“My colleague is a technical writer at Infobip, but she’s also taking medical exams online and collaborating with doctors in the USA in the fight against COVID-19”. Those are the words that led to this article, and I think you and I need no better introduction.
So what does a technical writer’s job look like, specifically the job of product documentation team leader at Croatia’s first unicorn, and how does one learn about medicine on the internet? Sara Tilly has the answers to both questions. But first, how did Sara come to Infobip and what’s the link between medicine and IT?
The only thing I was interested in at university was political theory. My dissertation thus veered into an area that combines political theory and medicine. Through a combination of circumstances, I enrolled in a political science degree while it secretly gnawed on me that I hadn’t the courage and self-confidence to enrol in medical school after graduating high school. With more than 10 doctors in my closest family circle, medicine has always been part of my life. Life led me to IT, but I never officially walked away from medicine and it has stayed with me to this day.
What’s “technical writing”?
She has been writing since her high school days, and while at university she first sailed into journalism and marketing waters and the job that would define the next stage of her life: technical writer.
Throughout several jobs in the early days of her career, Sara tells me, she set aside as much time as she could for training, reading and learning – everything from content marketing through SEO and Google Analytics, all the way to SQL servers and databases. Anything that was connected to IT! After her first few jobs, Sara founded her own small business, writing technical documentation for clients, which slowly but surely led her to the position of team leader for technical writing and project documentation for Infobip products, implemented globally by the world’s biggest companies.
But what is “technical writing”? Even Sara says that many people in the world of IT aren’t quite sure exactly what it entails:
A technical writer is someone who writes technical documentation. The tech writer’s job isn’t just writing. In fact, only ten percent of our time is spent writing. Ninety percent of our time goes on research, testing the product we’re writing about, discussions with subject matter experts and product managers, etc.
Today, Infobip’s team of “technical writers” numbers eight people, who are mostly occupied by writing what’s known as external client documentation. This means different types of documentation, some intended for clients and some for developers implementing Infobip products:
Documentation can take many forms, such as assistance to clients in familiarizing themselves with, setting up, and using a product or a particular program solution. Then there is API and SDK documentation. There is also internal technical documentation, which helps developers and engineers.
“Clear in the head, clear on paper. And that’s the catch…”
Sara explains that their best friend in documentation development is the Scrum environment and agile learning. This is also one of the greatest challenges they face – fitting a technical writing team into agile methodology and collaborating with the Scrum teams.
For help, they turn to their trust in the processes and team coordination. Writers are included in sprints from the go, working very closely with product managers and the product development and pre-sales departments, Sara explains.
Since Infobip is a SAAS/CPaaS company, ensuring product documentation is ready is a very important step and always immediately precedes the next one – deploying to production.
It should be emphasised that documentation writing doesn’t stop once the product is on the market. The documentation needs to be continuously improved and updated prior to releasing each new iteration of the product.
Additionally, in order to be able to write about something, you must possess a very high level of knowledge of it. Clear in the head, and clear on paper. And that’s the catch. You have to learn. You have to possess patience, curiosity and the ability to literally bury yourself in a subject you’re not an expert in and didn’t go to university for. And there are a million such subjects in the IT industry alone.
That’s what makes a technical writer irreplaceable. That ability to delve into the tiniest pores of the solution. Find out everything in order to be able to have a conversation and hold your own with the expert who has programmed and devised a product. All this so you can “retell” it to the client and give them the simplest summary of how the product works and how to use it.
The tech writer is like a knowledge-thirsty investigative journalist
Not every client is the same, Sara points out – sometimes you’ll be creating documentation for experienced managers or programmers, another time you’ll be writing for someone encountering technology for the first time. The key is for everyone to understand what they need to know, and it’s not easy by any means. It’s no wonder that finding the right people for this job is a challenge:
It’s definitely not easy, since it’s not a common job in Croatia and the region. We have strict criteria and we primarily look for a mindset and culture fit. This is especially important in tech writing because the foundation of the job is the successful development of strong business relationships with the team you’re collaborating with on the product. Your job as a tech writer is dependent on other people. In tech companies on a global level, this is a very sought-after and valued career.
She adds that this job also requires great flexibility and quick thinking:
There’s no giving up and there’s no “I don’t know how”. The tech writer has to be like a possessed, knowledge-thirsty investigative journalist. We also have to be ready to tolerate constant changes and to keep up with the fast tempo of product development and working with several teams all over the world.
Why medicine during downtime?
It’s the mindset of an “investigative journalist”, which she also possesses, that helps Sara in the other, medical part of her career. In a home full of doctors, her father nurtured her scientific mind from an early age, which meant awakening her hunger for knowledge, the constant examination of everything and constant questioning why something is exactly the way it is.
Because of this, although she isn’t studying medicine today, Sara says she spends her time “buried in medical books”. She researches everything from emergency medicine, forensic medicine, anaesthesia and psychiatry. Even her dissertation, she says, was a combination of political theory and psychiatry.
Sara now follows and takes digital courses and medical webinars for medical students and interns. The last one she passed was the Emergency Medicine Core Content Course from the International Emergency Medicine Education Project for medical students and interns.
How did I come to love medicine so much? Why am I still learning it, even though I’m not studying it at university? It’s simply because I’m a geek. Someone who adores “catching on” to things and understanding how something works. I’m usually quite a hyperactive but anxious person.
It’s really embarrassing to me and I feel powerless when I don’t know something about a subject like medicine, which explains the functions of the mechanisms that keep us alive. I use knowledge to battle my fears of the unknown.
Researching the pandemic alongside worldwide experts
Lately, Sara has turned to researching the current pandemic, and she tells me she’s been intensively researching this disease since the very beginning of its spread in China. Her role, she says, is raising awareness so people can understand complex topics like the pandemic and the mechanisms by which SARS-CoV-2 operates.
It has been shown, Sara says, that investigative journalists who cover serious scientific topics, together with tech writers in the field of medicine and science, can greatly contribute to the ability of anyone who doesn’t know as much about such complex subjects to “take it all in”.
Not everyone has had the time to spend hours and hours researching COVID-19. That’s where the fear comes from. The fear of the unknown. Misinformation is a great problem. Especially at the very beginning of the pandemic. People lacked – and still lack – information. Clear and concise. In a form the general public can understand.
During this pandemic, many scientists, immunologists, epidemiologists, virologists, intensivists, and anesthesiologists have joined the discussion. Every one of them tried to help in their own way. They were willing to share their experience and the knowledge of many years. I think that’s the best thing to come from this pandemic – community and cooperation in the scientific world.
Sara is also in contact with leading world experts in the field of medicine, with whom she collaborates to gather information that might also assist doctors in Croatia.
“You have no excuse not to know something”
Although I feel like I could write at least two more articles about Sara and her career, I leave you now with a thought from my exceptionally interesting interviewee:
If you devote enough time, patience and willpower to it, you can gain knowledge you didn’t necessarily learn at university. Especially today, when everything is available online. You have no excuse not to know something. Because knowledge is available to you. One of the best things the Internet has brought us is the opportunity to sign up for and listen to lectures from prestigious Western universities.
Regardless of whether you’re a geek, as Sara calls herself, or just a person full of curiosity who wants to write, but also learn, about technology, the job of technical writer at Infobip is a challenge thanks to which you can enrich yourself with very valuable, niche and sought-after skills for the future. Add to that the fact that your department head is a woman who is literally a “doctor” in her free time, and you won’t need more convincing to apply for one of the positions at Infobip.