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LavaCon 2020 is coming up! Get my special discount!

LavaCon 2020 banner

As 2020 winds down, there are still a few more virtual conferences that are scheduled, and among them is the very popular LavaCon.  I have attended them in Portland, and it was my introduction to the tech comm conference scene, and I haven’t looked back!

I’m not able to attend this year, but you can get register $100 off conference tuition if you use my referral code #DanielleM.Villegas.  Select the LavaCon banner above to register and again–use that discount!

I know Jack has some fun things planned–even virtually–so if you can go, do so! And don’t forget to stop by the virtual hall during the conference and say hello to any vendor who you’d might like to meet.

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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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2015 will be a year of ch-ch-ch-changes.

David Bowie is trying to assure me that everything will be okay.  "Oh baby, just you shut your mouth."
David Bowie is trying to assure me that everything will be okay.
“Oh baby, just you shut your mouth.”

2014 has been a whirlwind of a year, so much so that I’ll be reviewing that in another post soon. But much of what’s been on my mind lately is how I want 2015 to be a significant year of change. I keep hearing David Bowie singing his song, “Changes” in my sub-conscious much of the time these days, as I try to make some sense of what kind of changes I want to make.

But recently, some of these decisions have been made for me. I was told within the last two weeks that my contract has not been extended by a year, but only by four months. When I had discussions with my managers about the upcoming year’s workload months ago, I was assured that there was plenty to do, and no worries. They suddenly were changing their tune, because of instructions from higher up from them that the direction of content needs were going to be changing, so there might not be as much work and maintenance down the line. When they first said they couldn’t commit to a year, I thought, “Well, if it’s six months, that would be okay. I would get off in time for summer break when my son has off from school, and then I can find something in the fall.” When they said that they could only commit to about three months, I was shocked. It really sent a ripple through me that I’m still recovering from. They assured me that it was not a reflection of my work, but quite the contrary. I had proven my value and commitment to my job throughly this past year. With my contribution to their new external website, they told me that had I been an employee, I would have been recommended for company recognition, but since I’m a contractor…well…

It’s hard to hear the “It’s not you, it’s me” line from employers after so many times of hearing it. I’ve always worked hard and proven my worth as an asset to the company, and yet something like this always happens. I see other people go from contractor or temporary worker to employee–why not me? I’ve been told time after time to not take it personally and that it’s not a reflection of my work, but after a while, you can’t help but not completely believe that, and wonder what’s wrong with yourself that you can’t fix to make yourself someone they will fight not to let go. I know that employees don’t have much security anymore either, some say, but having been through the process more times than I’d like, I can tell you that employees have a little bit more security, because a)they let the contractors go first and b) there is usually some sort of severance pay involved, including unused vacation time. Even if it’s not much severance pay, you get something. Not with contractors. It’s usually short notice that your contract is ending when you thought you might be renewed due to the workload, and barely a word of thanks. Trust me, like I said, I’ve been through this several times before.

I’m pretty sure that this is hurting more than other times when this has happened because I really liked this job. I like the company. I like the people I work with. I like the set-up of working from home most of the time. I liked the work, and finally had a chance to have more freedom in how I did things–I could call my own shots more often than I had in any other job, and my voice was heard, making this very valuable to me. I also had the opportunity to learn how to use new tools to add to my personal toolbox of skills. Why would I want to leave that?

So, for now, I know I just have a few more months left on my contract, and I need to try to figure out what my next step will be. What kind of job should I get next? I have a little more experience now, but it doesn’t feel like much when looking at job listings. Do I settle for another contracting job, or look only for permanent employment? The other idea that’s been floating in my mind is becoming an independent contractor, as in setting up my own little tech comm consultancy. The job I have now might not completely end, but might slow down to a crawl. I’m still one of their uber-users for thier custom CMS, so I can keep them on part-time if they’ll have me. Part-time work is better than no work, and usually pays better than unemployment, after all. But perhaps I could find some other clients and start doing work, and get my own business running. The trick is figuring out where to find those clients! I wouldn’t know where to begin doing that. The rest of the business set-up doesn’t concern me, like setting up an LLC or stuff like that. It’s finding the work. I’m thinking of getting the LLC set up, even if I don’t use it right away. But where do I go from here? Continue in content strategy? Revisit looking at instructional design work? (I’m thinking “no” on that for now.) Look at social media strategy work? Find a job being a professional blogger? Or should I take a technical writing job? I feel like I’m swimming in confusion.

Originally, when I was setting out to write this blog post, it was going to be about how I felt I needed to make some changes in how I expanded my knowledge, more specifically in what conferences I was going to attend this year. I wasn’t accepted as a presenter for this year’s STC Summit, so that presents a financial issue for me, as the registration–even with the early bird special–is a lot. I would attend some others that I’ve attended before as well, like ICC or Lavacon, but again, expenses are high when they come out of your own pocket. So, I was thinking of exploring some new conferences. But with this empending unemployment situation in a few months, I’m thinking that might not be a great idea financially. It’s not that I’m against investing in myself to learn more, but I think I have to find more affordable alternatives that are more suitable to my needs right now.

Related to all of this, then, is that I have some time before my contract ends to start teaching myself some new skills that will help make me more marketable. I keep going back to my own advice that I’ve given in presentations about finding tech comm jobs which is you need to always be learning something new or brushing up on a skill to make yourself into a more attractive candidate. But for myself, I’m not sure what that would be. I know it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about SEO, even though there are those who say it’s going away. I keep hearing about Content Marketing. Well, I’ve spend many years doing customer service-related work, so I understand the principles with this, but have never done any formal marketing work other than marketing this blog. Does that count? Or would taking a Marketing 101 class be necessary to be taken seriously for a content marketing job? Or, should I start learning more about coding so that I can learn how to do API documentation? There are so many possibilities that my brain feels like it’s going to explode, and I don’t know what do to.

Add the conundrum of having difficulty finding work in my area without commuting to a major city (usually more than an hour away) or finding another remote position like my current position, and you’ve added another twist to the problem.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

So, 2015 will be a year of change. Maybe it’s shaping up to be going in a direction I hadn’t expected, but there will be changes, for sure. At this writing, it absolutely terrifies me, like David Bowie’s look during his Ziggy Stardust years (not my favorite look, Dave).  I know I’ll be fine in the end. I’ve got great support at home, and I know the tech comm community is there to support and help me, too. It’s the Aspie in me that doesn’t like changes that aren’t on my terms. I like routine to a certain point, and if there’s change, it’s easier when I make the changes. When something or someone else imposes them, I freak out, perhaps looking more like Ziggy here myself as a result. I’m guessing this will be another year of reinvention. Constant reinvention has worked for Bowie, right?

(If you have any recommendations for me based on the above, or recommendations for anyone else who’s looking for work in the next year, feel free to comment below.)

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Am I missing the TechComm party?

STC-Philadelphia Chapter members attending the 2014 STC Summit--including me!
STC-Philadelphia Chapter members attending the 2014 STC Summit–including me!

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.

 

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TechCommGeekMom’s TechComm Predictions for 2014

sarahjane-crystalball
Sarah Jane Smith of Doctor Who is gazing into her crystal ball, trying to figure out why the 3rd Doctor and the Master aren’t going at it with more mobile tech.
Happy New Year! Welcome to 2014!

I had set several goals for 2013, and for the most part, I achieved many of them.  Due to finally having a job this past year, I was able to pay for my new kitchen outright (okay, we saved on labor costs because my multi-talented husband installed everything–and I mean everything–except the Silestone countertops), so I have a new kitchen that I love.  I definitely travelled more, as I visited Atlanta for the first time in 21 years due to the STC Summit, and I got to visit Portland, Oregon again for Lavacon.  I didn’t get to go to the UK, however. And I still don’t look like a supermodel yet.

My 2014 goals are still fairly ambitious, I think. I would like to build upon my web publishing experiences at work, and figure out how to become a content engineer, rather than merely a content manager. I’m hoping that attending the Intelligent Content Conference in San Jose, CA this February and attending this year’s STC Summit in Phoenix, AZ will with help with that. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it to Lavacon again until later in the year. I still want to go to the UK, but I think I may have to wait a little longer for that. If there’s a way to combine a vacation and a conference there at the same time, perhaps I can pull it off later in the year instead of going to Lavacon (just to vary things up a bit).  I had hoped to become a certified Muse expert last year, and that didn’t happen. Perhaps I can try this year. I also got the “WordPress for Dummies” book this year, which has inspired me to become more expert at using WordPress. I currently use the version hosted by WordPress itself, but I think it might be helpful to understand how the independently managed version works, too. If I can achieve some weight loss in the process during all of this, I will consider 2014 a success. 😉

As for predictions for 2014 in tech comm, I decided that I would be a little more analytical about it. Two years ago, it seemed that the push in tech comm was that we needed to think more carefully about content management reuse of content, and think in terms of mobile content.  This past year, that was extended to translation and localization of content, taking it a step further. So with those concepts in mind, what’s the next step? In my mind, it’s implementation of all of these with more vigor. Some companies are on top of this, but it wouldn’t be surprising to me if many companies–even large, global companies–are not on top of any of this yet, or on top of it in an effective way. I think about companies that I’ve worked for in the past, and how, despite their size and availability of resources, these companies wouldn’t be cutting edge in distributing content for desktops or mobile, and regional sites were not as localized nor standardized as they should be. So, in my mind, this is the year of implementation.

googleglassAnother thing to consider is technology changes. Over the past few years, we’ve been adapting not only to desktop or laptop interfaces, but we’ve also been adapting to more mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.  Marta Rauch, a technical communicator friend of mine who is part of the Google Glass beta testing, pointed

samsungwatch

out that 2014 is due to be a year in which even more portable, wearable mobile devices will become relevent. These devices would include something like Google Glass or similar products, but it also would include devices like Samsung’s wristband device or devices that are synchronized with car components. She’s got a point. Components are getting smaller, and technological portability is becoming more and more mainstream all the time. How do we decide what content is most user-friendly, reuseable, streamlined, and pertinent for these kinds of mobile devices? It’s something we need to start thinking about now.

riker-commbadge
“Riker to the Tech Comm community–are you there?”

So there you have it. At least in my mind, if we aren’t all wearing Comm Badges like in Star Trek by the end of the year, I don’t know what this world is coming to. 😉 But it’s hard for someone like me to figure out where the future is going. I’m grateful there are those who are on the cutting edge that can help me figure that sort of thing out, and can educate me on the latest and greatest so that I can bring it to my own workplace, as well as talk about it here on TechCommGeekMom.

I’m sure that there will be plenty of surprises coming up in 2014. As I said, I have three conferences that I’ll be attending in the first half of the year, and I know with the continuation of this great work contract I have, I will probably be learning a lot of new things through that opportunity, too. My philosophy is to never stop learning, and I plan to continue to learn a lot more going forward in the coming year.

What are you predictions for the coming year? Am I on target, or off-base? What did I forget to mention? Let me know in the comments.