Developer Relations Meet the Practitioner: Zach “Keep it Simple” Flower
Have you ever read a technical blog post and wondered how a developer made their way into writing? Are you curious about the backgrounds, inspiration and motivations of practitioners who are also technical writers churning out blogs?
For us, it’s simple. We know by experience that our practitioners and technical writers come from diverse backgrounds. Not every developer wants to write about their work (unless it is code in GitHub). There’s certainly a fear that comes with putting one’s voice out into the world. Any practitioner who is interested in being a technical writer, intrigues us. They define our concept of practitioner marketing. So we want to share our practitioners’ stories.
With that, I’d like to introduce you to Zach Flower — a generalist developer who likes working for start-ups so he can wear different hats.
Tell me about yourself. Your name, where you live, where you are from, your job/company, your area(s) of expertise.
I’m Zach Flower. I live in CO, grew up in Golden. Now I live on the other side of the foothills I grew up in. I am an automation expert for Automox. I’m a generalist developer. I tend to work for start-ups because I like wearing a lot of hats.
What motivated you to become a developer?
I started playing old-school tech space online games in 7th grade, and I really wanted to learn how to make those. So when I was 13, I started learning the basics of HTML. By the end of high school, I was running my own servers, and I just wanted to learn more. Ultimately, I went to Colorado University-Boulder and studied computer science.
What motivated you to start writing about developing?
Chris Riley (co-founder of Fixate) did. I’d known Chris from a couple years before he started Fixate, and I’ve know Pat (O’Fallon, co-founder of Fixate) for 10 years. I had done some writing for a personal blog. When Chris started Fixate, he asked if I’d do some freelancing as a practitioner technical writer. And I liked it. Since then, I’ve been writing for Fixate, for TechTarget, and for my own work.
Why do you write for Fixate?
Fixate does all the hard work — All I have to do is the writing. I have the opportunity to write for really interesting, high-profile companies, and I really respect what they’ve built. That’s really exciting. It’s nice to have an editor that also backs you up and takes away the stress and the overhead.
Can you point to something meaningful that has happened for you personally or professionally as a result of writing for Fixate?
Yeah. I think my professional recognition has grown. I had a publisher reach out to me and ask me to write a book on a topic I had written articles about. I’ve had people reach out and ask me to give talks based on what I wrote for Fixate as a practitioner and technical writer. I’ve also been asked to write product guides based on what I’ve written for Fixate. It’s been pretty cool to see that the writing and communication I’ve done has gone a long way toward furthering my career.
What makes you interested in a Fixate client project?
I like projects for companies with a product I believe in. Or I like the model that they have. It’s important to me to know that I have domain knowledge in the company’s area. If the topic makes me use my domain knowledge in new ways, that piques my interest, too.
How do you stay current yourself in terms of your profession?
I read a lot. New technologies, new methods. I subscribe to I-don’t-know-how-many programmer blogs to see what the trends are, what libraries and tools are coming up — and professional organizations where we share tools and strategies. That’s been nice.
What new technology are you most interested in or are learning about?
Usually for me, I tend to gravitate toward languages. One of the ones that I am seeing a lot about is Elixir, so I’m slowly dipping my toes into that.
Why do you gravitate toward languages?
With frameworks and with a lot of tooling, they’re cool, and can help me with productivity. Languages make up everything. Different programming languages have different paradigms for how they use things. Understanding each language helps me know when it’s helpful to bring one thing in from one language when the other language doesn’t have it.
Knowing different programming languages also helps give me different perspectives to think of different ways to solve problems. If I know the language inside a tool, I can better select the right tool for the job. What’s the old adage? “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I try to avoid falling into that trap.
What have you written that you are most proud of and why?
I don’t know if I can answer that. [With Fixate], I’ve done a lot of documentation projects, which have been really fun, because the documentation speaks directly to developers and helps them use the product. I like that, because the benefits to the developer are more obvious.
Anything you want to say that I didn’t ask you about?
I guess the one thing I would tell any developer practitioner that considers being a technical writer and is afraid that they aren’t good enough at it — I would say it’s not bad writing, it’s just bad habits. The way we were taught to write in school is not what people want to read. Just write simply, directly, get to your point, write clearly. Don’t worry about the grammar and punctuation — That can be learned, and that is what editors are for.
I had a great teacher in school who told us, “Always write as if your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean.” Basically, don’t use fancy words just because you can use them. Don’t use 10 words when you can use five. Write simply, be unambiguous. Keeping those things in mind goes a really long way to creating something that is readable, that people want to read, and that people look forward to reading. The grammar, the punctuation — Editors help with that stuff. But, when it comes to writing, I always come back to that story and that piece of advice.
Zach is clearly doing what he loves – as a practitioner, and he is willing to share it – as a technical writer. One thing I know that others may not is just what a rockstar developer and writer Zach is. Part of the reason is evident in his interview. He is straightforward. Zach likes to code efficiently, and he is continuously learning to make that possible. He likes to write simply and directly so that his readers can use his writing immediately. Whether coding or writing, keeping it simple is clearly a recipe for success.