Write the Docs Portland 2019
Catherine Heath | May 24, 2019
Write the Docs Portland 2019 was the biggest conference yet with more than 500 attendees. Many attendees were newcomers, while other attendees had been going for a number years.
Several members of our remote team took a company trip to Write the Docs. The party included myself, our Chief Executive Owl Marybeth, and our Support Sorceress Kate. This was the first time Kate had been to Write the Docs, while Marybeth and I had both been before.
As usual, we attended the Portland hike the Saturday before the conference began. It's a lovely trip through Forest Park, the largest urban forested park in the country, taking in Pittock Mansion with a view of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. The rain mostly held off, and then some of the party had a drink at a woman-owned distillery afterward.
I'm a big fan of the pre-conference event, because you get to know new people before the conference even begins. This gives newcomers a good footing before they attend the conference, and you know there will be some friendly faces.
On Writing Day, we worked on some internal company projects. These included building new knowledge base templates for our software, revamping the Information Architecture on our own product knowledge base to make it more intuitive, and working on some customer personas for our blog content.
There were many other people who worked on open source documentation projects. I did also contribute a poorly drawn zine in conference self-care to the zine table.
There are some conference rules that help to grow the community and help to ensure that newcomers feel welcomed.
1. The Pac Man Rule
The Pac Man rule helps people to join new conversations with people they don't know.
When you stand in a group, leave an open space for a new person to join your group. If a new person joins, move around to keep a space open.
2. The Snowball Rule
The Snowball Rule helps break up cliques that have a tendency to form among long-time community members.
You should talk to one new person per day for every year that you have attended the conference. If you have attended for three years, that means you should talk to three new people each day.
We had some discussion over what constitutes an acceptable level of interaction with a person, and we had different opinions. You could either get to the point of learning and memorizing someone's name, or you could just have enough of a conversation with them that you would say hi to them if you saw them again.
The overall conference experience
Write the Docs took place again in the Crystal Ballroom, which has a moving dance floor. When you walk on the floor, the boards move up and down. The stage has also played host to bands like The Grateful Dead.
A strong theme at the conference was empathy, for our users and the people we work and socialize with. Empathy is often lacking in many areas of business, but Write the Docs has it in abundance. It's not just about tools and methodologies, but putting the person at the center where they should be.
There's a focus on inclusivity within the community, meaning that we should be welcoming of everyone regardless of any characteristics or background. This is a conference for introverts, so taking breaks is encouraged, regular snacks are provided, and people are given explicit permission to make new friends.
Everyone at Write the Docs has potential access to speaking. The lightning talks are an especially good opportunity for new speakers to get up on stage for the first time to give a five minute talk, and you can submit your proposals during the conference. The unconference is a structured environment for unstructured conversations about whatever you want to talk about relating to documentation, facilitating group discussions.
Portland is a great place to explore outside of the conference, too. Of course, Blue Star and Voodoo Doughnuts were highlights, and you have to try both places. I particularly recommend trying the Raspberry Rosemary Buttermilk donut from Blue Star. Powell's City of Books is another important place to go, and naturally popular with technical writers. We also highly recommend Le Happy in Pearl District, a french crêperie offering crêpes, cocktails, and conversation starters.
The conference talks
There were several inspirational talks as well as practical presentations, and we got to experience a good range of topics. The subjects tended towards actually writing the docs, but there was also a lot of software-related content like SDKs, open source documentation, and learning the command line.
It's often about doing more with your documentation, so understanding how to make a business case to get the support you need for documentation is important. We learned how to use the data we have to make better decisions about what documentation to work on. We heard about taking advantage of Friends of the Docs to produce more documentation without hiring more people.
Also, documentation is a way we can make our work more inclusive in general – it can level the playing field. We learned about the value of using popups and tooltips in our documentation to spotlight particular news or pieces of content for users. There were a couple of talks relating to how we as technical writers can edit other people's content more effectively.
One talk was about drawing in documentation to improve communication, and this was also the focus of a lightning talk. An intersection of empathy and creativity is what focusing on the customer is all about.
Write the Docs community
There are now 42 Write the Docs meetups globally and counting, including North America, Europe, Russia, Korea, Japan, Australia. Each meetup is run by members of the community and they are usually free to attend. Marybeth and I run Write the Docs meetup groups in our respective cities.
It's likely the conference will expand in the near future to more locations. There is already a new conference in Vilnius this year, and we will be attending, so look out for our write-up soon.
We will be publishing several posts in the next week sharing some of the talks we attended at the conference. Also, check out our write up of STC conference 2019.
Photo credits: Kay Smollett, Creative Commons License