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Write the Docs 2016

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I attended Write the Docs, a conference focused on technical documentation and those who write it. Although I'm not a documentarian (one who works in the field of documentation), it was an interesting and enlightening experience.


The conference was held at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR. I arrived a few days early to beat the jetlag, and stayed in an Airbnb nearby. Walking around Portland was a lot of fun: the city has a very different feel from Boston. Art and individual expression abound, and I think the locals are required by law to have at least one tattoo.

I also made sure to check out some of the famous locations in Portland. I had heard of Powell's Books, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of walking inside. Seeing all the books and the patrons enjoying them, feeling the quiet, joyful vibe of knowledge and reading -- it was intense in a way that I can't quite describe. I saw Panic across the street, and gleefully tried playing with their sign, only to discover that the website was broken. Hopefully it'll be fixed soon! I got a burger at The Roxy, and enjoyed seeing the other customers -- including one who was dressed head-to-toe in a tight latex bodysuit, pencil skirt, and platform heels. (This was a perfectly ordinary outfit for the Roxy, as I understand.)


Before the conference officially began, there were three pre-conference activities for attendees: the hike to Pittock Mansion, and the Writing Day doc sprints. I went to both, and they were well worthwhile.

The hike was gorgeous, but more strenuous than I expected. (I'm probably just more out-of-shape than I thought.) Despite being drenched in sweat by the end of it, I had a very good time, and had some great conversations with other conference attendees on the hike. The topic of these conversations kept on shifting back to Lektor, since I was all fired up about it and the people I talked with seemed genuinely interested. I ended up speaking with the head honchos of documentation for Linode, Twilio, and Twitter, all of whom started asking lots of questions about how it could be used. Hopefully some of them checked out my blog post about it!

During Writing Day, I got into more conversations, and stumbled onto a very intriguing idea. One of the other conference attendees mentioned that his team maintained a documentation website using a CMS, but he would generally use Google Docs for reviewing the content of that website. He would copy the full text of a documentation page from the CMS into a Google Doc, share the Google Doc with his team, use Google's collaboration features and commenting system to get feedback on proposed edits, and then copy the full text back into the CMS. I knew there had to be a better way to do this, and with Lektor on my mind, I started brainstorming ways to integrate Google Docs into Lektor. Over the course of the afternoon, I managed to write Lektor-Google-Drive, a Lektor plugin that allows you to embed the contents of a Google Doc into your static site. The OAuth flow was still a litle awkward, but it worked, and now I was more excited than ever.

At 6 PM, the conference opening reception began, and everyone put away their laptops and broke out the snacks and drinks. I had a lot of fun talking with even more people (I surprised myself with how social I was), and ended up meeting Ducky, who is a delightful person and who introduced me to more delightful people very quickly. Ducky was very good at catching people before they left the reception and making instant friends, and with her help, I found two friendly dinner companions who work in the field of video games, and they turned out to be the best sort of nerds. (We chatted for a long time about tabletop roleplaying games.)


The next two days were full of conference talks, swag, unconference activities, and ever-more people to meet. Write the Docs is a small conference of only about 400 attendees, but seeing everyone all together, it felt far bigger than I expected. I was struck by the energetic atmosphere and the sense of generousity and caring: not only did everyone genuinely want to attend this conference, it seemed like everyone did so out of a sense of deep concern for the people that they write documentation for. Documentarians just want to make the world a clearer, friendlier, more understandable place, and they were happy to share knowledge and make friends in the pursuit of that laudable goal.

I found that most of the talks weren't very interesting to me, since they were aimed at documentarians rather than developers. However, there were two talks that I found deeply relevant and very enjoyable. Neal Kaplan's talk about uniting documentation and support provided a universal message of breaking down barriers and working together in pursuit of common goals, and many people brought up his points again and again throughout the conference. Ruthie BenDor's talk about internal technical documentation was engaging in a very specific way, since she is a developer and her talk was aimed at other developers like myself. She provided an excellent overview of why companies do, or don't, care about internal documentation, and how to get companies to care more about it. I look forward to using some of these insights in the future!

I ended up talking with more people about Lektor and the Google Drive plugin I wrote, and decided to do a lightning talk at the conference about it. After the lightning talk (with a live demo that worked pretty well), more people contacted me wanting to learn more about Lektor, so I ran an unconference session about it. A few people came and had lots of good questions, and I kept fielding more and more questions about Lektor over the course of the conference. I enjoyed showing off the code behind this website, and I'm hoping that one or two of these interactions might lead to a consulting gig to help a client get up and running with Lektor.

Monday evening was another party at the Jack Knife bar. I was tired from doing so much socializing, so I stayed on a couch for most of the evening. However, by that point people had started recognizing me as "the Lektor guy", and a few people sought me out to ask me more questions. There were more wide-ranging conversations, including a surprisingly in-depth one about Hearthstone, and I stayed at the party longer than I thought I would.

Tuesday evening was the conference wrap-up, and Ducky grabbed me for post-conference drinks and dinner with her friends VM, Paris, Tim, and Jon. Zach joined us at the last minute, and the seven of us had a truly zany dinner, with conversation topics too varied and incriminating to mention.


I am now over-socialized, over-stimulated, and over-excited about documentation. The people in the documentation community are knowledgeable and care deeply about making technology understandable and accessible, and I'm glad that I got to meet so many of them in the past few days. I now have a few days to rest, recover, and prepare: PyCon is right around the corner, and that promises to be even bigger and more exciting than Write the Docs!