Season of Docs 2019: My Foray into Technical Writing

By Audrey Tavares

Explaining Season of Docs to family and friends was more difficult than it should have been.

Them: So… you’re working for Google?
Me: No, I’m working for an organization named Oppia.
Them: What’s Google got to do with it?
Me: They organized the whole program.
Them: Who’s paying you?
Me: Google.
Them: So… you’re working for Google?

‘Tis the Season

With the inaugural launch of Season of Docs in 2019, Google yet again establishes its passion for open source (Summer of Code being another one of their programs). The program aims to bring technical writers and open source organizations together so that both mutually benefit — writers gain open source experience under the guidance of mentors, and organizations benefit from improved documentation. Projects ranged from beginner’s guides and tutorials to API and reference documentation. 

Season of Docs is aimed at early-career technical writers and I was fortunate it came my way just as I graduated from university looking for a career change. With some teaching experience in my arsenal, I was chuffed to learn that I was going to be working with Oppia — a learning platform focused on providing engaging content to students. I worked with Oppia on a standard length project (3 months) but longer-running projects (6 months) were also available — it all depends on the organization’s needs. 
Fun fact: Oppia is a Finnish word meaning ‘to learn’.

Meet the mentors

The period between I was first accepted into the program and the official start of the project was known as the ‘Community Bonding’ phase. This is how Google describes this phase:

Technical writers get to know mentors, get up to speed with the open source organization, and refine their projects in collaboration with mentors.

Sounds chill right? This is how my first meeting with Sean and Sandeep (my mentors at Oppia) went (and I’m obviously paraphrasing): 

Them: Hey, so awesome to meet you, congrats, this is gonna be great!

Me: OMG I’m looking forward to this!

Them: So we’re actually revamping the entire software and the proposal you wrote is kinda obsolete, so do you want to learn all the amazing new features in the next two weeks and rewrite the proposal? And feel free to suggest a hosting platform to us, and also can you do some hallway usability testing to get an idea of how users would like to access the docs?

Me: …. 

I personally called this the ‘Be cool and panic later’ phase. Of course, Sean and Sandeep were constantly available to assuage my fears answer any questions, so I never felt left in the lurch. 

Researching a hosting platform was actually fun. A few popped up in my online searches but most required heavy use of the command line which freaked me out enough, I ran away screaming like a banshee. I finally decided to go with Read the Docs as it is the largest open source hosting site in the world — so I figured it was worth checking out. 

Read the Docs generates documentation written in Sphinx. Thus far, my only association with that word was a certain statue in Egypt:

When I had no idea I would come across another Sphinx one day

I’ve since learned that Sphinx is a document generator used by the Python community. Writers use a lightweight markup language called reStructuredText (RST) or Markdown (or both!) to write the documentation. Of course I knew nothing about all of this at the time — and with that  lack of knowledge, the official start of the project began.

Stack Overflow to the rescue

Writing was painfully slow in the beginning as everything was unfamiliar — the language, the command line, the Sphinx… Having weekly milestones helped as I could narrow down my focus to the task at hand and not be overwhelmed with how much I didn’t know. Stack Overflow was a godsend and I realized there were other open source newbies who had asked the same questions I did. I think I did more Googling than writing that first month. Seriously, what did we do before the Internet?

As the weeks went by, I fell into a rhythm as I got more acquainted with the world of GitHub and submitted pull requests with increasing confidence. I started to speak funny like, ‘Hey Sean and Sandeep, I amended the commit on that pull request, can you PTAL?’ (please take a look, duh.) I practically threw myself a celebratory party the first time I used git commands without referring to my notes.

What makes Oppia unique is that the platform lets you create explorations (lessons) that replicate a one-on-one interactive tutoring scenario. Most of my work involved playing around with the new dashboards and features, creating video tutorials and writing up the user guide. Every week or so, I would submit my completed work as a pull request on GitHub. Weekly meetings with Sean and Sandeep also helped immensely as the frequent communication made me feel very supported. 

Building up Oppia’s documentation during Season of Docs

The second half of the project flew by and before I knew it, the guys at Google popped up again to sort out project finalization. Now Oppia’s software was still undergoing development and consequently there was more writing and video-making to be done — so we all agreed that this relationship was worth extending. Plus I was pretty excited about Oppia’s plans to have a wide international reach and I knew I wanted to stick around. So I barely noticed when Google announced the end of Season of Docs.

(Not) The end

Season of Docs is officially over, but my relationship with Oppia continues. I’ve since been introduced to other team members and I’m looking forward to contributing however I can. This to me is the major highlight of Season of Docs — the experience doesn’t have to end when the program does.

If you’re thinking of applying to Season of Docs in 2020***, go for it — and hopefully you will have an easier time explaining it to your folks.
Connect with me on www.techwritingmatters.com or on LinkedIn.


***The editor’s note: The application for Google Season of Docs 2020 is closed. Please visit their official website for more information.

About the author

Audrey Tavares

Audrey graduated from York University in 2019 with a certificate in Technical and Professional Communication. She is currently working as a technical writer at TAO Solutions Inc.

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