At ReadMe, we think a lot about creating a great experience for developers building with our customers’ APIs. But we care a lot about the folks responsible for those APIs, too! Behind the scenes of every developer hub, there’s a team of engineers, product managers, and technical writers who make the magic happen ✨
Today, we’re excited to kick off our first “Behind the Docs" user Q&A — giving you a closer look not just at how they’re using ReadMe, but at their career learnings, perspective on working with APIs, and favorite growth resources.
First up? Beth Favini, Senior Director of Product Documentation at Couchbase. We worked closely with Beth during her time at Akamai as Senior Director of UX Technical Writing and Learning, and she recently took on this exciting new role to scale the documentation team at Couchbase. Below, she shares her insights on breaking into technical writing, becoming a leader, and what keeps her motivated as an industry vet in the growing field of technical writing.
Let’s talk about your career path. How did you get into technical writing?
In college, I majored in English and had always intended on becoming an English teacher. But after about two days in the classroom, I realized that was not for me. After that, I pivoted and altered my major, adding a specialization in professional writing. I studied technical writing, then I got an internship and started my career as a technical writer.
Early in my career, I was really intimidated by all of the smart technical people around me that had a more technical background than I did. As a result, I was afraid to ask questions when I didn’t understand something., But then one day, I was at a product design review and I realized that what everyone was talking about didn’t make sense to me. At first, I was afraid to say anything because I assumed it was me — that I just wasn't getting it. But finally, I realized I wasn't going to be able to do my job if I didn't ask the question. I forget exactly what it was, but I seem to recall they were discussing a feature with a requirement that wouldn’t be supported in the new release. The logic didn't add up. So I said, “I don't understand. How do we reconcile that?” And the room was silent for a minute and I thought, “Oh no, they're going to fire me. They found me out.”
Then the leader turned and said, "Oh wow, that is a good question. We didn't think about that." And they had to start over. Over time, I became more confident and would ask questions when things didn't make sense to me. The aha moment for me was that I had always assumed that I didn’t have a technical mind because I was an English major. I liked writing. I was not a math person. But what I learned from working in tech was that I had a very analytical mind and the questions I asked added value.
Learning that helped me gain confidence and grow in my career. I try to share that with young people who are just starting out, because being a technical writer is not one size fits all. You can come from a variety of backgrounds and still add a lot of value and have a really great career. The more I asked, the better I did. It really helped me rise in my career, the fact that I wasn't afraid to ask questions and they were generally really good ones.
What drew you to your role at Akamai? The company, the position, the team?
A bit of all three, but I think the big draw was that I was finally going to be working within a User Experience team. For my whole career, I'd been doing UX work, but I was never part of the actual official department. Akamai was the first opportunity I had to be one of the pillars of UX. They have three pillars now, but at the time, the pillars were UX research, UX strategy, UX design, and UX writing. So I came on board as a director of UX writing and joined this UX team and feel like I learned so much about UX processes. I had always operated using common sense and having empathy for the user, but I learned a lot about UX best practices and how to design things properly based on research, data, and insights.
And how did you grow from technical writer to where you are now, leading a team?
That was a little bit of a windy path too, because I never wanted to be a manager.
When I finally did take a management position, I found it to be really challenging and stressful, and went back to being an individual contributor, which I loved. But at that point, I missed the collaborative dynamic I had with other managers and having more of a voice in decision making. So, over the course of the next seven years or so, I went back and forth between management and writing. I wasn’t really sure which I wanted to pursue.
In the end I settled on management, and now I've been managing teams, large teams even, for about 20 years. I find it really rewarding. I learn new things all the time. It's never boring — sometimes it's really hard. I feel like I’ve found my sweet spot, and Akamai allowed me to rise to a level I had never been before, along with giving me a role in UX. I loved the variety in my job there, but it was certainly been a zig-zaggy road to get there.
How has managing people changed your perspective on work?
First, I find it really rewarding to help people find their strengths and to use the strengths of people to get something done. I’ve had several interns whom I mentored that have now surpassed me in their careers. I love to see their success! It was great passing what I knew on to them and helping them thrive. I found that very rewarding.
Secondly, managing people means I can make a bigger impact with a team than I could all by myself. And it's been wonderful, especially this transition to ReadMe. During the migration over to ReadMe, we did so many customizations. We had to work with your team, my IT team, and Akamai's InfoSec team. It really wasn’t an easy project at all, but when I think about how it all came together and how everybody contributed their own special superpower to the project, I'm so proud of the results. I find it really rewarding, and I never could do that if I weren't in the position I was in. I was able to influence a lot because of my position and it ended up yielding great results. Not because I did everything myself, but because I was able to get a team to work together.
Do you have any advice for people who are looking for similar technical writing roles?
The biggest piece of advice that I’d give to someone is first of all, don't think that because you're an English major, you're not a technical person, to go back to that for a minute. Aside from that, if someone wanted to go into technical writing, especially at this point in the evolution of high tech, I'd say, get some API skills. Become knowledgeable about Git and DevOps and APIs, because that's really the future. Gone are the days where you could just describe a workflow on a UI. People really need to have API writing skills, so I would encourage that.
If you want to get into UX, I would say read up on some of these proven processes and become a little bit more educated in UX than I was. I stumbled into it. But I think if you wanted to pursue a job in UX or UI writing, there's a lot of ways that you can prepare yourself better than I did.
What drew you to this new position at Couchbase?
The position at Couchbase appeals to me because it gives me chance to once again work in the database space — I led the doc team at Vertica for several years before joining Akamai. It also allows me to join a smaller company at an earlier stage of growth and help the documentation team scale with the business. I feel good about what we accomplished and where things stand at Akamai, and felt it was time for a new challenge.
Any favorite resources for learning about technical writing?
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Tom Johnson’s API Documentation course, in his I’d Rather Be Writing blog
- Docs for Developers, a collaboration between doc leads at Splunk, Google, and Microsoft
- API The Docs writing community, which provides resources and conferences that support API writers everywhere — along with their podcast!
We're excited to hear more about the exciting developments at Couchbase as Beth gets started in her new role, and you can learn more about her developer experience transformation at Akamai in their customer story. Stay tuned for the next Behind the Docs!