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Writing is the most important new skill for tech workers. Here’s how to build it

With the rise of remote work, written communication has become indispensable.

Writing is the most important new skill for tech workers. Here’s how to build it
[Images: voyata/iStock; sinisamaric1/Pixabay]
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As we head into 2021, work looks completely different than it did a year ago.

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Most companies have remote teams, while tech giants like Twitter and Dropbox have said their employees can stay remote forever. In my role as CEO of HackerRank, which helps organizations like these hire technical employees, I have a front-row seat to what the remote work shift means for technical teams while also managing my own company’s workplace evolution. For example, we’re embracing asynchronous work, which happens across different teams, time zones, parenting schedules, and other individual needs. Work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone anymore.

Success in remote work hinges on communication, but it’s challenging. Most of us feel Zoom fatigue, and nearly a third of the American workforce struggles to communicate about their work in a remote setting. Clear writing could be the antidote—especially for engineers.

Writing, long considered a “soft skill” for technical workers, is crucial when employees can’t talk through a problem in person or show a new team member the ropes over coffee. Good writing makes for specific, detailed communication that captures institutional knowledge. And effective writing can keep technical teams engaged and productive in remote work by helping them move faster and communicate more clearly.

To make good writing part of their teams’ DNA, leaders need to prioritize and nurture that skill. Here are a few ways to do that:

Identify the most valuable written team resources, then create more of them

Writing is a muscle that needs exercise to get stronger. The best way for technical employees to get that exercise is to create written resources that are valuable for their teams.

Leaders should start by identifying the most valuable written resources their teams already have. For technical teams, those might be root cause analyses (which identify what caused a technical problem) or product release notes (which inform customers when changes are made to a product).

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From there, they can guide teams to use, expand, and create more of them. Not only does this give employees an opportunity to practice writing, it also creates institutional knowledge that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of where or when they work. For example, a developer in San Francisco can get a question answered through a quick search instead of setting up a late-night Zoom call with their colleague in Berlin. Before a launch, a product manager can spend 10 minutes reading a root cause analysis to avoid repeating the mistake that caused an outage during a prior launch.

Managers should reinforce the utility of documentation—and effective writing—by referencing these resources often and leading their teams to do the same. These explanatory writing skills, which are essential especially for asynchronous work, will also translate into better directions and more effective feedback on specific tasks.

Technical employees who are eager to sharpen their writing skills can also try writing courses on Coursera or Udacity, or tap into Grammarly for specific writing feedback.

Micromanage remote hires with written documentation

Many companies are now hiring employees in other parts of the country, or even the world, who operate within different time zones and without important context. They’ve never met their colleagues in person and often work on different schedules that don’t allow for much one-on-one interaction.

It might sound counterintuitive, but micromanaging these employees in the short-term is key to setting them up for success in the long-term. Sharing ample information makes up for some of what’s lost without hallway conversations or team happy hours. Written resources are a crucial part of this: a roadmap that a new employee can reference any time and digest at any pace.

During every new hire’s onboarding, their manager should create a customized document outlining not just who they should meet (and why) and their team’s best practices, but also specifics like how notes are captured during meetings and standards for every product launch. Ideally, a leader could respond to every new hire’s question with, “Here’s a link to the answer.” Onboarding needs to be a managerial function as much as an HR one. Leading onboarding allows managers to practice their own writing, standardizing it as a technical leadership skill.

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Turn meetings into writing

This was the year of the video call. The intention to re-create in-person interactions was good, but the result was mentally draining. Technical teams can offload that burden by turning some video calls into writing.

One of Amazon’s strategies, adopted long before the pandemic, offers a blueprint. Instead of developing a presentation, Amazon has teams write a six-page memo for every project. This forces them to create a clear and compelling argument, and to get specific.

We don’t all need to adopt Amazon’s approach, but substituting writing for talking can save time and mental energy. During the pandemic, HackerRank’s executive team cut our weekly meeting from an hour to 30 minutes. We spend the first 10 minutes reading the agenda and writing feedback, then 20 minutes discussing it. We’ve gotten 30 minutes back every week, and our meetings are more productive than ever.

Technical teams can benefit from this approach. It gives everyone a chance to practice writing and creates documentation to reference later. It also fosters inclusivity by giving introverts the opportunity to express their thoughts in writing, a medium where they’re often more comfortable.

It’s trite but true: Remote work will be the future for most tech teams. Nurturing their writing now will make them more productive and focused by improving communication, establishing institutional knowledge, and crystallizing strategic thinking. Writing is the most important new skill for tech workers, regardless of role.


Vivek Ravisankar is the CEO and cofounder of HackerRank.