How to Build a Bigger and Better Doc Team

I’ve been a tech writer for nearly 20 years. I’ve worked at startups and medium-sized companies, but for the past 12 years I’ve been creating killer content at Salesforce. In 2004, I was the third writer hired for Salesforce’s Documentation and User Assistance team, and I’ve been in a unique position to help my team grow to well beyond 100 writers.

Our team has had some ups and downs, successes and failures. But we’ve learned from our mistakes. Our missteps have helped us build a fantastic team culture. We have an unusually low employee attrition rate and an extremely high employee satisfaction rate. How did we do it? What have we learned?

A peek inside Salesforce.

It’s Not about the Tools, It’s about the People

Tools come and go. For a team’s health and culture, it doesn’t really matter if you’re using FrameMakter, Arbortext, XML/DITA, Github, etc… Sure, all of those things are fun to tinker with (we’ve tinkered with them all), and they can take your content in new directions…but they don’t make for a better team.

A team is about people. A team is about a consistent attitude and outlook upon the tasks at hand. A team is about various personalities who support each other under unforeseen circumstances and enjoy working together to solve a variety of problems. Of course, certain tools may increase a team’s productivity; however, at the end of the day, tools aren’t going to shape the overall passion brought to work the next morning by individuals.

People over this stuff.

Transparency Fosters Trust and Creativity

In the beginning, many of the team’s decisions were made behind closed doors. But when Agile software development was introduced to us in 2006, those doors blew open. Agile’s principles of face-to-face conversations and self-organizing teams emphasized a collaborative environment where everyone has a seat at the table. Opinions are welcome. Dissent is encouraged.

The airing of grievances gets them out of the way faster and sparks more creative problem solving. It doesn’t matter if your title is Intern or Director, you count as a person and most team decisions require your feedback first. An open atmosphere naturally instills trust. Trust reduces suspicion and cynicism.

A Clear Career Path Motivates Everyone

In the early days, everyone on our team had the title of Technical Writer. But as we grew, some writers had 20 more years of experience than others, and let’s face it, that matters… A writer who just moved out of a college dorm and into a corporate cubicle hasn’t learned the professional chops as someone who’s lived through many economic cycles or company mergers and acquisitions.

We’ve clarified what different titles mean and how someone can get to the next level. Most people want to improve their skills and grow their careers. Laying out a clear path as to how someone can earn a promotion motivates them to do so. Plus, when teammates witness promotions, they’re inspired to take new steps to earn promotions too. Career conversations are baked into our culture — managers are required to have a minimum of two career discussions a year with writers. Yet, those chats happen much more frequently.

Training Creates Team Cohesion

During my first day at Salesforce, someone in IT handed me a laptop and said, “Good luck.” I spent countless days, possibly weeks, trying to figure out how to do my job and where to go to get my questions answered. To say that I felt scared, confused, and incompetent is an understatement. A short time later, everything changed.

We implemented an extensive training and mentoring system to onboard new hires quickly. Instead of delayed productivity, our wikis, weekly classes, and “buddy” system jumpstarted new writers’ ability to contribute. Furthermore, a system of training unifies people and indoctrinates them into our culture just as boot camp brings together soldiers in an army. To quote Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense. Would you want to stand on the line of the untrained person at McDonald’s? Would you want to use the software written by the engineer who was never told how the rest of the code worked? A lot of companies think their employees are so smart that they require no training. That’s silly.

We’re More than Writers

Salesforce has stuck to its startup roots — everyone is asked to contribute beyond their roles. Our writers do far more than write UI text, API guides, online help, and Trailhead modules. We’re considered customer advocates. We’re expected to tell software developers and product managers how to improve the features they’re building.

Writers are ad hoc quality assurance engineers. Since we’re paid to document how something works, we’re encouraged to find flaws and suggest improvements along the way. Not only do we jot down sentences, we log bugs too. Some days we lead development team meetings as Scrummasters. Other days we help sketch out new products with designers. We speak at tech conferences. We might even write a Medium post.

A lot of writers adding value beyond writing.

Summary

In short, if you want to build a bigger and better documentation team, focus on the people. It’s easy to concentrate on tools or get distracted by the latest bright and shiny productivity philosophy of the month, but it’s how you treat your people that counts. Ask your people what they want. Try your best to deliver for them. If you forget your people, nothing will get bigger or better.

Originally delivered as a lightning talk for Write The Docs San Francisco.