Role Models: Emily Withrow, Director of Quartz Bot Studio

Today’s Role Model is Emily Withrow. Emily is director of the Quartz Bot Studio, where she writes, designs, and builds narrative experiences for messaging and voice platforms. Her work examines how people and bots interact, and how to build meaningful relationships with audiences on these emerging platforms. She’s also faculty at Northwestern University, where she taught for six years prior to joining Quartz. Withrow spends much of her free time talking with robots, rock climbing, and researching recipes she will eventually abandon for nachos.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

My official title is “Director, Quartz Bot Studio.” I’ve been at the Bot Studio for almost two years, and in the director role for about six or seven months.

What attracted you to this role?

The mix, and the freedom. We’re a small team with a mandate to explore, which is an incredible thing. My job is a mix of writing, editing, design, observation, play, code, data/analytics, direction, and management. I get to exercise different parts of my brain, and I love it.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

My day really begins the night before. I review my calendar for the following day, and then write out everything I plan to do, hour by hour. I block off time for big-ticket items that will require a lot of attention, and I even write down what to eat for lunch and reminders to drink water. That way, I can follow a script and focus my decision-making on deeper work when I’m fresh. If I start my day by saying, “What should I do today?” I’m sunk.

So: My days always start with a Slack check-in with my team. I’m remote, so I post what I’m up to and read their statuses. From there I usually dive into a large task—this could be working on the conversation design for a new project, reviewing and giving feedback on a project proposal, putting together a project budget, editing a giant feature, or working on a prototype for something more experimental.

My meetings are typically stacked on Tuesdays—one-on-ones with people on my team, strategy meetings, pitch meetings. Lunch, I totally shut down and eat without a screen (unless it’s our team lunches on Wednesdays!) and often read a book. This is crucial because the rest of my day is spent looking at a screen.

Afternoons I typically reserve for more creative work—writing and editing, building. Sometimes things are derailed by an urgent issue—something’s broken or not functioning as expected, etc. Then I help triage and troubleshoot. I typically check email twice a day, beginning and end, and respond.

I keep water-tight boundaries on home vs. work, so when I log off, I stay off until the next day. (There are periods in which this is not possible, of course, but mostly it works!)

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Creative problem-solving, killer observational powers, and a can-figure-it-out attitude. There’s nothing I love more than hard problems with no obvious answers. The learning curve for me, therefore, over my career, has been a slowww understanding that not every difficult problem is one that needs me, or one that advances the ball. So that means getting choosier and more strategic about what problems I work on over time.

That, and my path has been paved by picking up new tools or technologies when I’m curious about them. Understanding the guts of something is quite powerful. You understand the thing’s potential and limitations, and when everything breaks, you’re more useful.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Literally all of it. Our team is amazing, and I’m constantly inspired.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

I think it’s continuing to fight the easiest answer. (Note that I’m not saying simplest. Easiest.)

Working in a new space means you’re working so hard to find good answers. When you find one, it’s hard to resist the urge to keep doing that one thing—to rest and repeat the solution you found. But this field is also constantly evolving, so there’s a real danger in not continuing to push your thinking forward, or to revisit things you’d rejected before.

And of course, as you form opinions, you become less open to other ideas. So I think that’s the main challenge—constantly checking myself to make sure I’m finding fresh ways to look at the problem, and to really listen and observe.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

Our core team is already a crazy mix of people, so that’s a daily for me, in terms of interaction with design/creative/editorial/product/analytics/etc. And then of course we have a commercial arm, so I’m also working with our business development and sales teams.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’m always working on truly listening, and on giving and receiving better feedback.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

It’s hard to know where to start, but I think the largest bucket is around communication—understanding your audience and writing/speaking directly to them, both in the work we do, and in how we frame our work.

The second would be around how to function in a remote role, and how to best balance a demanding job with an active personal life.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Thoughtfulness, high analytical/critical function, unbound curiosity and enthusiasm for the unknown.

In your role, what metrics define success?

I think if we’re doing it right, everyone feels comfortable putting out new ideas, giving open feedback, and jumping into new projects. Failure would mean people are holding onto their thoughts.

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Role Models: Heather Stenson, Technical Writer at Mapbox

Heather Stetson is a technical writer for Mapbox

Today’s Role Model is Heather Stenson. Up until three ago, Heather was a librarian at an art school. Feeling burnt out and looking for her next step, she began to reflect. She enjoyed the more technical aspects of her librarian job and knew basic HTML and CSS, so she enrolled in a coding bootcamp. Upon graduation, she expected to look for a job as a developer, but a friend pointed her towards a technical writing role at Facebook. After researching the position, she realized that it was the perfect marriage of her library background and her newfound tech knowledge. Heather is currently a technical writer at Mapbox, a location data platform.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’m a technical writer at Mapbox, a location data platform, and I’ve been here for about 8 months. Before that I worked as a hybrid tech writer/content strategist at a startup called CodeFights (now CodeSignal), and before that I was a tech writer at Facebook.

What attracted you to this role?

Mapbox is still a pretty small company, but its tool and product offerings are really wide ranging. I don’t like to work on just one thing, so the fact that I’d get to work on documentation for a lot of different products was really appealing. And the documentation team is really small – there are only two of us – so I knew that I’d have the opportunity to have a big impact on the organization. Even though the docs team is very small, there’s a really strong culture of documentation here. Everyone pitches in to make sure that our documentation is useful and thorough. It also helped that everyone I came into contact with at the company was super friendly.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

Mapbox has a lot of different offices spread out across the world – San Francisco, Washington DC, Minsk, Helsinki, Shanghai, Beijing, plus a lot of remote workers. Since we’re so distributed, we communicate a lot using Slack. We also use GitHub issues to coordinate a lot of work! So when I start my day, I check in on my Slack and GitHub notifications. I have keyword notifications set up so that I can always know when my coworkers are talking docs! I make a pretty detailed to-do list for each day so that I know what to focus on. Then I grab an almond milk latte and get to it.

I’m usually juggling several different projects, and if they have regular meetings/scrums I’ll join in on those so that I can keep track of what’s moving. If I’m just starting a big project, I try to have a meeting with the stakeholders (usually a combo of project managers and engineers) early on so that I can get a good sense of the project’s parameters.

I try to leave the office at least once a day to remind myself that there’s a whole world outside the office. At Mapbox, there’s a rich tradition of the“cookie walk” – folks taking some time in the afternoon to go grab a sweet treat – but sometimes it’ll be coffee instead.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

At every technical writing job I’ve had, the one constant skill that I’ve needed was being able to write markdown, a formatting syntax that can be converted to HTML. It’s the formatting syntax used in wikis, and it’s also pretty standard in a lot of documentation frameworks. Beyond that, it’s also been helpful that I know HTML/CSS. This allows me to have more control over how the documents I write are formatted.

At Mapbox, we use GitHub for everything, so it’s been critical for me to know how to use git and GitHub, and to feel comfortable doing things in the command line. Knowing how to “read” code is also useful – I can look at a snippet of code and get a sense for what it does, even if I don’t know the language it’s written in.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Every new product that I write about means another new toy that I get to learn how to use! Before I can write an effective guide or tutorial, I need to use the tool or product so that I can unearth potential user pain points and guide them to a good outcome.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

One of my biggest challenges is juggling lots of different projects at once. Docs never stop, so I usually have at least five projects that I can work on at any given time! It’s really important for me to be able to weigh something’s potential impact against the time required to complete the work, and prioritize accordingly.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

The documentation team at Mapbox works with nearly all of the product teams! When a new product is released, or a tool is updated, this means that we’ve got work to do. We typically collaborate with a combination of product managers and engineers when we’re working on documentation – they provide background, technical details, code examples, and just generally help guide the work we do. We also work really closely with the support team. Since they are constantly interacting with Mapbox users, they are able to identify ways in which we can improve our documentation.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

Right now, we are in the process of moving to a new documentation framework that uses React. While I don’t need to know React in order to use the system, I’ll need to know it in order to build my own components! If I think of a cool new UI component that I’d like to be able to use across various documents, I really want to be able to build it myself.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Good technical writers are naturally curious people! They want to take things apart and see how they work, then share what they’ve learned with others. Being detail-oriented and organized are helpful as well.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

I have a tendency to try to power through problems to find the questions myself. In some ways this is a good thing. But when the subject matter expert for the problem I’m working on is a mere Slack message away, a lot of times it doesn’t make sense for me to spend hours struggling with a question! So I’m getting better at timeboxing problems – if I don’t reach the answer myself in a reasonable amount of time, I reach out to someone who knows the answer.

In your role, what metrics define success?

As a team, we’re still working on defining what “success” for a piece of documentation is, and how we measure that. We’re exploring a lot of different ways to capture user feedback and user actions, and then turn that data into a way of measuring success. Anecdotally, though, we get a lot of feedback from different channels that people love our documentation and find it to be really helpful, so that’s a good way of knowing that we’re on the right track!

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Role Models: Una Kravets, Direct of Product Design at Bustle Digital Group

Una Kravets, Director of Product Design at Bustle

Today’s Role Model is Una Kravets. Una is an international public speaker, technical writer, and the Director of Product Design at Bustle Digital Group, where she oversees UI/UX of Bustle, Elite Daily, Romper, and The Zoe Report. Una has written for various online publications such as A List Apart, 24 Ways, Smashing Magazine, and SitePoint, and started both the DC and Austin Sass Meetup groups. She also co-hosts the Toolsday developer podcast and has a Youtube video series which features videos about about life, fashion and tech.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’m the Director of Product Design at Bustle Digital Group, and I’ve been here for 9 months (having started January 2018)

What attracted you to this role?

I was really interested in taking a more involved and overarching approach to product design in my next role (which led me here). I also loved that I get to work on the Engineering team and get to use my multidisciplinary background (in both design and web engineering) every day.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I’m mostly designing via writing code during the day. I work on both large and small projects. Larger projects include redesigns, the visual aspects of product migrations, or ideating and building new products that will be used by designers and editors across properties. So when I’m doing this kind of work, I’m checking in with product management and stakeholders intermittently.

Some days though, I’m just fixing UI bugs, resolving support tickets, and making sure everything is in place. I don’t have a lot of meetings, but the meetings I do have, I try to keep short, concise, and end with an action item. Lunch is usually in the office, with the engineers getting together to chat and work in the same space for a little while.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Having a background in computer science and graphic design (I went to college for both) certainly helps. Continuing to learn web development as its evolved over the last couple of years has been important in keeping up with technologies and trends. Learning new interaction patterns and design trends is critical, as well as having a foundation of web accessibility and the render tree.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

I feel like my role is generally very creative. Designing new features is just as creative as coming up with resolutions for bugs.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Some of the projects I work on can involve complex visual systems. For example, a part of what I do is make sure every type of component works in every type of containing element, on every type of page, without breaking anywhere. With growing codebases, this becomes increasingly challenging.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’m always working on improving my technical skills to make me a more effective developer across the stack. I think in today’s world, having the ability to code gives a designer a lot of power.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

The ability to creatively solve problems and be organized is important. I use to-do lists to keep my life in order.

In your role, what metrics define success?

That really depends on the goal of the project! And the metrics that determine meeting the project goals are probably the most important. Time management and shipping on time play a key role as well.

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