Collage of images showing Hiroko's recent careers

How my Brain Injury and ADHD helped me find my dream career in Tech

Collage of images showing Hiroko's recent careers

People often ask, “How did you become a technical writer?” 

In less than a decade, my unique career path has taken me from a Special Education teacher in the suburbs, to working in IT in New York City, to teaching Cloud Computing with LinkedIn Learning, to leaving the corporate world to become a freelance Technical Writer, and finally, to becoming a published author. 

I became a technical writer by accident, after my brain threw a curve ball and forced me to write very comprehensive documentation for myself in order to learn to do my job because my short-term memory was almost non-existent. Turns out that writing documentation notes that are “good enough for even me to understand” are pretty good documentation overall, and after a few years, a path to technical writing was forged. Few years after I began writing technical blogs and documentation, I was provided an opportunity to publish a book of my own, which was a life-long dream of mine, and now, I can proudly say that I’m a published author!

Navigating the “New Normal” with a new brain

“You’ll likely never become fully independent, and you’ll always be dependent on your parents for housing and daily living.” “You’re probably never going to get a full time job to be able to support yourself.” “You’re letting her DRIVE!? How are you going to live with yourself if she has an accident and kills someone?!”

The discourse around me as an almost-college-graduate was grim. I heard, listened, and internalized, as adults and doctors around me catastrophized my future as a newly disabled brain surgery survivor, re-learning how to navigate my life with brain injury. And one day, I decided I’d had enough, packed a few bags (and my favorite pillow), booked a $15 bus ticket, and moved to New York City.

Near the end of my junior year of college pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Special Education, I was getting ready for an afternoon class. The next moment, I was surrounded by paramedics, pressing an oxygen mask to my face. I later found out that my roommate had called an ambulance after she found me on the bathroom floor, having a seizure.

Months of intensive testing and half a dozen different types of brain scans later, I was diagnosed with a vascular (blood vessel) tumor in my brain called “Arteriovenous Malformation” (commonly referred to as an “AVM”) a few days after my 22nd birthday. 

Family photo at the hospital few days post-craniotomy (December, 2011)
Family photo at the hospital few days post-craniotomy (December, 2011)

Half a year after my diagnosis, I was wheeled into the operating room in one of the top hospitals in the country. When I came out, my family and I had all assumed that I’d be good as new, all ready to go on with my life after a few months of rehabilitation. I was, after all, only 22! I had my whole life ahead of me! However, we soon realized that poking around in the brain meant that, while the most pressing symptoms may go away if successful (in my case, my grand mal seizures and risk of a stroke at any moment), a myriad of new issues might emerge.

Issues became apparent about half a year after the craniotomy, after we tapered off on seizure medications and the swelling in my brain went down. I couldn’t focus at all on schoolwork or to-do tasks. I could barely watch a YouTube video for 30 seconds without my mind wandering off. I most definitely couldn’t read the dozens of pages of journal articles required for my classes, nor could I focus for long enough to write papers or complete assignments like I used to. 

I had spent most of my student life finishing papers and projects the night before the due date. No longer; I had to make sure I broke every project down to minute details, and assign dates and a game plan for everything in order to have any chance of completing it. My anxiety shot through the roof to the point that any small noise could startle me into a full blown anxiety attack. I had to write *everything* down the moment I thought about it or a to-do task came up, because I would forget it almost instantly. Google Calendar, physical calendars to visualize timelines, and notebooks to jot down notes and thoughts, were all my constant companions.

Acquired Brain Injury. Executive Function Disorder. Anxiety Disorder. Idiosyncratic Hypersomnolence. Aphasia. Ataxia. Non-Epileptic Seizure Disorder. Short-Term Memory Loss.

As the months went by after my surgery, the list of diagnoses seemed to grow until I stopped keeping track. My brain was working overtime attempting to find a new equilibrium in my “new normal,” trying to forge new pathways to do things I took for granted just months before.

My "tiara of staples" and brain scan showing the brain injury to my left frontal lobe post-surgery (December, 2011)
My “tiara of staples” and brain scan showing the brain injury to my left frontal lobe post-surgery (December, 2011)

Brain scans after my surgery showed that a large part of my left frontal lobe was now “dead,” showing up as a black mass, likely due to the physical pressure cutting out the vascular malformation had on the area.

I began my postoperative weeks relearning how to use a spoon, sit up, and walk (few steps a day). It took me weeks just to be able to sit up on the couch unassisted. While I still had use of Japanese and English, it became apparent very quickly that I had lost quite a bit of fluency in both. After a while, I was diagnosed with mild Aphasia, an expressive language disorder that makes forming thoughts into words and sentences to express difficult. As a life-long lover of words, books, and writing, the Aphasia, along with the double-blow of having difficulty reading because of my short-term memory issues and Executive Function Disorder, was a huge hit to my self-identity. 

Forging a new life in the Big Apple

After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in Special Education, I packed up my bags and moved to New York City with a temporary place to live, a part-time babysitting gig making $1200/month, and a pocket full of dreams that perhaps, in a huge city where no one knew me as “the girl who became disabled after having brain surgery,” that I had a fighting chance of living and functioning independently.

Film photograph of a New York City street filled with cars

Turns out, while New York City didn’t really want me, it was the perfect place for me to start my new life. I didn’t have to drive, I could forge a new identity for myself that wasn’t connected to my “Special Education Teacher” or “Brain Surgery Survivor” self, and while my disabilities didn’t go away, I was able to find ways to continue accommodating for parts of myself that needed more help.

Can’t remember things? WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN! Can’t focus? Create environments where I have higher chances of getting into hyper focus (one of the characteristics of conditions like ADHD and Executive Function Disorder is the ability to not focus on anything at all or hyper focus to the point where time seems to melt away and you suddenly realize you haven’t eaten for 10 hours).

After half a year working part time as a babysitter and applying to hundreds of jobs, and just as I was about to give up and go back home to the suburbs, I was given a chance by a staffing agency (and their client) to try out a job I had never considered before: Helpdesk Engineer. I had no idea what it even meant to work as an IT support professional, but since I had nothing else going for me, I decided to give it a try. Those few random hours I spent in the staffing agency’s office (where I had actually applied to be a recruiter) changed my life forever!

I spent 10 months working as a Helpdesk Engineer, where I learned how to do fundamental IT troubleshooting tasks within an office setting, mostly relying on Google. I then transitioned into a more proactive maintenance role at a small MSP (outsourced IT management company), monitoring client infrastructure for a little over a year. Then I switched back to a support role at a tech startup where I was first introduced to cloud computing services and SaaS products.

A year or so into my tenure at the startup, I began looking for a career path to pursue for the long term. Not knowing what kinds of career paths even existed, I began looking over the shoulders of my senior teammates, wondering if I’d find anything of interest. 

Chance encounter with Amazon Web Services

Around the same time, a friend had excitedly reported to me that he got an “AWS certification” and managed to get a great new job that he loved thanks to it. I had heard of “Amazon Web Services” before, and knew it was related to the “Cloud.” But what exactly it was, or did, I didn’t quite know.

I decided this “AWS certification” might be something I should look into. Few weeks later, after my manager talked me down from taking the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam to a brand-new-at-the-time AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner Exam, I was off to study. 

And I got stumped. Really stumped. I spent months wandering around aimlessly like a zombie, reading blog posts, watching video courses, and trying to poke around the AWS dashboard to no avail. With just two weeks left until the exam date, I was completely overwhelmed, and underprepared. Even though many of the resources were marketed for total beginners, I soon realized that they were for “Cloud Computing beginners,” but not “IT infrastructure beginners.” Being a beginner to both, the ways concepts and services were being explained were still too technical and jargon-filled for me to comprehend.

I took a step back, trying to figure out the best course of action: “What was the best way for me to learn?” I tended to do better when I took copious notes, and then regurgitated the information in my own words (this seems to be the case for many people, according to learning influencers). What’s the best way for me to facilitate this input to output loop? I decided to create a study blog to break down the whole exam into bite-sized pieces and to tackle each topic one by one.

After a week, awsnewbies.com was born. I spent the next week studying the content, and successfully passed the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam soon after. I decided to keep the website up for a year, thinking if it helped one or two other people, it would have served its purpose. Well, imagine my surprise when within a few months, I was getting over 10,000 organic hits from Google every month!

That was my first inkling that I may have hit a pain point that wasn’t being addressed yet. After all, I considered myself a pretty good Google-fu-pro, but I ended up having to create something myself because I couldn’t locate just what I needed.

Finding a niche in a jargon-free, beginner friendly introduction to Cloud Computing and Amazon Web Services

Things happened very quickly after I created awsnewbies.com. Within a few months, I was on a call with a content manager from LinkedIn Learning, who wondered if I might be interested in creating introductory Amazon Web Services video courses with them. I was baffled.

“You know that I made my website because I had absolutely no idea what was going on, right?” I remember asking her. I was so not qualified to be *teaching* this topic!

What the content manager said to me still impacts my decisions years later when an opportunity arises that my gut instinct tells me, “You are totally not qualified to do this!”

She told me that LinkedIn Learning had a lot of great instructors teaching intermediate and advanced level topics, but not as many teaching introductory topics, because most people who create technical courses tended to be industry veterans, with years, if not decades, of expertise in the topic. Traditionally, those were the people we were all drawn towards to lean from.

But with introductory content, having the “Beginner’s Mind” is important. We, as technical instructors and technical writers, need to be aware of what beginners don’t know yet. This gets harder and harder to do as you become more of an expert in the field. 

I was trained as a Special Education teacher where we modify curriculums and content to fit every student’s individual needs. And I had a foundational background in technology from working in the field for a few years. However, I still had the Beginner’s Mind in many of the technical areas, and especially with Cloud Computing and AWS. I suddenly realized that I had a unique combination of knowing how it feels to not understand, but at the same time, having the skill sets to then turn around and teach the content to people who are just a few steps behind me in the learning journey.

I decided to say yes, and half a year later, the first of my “Introduction to AWS For Non-Engineers” courses was live on LinkedIn Learning. In 2020, right before the pandemic slammed the country, I was able to do a renewal of all four of my courses. Since then, Introduction to AWS for Non-Engineers has taught over 255,000 learners in 2 years! Just recently, three of the courses were even translated into Spanish.

In summer of 2019, I decided to quit my full-time job as a Systems Administrator at a tech startup and focus on my technical writing freelancing career. Over the next few years, I taught introductory coding courses at egghead.io, wrote Freelance Finance 101, and created documentation and blog posts for startups and recruiting agencies. 

In late 2020, I was recognized by Amazon Web Services (wow!) for my work in introducing hundreds of thousands of “AWS Newbies” to AWS by being given the title of AWS Community Hero

Just when I thought maybe there’s nothing left for me to do in the AWS space, I had the privilege of signing a book contract with Manning Publishing to write an introductory AWS book to help introduce Cloud Computing and Amazon Web Services to people with non-technical backgrounds. 

Graphic announcing MEAP for AWS for Non-Engineers book

Last week, the early access (they call it “MEAP” or “Manning Early Access Program”) was released for AWS for Non-Engineers, and everything suddenly became real

Writing and publishing a book was a childhood dream of mine, which I gave up after I had brain surgery that left me with Aphasia and Executive Function Disorder. I had assumed my life stringing words together to express myself was over. I was already extremely grateful when I began working as a Technical Writer because it meant that I got to weave words for a living.

But now, 11 years after my first grand mal seizure, I can finally tell the middle school student in me that my dream has come true. I’m a published author! Definitely not in a way I had ever anticipated, but a book is a book!

Connecting the dots between my disability accommodations and Technical Writing

All the times I was breaking down my school papers and projects into manageable chunks and tasks because I got so easily overwhelmed turned out to be project management skills in the making. They served me well during my corporate years once I had a bit more say in smaller projects, but especially when I transitioned to freelance and began creating courses, websites, and writing books.

When I was meticulously taking down notes on my to-do’s and following them up with calendar events and daily/weekly/monthly task-lists, I was practicing good task management skills important for working in corporate (and freelance). I rarely missed tasks or deadlines because it was always written down somewhere and followed up on.

To me, “not knowing” was a natural state because I was a career transplant, beginning my tech career from zero. To go from “not understanding” to “understanding” meant that I needed to find ways to research, google, break down technical documentation, and then rewrite the new concepts and instructions in ways I could understand when I went back to them. 

My training as a Special Education teacher was very helpful in giving me different ways of thinking about how to convey the same information, specifically catered towards different needs. My years of learning about and implementing accommodations and modifications for my students turned out to help me during my brain injury recovery, and then eventually hundreds of thousands of learners taking my online courses.

When I was writing down instructions on how to complete certain tasks so that I didn’t have to re-learn them every single time, I was creating great technical documentation. Seeing the types of instructions I was creating for myself, my manager at the startup I was working at put me in charge of creating internal documentation and knowledge bases for the company, which directly led to my career as a Technical Writer.

I spent the first few years after my brain surgery accommodating and modifying my environment and my life skills to fit my new needs with brain injury. While I spent half a decade thinking that my disabilities were demerits to my life, it turned out that the ways I dealt with them paved the way for me to naturally perform important skills that also helped a lot of other people as I created video courses and technical documentation. 

Now, I specialize in creating content that breaks down jargon-filled, and often overly-complicated technical topics into bite-sized, beginner-friendly pieces.

Embracing the “Imposter” as a “Professional Beginner”

When I was working in corporate IT, I was constantly on high alert mode, afraid that I was going to be “found out” as an impostor. After all, I’ve never had any professional or traditional training in tech or IT, and everything I did at work, I learned on the job. I don’t belong here! and What if they find out that I don’t actually know anything?! were constant refrains in my head.

These days, after having worked for a few years as a Technical Instructor (often teaching topics as I learned them), and a Technical Writer (also often learning about the content I was explaining as I wrote about it), I proudly market myself as a “Professional Beginner.” 

Most of my clients come to me knowing I likely don’t know anything about a specific topic, but confident that in the process of talking to them and scoping out the type of content they want me to create, I will be able to create something to help their beginner audiences get from “0 to 1.” Often, that leap from “0 to 1” is the most difficult one, and I help startup founders and content teams create documentation and courses to help with that initial step.

I never thought I’d be embracing the “beginner” in me. I get to learn so many new things and try creating content about so many different topics and fields because of the fact that I can openly be a “newbie” in any given area of expertise. Just a few years ago, being a “newbie” was a self-deprecating way to express who I was in tech. Now, it’s the way I make some decent money and help a lot of people who, like me, are transitioning into tech from an unrelated career, or diving into a new technical field for the first time.

For the first time in my life, I can genuinely say I love my job, and love the work and impact I can have without feeling like I’m an imposter. Finally, I’ve found a niche for myself where my “Beginner’s Mind” is a huge asset, and not a liability as I had always assumed. 

Check out my introductory AWS content!

Hiroko Nishimura
AWS Community Hero. Special Education teacher turned IT Engineer turned Technical Writer and Technical Instructor. LinkedIn Learning and egghead Instructor. Arteriovenous Malformation, Brain Surgery, and Brain Injury survivor. Currently in remission for Rheumatoid Arthritis.

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