Tanya Reilly

Tanya Reilly

Who are you, and what did you write?

I'm Tanya Reilly and I wrote The Staff Engineer's Path, a book about being a very senior software engineer.

What hardware and software do you write with?

My laptop is an old Dell XPS13. It's a great little machine: it has a long battery life and it weighs half nothing so I can throw it in my bag. (The camera is horrible, but it is what it is.)

I use Google Docs for everything. When I'm writing, I tend to have the same document open in two windows side by side so I can scroll around in one and write in the other. For diagrams, I use Excalidraw–it's one of my favourite pieces of software of all time.

To help myself focus and get started, I love Forest, a phone app. You set a timer and there's an animation of a little tree, which will grow while you write. If you use your phone and stop the app, the tree dies. it's very traumatic motivational. Some friends and I sometimes use the Cuckoo timer when we want to write at the same time. Even though they're on the other side of the Atlantic, we all watch the same timer and it feels like we're focusing together, keeping each other honest. Then we DM about how the writing went when the timer goes off.

When and where do you write?

I've sectioned off a corner of the bedroom with a room dividing screen, and that's my office. I have a window I can see birds out of (we get cardinals and northern mockingbirds), a big bright lamp, and an IKEA Omtaenksam chair, which is apparently designed for people with back problems. I don't have back problems, but it's a nice example of the curb cut effect: lumbar support is pleasant for everyone!

The chair is my "official" writing place, but I write from wherever I happen to be: sofas, cafes, park benches, etc. When my kid was smaller, I wrote a surprising amount from the floors of toddler playspaces. I've written a ton on my phone with my thumbs while standing on the subway, and I've outlined conference talks on bits of scrap paper while waiting at my kid's swim class.

I have two writing modes: when I'm just trying to produce a first draft, I try to get an hour of writing a day, even if it's complete garbage. That often means getting up before my family, or churning out 1500 bleary words just before I go to sleep. But when I'm editing, or trying to figure out the narrative of a section, or anything that involves holding a lot of state in my brain all at once, I need a big block of quiet time. That means at least four hours in a row, usually at the weekend. Train or plane journeys on my own are amazing for that kind of thing too.

What's your dream writing setup?

My favourite place to write is on long-distance trains. The scenery passing, the sounds of the rails, and the long journey ahead somehow combine to give me the optimal flow state. I've taken Amtrak across the US a few times, and last April I took The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver for the first time and wrote for five days straight. (I think I'm the only person on those trains hoping we'll be delayed an extra day or two and have to stay on the train longer.)

Some people dream about getting rich and buying a yacht. My equivalent is dreaming about owning a private rail car. It's a thing you can really do, but it's a jawdroppingly expensive lifestyle. Well, for now I'll take the train from New York to Boston or Pittsburgh as often as I can and that's pretty good too :-)