Molly Zurn, a documentation product engineer on the ArcGIS Online (AGOL) team, talks about her life at Esri and on the slopes. She’s been here almost 15 years, the last seven of which have been on the AGOL team.
Before joining the ArcGIS Online team, what was your role?
I’ve always worked on documentation. My degree is in geography, but I was hired because I didn’t have any GIS or technical skills. I came from a teaching background and was brought on to write non-technical documentation to make it friendlier to the non-GIS audience. I started with internet mapping services (ArcIMS), then Geography Network and RouteIMS, and then joined my current team when ArcGIS Online really got going.
Talk a little bit more about what a documentation product engineer does.
Mainly we’re the advocate for Help, and our responsibility is to explain to users how to work with our software. Sometimes it’s nuts and bolts how-to; sometimes it’s conceptual information, for example why they would want to do something and how it fits in to the rest of their work. I also contribute to blogs and other types of messaging. It might be a one-to-one e-mail correspondence with the user, or internal documentation for Support Services and training staff to help them get ready for a new product.
The reason we are part of the product engineering teams is because early on we are involved with defining new product functionality and testing it. That’s really the only way to write something well and, as I said, we’re an advocate for the doc, but of course we’re also an advocate for the user. If we can’t write something because the software doesn’t make sense, then we very quickly go back to the developers or the architects or the product managers and say, “This functionality doesn’t make sense.” So we’re not in a little bubble just writing—for me, that’s what keeps my job interesting.
And are you the only documentation product engineer for ArcGIS Online?
I’m the only full time documentation product engineer, but there are about 10 to 15 other authors who contribute content for their component of the product. For example, the spatial analysis team writes all the topics that relate to the tools in our MapViewer where you can do spatial analysis. We have folks who write the topics that relate to hosted web services. The Zurich team writes about Web Scenes and then we have the team who writes about Web AppBuilder. I’m the publication lead—I make sure all those components are done on time and all get published on the day we release and that all the topics get handed over to the localization team for translation.
What do you think sets Esri apart as an employer?
Esri is very trusting and flexible. In some sense, the only thing that matters is that you do a good job and you get it done on time. We have a lot of collaborative meetings; people on our team are all over the world—Zurich, Beijing, and all across the US—so it’s certainly not a nine-to-five job. And that works so well for me; it just fits into my lifestyle. I have to do a lot of brainstorming and the most success I’ve had with coming up with ideas is when I’m out running or skiing or I’m walking my dogs. So for me, it’s the flexibility and a big reason why I’ve stayed here. And it’s also the people I work with. Everybody is respectful and is interesting and is interested in each other and mostly interested in doing good work for our users. That’s everybody’s driving motivation.
You mentioned the collaboration with Beijing and Zurich. How do you stay connected?
Well, I will say every year I’ve been here collaboration across teams has gotten easier. Esri has spent good energy on making sure we all have the tools we need to get our job done, and for a team like mine that is so dispersed, the tools to communicate with each other really have been essential. So we do a lot of online meetings and while you’re talking to each other on the phone, you all can see each other’s screens and you can be sending each other instant messages. These multi-faceted collaborative tools really have made the conversations easier because then you can focus on the task at hand.
Tell me more about your passion for running and skiing.
For whatever reason, competing has always been a part of my life. I feel like it’s part of who I am. I did triathlons in college but after graduating I didn’t have the time to bike, so running was more efficient. I live in Reno (Nevada), which is made for trail running and all types of skiing. The last 15 years, I’ve focused on long distance trail running, up to 100 miles, but I also enjoy Nordic skiing. Tahoe has a lot of local cross country ski races so I’ve competed in those, but I’ve also gone across the country and even internationally for competitions. The last ten years my husband and I have been doing team events, ski mountaineering, which is when you skin up a hill and then you take your skins off and ski downhill over moguls or backcountry or powder. So it’s been a great way to travel and stay fit, but also meet new people.
I understand you hold some records.
I think it’s been broken by now, but several years ago there was a ski mountaineering race where you had 24 hours to ski as many vertical feet as you could. (In ski mountaineering they calculate how many vertical feet you’ve done, not miles.) So I was combining my long distance running with the ski mountaineering and I broke the world record for women.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I was thinking about talking to you today and how the running and skiing fit into my work and vice versa. I feel the skills for both are so overlapping—the work I’ve done at Esri has really helped my running and my skiing, and the running and skiing have helped my work because the mindset and the day-to-day are the same. So much of it is about the planning and having a goal, and then really staying focused on the goal. When I’m in a competition running 100 miles, there are many points along the way where I want to stop because it’s too hard and I’m in too much pain, or I’m thirsty, or I’m hungry, or I’m cold, and I just have to remember that I really want to get to the finish line. And that’s the same with the work I do here. It can be stressful and at some point in every release it feels like it’s not going to come together. So just like the running and skiing, we all stay focused on the goal of improving the software or coming out with that cool new UI. In running it’s tree to tree, or in skiing ski pole to ski pole—in my role here, it’s getting one little project done then on to the next.
Want to do work like Molly?
We’re hiring documentation product engineers. Learn more about the positions and see if you’re a fit at www.esri.com/careers.