Have you ever looked back at your career to search for a common thread that has helped propel your career forward and opened doors for you? For me, that thread is writing.
My first job after I finished college was working as a software engineer at a large tech company. Once I started getting comfortable with my coding assignments, I asked my manager what I needed to do to move my career forward. He emphasized the importance of demonstrating scope—I needed to show that I was influencing and helping others. He recommended I begin answering questions on our user forums. Despite feeling uncomfortable and a little scared, I decided to give it a try. I discovered that a little bit of writing to our users every day added up to a big win.
After I began to find my way answering questions on our user forums, I again asked my manager what I could do to progress my career. He suggested I start writing posts on our company blog. Once again, this was new and intimidating. I remember staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out how I was going to sound competent in this longer-form medium. I pushed through the discomfort and published a post. And then I kept publishing more posts, becoming a frequent author on our blog.
These activities are part of what led to my current role as a developer advocate at Grammarly, where our mission is to improve lives by improving communication. I was able to take the writing skills I developed over my years as a software engineer and turn them into a core part of a career that I love.
If you’re in a technical role, you—yes, you—can use writing to level up your career. In this post, I’ll share with you five strategies for doing so:
Check out the live stream recording above, where Lauren Schaefer and Andrew DiMola discuss this topic.
Your users might be internal at your company or external users of your product. Whatever the case, write to them. Help them. There are so many ways you can do this, and what makes sense for you will be specific to your company and your role. Let me give you some ideas:
- Answer questions in forums.
- Write blog posts and tutorials on your company’s blog.
- Write documentation.
- Respond to users’ bug reports and requests for features.
- Write RFOs (reason for outage reports).
- Email your users.
- Chat with your users on platforms like Slack or Discord.
- Curate a newsletter.
Perhaps the idea of writing to your users makes you feel a bit anxious. When my first manager encouraged me to write to our users in a public forum, I was a little apprehensive. I wasn’t yet an expert on our products, and I didn’t want to look dumb in front of my colleagues, who would have the ability to read my public answers. But I decided to try it anyway.
I set a goal for myself to answer one question each day. At first, I didn’t have the slightest clue how to answer most questions I came across. I frequently spent time coding solutions to figure out the answers.
The first time someone marked my answer as correct felt amazing. I, a new grad, had helped a professional in the “real world.” I didn’t always get my answers 100% right—sometimes, teammates would drop in and add suggestions. Occasionally, I wouldn’t receive any feedback at all, and I would have no idea if my answers were helpful. But over time, I learned more about the product, and I got better at answering questions.
Helping users feels amazing!
I kept at it and continued to try to answer one question a day. When people marked my answers as correct or upvoted my answers, I earned reputation points in the forum. My points grew bit by bit, and I eventually ranked in the top 1% of users on our forums. End users, as well as colleagues from other offices who I had never met, began to recognize my name.
Writing gave me visibility.
Little bits of writing every day in 2012 through 2014 really added up.
You might be wondering what to do if writing to your users isn’t one of your core responsibilities. How can you make time for writing? Take a look at your career ladder or talk with your manager to discover what you need to do to progress to the next level. I’ve looked at many technical career ladders, and almost all of them require you to demonstrate scope and influence. Showing that you are impacting your users through personalized help or writing content that is relevant to a large portion of your users is a great way to do that.
2 Write to educate the tech community
Everyone (including you!) has a story to tell.
Maybe you’ve worked really hard to become an expert in a framework. You’ve got a story—you can share what know.
Maybe you’re in the process of learning something new. Share as you learn—this is a great way to reinforce your learning.
Or maybe you’ve failed spectacularly. Share your story, so we don’t make the same mistakes.
You can share your technical skills as well as your soft skills. I’ve written about a variety of topics on everything from data modeling to how to be a successful remote employee to how to customize the look of the Grammarly Text Editor SDK to match each of Taylor Swift’s studio albums. One of the great things about the tech community is that we’re lifelong learners; we want to continuously improve and grow.
Here are some ways you can write to the tech community:
- Answer questions in a forum like Stack Overflow.
- Participate in discussions on open source projects.
- Chat in tech communities on Discord and Slack.
- Share micro-content on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
- Write tutorials or thought leadership articles on your own blog or on platforms like DEV, Hashnode, LinkedIn, or Medium.
- Write a book.
Why bother writing to the tech community? First, you can help others. It feels soooo good when someone shares that what you wrote helped them solve their problem. Second, more selfishly, you can help yourself. The more you write, the more you will become known as the go-to person on a topic. This will help you demonstrate scope and influence in your current role and potentially help recruiters find you for new roles outside of your company.
When I’ve suggested to others that they write to the technical community in the past, they’ve asked me a question like, “What if I write something dumb or wrong and people call me out on it? People on the internet are mean!”
It’s true—people on the internet can be really mean. And chances are good that you’ll probably get a few mean comments.
You’ll need to learn to focus on the positive comments and let go of the negative. To be transparent, it’s hard. It doesn’t matter how many kind comments I get; one mean comment will wriggle around in my brain way longer than the kind ones. So if you start to feel dragged down by mean comments, go back and reread the good ones.
You can also work to prevent some of the mean comments by getting your writing reviewed before publication. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to spot-check your work for glaring technical errors. You can also use a tool like Grammarly or a trusted copyeditor to get a copyedit review. Grammarly makes suggestions for how to improve your grammar, spelling, punctuation, tone, clarity, engagement, word choice, and more. Getting both a technical review and a copyedit review will give you more confidence when you publish.
3 Write to document team knowledge
Have you ever looked at code and asked yourself, “Who wrote this? The code doesn’t make any sense. Where are the comments?!” And then you checked the git blame and realized it was you? Yea, me neither… 😬
@ellasstudy Anyone else 🙋♀️ no? #code #codetok #ClearGenius #dev #devlife #java #techtok #steminist ♬ Do I remember… no. – Laura Meriweather
We have opportunities each day to improve the daily work of our teammates by documenting team knowledge. Here are some guidelines:
- If you find yourself answering a question more than once (either verbally or in a chat), find a way to document it. ℹ️ Whether in a readme or team wiki, drop the answer somewhere that others can easily discover it. Point people to the document and ask them to improve it if it doesn’t fully answer their questions.
- When you make a decision on your own or as a team, document the decision and why you chose it. 🤝 You don’t have to write a 10-page report; this could be a quick paragraph summary of the options you considered. Future teammates—and future you—will appreciate this context. Plus, it can prevent you from having to revisit the same decision in the future.
- Document team knowledge and processes. 🧠 It’s nice to feel needed, but it’s not nice to feel needed at 3 am when the person on call can’t figure out how to fix a problem in your area, so they wake you up. Document team knowledge and processes, so that your team can easily keep moving forward even if a key person is offline.
4 Write to encourage your teammates
Have you ever worked with someone who is a natural encourager? Kindness just seems to ooze out of them. They’re always ready to compliment your latest pull request, the way you ran a meeting, or how cute your shoes are. It feels incredibly good to be around them.
Most of us aren’t natural encouragers. We might occasionally remember to say something kind when someone goes above and beyond, but otherwise, we stay focused on our jobs.
I’m the second type. My husband will tell you that I’m quick to criticize and slow to praise. (He loves that about me. 😉) I’m task-oriented and tend to focus on accomplishing my objectives. When I feel overwhelmed and behind on my work, I go even deeper into my bubble of solitude.
About two years ago when I was at my previous company, I decided to be more intentional about celebrating the successes of my teammates. When someone shared something they had accomplished in our team chat, I made sure to applaud them. When I saw someone doing good work, I complimented them publicly in our team chat. When someone did something to help me out, I made sure to thank them through our company’s platform for recognizing others. To be clear, this was not something that came naturally to me, this was something I made a conscious effort to do. Shortly after I left that company, a former colleague Megan tweeted this:
We still talk about you and how amazing and brilliant and kind you are! <3
— Megan Grant 🧚🏻♀️ (@MeganGrant333) July 21, 2022
I was so surprised that they thought I was kind. They had noticed and appreciated my efforts.
Tell your teammates that you appreciate them and they belong, and they will thrive.
If you’re likely to forget to encourage your teammates, set a reminder on your calendar every Friday to send a compliment. When someone does great work, celebrate it and let others know about it.
If your company doesn’t have a platform like Bonusly or Lattice for sending public compliments, you can post them in team chats or send an email to that person and CC your manager and their manager. The person you’re thanking will appreciate it, and it will give both of your managers visibility into what you’re working on.
All of these efforts can create a culture of compliments on your team. When you start recognizing others’ strengths, they’re likely to start recognizing yours. And that’s fantastic for your career as well.
5 Write to record your accomplishments
Perhaps, like me, you document your accomplishments as part of your annual performance review. And perhaps, like me, you dread this process. It’s easy to wait until the last minute to document what you’ve accomplished, causing you to unintentionally miss things and undervalue your work.
Resist the urge to procrastinate on your performance review. This is your chance to make a case as to why your manager should give you a bonus, a raise, or a promotion.
I write the longest, most-detailed performance reviews. I format them. I bold the key points. It’s possible that I go a bit over the top. But, it works.
Managers are busy. It’s easy for them to overlook or forget your accomplishments. Your performance review is your chance to remind them of all the amazing things you’ve done, so they can advocate for you. Here’s what I recommend:
Regularly document tasks and compliments
Throughout the year, regularly document what you’ve accomplished. If you typically track all of your work and your to-dos in task-tracking software like Jira or Asana, you’re good to go. But if your to-do lists are all over the place (and sometimes get thrown away or deleted), set aside time weekly or monthly to document what you’ve accomplished and who you’ve helped.
As you document your tasks, consider compiling a short list to share with your manager. I’ve taken different approaches to this at different phases of my career. When I don’t meet with my manager weekly, I send a weekly “3 Things You Should Know” email where I list accomplishments, things I’m thinking about for the future, or anything else I want them to be aware of. I meet with my current manager weekly, so I curate a list of what I’ve worked on over the last week as well as a list of other things we should discuss and include them in the agenda for our one-on-ones.
If you’re following my advice from earlier in this post to write to your users, the tech community, and your teammates, make sure to document that work. Think about your team or company goals and quantify your writing efforts in a way that impacts those goals.
If you have created a culture of compliments on your team, you’re likely to receive compliments throughout the year from your teammates. You might also receive compliments from your users or people in the wider tech community. I encourage you to create a document where you can paste those as you receive them.
Organize your accomplishments in your performance review
When it’s time for your performance review, group items together into bigger themes. Then paste in any relevant compliments and state what you’ve accomplished. Don’t undersell yourself. This is not the time to be humble. Tell your manager what you’ve accomplished, the impact it had (including anything you can quantify), and how it moved your team’s or company’s goals forward. Make it super easy for your manager to advocate for you.
Update your resume
After you’ve finished your performance review, update your resume, your CV, or your LinkedIn profile—whatever you use to show potential employers what you’ve accomplished. You’re probably not going to remember the impact you had three years from now, so write it down while it’s fresh in your mind. Over time, your resume will become incredibly strong. I’ve used LinkedIn to document my accomplishments for the last several years, and it’s opened career opportunities for me. A hiring manager at my previous employer and a recruiter at Grammarly both found me and reached out to me through LinkedIn. Additionally, event organizers invited me to speak at their events after finding me on LinkedIn.
When you’re having a down day—perhaps feeling like an imposter or like your work isn’t living up to your standards—you can peruse your compliments doc or your performance review. These documents are fantastic pick-me-ups as they’ll show you the amazing things you’ve accomplished and all of the nice things people have said about you.
In this post, I shared five strategies for using writing to level up your technical career:
1 Write to help your users. Write directly to your users via channels like email, forums, or chat platforms, or write to your broader user base in blog posts or documentation. These efforts will help you demonstrate scope and influence.
2 Write to educate the tech community. You have a story to tell. Share it to help others and become known as the go-to person for a topic.
3 Write to document team knowledge. Document questions you’ve answered more than once, decisions you’ve made (and the other options you considered), and team processes.
4 Write to encourage your teammates. Tell your teammates that you appreciate them and they belong, and they will thrive. Create a culture of compliments.
5 Write to record your accomplishments. Regularly document your accomplishments and any compliments you receive, so you’re prepared for your next performance review. Detail the impact you’ve made in your performance review, so your manager can easily advocate for you.
These strategies might seem strange, uncomfortable, or possibly a little scary at first. Give one of them a try and then try again the following week. Little bits of writing will add up to a big success over time.
If you’re interested in writing but feel like your skills could use some sharpening, be on the lookout for a future post from me where I’ll share three ways to improve the quality of your writing.
I’d love to chat with you about writing! You can start a discussion anytime in the Grammarly for Developers community on GitHub. I hope you’ll join me for a live stream on February 15, 2023, where I’ll be chatting with Andrew DiMola about each of the strategies in this post. Register for the stream, and I’ll send you a calendar invite. I hope to see you there!