November 24, 2009

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 8:46 am
Tags: , ,


Despite the fact that I’ve been a technical writer since 2001 when we started our first Agile Sprint in January I found myself feeling like a Junior Writer again.  I was adding topics to our in-house Wiki when I sent my manager the following e-mail:

Could we add this [Documentation] link to the navigation sidebar on the Wiki?  I don’t have permission to edit the MediaWiki:Sidebar page. And while we’re at it, could we please alphabetize the list of navigation links?

His reply was

Doc is now on there. Alphabetical? We are engineers we don’t alphabetize info, we sort it by the checksum of the title!

Checksum?  I am a stranger in a strange land. 

Up until now I’ve generally had Product Managers as my subject matter experts.   But now I’m spending more time in the Land of Developers than I ever have before.  And if I’m going to live here, I need to be able to speak the same strange language as the developers.

Luckily my technical writing certificate program was equal parts writing and programming.  In the programming half of the course we studied machine language, assembly language, and wrote a short program in C for our portfolio.  My first technical writing job was documenting an application written in Java, so I also took a Java course, to give me a leg up in talking to our developers.

Unfortunately that seems to be about the equivalent of knowing how to say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?” when you visit a foreign country.  It gets me brownie points with the natives for attempting to speak their language, but the fact is, I’m still translating from geek into English on a daily basis. (However, every time I explain modular writing as being like object oriented programming but for writers, I can see the lightbulbs go off.)

When I was still working full time, after almost every daily stand up meeting I found myself running to Wikipedia and Google to look up new terms.  Agile software development comes with a whole new vocabulary:

  • Burn down
  • Chickens and Pigs
  • Product Backlog
  • Product Owner
  • Scrum
  • Scrum of Scrums
  • Scrum master
  • Sprints
  • Velocity
  • User Stories
  • Xtreme programming (XP)

And then there are terms that developers use that technical writers don’t:

  • Binaries
  • Checksum
  • Kernel panic
  • Refactoring
  • Unit Testing

My Wikipedia reading sometimes led to the discovery of other, more colorful terms that I didn’t hear at the office, such as code smell or yak shaving (which I believe is similar to activities that my evil twin Skippy refers to as “Hoovering the cat”).

Understanding what developers are talking about is really your passport to Developer Country. A couple of good sites if you’re trying to get up to speed on Agile terminology:


FYI – My manager was just joking about sorting on checksum.

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