I’ll come out and say it–I like going to conferences. It’s a great opportunity to learn new information that can hopefully be applied upon my return from the conference. It’s also fantastic opportunity to meet–and later reunite with–tech comm friends whom you’ve previously met either in person or through social media. In the last few years, I found that going to conferences were a great way to truly immerse yourself in the tech comm culture. I’ve said repeatedly that when I’m with my fellow tech comm people, I feel like I’m with my “clan” because I belong with them much more than other groups I’ve been with.
But lately, I’ve started to feel a bit critical about conferences. I’m sure you are thinking, “Why would you be critical about them if you like them so much?”
First, there’s the cost. I know there’s a cost to doing anything, but geez, if it weren’t for waived fees due to volunteering, speaking, or other related work for a given conference, I wouldn’t have been able to go to many of them! It’s expensive! I know that some companies will pay for those travel, accomodation and conference fees, but mine won’t. I’m a consultant who works for an agency. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. The company where I consult wouldn’t pay because I’m not an employee. So for the days that I’m at the conference, I lose pay (even though I’m doing professional development for myself that they can’t offer), and I end up spending almost the same amount as I would have earned during that time away–and again, that’s even with the waived fees I’ve mentioned earlier.
Second, there’s time. Conferences are usually just a few days, but when they are all over the country, and very few near me, it’s not only the cost to go somewhere far away, but also the time that’s needed to fly somewhere and back. For me going to the US West coast, that’s about two days right there. I applaud those who are coming from farther distances overseas, who can afford and make it over here, as it’s not only a huge cost, but a huge time commitment as well. Again, being an hourly contractor, I can’t take too much time off, or it affects my income.
Third, perhaps I’ve attended just enough in these years, but it seems like the same stuff is being talked about over and over. Like I said, maybe it just me. I know that sometimes topics need to be repeated because there are always new people who want to learn, and there can be a shift in interests. For me, I tried to delve into almost everything, and where my professional concentrations and interests lie…I’m not finding anything radically new. It’s more about reinforcing ideas I’ve learned before or experienced by trial and error. Nothing wrong with that. I also find that while a big push right now seems to making sure that silos are torn down between different departments and tech comm pushing for more visibility in company culture, it’s not exactly happening from my standpoint. It’s hard to be a one-woman army against a global company (although I’m still trying and am happy when I achieve a small success). Should I be looking at new topics to learn about at future conferences? Maybe. I’ve also attended sessions where it’s something that I’m interested in, but in the end I can’t apply it, which is frustrating. For example, in content strategy, there seems to be a big push into content marketing, and the company I’m working for is still trying to grasp the basics of content strategy, so how can that help me at this point?Like I said, perhaps that’s my problem, and not the problem of the conferences.
Lastly, the best part of conferences is the worst part too–socializing. There were a few conferences recently that I would have liked to have attended. They were within my field, I’d been to one of them before, and I knew lots of the people who were attending. So many of these attendees are people whose company I enjoy very much, both as professional colleagues and as friends. When I go to a conference, it’s a fantastic opportunity for all those tech comm introverts to hang out together, and feel comfortable being themselves with no one questioning them. I know I can always find someone to hang out with at conferences, and I’ve made so many fantastic friends. So what’s the problem? When they go to the conferences and I can’t, I see all the photos and posts on social media about the great time they are having, and well…I feel left out. I know that sounds childish, but it’s true. I don’t get out much as it is, so conferences are a great way for me to get out an socialize with my tech comm friends, and truly enjoy myself in a relaxed atmosphere with people who can talk about life and “shop” and it’s all interesting to me. When I see everyone else going to these events and I can’t, I’m back to being the kid sitting in the corner feeling left out. I hate it. Again, that might be my personal issue, but I got the sense that I have some tech comm friends who also couldn’t go to some of these conferences this year had the same aching to be there too, but couldn’t, and felt left out. I know we were missed, as those who attended told us that they missed us–and I appreciate that, but it’s just not the same.
There are SO many conferences during the course of a year between STC local, regional, and national events, as well as independent conferences like Lavacon, IDW, Intelligent Content Conferences, GALA, TC-UK and so many more, nobody could possibly have the time or money to attend all of them. Heck, so many are popping up these days, it’s even a struggle to choose which ones to attend! Being a working mom, I definitely don’t have time for all of them. The two that I missed this month were not only because of time and money in general, but because of the big project I’m working on at work needs my undivided time during my work hours because of an upcoming due date, and the load of work that needs to be done. I couldn’t break away even if I wanted to unless I wanted to fall severely behind in my work and work weekends and nights once I got home. Even the few I went to last year had consequences for me going away when I did.
So what’s a person to do? I think the social aspect of it all gets to me the most right now. I truly enjoy the company of technical communicators, and I wish I could spend more time with them. I can’t even attend the local STC meetings for my chapter each month because of distance and time (not so much the cost). Yet, I see several of my tech comm friends always out and about at various conferences during the year, and I wonder how they can pull it off based on the issues I mentioned above?
I’m still grateful for social media to keep me in touch with all these great people I meet at conferences who have become my friends. But I still have to pick and choose conferences, going forward. I might not make it to the same conferences every year, partially because I want to check out new venues and paths. I’ve only committed to attending my local STC chapter’s regional conference so far , but I’m thinking of checking out another this year. I’ll most likely go to the STC Summit, but I don’t know that for sure. I’m thinking of seeing if I could do one overseas (Europe) instead of two on the West Coast, depending on what I can save up and swing financially. I like travelling, andt I need to expand my horizons a little bit.
In the end, maybe it’s my inexperience that makes conferences tough for me. I’m always wanting to learn new things, and I know conferences do their best to bring new information to the tech comm masses. I can easily say without reservation that I have learned things that I could bring back and made me a stronger technical communicator. But how many can you attend before you feel like you’ve heard something before, or because it comes from people who are WAY more experienced than you, you’ll never completely “get it” or never have a chance to experience what they’ve done anytime soon? This is the frustration that haunts me. For me, conferences are the best option for professional development, and yet it’s hard to get excited about some of them. Personal burnout? Maybe. Yet, I ache to see my tech comm friends, because I enjoy seeing them so much. It’s a dilemma.
For those of you who have been technical communicators for a much longer time than me, how do you do it? How do you choose? How are you able to work with the time and cost issues, as well as finding conferences that will engage you other than socially? Let’s talk about it in the comments.
10 thoughts on “Am I missing the TechComm party?”
The problems you have are common, even for paid employees like me. Having attended a lot of UK and European conferences in recent years, there is an element of repetition. I think this may be caused by the industry in those regions not moving on with the times. There are some TechComm folk lucky enough to work for forward thinking tech companies, but they are in the minority. The majority are in the same situations as the ones you describe. So if they are a single entity in a corporation where the lowly Tech Writer is seen as little more than a cost that needs to be managed (read reduced), the chances of making wholescale changes are less likely.
Conference costs are big. Even though I’ve attended a few, I’ve had to do so out of my own pocket. My company maybe very happy to use the expertise I gain from attending but isn’t willing to even give me time off to attend. Let alone contribute to the cost! Like you I am lucky that I’ve managed to reduce the cost by speaking and volunteering, but it does cost me in the end.
Perhaps the answer to this is not to look at this in poor dollars, but at what those dollars invested can bring to the table. I say this because if we manage to do this, it would be easier to go to an employer and convince them to pay for us to go. This is easier said than done, especially as it requires us to do some preparitory work. However, if we do some homework it maybe possible to calculate in pure dollar terms what attending a conference could achieve. For example, if you know there are speakers on implementing DITA, by calculating the time it would take you to do something compared to the time saved once you have the experience of the speaker.
As for the social side, this is a by product of conference attendance. It is not to be sniffed at, but it is not something that would sway an employer to send you. I’d say it is better to attempt to tackle the other issues that prevent you from attending.
Thanks for your input, Colum. You are right–it is an investment in myself, and I have looked at it that way. But considering that I graduated just two years ago from grad school (one of the more expensive ones here, at that), and have attended about 8 conferences of various sizes in those two years (by my estimates), I think I’ve invested plenty in myself! The company where I’m consulting is European based, so I’m at a point where I’m glad that they are finally taking some steps to catch up, and conferences have helped me be prepared for these steps–no question about that. It just makes me think that if some of the topics are not advancing that quickly at these conferences, then perhaps I need to be more selective in how I invest my time and money. And thank goodness for social media, because without it, I wouldn’t be able to keep all these great networking connections I’ve made through conferences! It just feels like I’m getting a notice for another conference each week that I can’t attend, and while I know that nobody is attending ALL of them, it feels like there are several that are seemingly professional conference attendees! (I wouldn’t mind having that job!) The other part of that investment is distance, for me. Most of these conferences are not on the US East coast, mostly due to expense (think NYC, Boston, etc.). I can understand that point, but STILL…why leave us East Coast people out and let Silicon Valley get all the fun? I know there’s a meetup group that’s just formed in my area. Perhaps in time, that can turn in to a local conference. I should see about getting involved. I mean, who wouldn’t like to be visiting Princeton?
Good post, Danielle. I don’t go to conferences. I wouldn’t feel right about asking my company to pay for something that contributes to my professional development, but not to the company’s bottom line. And they are too expensive for me to pay for them myself. So, I simply don’t attend.
I can understand that. I initially got involved because I needed to reach out and start networking. I feel rather alone where I live, as there are not that many people I know from this area who identify themselves as technical communicators. Through my STC chapter based in Philadelphia, I was able to meet a few, and I know a few from grad school that aren’t too far away.
If I remember where you are located, you should come out to the STC-PMC Mid-Atlantic conference in March. You can hit some of the highlights of what goes on at the STC Summit (local presenters usually practice there), and the conference fee is really low. I’d pay it even if I didn’t present. There are no parking fees (it’s at a supermarket conference center), and the main conference is usually only for a day or two, so if you are close enough (I think you are), your only cost is gas and tolls (if any), and you sleep in your own bed that night. Consider it.
I wonder if conferences like Write The Docs are more the wave of the future. (http://conf.writethedocs.org/) I’ve watched a few of the videos and liked what I saw.
Thanks for replying! I hadn’t heard of that organization. Another one that I’m missing! I think you may be on to something, though. I’ve started to see a few more “virtual” conferences as well, and I know that some of the established conferences are starting to reach out whereby they broadcast some of the keynote presentations and sessions for a fee. I was able to attend the keynotes for the first day of the IDW conference this way, and this was one of the conferences that I wanted to attend badly. The keynotes were free, but the other sessions were not. I understand they have to make some money due to the cost of the broadcasting itself, but it can still seem a little steep sometimes, even for virtual sessions. As this is a mobile world now, conference information should be available that way too, and more accessible. The model you’ve shared might be the key, and time will tell if this trend takes off or not. It would be nice if it did!
I share a lot of your concerns, Danielle. I don’t make it to nearly as many conferences as I’d like, for the same reasons as you. As a result I often feel like I’m standing outside in the snow, looking into a window at this fabulous party that’s going on.
I think that social media mitigates this to a great extent. Now that we have blogs, Twitter, etc., the “party” is morphing into an ongoing, 24/7, Internet-wide event. In fact, I consider your blog to be a significant party venue.
That said, the social-media party can never replace the conference experience — especially the benefits of spending time with my colleagues in person. And it rarely replicates the excitement that comes from attending a conference where I’m immersed in all things #techcomm. But it’s better than nothing, and I’m grateful that it’s available to me. For most of my career, it wasn’t.
Thanks, Larry. Your analogy of looking in the window at the party while in the snow is exactly how I felt this past month, and very often! You are right, social media can’t replace conferences, but it is a 24/7 party. I’ve often told others when starting in a tech comm job search to look up hashtags in Twitter or look for tech comm related groups, as it’s a great way to find out what the latest trends are in the industry. It’s what I still rely on to know what’s going on in the tech comm world! While my training at grad school was excellent, I found out that there was still a lot more to catch up on with current thoughts once I got involved in social media, so it definitely helps.
I certainly try to keep the party going, in that respect, so thanks for coming to mine! 😉
I’m lucky enough to work for a software company that really invests in its employees. We all spend a lot of our own time after work reading, attending evening workshops, taking part in webinars, etc. So if there is a conference over several days that costs money, our employer gives us the time to attend pays for it.
I’m headed to the Tekom/TCWorld conference in Stuttgart next week, but then I live in Berlin, so at least the trip won’t be that expensive for me. The cost for attending the conference, even as a member, is pretty high. I could never afford that on my own (and probably just wouldn’t spend the money).
Craig mentioned in his comment that he wouldn’t feel right asking his company to pay for something that contributes to my professional development, but not to the company’s bottom line. But, as you pointed out, these conferences are also about networking, talking to other technical communicators (and being the only tech writer in my company, these are the only times I meet other tech writers). I can talk to other writers about find out what programs they use, how they deal with difficulties, etc. and come back to work with many ideas. So I do think it contributes to my company’s bottom line, also because being allowed to take part in these conferences really motivates me and strengthens my loyalty to my company.
This year I’ll be hunting for a content management system for our documentation, so being able to see different systems up front at the exhibition is much better than searching the internet.
Sorry I won’t meet you there! I’ll be sure to post some pics of technical communicators having fun on Twitter. 🙂
Thanks for your reply, Kate! Yes, Tekom/TCWorld would be yet another I’d like to get to someday. But you are right–networking is a big part of it. While most people think I’m fairly outgoing, I’m actually rather shy and overwhelmed in social situations, but I find that once I get to know people at these conferences, that makes it much easier to connect. And like you, there aren’t too many content strategists in my area, so I like to connect with many and learn from them when I can. Many technical communicators identify themselves as introverts, which is understandable. But not making connections can be detrimental. You end up in a bubble, if not in your own “silo”. The one thing I can say about those I’ve met through various conferences and meetings is that I’ve never met a technical communicator I didn’t like. As a whole, it’s an affable and intellectual group of people, and I enjoy their company professionally and socially.