Friday, February 3, 2012

The next chapter of my career

Well, folks, the time has come for me to move on.  Today is my last day at Google.

After I eliminated my position, I got to thinking about what I want to do next.  I thought about going back to tech writing, and there was plenty of opportunity to do so at Google, but it didn't draw me in, like it has in the past.  I thought about managing a different type of team, but that didn't resonate with me either.  In short, there was just nothing at Google that called my name.

I'm a firm believer in choosing work that you can be passionate about.  We spend so much of our time at work.  Our job should be something that gets us out of bed in the morning with anticipation for the day to come.  Sure, not every day can be like that, but overall, we should be doing something we love.

I also believe that careers don't have to be linear.  For some, the right choice is to work in one place for a long time, becoming a deep expert in what they do, and climbing the ladder over time.  Others prefer to hop from startup to startup, engaging in the excitement of a new venture.  Still others prefer to contract, sometimes working 80 hours a week on an exciting job, and other times taking long vacations. Many of us encounter a combination of those situations over the course of our career.

Finally, I see skills as abstract entities that can be applied to the same job title, or can be repurposed for new and different roles.  I think that outlook will become increasingly necessary as personnel needs morph to accomodate an ever-more-quickly changing world.

So.  What's next for me?

I'm going to start my own company, helping organizations implement collaborative developer documentation.

The industry's changing.  We've seen it.  I've talked about it a bit in this blog, but here it is: Developers no longer go to the manual first when they get stuck.  They go to Google, and type in the problem or error code they're encountering.  More often than not, this leads them to a forum, a blog, or some other "non-official" resource.

"Official" documentation is still important.  Without an initial version of the docs that accompanies the API distribution, and explains how to set up the SDK, how to use the APIs, and gives some sample code, it would be impossible for developers to understand what the API is, and what it's meant to do.  That documentation can never be written by the community, because writing it requires close collaboration with the developers who created the API.

However, there's a long tail of documentation that is best written by the community.  For example: explanations of how to overcome obscure errors that occur only in certain environments, sample code that shows how to use the API for things it's very good at, but for which it wasn't intended to be used, and, sometimes, up to date translations of the official docs.

For one thing, this kind of information is best learned through trial and error by a large user base.  Even if a tech writer did nothing but use the APIs, she would never encounter errors that occur with a different development environment, software version combination, or operating system.  The community is working on a diverse set of environments, will encounter these errors, and can help each other overcome them.

Secondly, more people means more viewpoints, and more viewpoints can provide better documentation. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  A community of collaborators provides creativity and strategic thinking that can only come from the meeting of more than one mind.

There are already many tools that enable collaborative documentation, such as Mindtouch, MediaWiki, and SharePoint, among others.  However, these tools fall short of encouraging people to contribute their knowledge to the docs.  There's no incentive for them to do so.  I have some ideas for fixing that problem.

Another roadblock with collaborative docs is that the review process becomes a bottleneck.  It is not sustainable to have a single person, or even a few people, review all contributions.  I have some ideas for fixing that problem too.

So there you go: that's what excites me.  That's what pulls me out of bed in the morning, eager to find out what the new day holds.  And so, with a mixture of anticipation and sadness, I say goodbye to Google, and welcome the next chapter in my career.

Think through your career.  Does its flow resonate with you?  Are there threads that have resurfaced at various points in your career? What do you like best about what you're doing now?  What haven't you done yet that you hope to do in your lifetime?