibrant with plants and flowers. There were shops and market stalls selling plants. Some flowering plants, such as primula and cyclamen, would show up seasonally even at the local vegetable shops.
The first plant I bought for my new home was a little yellow primula. I was devastated when, after a while, it began to die. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Too much water? Too little? Too much or too little sun? Having had most of my exposure to gardens in the tropics, I had never grasped the concept of an “annual” plant that was supposed to grow, flower, seed, and die within a year. I thought all plants just kept growing, all the time, forever, as tropical plants did, with some merely having a dormant period in winter (like trees). But to just up and die on me? It took me a while to figure this out.
My balcony garden got more
crowded, and was difficult to keep watered, especially in the hot summer when
we would go away for weeks at a time. Fortunately, the balcony I grew most on
was outside our bathroom. I hooked up a watering system with a timer, supplying
it from a pipe under the sink. My then husband was convinced that there would
eventually be some problem that would cause a leak, and he was right – the
bathroom flooded and then the water puddled out into the hall, but those floors
were marble and terrazzo anyway, so I think only a little of the wood floor in
the adjoining bedroom got warped. This did mean I had to give up on automatic
watering, and resign myself to everything dying over the summer.
Then we moved to an apartment in Lecco, where I planted flower boxes on the balcony with daffodils, irises, and more. And then we bought a house which had its own garden, and I began gardening again in earnest. I wrote and photographed a lot about that at the time (eg, in March and June, 2007). A garden is a long-term project, and one of my few regrets in leaving Italy is that I have not been able to see all my work has come out. During my final visit last year to collect my remaining belongings, I observed that the roses badly needed pruning, but that was not surprising since Enrico had been out of the house for months following a stroke.
Back in the US, I lived first in someone else’s house in Colorado. I didn’t try to grow anything there, but took walks around the semi-wilderness nearby and observed the local wildflowers. In my various California apartments, I’ve been a dedicated balcony gardener. (At the Oakland apartment, I also took charge of the building’s front patch, tidying it up and adding plants and seeds to an area that had been sadly neglected for years).
Now we’re renting a house with a lot of gardening space that has been needing attention for some time. It even has a greenhouse, something I never dreamt of. I don’t know exactly what to do with it, never having had one before, but I’m experimenting. Given some recent experiences in this and other (visited) houses, Brendan’s expectations of our future lifestyle have changed from: “We’ll have a condo with a view of water” to: “We need a private pool and a greenhouse.” Well, that gives us something to aspire to!
After a lot of travel in the autumn of 2017, we spent a quiet winter break at home, with a week of being full-time parents while Mitchell’s mother had a well-deserved vacation of her own.
Mitchell and I went on a day trip to San Francisco, where he experienced “snow” for the first time at the Academy of Science, and Lindsay and her sister taught him how to climb a tree.
Mid-month, I went to Seattle, then in late January Brendan and I took a non-working trip together (aka, actual vacation), to the Big Island of Hawaii, where we had beautiful sunsets, the sound of waves to lull us to sleep, and adventures with dolphins, fish, and a volcano.
We didn’t go anywhere in February. This proved to be unusual in this year.
In March, things got crazy.
I spent the first few days of the month in San Francisco, attending Lesbians Who Tech – lots of great topics on the program, but it was so crowded that it was hard to get into any of them. I did manage to attend one very interesting panel of women who had worked on the technology of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The following weekend, we drove down to Pasadena where Brendan and I were both speaking at SCaLE16x. This is one of my favorite conferences – it’s run by a very kind, welcoming local community, and has a friendly, non-corporate vibe. It also does a great job of including everybody, starting with a kids’ track and mentoring kids into speaking at the “grown up” conference. You can see my talk on Marketing Your Open Source Project, and read the slides.
A week after that, I flew to Italy to take care of unfinished personal business. My BFF Sue came along to help shred 25 years’ worth of papers; sort through books, artwork, and other personal possessions; and decide what to ship back to the US from the house I formerly shared with my ex, in Lecco.
We did manage to do a little tourism on beautiful Lake Como.
Then we went to Milan, where I saw some old friends, led a panel discussion on diversity in tech at the AWS Summit, and then flew home. Two days after my arrival, another dear old friend, Robyn, came through on a visit from Switzerland.
The first weekend in April, Brendan, Mitchell, and I flew to Florida to join in the birthday celebration of my high school classmate Denise. That was three days and nights of themed parties with fabulous food, great music, and very interesting people.
The following week, fortuitously, was Mitchell’s spring break, so we went to Disney World.
Three days of that was fun, but I figured I didn’t need to do Disney again for at least two years. I even said so at the time. Mark those words.
And I made another trip to Seattle in April, though I don’t now remember exactly what for.
In May we stayed home and enjoyed the local springtime…
Another reason I stuck around was that my shipment was arriving from Italy, I just wasn’t sure exactly when. It was finally all in the house by June 1st. I had spent part of May building Ikea furniture to hold my collections of comics, books, memorabilia, artwork, and DVDs.
Then I went to Seattle again, where the weather was beautiful – and, as ever, there was lots of construction going on.
Brendan was in Boston again for a meeting when I departed for… Disney World. Again. This time for an AWS internal summit. Visiting Epcot Center (which we had skipped during our April visit) with n,000 colleagues was a very different experience. We had a front-row view of the fireworks!
I flew from Orlando to Portland, OR, for the Community Leadership Summit, where I chaired an unconference session on marketing open source, and then OSCON, which AWS was sponsoring. Unfortunately, all the travel caught up with me and I got sick, so I left OSCON early (sadly, missing the opportunity to see many friends and colleagues) and went home.
The following week I was recovered enough to attend an internal technical evangelists’ summit in Seattle. This is one of the groups our team works most closely with at AWS, and also some of the smartest and hardest-working people I know. And fun!
I also spent a lot of time in the Spheres, my favorite place in Seattle (so far).
We had a little more excitement than expected in August when Brendan had an emergency appendectomy. Fortunately, he recovered quickly enough that we didn’t need to change our plans for a family vacation on Maui. My daughter Rossella and her partner Dan joined us (it was also her birthday) and we had adventures including a luau, snorkeling, scuba diving, education in Hawaiian culture with Wilmont Kamaunu Kahaialii, and a sunrise on Haleakala.
We had only been home for a week when I left again, to do live social media for AWS at the VMworld conference in Las Vegas.
I was asked to do the live social media thing for AWS again, this time at DreamForce in San Francisco. This is one of the largest technical conferences in the world, with about 170,000 people jammed into downtown San Francisco. It was horribly crowded. Brendan joined me for a couple of nights. We managed to catch the final minutes of the Metallica concert (I wasn’t interested enough to brave the crowds and lines to get in earlier).
Meanwhile, our apartment was under construction for a new washer/dryer to be installed. I had to pack up all the stuff I had just received from Italy and painstakingly fit into our already-crowded home, and find places to stash it out of the way of the workers. Our living room was filled with boxes again.
When not traveling, I mostly work from home. I had already endured months of construction noise as all the apartments around us were renovated by the new management company. Three weeks of construction in my home was miserable. When it was all done, we had a washer/dryer in the apartment, which was admittedly more convenient than the communal laundry just across the courtyard, but we’d lost a precious storage closet. I managed once again to find room for everything in our <1000 square foot apartment, but the situation was increasingly unbearable, and indeed it seemed as if the new management would be happy to be rid of us so they could renovate our apartment and raise the rent (again).
My dear friend Jeffrey married Matt at San Francisco City Hall, under the aegis of Harvey Milk. I am so happy for them both!
I flew out that evening to Seattle to speak at an internal AWS conference for technical writers, where I gave a talk in the career track on My Career Evolution from Tech Writer to… Many Things, which attendees told me was inspiring. I am not accustomed to thinking of myself as a role model. Brendan joined me for a couple of days, and we found time to do a bit of tourism.
Later in October, Brendan and I flew to Raleigh, NC, to speak at All Things Open, an open source conference that neither of us had attended before (we both liked it a lot! – this is another great, friendly, community-run conference). AWS was a sponsor, so I also helped out a little in the booth, and live-tweeted my colleagues’ talks.
When ATO was over, we drove to Asheville, NC, where we spent a delightful weekend with Woodstock friend James Hackney, who was a wonderful host, showing us all around Asheville, the Biltmore estate, and the Blue Ridge mountains.
Then we drove on to Nashville, TN, where Brendan was co-chairing, with Rikki Endsley, the USENIX LISA conference. I didn’t have anything specific to do at the conference, and came back a couple of days before Brendan did to take over care of Mitchell.
Meanwhile, I was increasingly busy at work, as was almost everyone at AWS in the run-up to re:Invent, our biggest event of the year. I had blog posts to write, edit, and manage, including some about top-secret announcements. Everything possible had to be prepared in advance, as I knew I’d be extremely busy during re:Invent itself, doing live social media again.
Meanwhile, I had for some time been semi-seriously looking for a new home to rent. Around mid November, we found one that met all our criteria, but there was no way we could move in immediately. We agreed with the landlord that we’d move in mid-December.
Thanksgiving blew by; Mitchell’s mother Claire joined us for a meal, as usual, and Brendan and I were both doing work, as usual. It’s a good thing we don’t care much about standard holidays. That Saturday, Brendan departed for Australia to keynote the Yow! conferences and CTO events, starting in Sydney. Early Sunday morning, I flew to Las Vegas for re:Invent.
I was one of a small crew live tweeting on @AWSreInvent – a job involving great power, great responsibility, and very long hours. re:Invent started for me with Midnight Madness that Sunday night – yes, it went on past midnight, and it was crazy. And fun. (I think you can see me in action – or at least the side of my head – at 19 seconds into this video.)
I also covered all the keynotes (Peter, Andy, Werner), and many other key sessions.
Meanwhile, my colleagues Tamara and Shirley were taking care of my day-job responsibilities: ensuring that blog posts went out at exactly the right time (with launches, timing is crucial) and were then tweeted about on @AWSOpen. It was great to be part of a talented, hard-working team, pulling in harness together.
Oh, and I had a birthday in there. I turned 56 on November 28th. I was too tired to do much about it, but I did have a very nice meal back at the Wynn.
re:Invent ended on Friday, November 30th. I covered one more session in the morning, then went to the spa, then we had the social media team lunch.
That evening, I got on a plane to LAX, and then to Brisbane, Australia. Not too surprisingly, the people in the airplane row with me were traveling home from re:Invent, as were a few others in the customs line when we arrived (they were easy to spot in their re:Invent hoodies).
I lost a day in transit and arrived in Brisbane on Sunday, December 2nd. That was a day off between conferences for the Yow! speakers, so we were all taken by bus and ferry to Stradbroke Island to enjoy some sun, sand, and scenery.
The following week was still very busy for Brendan, keynoting in Brisbane and then Melbourne for the final leg of Yow! I was too tired to attend as many of the talks as I’d like, but enjoyed the ones I did attend. Yow! speakers are all well known and very, very good, and it was fun to get to know them as we all traveled together – an opportunity we don’t get so much at other conferences.
Yow! ended with a private dinner for the speakers on Friday, December 7th. Brendan and I made our way back to Sydney the next day to chill out for a few days. We didn’t have the energy to do as much as we’d have liked there, but we did enjoy a fabulous view from the Novotel in Darling Harbour, had dinner with an old school friend of mine, did a little Christmas shopping, and generally enjoyed being warm and having not much we had to get done for a few days.
On December 12th we flew back to the Bay Area, and continued packing up our apartment to move on the 15th. We managed to get about 90% of our possessions packed into boxes before the movers arrived, but it was good to be able to rely on them to do the final bits, as well as disassemble the beds and move it all.
The new place is not far from where we lived before; one of our criteria was staying in the neighborhood so as to be close to Mitchell’s school and his mother. But it’s about twice the living space we had before, a beautifully-finished (if quirky) house with a yard, a fabulous kitchen, and a few other amenities that make it quite the party place. By December 31st, we had in fact unpacked and organized enough to host a low-key, early evening New Year’s Eve party for a few friends and their kids.
I rounded off my working year with a Top Ten blog post, and had already begun planning my travel and conference schedule for 2019. So far I know that I’ll be at the AWS Summits in Berlin (late Feb) and Milan (mid March), with some time in between in the UK and Paris. If you’ll be in any of those places/times, let me know! If you want to follow my adventures, Twitter is a good way to do that.
I recently gave a talk at at internal Amazon conference for tech writers. I was a technical writer from early in my career, and still consider tech writing one of my foundational skills. In the talk, I hoped to provide some insight to other technical writers about their own skills, and how those could be used in other roles. I’m sharing all that information here, in case you also find it useful. (It was an hour-long talk, which makes for a very long blog post!)
This is the first time in my 30 year plus career that I’m doing a very autobiographical talk.
It will cover my career arc to date, starting with how I developed the skills that made me a good tech writer – even though I never planned to be one. Nor have I planned much of anything else about my career. My life has been unusual, and most of my career has been about adapting to the situations I found myself in. The process of reflecting on my career in order to write this talk has been interesting – in some ways painful, given some of what’s going on in the world – and I hope you’ll find the stories interesting as well as useful.
There’s a subtext throughout this talk that I’d like to call your attention to now, and that is: doing all the things I’ve done, while also being part of a marriage, raising a child, and running a household, has not been easy. I often did not have support at home, let alone in the workplace. And yet… I persisted.
And, in spite of everything, I have survived in this industry which – in spite of everything – I still love. For over 30 years now.
Here are some of the interesting tidbits you might take away from this talk:
History of technical documentation
Online communication since 1982
Changing styles of communication
The early days of the Web
Historical snapshots of tech in other countries (Italy, Cameroon, India)
Customers know more than you do
Early experiences in working remote
You can work with your life partner and not kill each other
How to survive 30 years in tech without a STEM degree
Agile career development
I didn’t know what the demographics of this audience would be, so I didn’t know how many would be surprised to learn that I pre-date the Internet. I now know that I pioneered a lot of things, such as writing in a user-friendly way rather than using marketing weasel talk – I was doing this before the Cluetrain Manifesto came along. I was also providing customer support online in the very early days of the Internet. As part of that work, I was treating customers as a community who could be brought together to share knowledge for the benefit of an entire ecosystem.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was a pioneer. I mostly saw myself as doing what should be done for customers, often because they had directly told me what they wanted and needed.
This was my third grade school picture. As you can see, I’m left-handed. Hand writing was hard for me, as is true of many lefties. I loved words, but the mechanical process of getting them onto paper was painful and difficult.
Around age ten, I learned to two-finger type on my Dad’s Selectric typewriter.
In high school, one of my statements of individuality was to write in magenta fountain pen ink. I’m sure all my teachers were relieved when I took a typing class and my dad gave me a portable typewriter of my own. I began typing all my papers, and sometimes others’ as well. I never looked back; I’m a keyboard person for life. My keyboard skills eventually launched me on my career in tech.
In high school, I also worked on the school newspaper and the yearbook. These gave me valuable skills in the production and management of what we now call content, as well as more writing and editing. And, like many teens, I wrote bad fiction and worse poetry, which fortunately is now lost to history.
I’m also a reader, always have been – and I’d argue that it’s impossible to be a great writer without being a great reader.
I wrote my first ”manual” during my senior year in boarding school – a handbook of school rules and other practicalities. Lists of rules had already existed in some written format, but it was all very dry and forbidding – not what you’d expect teenagers to read and absorb. I tried to make the same basic material fun and engaging enough that my peers would actually read and use the information. I have maintained this friendly, informal tone in most of my writing since, which has worked particularly well in the age of the Internet. When I last visited the school a couple of years ago, I was told that my Survival Kit was still in use, though of course it’s been through 35 years of revisions.
I should point out that I do not have a STEM background, nor does anyone in my family. In college I took the bare minimum of science and math courses needed to complete my BA. I took one course in programming – Pascal – my freshman year. This was on VAX UNIX terminals; I just missed the punch card era. I did not feel any particular proficiency at or enthusiasm for programming. In hindsight, this may have been because the course was poorly taught. At any rate, that was the extent of my formal education in computers.
In 1982, while I was a student at the University of Texas, my father bought me my first computer, a Commodore Vic 20. This was a computer built into a keyboard (you had to use a TV for a monitor). My dad claimed that this was to help me learn programming, but for the first few months he was mostly using it to play Space Invaders while recovering from knee surgery. I did eventually get to use the Vic 20, though I still did not learn programming.
Online for the First Time
When I was able to prise the Vic 20 out of my dad’s hands, I quickly discovered what computers were really for: communication. I joined CompuServe in 1982, at that time the province of a few thousand geeks. The first thing I found on CompuServe was the chat rooms – which predated IRC – called CompuServe CB chat. I immediately became fascinated with being able to communicate online with people I hadn’t yet met. In those days, it was so novel that we went to some lengths to have regional meetups.
the CompuServe gang gathers at the Texas State capitol
My CompuServe addiction was cut short by my dad’s unwillingness to pay the bills (I think it cost about $6 an hour). It was a while before I was regularly online again, but that early experience in communicating online became important later in my career.
Have Typewriter, Will Travel
As I mentioned, I have no STEM background. My undergraduate degree ended up being in Asian Studies and Languages, partly because I had grown up in Asia and had a special interest in India, where I went to high school, but also because I was given federal scholarships that covered my tuition as long as I was studying ”exotic” languages like Hindi and Urdu.
The scholarships covered my tuition and my dad helped out with rent, but to earn pocket money, I worked. Early on, I worked as a typist, which often meant that I ended up providing free editing services as well – I couldn’t bring myself to commit bad grammar to paper, even when it was someone else’s bad grammar.
Around 1983, I got a part-time job doing typesetting and word processing on very early electronic machines. I learned markup language, without knowing to call it that, as well as layout and word processing: all skills which I still use today.
Another job I had during college was as a secretary in the Commercial Section of the US Embassy in Jakarta. This involved learning to use a Wang word processing system, with tractor feed printers that jammed all the time.
Those Who Can, Teach
After college, in 1986, I began working as a secretary, which by then meant learning to use Word Perfect on early PCs. Because I was curious and willing to dig in and learn, I became the office expert on the software, often helping and teaching others.
Then I started working in a startup headed by a friend of my dad’s. Initially I did desktop publishing as a service, using Ventura Publisher on the GEM interface (later, on Windows 1.I-don’t-remember). This was pretty easy for me to learn, given my background in typesetting, word processing, and PCs. The boss was taking on whatever work he could get for the company, which one summer included hiring a friend of mine to write a software manual. I sat alongside my friend and did the layout, so I learned something about writing documentation, while adding to my skills in production.
I also started developing and delivering training to others, such as US government employees, on how to do desktop publishing. My training style was to teach the concepts, then have people work on their own projects so that the lessons would stick. It was apparently effective. I also made two trips for the World Bank in 1988, installing desktop publishing systems and teaching people how to use them, in Cameroon and Tanzania. These photos were from the Cameroon trip:
In all these training courses, I was working directly with users and could see first-hand how they understood things and what concepts they had trouble with. I learned to adapt my teaching style to the audience in front of me, another important skill for a tech writer. And I had to continually extend my own abilities. For example, for the Cameroon trip I was bringing electronic equipment into a harsh environment: extremely humid, with unreliable electricity. Beyond the software and concepts of desktop publishing, I had to know how to troubleshoot, strip down, and rebuild the PCs, and be able to teach my students how to do it.
Both of those trips were great fun and I learned a ton, but … then I married an Italian math professor, had a child, and moved to Italy.
Getting Started – in Italy
By the time we arrived in Milan in January 1991, I had been mostly a stay-at-home mom for about 18 months. I was anxious to get back to work, but Italy’s job market was difficult even then, and it functions very differently from the US one. (I’ve never been very good with job hunting in the US, either.) I was in for months of frustration.
Freelancing didn’t pay much, but there were perks, such as occasional travel to tech events.
Then I began working for Fabrizio Caffarelli at Incat Systems, his small software startup in Milan. At that time, tech startups in Italy were vanishingly rare. The Italian business climate was not friendly towards small, new businesses, so Fabrizio was very unusual in being a Silicon Valley-style tech entrepreneur operating in Italy in the 1990s.
My first project for him was a manual for an OCR software he was producing. Because his market was mostly in Italy, what I wrote was translated, more or less simultaneously, by Fabrizio’s niece. When that project was completed, Fabrizio said: “I like the way you work, but I don’t have any more work for you right now.” So I went on vacation, wrote some more articles, and began thinking maybe I should write a technical book. A few months later, while I was still casting about for a topic, Fabrizio called me and asked: “Hey, do you want to write a book with me?”
So we did.
“Publish Yourself on CD-ROM” was partly a marketing ploy on Fabrizio’s part. When we began writing it in late ’91, CD recording was still difficult and expensive, using command-line driven software on machines that cost $100,000 and were the size of a mini-fridge, burning discs that cost $100 each. It was easy to screw up a command and waste those expensive discs. Fabrizio foresaw the advent and eventual popularity of low-cost, desktop CD recorders, and that there would be a need for easy-to-use software targeted at home users. He put together an engineering team to start developing this software.
The book had to explain difficult concepts that at the time were covered only in expensive standards documents from Sony and Philips. I learned by reading those, and by talking with Fabrizio. In the book, I tried for a friendly tone that would invite people in rather than scare them off.
We didn’t get much of an advance on the book, and Fabrizio took most of that, so I made some extra money by doing all the layout and indexing for the book myself, using Framemaker.
The book was one of the first in the world to be published with a CD, which contained a trial version of Easy CD 1.0. I also produced a screen-readable, hypertext-rich version of the text, also done in Framemaker (because Adobe PDF wasn’t quite ready for use then, though I was aware that it was coming).
This showed me early on the power and flexibility of electronic texts. At the time, I saw hypertext as a way to make books even more useful as aids to learning. For example, our book had an extensive glossary, and I linked occurrences of glossary words in the text to the glossary, so the reader could pop up a definition at any time while reading. Remember, all this was happening in 1992, before most people had heard of the worldwide web. The book was published by Random House in early 1993.
All About CD-R
By the time the book was published, I was working full time for Fabrizio doing documentation – here you can see some of my output.
I also did OEM versions of manuals for all our software, which forced me to be clever with tools. I was using FrameMaker with variables to automatically generate vendor-specific versions of each manual. I also learned how to deal with business partners, as I was working directly with those OEMs on their documentation needs.
Incat being a startup, we all wore many hats. Other things I did for the company included all aspects of manual production. And I got heavily involved in the software itself: I worked with the engineers from the beta stage or earlier, testing and reporting bugs, and making suggestions for interface and feature improvements. I realized that, if a feature was hard to explain to users, it probably wasn’t implemented correctly in the first place, and we should be re-thinking it. I also wrote and implemented the context-sensitive help in the UI.
Other things I did included writing and editing marketing materials and other collateral, helping sales staff with technical information, and giving talks at industry trade shows and other seminars and lectures.
Most importantly, I was communicating online with customers. I was a Section leader and participant in CompuServe forums, participated in Internet mailing lists on related issues, and monitored CD-R related Usenet groups. I was the first point of contact for online support. That sometimes spilled over to helping out on the phones as well.
For any job in tech, I strongly recommend spending some time doing support: you learn fast that way about customer pain points.
In late 1993, Fabrizio moved the Italian engineers to Silicon Valley. I began traveling there four times a year to work with them. In August of 1995, the company was acquired by Adaptec for $48M, which was a good exit for the time. I began working for Adaptec as a contractor, because they would not hire me in Italy.
The Problem with Paper
Writing documentation has never been easy, and it was even harder back in the 90s. A software release had to be finished enough that you could work with it, and then after writing was completed you also needed time for printing and packaging. Software releases were infrequent for these and other reasons, and documentation usually lagged customer needs.
Paper manuals were also expensive to produce, print, and distribute. Even the help screens and context-sensitive help within the software could not be revved any more frequently than the software itself. All of this was starting to feel very cumbersome.
Sometime around 1993, I remember sitting in the back of a bus on my way to or from work in Milan, reading a copy of the Seybold Report that I’d borrowed from the office. There was a small article – just a box, really – about this new thing called the World Wide Web. I remember thinking: “That’s going to be important.”
As we entered the Web 1.0 age, customers’ expectations of company responsiveness increased, and our old, slow, expensive processes were no longer sufficient. We needed a way to provide customers with updated and expanded information about our software, on demand (in response to FAQs and newly-discovered bugs as they arose), and at low cost.
I started creating pages for a website, even though I had no idea how to get it online. I called up UUNet, then one of the largest Internet Service Providers, to try to learn more. The person I got on the phone told me rather rudely that our company was too small to have its own website. One of the souvenirs I’ve kept from that era is a UUNet hat given to me by a friend. AFAIK, the company is no more.
Moving it Online
By the time the acquisition of Incat was completed, Adaptec had its own brand-new website, and I had pages ready to post on it. These were created with the rudimentary HTML tools then available in Microsoft Word. Not long afterwards, I found myself responsible for the busiest section of the Adaptec site, eventually bringing in 70% of overall traffic.
I was happy to hand off my responsibilities for printed manuals to someone else, and it was around this time that I stopped referring to myself as a technical writer. Nevertheless, I saw myself as doing essentially the same job: helping customers understand how to use our software. I just kept expanding the ways and means I used to do that.
Another thing I figured out early on was that some kinds of information are better structured as an app or searchable database than as a manual or web page. Again, I was moving away from the traditional narrative style of documentation, towards something more interactive and updatable.
And I started crowd-sourcing useful information, such as where to get a good deal on recordable CDs, before anyone called that crowd-sourcing (or even “user-generated content”).
Communicating with Customers
I had begun to interact daily with customers online around 1993, and I soon learned to value their knowledge. No QA or tech writing team can match the thousands of hours with a product that a large pool of users will collectively spend. Nor can an internal team hope to duplicate all the diverse situations in which customers will use something. When we tap into what customers know about our products, we all benefit.
I was an active participant on Usenet forums: answering questions, keeping an eye on hot issues, and conveying customer feedback to engineering and management. These feedback loops helped improve the customer experience at every touchpoint, from the software to the documentation to support and service.
In 1996, at the request of customers, I launched a moderated, email-based discussion list where we could discuss CD-R in depth, without the distractions of Usenet trolls. (Yes, there were trolls back then, too.)
A lot of useful information flowed through these forums. Part of my job was to pick out what was important, edit and organize it, and disseminate it again via other channels. Again, it was a feedback loop, helping to address customer needs as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
The original Majordomo discussion list became too active for some people, who requested a weekly newsletter instead. At first I simply condensed and edited the most interesting and useful stuff from the discussion list. Then I started writing topical articles, and eventually hired freelancers – other experts I knew in CD-R – to contribute. Later still, we had separate Windows and Mac editions. Over time we accumulated 160,000 subscribers between the two lists, and most of that growth was organic.
The reply-to on all these emails was my own email address. This meant that people could ask more questions immediately, and they did. I replied to every email myself.
The articles were archived on the website, and over time I had to grapple with how to organize an ever-growing mass of information so that people could find what they needed, even when they didn’t know they needed it. I added information architecture to my skill set.
I was also still doing customer support on the Usenet (CompuServe had pretty much died by this time). I hired two people to help out with that, one for the Windows side and one for Mac. We all worked closely together to keep the information feedback loop going.
And btw – all three of us worked remote. I was still mostly in Italy, Adrian was in the UK, and Brian was in Texas. I had hired Adrian without ever meeting or even speaking to him, purely on the basis of how well he grasped the concepts and communicated them online. And he was great at the job.
Key Skills as a Tech Writer
Basic graphics and design
Listening to people
Helping different types of people communicate with each other
Communicating effectively and politely with anyone (almost)
Exploring new media and means of communication as they come along
This is a non-exhaustive list of key skills I had developed by this point in my career. I’m pretty sure that, as tech writers, all of you have these skills as well. As you’ll see, all of them have continued to be useful in my subsequent jobs.
Willingness to learn by doing/using/figuring it out
Empathy for people (users/customers)
Extreme attention to detail
Ability to meet deadlines
Inability to leave things alone – it can always be better, right?
I’d also say that we tech writers have some key traits which can serve us well in other roles. Almost any role, really.
By 2000, Adaptec had decided it didn’t want to be in the software business after all, and would spin us off as a new company, Roxio.
As webmaster, I led the design and development of the first Roxio site. It may have been the first to include a user community area and other features that would later be classified as “Web 2.0.”
The project to create the new site, including putting the platform in place to run it on, required me to be in the office to work closely with my colleagues. From mid 2000 through early 2001, I was flying back and forth between Italy and California every six weeks, working 14 hour days, and trying do an MBA on the side as well. Needless to say, this period was exhausting, though it was also fun in some ways.
I was moving away from being a specialist in CD recording. As it turned out, that was the last technology area in my career in which I felt myself to be a true, deep subject matter expert. For years after that, I cringed and apologized at my lack of depth in other technical topics. It took me a long time to understand the value of what I bring to the table beyond specific subject matter expertise.
The Dot Com Crash
In early 2001, after a failed attempt to get my family to move with me from Italy to Silicon Valley, I returned to Milan. In July of that year I quit my job with Roxio, in part because my mother-in-law got cancer. But I also saw the dot com crash coming, and I was particularly vulnerable because I was working remote again. I would have been laid off within months anyway.
I wrote a farewell email to my newsletter and discussion lists, and was a bit surprised at the response. I knew from emails over the years that people had found what I was doing useful. I had not understood the extent to which they felt a personal connection with me, and loved my writing. Perhaps the biggest compliment I ever got was that my clear writing style reminded someone of JK Rowling.
A few people explicitly said: “I want to read whatever you write, not just about technology.” That was a surprise, and I took them up on it.
I started writing about my life in Italy and other topics that happened to interest me. At first I sent this stuff out as another newsletter, but it obviously made sense to have a website of my own.
I learned DreamWeaver from Lynda.com, and off I went.
Over the next couple of years I still had some freelance work in documentation and UI, mostly thanks to former colleagues still working on CD-R. But that dwindled away, and I had a lot of time on my hands to learn more about websites. One critical new skill I started developing during this time was metrics: I learned to collect and analyze the logs from my own website. Around this time, a few people were making serious money with early forms of website monetization, via Google AdSense and others. I never made much money, but I learned a lot in trying to understand how it could be done. In particular, I learned about driving traffic to websites, at a time when social media was not yet an option.
Around 2003, my old boss Fabrizio founded a new startup called TVBLOB. His new idea was to create a set-top device that would allow the family television to be used for two-way communication. I joined this effort, with a terrible commute to Milan because we now lived on Lake Como, and at very low pay. Nonetheless, I was interested in the task of creating a unified customer experience, from UI design to customer support and service.
The point of the product was to make it easy to communicate over the Internet using video. As part of my research, I wondered how difficult it would be to do that in a browser, at the current state of web technology. I began experimenting, and quickly learned that it was very difficult indeed. You had to shoot analog video, digitize it, compress the hell out of it (because bandwidth was so tight in those days), and somehow embed it and get it to play back in a web page.
I stumbled onto the Yahoo videobloggers group, whose early members included the people who went on to found all the video hosting sites. Yes, even the YouTube guys were briefly part of that group. Others stuck around longer, and many of the early videobloggers are still my friends. I was enjoying playing around with video as a medium. I experimented with video tutorials, such as this one about how to connect up our TVBLOB box.
Fabrizio was paying me very little, and my dot com savings were dwindling away. For family reasons, I needed to be making real money again.
Sun Microsystems – Blogs & Other Content
I pinged an old friend from Adaptec who was now working for Sun. He brought me on as a contractor for the Solaris Storage Software group, initially focused on getting engineers to blog. Sun had made a big push to get everyone blogging a few years before and had thousands of blogs, but many had never got beyond one or two posts.
At Sun, I was definitely not a subject matter expert. This was all deep systems stuff, and there was very little that I could write myself. My job was more about encouraging, assisting, and in some sense managing engineers to write blog posts. I was able to help bring a few blogs back to life, but it soon became clear that many people simply didn’t have the time, skills, or interest to keep a blog going.
My manager said: “You’ve got some video skills, let’s use that.” He bought me a videocamera, and I started traveling to conferences to film technical talks being given by Sun engineers – from the engineers’ point of view, having me film and produce their talks added nothing to their workload. This was a few years before most conferences started routinely filming talks themselves.
I filmed at many conferences, but I soon went beyond that. If an engineer had a talk but no immediate conference to deliver it at, I’d film them in the office. I even filmed a series of short videos about ZFS in my own living room. One day, three of Sun’s top performance engineers all happened to be in San Francisco (one of them visiting from France), so I grabbed a conference room and spent half a day capturing conversations among them about performance topics.
I encountered some resistance to publishing my videos externally, from the Sun branding people and professional video crew. Sun had a video studio, but it was expensive and was used mostly to film executives talking about launches and earnings. The few times engineers were asked to film there, they were often rushed through in an attempt to save money on studio time. Most of them were not experienced at being on camera, so some would get nervous and the result would be unusable video. I had time to be patient and encouraging, so I could get good camera performances out of the rankest amateurs.
The material I was filming was also more interesting to Sun’s users, who were highly technical people uninterested in marketing messages. I ended up filming a lot of deep technology talks, which you can still find on my YouTube channel.
As ever, I tried to share my meta-knowledge. I ran internal workshops on how to do video, and, though I wasn’t keen on being in front of the camera, I made and shared videos of myself talking about how to do video.
Community & Content
I joined Sun full time in early 2008, moving from Italy to Colorado. I was part of a small team within Solaris engineering whose job was to encourage the adoption, use, and community growth of OpenSolaris worldwide, and to improve communication between Sun engineers and external developer and user communities. Our activities included user group workshops, technical events, and content.
This was my first involvement with open source, and thanks to all the content I was producing, I quickly became very visible in the open source world. I was not only filming events now, but also live streaming them and running social media feeds – usually carrying out all these activities simultaneously!
In 2010, I survived Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, but not in my community manager role. I was put into marketing and essentially told: “Your little videos are all very nice, but leave that to the professionals – you go write white papers.” White papers were a means of communication whose effectiveness I had been questioning for some time.
I was still working closely with engineers, attending weekly meetings with various dev teams. I still did video at a few events such as the last Sun Tech Days.
In late 2010, I left Oracle for a cloud startup called Joyent. There I wore two hats: head of training, and community manager for SmartOS, the Solaris-derived operating system that Joyent ran on. Again, I was managing the production of all kinds of technical content, as well as developing some of it directly myself: training courses, blog, wiki, web pages, videos.
Between 2010 and 2013, Brendan Gregg, who is now my partner, wrote two books. I ended up being heavily involved in both: copy editing, managing expert reviewers, marketing, and just generally listening and encouraging. If you are or have ever lived with an author, you’ll know that they are single-minded while a book is in the works. For however long it takes to complete a book, that’s all you’re going to hear about. I was so thoroughly steeped in each book that at the time I didn’t fully grasp the new skills I was developing in editing deeply technical content. The two books together ran over 2000 pages, so I definitely got a lot of practice. Of course, this has been a huge help in later work, especially now at AWS.
In mid-2014 I followed Jason Hoffman, one of Joyent’s founders, to Ericsson, the Swedish telecom, which was starting a new cloud hardware and software business. Within six months of joining, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but I wanted and was able to keep working through most of my treatment.
I was doing a blog and social media for Ericsson, but I also managed to produce a handful of new web pages on the Ericsson site. This was very difficult to achieve, as the site was still running on Interwoven Teamsite, a software platform that had been installed in 2001 – I had in fact used Teamsite for the Roxio site back in the day! The Ericsson site could only be updated by a handful of expensive contractors who still knew how to use Teamsite.
We needed a much more ambitious and easily-updated site to support Ericsson’s cloud business, which would have been impossible on the existing platform. I pitched for and won the opportunity to create a new site on the new platform that Ericsson was then slowly putting in place. Ours would run ahead of the overall project as a pilot. I got approval for this in late September or early October of 2015, and I had a hard launch date: Mobile World Congress in late February, 2016. With a hell of a lot of hard work, alongside some great colleagues and vendors, and several trips to Stockholm in the cold, dark winter, I pulled it off: the site launched on time, the morning that Mobile World Congress opened. It was running on the Episerver CMS and integrated the Hubspot inbound marketing tool, which hosted the new cloud blog.
I picked up a lot of new skills during this time, including going deep on SEO, as well as extending my project management skills. But this job was still primarily about producing technical content, and making it inviting and usable. My work always comes back to that.
By mid 2016, I was managing a team of interns and contractors (some of whom later became full-time employees) to create, produce, and analyze the results of web content, blogs, and social media. I greatly enjoyed managing and mentoring people, and passing on my years of skills.
That all went well for a while, then Ericsson had a series of disastrous earnings announcements. I held onto my job, but found myself doing the work I’d previously had interns and contractors doing. Once again it was clear that, if I stuck around, I was in danger of being laid off. I started job hunting again.
Amazon Web Services
In June, 2017, I joined AWS as part of the Open Source team in the marketing organization. I’m the Open Source Content Lead: it’s my job to help spread the word about all the things Amazon is doing in open source.
The week before re:Invent 2017, I launched the new AWS Open Source blog. It has very broad scope: I can cover basically anything open source that’s worked on, created by, or runs on AWS, as well as open source projects from other parts of Amazon. I also manage the @AWSOpen Twitter handle.
Summing It Up
Though I stopped calling myself a technical writer years ago, I never stopped being one. Being a very good writer is still my core skill, and everything else flows from that. The additional skills and traits of a tech writer have also continued to serve me well in all the variety of jobs I’ve had.
I think all tech writers have those traits as well and, as you’ve seen, they can all be applied in a huge variety of roles – even though most people wouldn’t choose to do it quite the way I have.
I wish you all success and happiness in whatever comes next for you, and if you think career advice from me would be helpful, please feel free to ask!
It was normal and natural for a woman to be considered less and less attractive as she got older – men would always prefer younger women. Yet even very young women were supposed to be attracted to older men for their maturity, experience, power, and money – the men’s physical attractiveness barely entered into the equation.
It was important for a woman not to “let herself go,” and especially not to get fat. She should make every effort to stay attractive to her mate (while he was not required to make any such efforts).
I was “too smart” and “too self confident,” and this would scare off most men – I was therefore lucky to have a man who “put up with me.” (I repeated this “wisdom” more than once to my daughter, a memory which now makes me feel ill.)
A woman might have a career (and her financial contributions to the family are welcome), but it is always of secondary importance to her husband’s career. She should also do the bulk of child-raising and housework so that he can focus on his Very Important Career. Even when she’s also working hard at her own job, and making two or three times his salary.
On the professional front, I internalized things like:
Women should first of all be decorative; any skills and knowledge they happen to have are a bonus.
Women are never as “technical” as men, whether from lack of innate skill, lack of interest, or lack of determination. (“Math class is tough!” exclaimed Barbie.)
Women developers exist, but the male ones are 10x, more gung-ho, just… better. Women engineers should be shuffled off to management ASAP, because they are better at those soft people skills, and should leave the real work of engineering to the men.
Engineering is the the only job that matters in any tech company; everyone else is at best useful to the engineers, at worst a moron who gets in the way of engineers doing the Really Important Work.
The role of women in all areas of a company is to support the far more important work of men. (Even in parts of an organization that are mostly staffed by women, such as marketing, who’s in the top roles? Men. I’ve never understood how any company justifies that on any statistical basis.)
As I got older, the world tried to make me believe that:
We should leave off older experience and specific dates from our resumés, so that potential employers won’t know our real age.
We should make self-deprecating jokes like, “Oh, this will date me…” or coyly say: “A lady doesn’t reveal her age.”
We should obsess about our rapidly-fading looks and sagging bodies, subjecting ourselves to expensive and painful diets, “treatments,” and surgeries, because standard beauty and looking young are still all that matters in a woman, and looking old is to be avoided at all costs. Even in the workplace.
We should be grateful to keep or get any man who will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.
We should be grateful to keep or get any job that will have us. Even an abusive, toxic one. Because, at our age, we might not get another.
There are undoubtedly other toxic ideas that I still live by without even realizing it. But, with 55 years of life and a hell of a lot of experience behind me, I have at last perceived the bullshit of many of the “rules” that once governed my thinking.
How did I unlearn what I have so far?
Partly, it’s being with a good man who values me and finds me attractive – physically, intellectually, and professionally – as I am (even when I was undergoing chemo and looked like Dr. Evil).
There’s also something that comes with age. Not necessarily wisdom, but… a lack of patience with bullshit. At this point, I’ve dealt with more than enough for one lifetime, and I’m no longer willing to put up with it for the sake of getting along with or appeasing anyone.
And, after years of trying to “fit in,” I came to terms with the fact that I’m not good at being anyone but my weirdo self. I’m ok with that, because I like who I am, and I’m finally able to say that anyone who doesn’t appreciate me just as I am is not worth having in my life. I have plenty of friends and loved ones who do appreciate me exactly as I am – I need not put up with anyone telling me that I should be otherwise.
“In youth, it was a way I had, To do my best to please. And change with every passing lad To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know, And do the things I do, And if you do not like me so, To hell, my love, with you.”