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2016 TechCommGeekMom Year in Review: Yeah, it could’ve been better.

Bored girl expressing, "Seriously though, do you think it could've been worse?"
Seriously though, do you think it could’ve been worse?

As 2017 gets going, I realized that I haven’t written a whole lot in the past year. Why? Simple–not a whole lot to write about, frankly. 2016 was a rough year in many ways, but there were some good elements, too.

It’s hard to write about things when you feel like nothing is inspiring you or giving you little motivation. I remember feeling excited about tech comm for the first few years, and it was much easier, as I was learning new things constantly. Now, while there is still a lot for me to learn, it’s not quite as much in some instances. It’s probably like anything else, in that movements go in waves, and the mobile wave first took hold right about the time I started to study tech comm and get involved in tech comm. Now, it’s something that we take for granted, like electricity or running water in developed countries. There are still things to discover, but the wave of innovation and adapting to the changes to those innovations–both professionally and socially–have generally passed. We’ve adapted, for the most part.  The use of mobile devices like mobile phones and tablets are common place now. Almost everyone has a smart phone. And many companies–not all, but most–have adapted their content and UX to have responsive design to adapt to different devices.  E-learning has gone back to basics with m-learning by re-adapting chunking and also using responsive design and better UX.

From my view, the initial thrill is over, and we are now settling into the “new normal”.   Things that were new and exciting have now become everyday, or have morphed into what they will be. For example, when social media really started to take off, it was an opportunity to create content that could be shared easily in sound bytes or blurbs in a more viral manner than conventional media. It was an opportunity to use content to incite a two-way conversation to discuss and share. Now, social media strategists don’t use social media for discussion, but rather as another marketing medium. Content strategists have been…shall we say…strongly encouraged to look at content as a marketing asset, and look towards content marketing. Content marketers, however, are not content strategists who have some understanding of marketing, but rather it’s expected that they are full-fledged marketers that have some understanding of content. (Trust me. I’ve read the job descriptions posted for many companies.) Both social media and content marketing are things I looked at doing seriously with my career. But as time went on, it was apparent that corporate expectations were shifting, and that these jobs were really meant for business people who were marketers and trained in marketing, not technical communicators. While I have some good sense about business, marketing, and customer service after many years, I don’t consider myself a business person per se. In other words, I would never get an MBA because business topics bore the hell out of me, and there are others who can look and do that sort of thing better than me.

This past year was a year of experimentation for me. When I got out of grad school almost five years ago, I wanted to be an instructional designer until I found that there was no such position as an entry-level instructional designer. I fell back into doing what I had done for years, but with stronger knowledge and experience, which was content strategy and management. I’d been happy doing that work, but always wanted to expand my skills. When I was released from my long-term contract doing content management in 2015, I saw it as an opportunity to do something different. I could start over, if you will. I was hired to do a knowledge management job, but the position was a misnomer. It really didn’t do anything close to knowledge management, and in the end, the projects they had brought me on board for were cancelled, and my contract ended in early 2016.

I was able to pick myself up quickly, taking a copywriting technical writer position. While I definitely had the ability to do the job, I found that my best writing abilities and UX/UI skills couldn’t be used to their fullest potential. I’m used to writing more than two sentences at a time, or re-labeling a button using a single word. I knew I had more to offer than what was required with no opportunities to contribute more than that, so I let that contract expire.

After trying those two other avenues, I found a short-term job doing content strategy and management again. Oh, it was exciting for me! I felt so comfortable doing that kind of work, and I felt confident again in my abilities. I was right to trust my instincts–that there was more to me than writing two sentences at a time, and doing something that I like doing. That, in itself, was a big discovery.

So, through this period of self-discovery, it was rough. I was unhappy with the work I was doing, unhappy with my lack of progress in a positive direction professionally, began to doubt my professional self-worth, and felt conflicted about next steps. Okay, so I’m still working through some of it, but I think the worst is (hopefully) over.

This isn’t to say that it’s all been bad. From those events, I can say that I learned what I’m good at, and what I’m not good at. I learned what I like and don’t like. I started to have a better understanding of my self-worth, at least professionally. Those are big realizations in themselves.

There were also other good things that happened that proved to be positive challenges. I had post-weight loss surgery, and recovered from that well. I’d never had major surgery in my life (and will be avoiding it in every way possible in the future), and found strength within myself to recover quickly and push myself.  I attended three conferences in 2016, namely CONDUIT, TC Camp – East, and the STC Summit. All went well, and it gave me a chance to learn and reaffirm my passion for tech comm, meet and network with old and new colleagues, and remind me that this is the profession where I belong.  I got more involved in my local STC chapter, and now I’m the vice-president of the chapter, and working my way up the STC food chain, as one might say. I’ve been in charge of STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter’s programming this year, and I’m also co-chair of their conference, CONDUIT, so it’s been very busy for me that way as well, as I gain some new soft skills–and enhance ones I already had.

The election outcome put me in a very bad funk for the latter part of 2016. Dealing with my teenage autistic son has been more challenging than ever. End of the year holidays also don’t put me in a happy mood, usually. It’s usually a stressful time on a number of levels, and I couldn’t wait for the year to be over.

While in many respects, the start of 2017 is a chance to start fresh again, it’s an artificial starting point. I say that because we can start over fresh anytime we want to, if you think about it. It could be in the middle of August, or the end of March, or anytime, really. But with the stress of the holidays and year-end activities, January 1st was as good a date as any to start over, and it’s not something that is only on one day.  Fresh starts can take days, weeks, or months. I’ve made some big decisions going forward that will take some time. I will need to be more patient with myself in achieving those goals. I am going to have many challenges, but I have support from my family and my colleagues to move forward in the direction I am intending.

The number one thing that I’ve decided that I need to do in 2017 is I have to get to a place in my life where I can be happy with what I do, and do what I enjoy.  That’s easier said than done. To that end, I’m going to focus more on building up my independent consulting business, which I had intended to start after that long-term contract ended in 2015. I got majorly side-tracked in 2016, so 2017 is going to be focused on getting back on track with that. No agency contract distractions like in the past year. I’m going to do it on my own, using entrepreneurship and networking skills. It may be slow going to start, but I have a few good leads so far. Time will tell if they work out successfully. I know I’ll put my full efforts into any projects I do get. I’ll also be learning, both independently and with help, how to run a successful business.  Hopefully, this will encourage the spark for me to write here more often about things that are going on that I see in tech comm, and how I view things that I’m learning in the process. I had a recent head-start with my adventures in learning DITA. My initial plans are to continue to train and practice using DITA. I’m also going to be learning Drupal next month, as that seems to be a widely used CMS in my area with some of the leading employers in the area. I’m hoping that adding DITA and Drupal to my “arsenal” of skills will be helpful for my business. I’ll attending CONDUIT and the STC Summit for sure this year, strengthening my professional ties and knowledge. I’ll be working hard still for the STC-PMC, as I intend to run for President of the group this year (we’ll see how that goes!).

Outside of my professional life, there are some hurdles along the way as well, but my goal this year is, well, to get through this year unscathed, or better off than I am now. I don’t mean just financially or professionally, but personally as well. It’s going to be a rebuilding year, and I hope that this time next year, I’ll be a little more upbeat about things, and I will have been able to share more with you over the course of the year.

What are your professional goals this year? Include your comments below.

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What Can Technical Communication Do After The U.S. Election?

bill-teds-excellent-adventure-confused
DUDE! What just happened?

In the past week, the United States had an important election for its next President. The election results, to say the least, have been controversial. While I’m not one to usually talk politics on this website, I’ll simply say that this past week has been devastating to me, and has hit me hard. It wasn’t because my candidate lost, but because her opposition, who promoted MANY values which I do not endorse in the least, was elected. There has been a segment of people in my country, that as a result of this new leader’s position, that think that they, too, can engage and promote these inappropriate behaviors, while others are trying to find ways to express and take action against those inappropriate behaviors.

I’ve been thinking long and deeply about how this election affects the technical communications community. I know people involved in technical communications that voted for candidates from both parties. Most of the technical communications community that I know had the same reaction that I did–one of deep disappointment. There were some who were happy for the outcome, but the overwhelming majority of the technical communicators I know were not–including some who aren’t even American citizens and are living outside of the U.S.!

A big part of my disappointment is that the President-Elect, who is not known to choose his words well or speak eloquently, promoted animosity towards people of different colors, people of different faiths, people of different sexual orientation or identification, and women in general. That’s problematic. These are all people who contribute to our society in positive ways, and don’t have any reason to be maligned at all. AT ALL.  I’ve always talked about the technical communications community being my “clan”. During the years I’ve become more involved with the tech comm community, I’ve found that each time I get together with my tech comm bretheren, the diversity among American technical communicators is what makes us an example of how American diversity is supposed to work.  This diversity carries over into our relationships with technical communicators around the world.

A big part of tech comm, especially in the last five to ten years (if not longer) has been embracing the knowledge that globalization and localization is an important key to effective technical communication. Whether it’s for business purposes or otherwise, a large part of what technical communicators do is write with the ability to reach out to the world. Not just their own hometowns, their own states, their own regions, or their own country–they write for a global audience.  With recent events, we are reminded that we need to continue to keep our hearts and minds open to different languages, different cultures, different religions, and different traditions here at home before it even goes abroad.

The other thing that has me very concerned is the economy. The U.S. was in a deep recession before the current President took his office. The economy has recovered, with the unemployment rate easily half of what it was during the recession. I’m definitely one of those people who felt that pinch, but worked hard to end up ahead. During these recession years, I went back to school–and some of it was paid for by my state’s training programs for re-employment–to reinvent myself as a technical communicator. I realized what my skills were, where I had gaps, and I filled the gaps as best as I could. Even now, I still do that. I constantly am trying to pick up new skills to keep myself flexible and employable.

When the world starts getting topsy-turvy, companies react for self-preservation, and that can result in job losses, often for people like technical communicators. It’s the old thing of doing more with less, so hiring stops or slows down until the company can figure out how the election will impact the economy. We’re in that position now, which is not good for those of us who are currently looking for new projects or jobs right now. So as we’ve had to do before, we’ll need to learn to adapt again.

Related to the economy, I’ve been listening to the pundits on television talk about how both political parties ignored a specific segment of disengaged voters from rural America that made their needs known through their votes. We’re feeling the impact of those votes now, but it has opened up a discussion about how to address bridging the gap. The focus of the political parties, according to the pundits, concentrated more on those who were living in the big cities and the suburbs instead of addressing the needs of rural America, or not addressing rural America as much as it should be.

This issue provoked a lot of deep thinking for me. One of my biggest issues related to rural America that I can relate to as a technical communicator has been finding work outside of a large city. While I live in between New York City and Philadelphia–two of the biggest cities in the United States where there are plenty of technical communication opportunities–they are too far a commute for me to go on a daily basis. Now, imagine someone who has a great set of technical communications skills, but then lives somewhere that isn’t anywhere near a big city. What do they do? Additionally, thinking even outside the box of technical communications, why isn’t there more industry spreading out around the country, to bridge those gaps? For example, why doesn’t Apple have offices in the middle of Nebraska that can start to help devise tech tools that can help various types of farmers in the rural areas of the U.S.? That’s not their focus, I know, but perhaps they should start thinking outside of their own box. How could someone in rural America use their products, provided that they could afford them? How would those products help agricultural services grow and prosper? The biggest question of all this is, how can we ensure that rural America is part of the globalization and localization movements? I was remembering that for many years–I don’t know if it’s still in place–that the U.S. Goverment used to pay farmers to NOT produce surpluses of crops. What if we could help them, by allowing farmers to produce whatever they produce, and help them learn how to globalize their businesses with shipping their crops or products made with those crops? When those government subsidies were created, there was no internet commerce, no globalization on the scale there is now. How can we, as technical communicators, help change that view and help that person globalize their business? (Perhaps I’m over-simplifying things here and don’t have a full grasp of economics, but hopefully you understand where I’m going with this thought process.)

Part of that, in my opinion, goes back to two things I’ve talked about many times in this blog. First, we need to make mobile learning a priority, because it’s not just second- or third-world countries that need opportunities to advance. There are already segments within the U.S. that have yelled loudly through their votes during this election that they need it, too. Education is progress, even in rural areas. If someone has a problem with land producing crops, and they only know the old solutions that aren’t working, then technology is going to be the solution in educating them on how to create or learn new solutions.

Second, companies have to start being more flexible towards remote work. Not everyone can get up and move to a big city or large suburban area to find appropriate work. They need to stay in their community for whatever reason. A great solution in figuring out how to extend globalization and localization within our own borders is allowing remote work. That way, that person from rural America can work doing what he/she does best, while still being an active and vital member to their community, and perhaps with the good pay they have, can help to revitalize their local economy, bringing that knowledge to their community instead of having to move elsewhere and not making a direct impact.

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it.  We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

This isn’t just something that Americans need to do right now, but it’s everyone globally who supports the basic values of every human being being treated with respect and dignity, and providing moral support whenever possible that needs to be part of this. We all have the same human rights and needs. We all need to be able to live together, work together, and survive together. Technical communicators have the ability to shape ideas and processes. We are strategists at heart, whether as wordsmiths, content strategists, or instructional designers, or any other title that falls under the umbrella that describes technical communication.

In the coming weeks, months, and years ahead, we need to figure out how each of us can contribute to this human goal, starting at home. Let’s start with the words from the Wyld Stallions of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”:

bill-teds-excellent-adventure-photo
“Be excellent to each other!”