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Is the STC dying?

Guardians of the Galaxy
Just like the Guardians of the Galaxy, STC members might be a rag-tag bunch, but we get the job done.

I was moved by a series of articles recently written by my friend, Larry Kunz. The most recent of the three, “Why is it so important that the STC survive?” was the first that I read from a series he had recently produced (there are links within the article above that links you to the others).  It seems that Larry has struck a nerve with his article, as while he provided some points to support the continuation of the STC, there were counter-arguments in the comments that it’s not the same organization that had some pull in the field in years prior.

As someone who has only been a member of the STC for about four or five years, and is still a relative newcomer to the technical communications field, I find that there is great value in the STC.  As Larry pointed out, it’s a group that has become my tribe as well. I have rarely been anything but supported within this group at large. As a new technical communicator at an advanced age, I was welcomed with open arms, which is something I don’t think most groups would necessarily do. Others want the young kids to be joining, or they want to hang out with their professional contemporaries.  So, onboarding into this group was easy. That’s a compliment to the group as a whole. I was scared to join a well-established group, and it’s been nothing but good all the way around.

Now, some of the counter-arguments have been that while the STC provides some great networking and other benefits, it boils down to the infrastructure of the association breaking down over time.  That might be.  My understanding is that several years ago, before I joined, there were some serious financial and “political” issues going on with the STC, both at the international level and the local level.  I know for my own chapter, one of our members worked fiercely to keep it up and running during those lean years, and it took time to rebuild it into the Platinum community that it is today.  It was also argued that other conferences that didn’t exist decades ago are now starting to take over.

Here are some of my thoughts about the whole thing:

First, there needs to be an analysis of what these other conferences are offering that the STC is not. Why are people flocking to these other conferences? What do they offer than the STC does not? Are they truly taking away from the STC, or appealing to a different group? I’ve been to a few of these conferences, and they are a little different, but they are usually more specialized–like focusing on content strategy, whereas the STC tries to embrace a broader audience and more topics.  Lavacon and Information Development World, for example, do concentrate on content strategy and content marketing, yet there is more to technical communication than just topics. There is UX/UI design, there is technical writing, there is social media, there is e-learning…there are a lot of things that are covered under the umbrella of technical communication.  I’m sure that the Summit program committee does its best to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and they also offer accessible presentations for all experience levels. The STC Summit was also compared to TCWorld in Europe. While TCWorld might be bigger, it’s also drawing in a different audience. What is drawing people to that? Perhaps we need to figure out what they are offering that the STC is not, and start figuring out how to compensate.

Second, speaking of accessibility, I have found that some of the specialized conferences I’ve attended were over my head. They were so specialized and high level, marketing towards the managers and experienced practitioners, that as a relative newbie I had difficulty keeping up with the presentations.  Does this mean I’m stupid? I hope not, although when I walk out of them, I feel like it.  One of the benefits of the STC Summit, to me, is that it while it doesn’t “dumb down” presentations, it does offer information that’s more palatable for beginners and intermediates like myself while helping those who’ve been in the industry for a long time learn how to keep up with new technologies and ways of doing things.

Third, the technical communications industry is going through big changes right now.  As was mentioned in Larry’s articles, some of these other conferences didn’t exist twenty years ago. Do you know what else didn’t exist twenty years ago? Much of what we do today in technical communication! Yes, we still have technical writing, but back then, it was still mostly paper-based documentation. (I know because many of my positions since then has been converting paper processes to web processes.) The Internet has exploded. We barely had web design, let alone responsive design. There were no mobile devices the way we know it now.  Video, audio, and 3-D animated images didn’t have to be included in documentation back then. Technology and the way we access information has changed drastically in the last twenty years.  Because of this, technical communication has changed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the STC is still trying to catch up with the changes as best as they can, and again, appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Heck, even within the last five years, there have been huge changes, and it’s a matter of keeping up with it. You’d be surprised to know how many technical communicators still aren’t on board with writing for mobile, even though it’s been on the forefront for the past few years.

Fourth, is it possible that prior generations who aren’t as active in STC now or have left are to blame for not bringing in more members over time? I know that bringing in members now is a big push, but what about during those lean times? Could it be that many members were lost during those years?  Also, there isn’t any consistency in recruiting, at least at schools, from my observations. I’m aware of some academic tech comm programs that have great student chapters. My graduate school tried to get a chapter off the ground, but since it was a virtual program, it made it difficult. I can probably count on just a few fingers how many of us are in the STC from my school during the years that I was there. Some were active, some not so much. One of my classmates is a chapter president, and I’m running for office in my chapter. But that’s it.  The fact that the STC is reaching out to other associations on the local, national, and international level is encouraging, because many people do belong to more than one association, and it’s a great recruitment tool. But we need to encourage members in the STC to be ambassadors, and continue to promote what the STC stands for.

I’m sure the next pSTC Logo-Onlyoint is, “What does the STC stand for?” I don’t know the answer to that. But perhaps that’s the point–as the body of people who represent it, we need to vocalize what our needs are more to the STC main office so that they can better serve our needs and advocate for us.  There are still walls to be knocked down in this field, and advances to be made, but they can’t do that from inside their bubble in Fairfax, Virginia. Part of the reason that I’m in the STC is because I live in a bubble, too. There are very few STC people or people who identify themselves as technical communicators in my area. I need STC events to help me meet other tech comm professionals, but also see what’s going on in the tech comm world. Unless the STC office is told what our needs are, it can only do its best at making educated guesses as to how to help us. After all, it is an advocacy group, and that’s what it’s out there to do–advocate for us, and help us get the resources we need to be better technical communicators.

I could go on for pages more, but I think you get the idea.  The STC is like a church, in the sense that the church is made of up of the people–the community–and its beliefs, not the building. The STC is made up of many bright, resourceful people, and its survival depends on the support, participation, and belief in the technical communication industry as a community.  I chose to get involved with the STC, and while my bandwidth is limited, I am always open to helping others and supporting others in their tech comm endeavors. I wish I could do more, and in time, I will.  But rather than criticizing the STC, do something about it! If you feel that not enough emphasis on DITA practices is given in presentations, then tell the STC! If you feel like you’ve heard more than your fill about content marketing (like I have), say something! Don’t sit there and complain about it. Be the change.

What do you think? I suggest reading Larry’s articles first, then mine, then please (respectfully) include your comments below. Be part of the conversation.  Perhaps based on the comments, we can draft something to address to Chris Lyons, the CEO of the STC, to help their efforts.

P.S. If it weren’t for the STC Summit, I wouldn’t have actually met Larry Kunz in person for the first time. Larry’s been a fantastic supporter of TechCommGeekMom for a long time via this blog and social media, and it was an opportunity to strengthen our connection by meeting in person at a shared beloved event. I look forward to both of our blogs continuing to provoke conversations within the tech comm community.

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Saddle up for a FREE workshop event from Adobe at #STC2016!

What? You say this Adobe Workshop is free? Then I reckon I oughta sign up now....
What? You say this Adobe Workshop is free? Then I reckon I oughta sign up now….

While I was unable to go to the STC Summit last year, I am looking forward to going to Anaheim this year to not only being a presenter at the STC Summit, but  also to learn and connect with other technical communicators again!

I realized that one of the events I’ve always liked attending is the Adobe pre-conference event. They always have great information to share. However–what’s this? No Adobe Day this year? Nope. But wait…there’s something better.

Register for the FREE Adobe Tech Comm Tools Workshop at the 2015 STC Summit!
(Click on the wanted poster for more information)

That’s right! Saddle up, and gain some skills through this FREE Adobe Tech Comm Tools Workshop!  This looks like a great event, cowboys and cowgirls!  There are industry leaders leading the workshop, you earn a certificate for participating (which you can include on your resume, it’s that good), and lunch and snacks are included in the afternoon.  And did I mention it’s free? Who says you can’t get a free lunch AND a free certificate? Evidently not Adobe!

Oh, did I also mention that even if you can’t attend to earn the certificate, you can still follow along on my Twitter feed found at @techcommgeekmom that day, as I’ll be tweeting highlights of the event for all who come to the Twitter corral!

If you don't comply, you can't register. But these are easy terms to deal with, Sheriff.
If you don’t comply, you can’t register. But these are easy terms to deal with, Sheriff.

Now, there are some caveats in registering, namely that you have to bring your laptop, and download the Adobe Tech Comm Suite Release 2015 Trial Version (if you don’t already have the full version). Other than that, it should be like riding into the sunset.

This is a great opportunity for those who would like to either get to know the Tech Comm Suite better, or brush up on some skills.  Space is limited so you should register as soon as possible to get your seat on this great event!

Information and Registration for the Adobe Tech Comm Tools Workshop at the 2015 STC Summit

(My apologies to those who are more sci-fi savvy for mixing my space westerns together. Firefly and Cowboys and Aliens were the first things I thought of!)

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Contracting Adventures Lay Ahead…

Indiana Jones
Taking on new contracting positions is always an adventure. Indiana Jones knows all about that!

It’s been a quiet start to 2016 for me, even though there have been some things going on for me “behind the curtain”. I wasn’t ready to share just yet, but I think I am now, since things have settled down for the moment.

My contract as a knowledge management specialist ended early. The projects that they kept saying to me, “They are coming…we’re waiting for approval…” fell through. Two of them. They also didn’t have any other work for me to do, so understandably, they cut the contract short. Unlike some other jobs, I was greatly relieved to be released. I did not feel that this particular position and company was a great fit. Even though I truly tried to give it a chance, I remember not having good feeling about the place from my first day of work there, and my gut instincts were right. It wasn’t a good match in the end, and the fact that they didn’t plan well for my presence there proved that.

In the meantime, I had two events that changed the picture rather quickly.

TechCommGeekMom speaking at the PANMA/STC-PMC February 2016 meeting (photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC)
TechCommGeekMom speaking at the PANMA/STC-PMC February 2016 meeting (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC)

First, I was invited to be a panelist/presenter for a meeting that combined the Philadelphia Area New Media Association (PANMA) and the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter memberships. The meeting was about freelancing and contracting. Each group contributed two speakers, and I was one of the two representing the STC (the other was my friend, David Calloway). I was the last one to present or speak, and to be honest, I came completely unprepared. I thought it’d be a quick introduction thing, and then moderators would ask questions based on our experiences and background. (I guess I’ve been watching too many American political debates lately.) I was glad that I went last of the four presenters. Although the other three presenters covered much of what I would’ve said, I still had a few things to contribute. David and I took the stance of being contractors rather than freelancers. And as you might remember, several months ago I started my own freelancing company, but it hasn’t quite taken off yet.

But I will admit, listening to the others, I had a big realization of my own that night. I’ve been a contractor for several years, but not of my own choosing. I’ve tried finding full-time employee jobs, and it hasn’t happened in years. I think the last time I was not a part-time person or a non-contract person, it was still the 20th century! Yet perhaps, without my knowledge, I’ve already been a freelancer by default of being a long-term contractor.

That was my “A-HA!” moment, as Mitchell Levy likes to call it. I realized that yes, perhaps I have been a freelancer all along, and perhaps it really isn’t so bad to constantly be getting contract jobs. After the meeting, I told my husband about the discussion, and he pointed out that there was great opportunity in being a contractor. The biggest thing he pointed out was that each contracting job was an opportunity to learn new things. I would learn more about different industries, and often I’d learn more about new software, new procedures, and generally pick up a few new skills. I would also learn more about myself, namely what I’m good at, what I’m not as good at, and what I actually like doing.  The more I thought about it, I realized that he was right. These are all opportunities to hone different parts of myself, both in improving what I do well, learning new things, and gaining insight about what is best about my capabilities and how to use them.

Group of PANMA and STC panelists, February 2016 (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC).
Group of PANMA and STC panelists, February 2016 (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC).

Now, not everyone can be a contractor. It’s not easy because of complications of being a non-employee, thus you don’t get the same rights and benefits, like affordable health insurance, as a contractor. Some agencies that contract out do offer these benefits, but they are usually at a higher rate than at a large company. But, at the same time, there are certain flexibilities that a contractor has. If a contractor is careful with personal finances, he/she can take time off, or work more than one position over time. Granted, in 99.99% of cases, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. So, for example, when I go to the STC Summit in May for about a week, I won’t be paid for “paid vacation”. In fact, a contractor doesn’t get any paid vacation. You get paid for the hours that you work. So, that can be good, and can be bad. If you are a good contractor, you communicate these occasions with your manager, and you ensure that you are caught up with your work to be able to do this, it provides a little flexibility that an employee doesn’t have.

I’ve lamented the woes of being a consultant recently, and it was especially because I was in a bad situation. It was not a good fit, and the worse parts of being a contractor were at their absolute worse. But now that I’ve been away from that, with the help of this PANMA/STC-PMC panel last week, I’m starting to change my attitude a little bit.

With that in mind, I took a new job that started this week…as a contractor. I will be working for a global insurance company as a content writer/copywriter for their global self-service websites. This is a big change for me, because while you’ve known me as a social media writer, I really haven’t done any writing for a company this way before. I originally was reluctant to take the job, as it’s a far commute than what I’m used to and I’m taking a significant pay cut to do this job. But, I saw it as an opportunity to actually put my technical writing, editing, and UI/UX experiences to work in a different way, so it’s worth a try. After all, the contract is only for six months with a possibility for extention. Unlike the last position I took in which I had a sinking feeling about it (and my instincts were right about it), I have a better feeling about this position. After completing my first day, I think it’ll be a challenge to do things from a different perspective, but I liked the group of people I’ll be working with, the environment was more inviting, and I could tell that the work we’d be doing is much more in line with my experiences.  While I’ll be learning to do copywriting the way they want, I’ll still be using skills I’ve acquired from all the conferences, webinars, grad school, and social media experiences I’ve had. In other words, I think this is a much better fit, and I think I can learn something positive from this position, which makes me feel much better about taking the position.  Everyone was speaking tech language that I understood, and I was deep in the mix with information architects and visual designers as well as spending a lot of time with the other copywriter on my first day. I think it’s going to be a good thing!

I’ve also been continuing to work on a part-time basis with my old content strategist/management job at BASF. It’s my “moonlighting” job, as I call it, but it helps keep those skills fresh at the same time while working with another company that I truly like.

See? Even the old Templar Knight agrees with this attitude change.
See? Even the old Templar Knight agrees with this attitude change.

These next months are going to be obviously very busy, but I think they’ll provide some good insights into something new for me. I’ll be able to truly write blog posts from a technical writing and UI/UX perspective based on new experiences. Hopefully, future contracting positions will also be providing great learning experiences along the way. Perhaps embracing being a contractor means that I will be more of an adventurer than I thought.




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What will 2016 offer? Good question. I don’t know–yet.

Rey and BB-8 are trying to find their way, too, in 2016.
Rey and BB-8 are trying to find their way, too, in 2016.

While I’ve reviewed what’s happened in 2015 in my recent posts, it’s time for me to look ahead, and see what I need to plan for this year.

I admit that last year, I had big plans. I knew that I wanted to sample some new conferences so that I could have some new experiences and meet new people. I also knew that I wanted to try to launch my own consulting company. Additionally, I knew I needed to learn something new to enhance my skills. I achieved all these goals on some level, so that’s good.  However, it’s more difficult this year.  If last year was a transitional year, this seems to be more of a transitional year than before. Last year, I had some direction on what I wanted–and needed–to do. This year, I really don’t know where to go, and that’s problematic.

While I earned a mini-MBA in digital marketing last year, I don’t feel strong enough to take on a content marketing job. I could certainly try, but most of the job listings need someone with a stronger marketing background than a digital background. While I understand marketing concepts, my experience fails me on that front.  I’m open to taking more coursework in something to enhance my job seeking opportunities, but…in what? Two avenues that I’ve considered is learning more about Agile/Scrum, and the other is looking at getting a certificate in localization practices. I think both would be beneficial, and are things that I’m interested in, but I don’t know how much they would actually help me in the job market where I’m at. I’ve thought about getting some coursework in project management–which is what originally brought me into the IT world almost 20 years ago. Project Management has morphed quite a bit since that time. I’ve also thought about learning more about either WordPress or AEM development, which I think would be good, but I’m not sure where to find the right education for that, or know if I’m up to it, since I’m not really a developer. I’m not sure if any of these are the right direction, either.

I launched my company, but I’ve hardly gotten it off the ground. Part of the problem is that I know I need to focus on what I’m best at, and figure out what I can offer that other consultants can’t. I’m not sure what that is quite yet. I think I have a lot to offer, but honing into what makes me special, unique, and valuable to a client is much harder to define, especially when you are trying to figure it out about yourself. I also need to figure out how to find clients–that’s important, too!  If I can get that off the ground more, I’d love that. I’m open to any part-time or full-time projects–even being the sub-contractor for someone else. I’m very open to remote possibilities. I don’t know where the opportunities lie. I know they are out there, but I don’t know how to tap into it.

I’d like to continue trying out new conferences, and perhaps go back to some that I’ve already attended in the past. I’m already set to attend the STC Summit this year, as I’ll be a workshop speaker. I’ll also be attending the STC-PMC Conduit conference–for the first time strictly as an attendee, and not a speaker! But other conferences? A lot of it has to do with time and money. Money is something I don’t have a lot of, and time–well, I don’t know what my time is going to look like a few months from now, let alone later this year. Perhaps I’ll go to the IEEE ProComm which will be in Austin, Texas in the Fall. I’m not sure yet. I thought about going to the Big Design conference in Quito, Ecuador (I heard it’s going to be great, and an opportunity for me to visit cousins-in-law at the same time), but it’s very close to the STC Summit, so I don’t know if I can swing two conferences so close to each other time-wise or financially.

I think the biggest issue, as you can sense here, is that I feel direction-less. It’s almost a dilemma between having too many choices and not enough choices. It’s one of those times that I wish I was a kid again, and someone could see through the clouds better than I could, and help point me in the right direction. But alas, I don’t have such a luxury. I have to figure this out for myself.

You can see that I have ideas, and I’m open to suggestions, but there are too many unknown factors this year that prevent me from committing to anything right now. I don’t know what direction my career is going in right now. Last year was the year that I thought I would turn things around and start in a new direction, and it would be a clear path.  I think I had some good ideas last year–and they were, and I could try to continue with them, but I’m not sure how to do that.

So where do I go from this point? As I said, I’m certainly open to suggestions or leads. I have a concept in my head of where I want to go, what I want to do, but I don’t know how to get there. There are no Google Maps to take me there.  If you have felt like you didn’t have any direction in your career before proceeding towards next steps, what did you to break out of that rut?

Include your comments below, as I’d really like to hear about some ideas that might benefit me, but could also help others who are facing the same dilemma as I am.

Don't worry, kid. You'll figure it out. The Force is strong with you, Padawan.
General Leia says, “Don’t worry, kid. You’ll figure it out. The Force is strong with you, Padawan.”

This is not to say I’m not optimistic about this year. I will say that over the past several years, I’m glad that I’ve built a great support network professionally around me who can certainly lift me when I’m down, and I’m grateful for that. Also, who’s to say that I have to set out any goals right now? When I decided to lose weight and get healthy, I didn’t make the plan in January, but rather in May or June of that year. Who’s to say that I won’t have this figured out a little better in a few months? Time will tell, but for now, I’m hoping the Force will provide me with some direction….