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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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Where’s TechCommGeekMom? Good question…

wheres-waldo
You’d think that “Where’s TechCommGeekMom?” would be a variation of “Where’s Waldo?”. You might not be too far off…

Yikes. It’s been quite a while since I last wrote any entries. I apologize for that. I am keeping up with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (not Google+ so much), so people do know that I’m alive and well.

The last few months or so have been incredibly busy. Much of my summer has been making the long commute to the office and back almost every day. I’ve gotten a bit of a reprieve for August when I’ll be working from home most of the week, due to an arrangement I made with my director so that I can stay home part of the time while my son is home for the last part of summer break. I’m grateful that.

Despite commuting issues, working on the UX team I belong to can be stressful. I finally settled into the position, and only now I’m feeling okay about speaking up and asserting myself. Yes, I’m a closet introvert, despite my seemingly outgoing personality. We’ve had a lot of very tight deadlines lately, and have not been given ample time to create UX artifacts that completely do justice to a given project, but that’s the way it goes, unfortunately. I’m fortunate that the team I’m on is full of good people who are both total professionals and who support each other’s efforts.

For my part, as I’ve continued to adapt, there have been intense frustrations and tears shed, and a few tiny victories in between. Writing copy for UX design has been a challenge, but I have to say that I think I have a good knack for it. Sometimes my copy gets overruled, but sometimes I know I come up with something good. It’s not like it’s something like marketing or customer service-related content, or even help content, but debating the semantics of “edit” versus “modify” versus “update” when writing customer-facing instructional content is the kind of stuff that gets my brain to work at its best. The other day, I needed to change the text on a button, and the text had to be instructional and have a marketing slant at the same time. I asked the UX graphic designer the limit of how many characters I could use in that space. She said it had to be less than 31 characters–including spaces. The fewer characters there, the better. I got it down to 21 characters including spaces. Those are the kinds of challenges I like! So, work has been truly occupying a lot of my time and energy for the most part.

Even though I have been told that I’m doing a good job and I provide a fresh perspective on the content being created, I decided that this was not the job for me. I asked my manager not to renew my contract at the end of the month because it’s really not the kind of work I want to be doing. I gave it a try, but this kind of writing–not to sound conceited–was not what I went to grad school to do. I know I can contribute much more than what’s expected at this job. I think my abilities are more than labelling buttons and headers or writing two instructional lines at a time. My manager was understanding, fortunately, which I was glad about.  This means that I need to figure what my next move is.

I have also been continuing my part-time gig doing content management for my old job. While it doesn’t provide me with many hours, it does help me keep my foot in the door of the content strategy and management world. I also enjoy that job, so even if it’s just a few hours a week, it’s a good thing.

I’ve also taken on a volunteer position. I was elected to be the vice-president of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter (STC-PMC). Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking. I wanted to help, and I was encouraged. Now, I’m trying to hustle and learn what the position is about while trying to get the job done! The VP of the STC-PMC, in addition to supporting the chapter president, also acts as the program manager for the chapter. So, I’m trying to figure out how to coordinate several meetings for the upcoming program year. While my chapter president is very supportive, and we work well together, it’s a little overwhelming. What was I thinking? I’m trying to get as much done now during the summer so it won’t be as high pressure in the fall, provided everything is in place at that point. I’m also co-chair of the CONDUIT conference, so I’m trying to get some things started with that as well. I want to do well as VP at this point, because it’s really my first crack at any kind of leadership position I’ve had in almost two decades, and I need to feel good about something related in my career.

I’m in a weird position in my career right now.  I’m not so young anymore, and I have experience. I know that I do good work, I can make intelligent decisions, and that when given the change, people value what I have to contribute.

BUT…when looking for appropriate work, I’m either inexperienced (not enough years doing something), not enough background (content marketers=a marketer who understands content, not a content strategist who has some understanding of marketing, for example), or I don’t know the right software. I’ve often seen rare positions come up that were totally appropriate, and then find that they were an hour and half (or more) commute away one-way, or they didn’t pay enough, or both. I’m starting to lose confidence in my abilities because I’m losing chances to gain experiences. Or, the only way to gain experiences is to take steps backwards. I’ve already stepped backwards several times in the past year, and I’m fearful of falling off the cliff’s edge now.  At the same time, I’m trying to figure out what direction I should try next. Or better yet, I’m trying to figure out what direction I should go in that aligns better with my interests, not what the “market” says I should do.

The irony is when I attended TC Camp this past weekend, I felt validated in my abilities. I could learn from others who were more experienced than I am, yet I found that I could speak competently about the subjects discussed at hand. I didn’t sound like an idiot, and people found what I said helpful. One friend/attendee even asked me if she could pick my brain about how to approach a project she had. I never had that happen before, but I was happy to offer the approach I had used and suggested some tools she might want to try. For a day, I felt like a real technical communicator again!

I know my weaknesses. I’m not MBA material, I don’t know medical, pharma, or financial terminology, and I’m not a person with web development in my background beyond HTML and being able to manipulate Javascript, PHP or other coding languages a bit. Yet, somehow, where I live, to get a job as a tech writer, you must have a strong background in one or more of these things. They want SMEs who can write, not writers who can learn to be SMEs. Nobody wants to train. You are either an entry-level, right out of college kid who has some of this know-how and is willing to be paid peanuts, or you’re a person who’s been doing more complicated jobs for about a decade or so.  There doesn’t seem to be much for something in-between, or opportunities for people who have raw skills and the foundational experience that would lend well to different positions. Nobody–or at least very few–want to train a potential employee anymore. And thus lies the rub of my frustrations these days.

I’m trying to figure out whether I need to get more training on my own. Even if I did pursue that, I really don’t know what direction to go in anymore. I was told to learn DITA, but guess what? There are no DITA jobs near me, so that would be a little pointless. UX jobs? Well, I don’t have enough design background to apply for something. I have several interests within the tech comm world, but none of it seems to align with positions available in my area. It seems like instead of “one step forward, two steps back”, I keep falling farther and farther behind, and my prospects get weaker and weaker as I get older and all the skills I gained in grad school and other former positions become a faint memory.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego
Hopefully the rest of my life this year will not be something similar to “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” Hopefully, you’ll find me here!

The STC-PMC VP role alleviates some of that frustration, even though it has its own issues. At least within the STC-PMC, I have a great amount of support, and enough space to learn, fail, and pick myself up again without dire consequences.  I feel more confident in that role. I can’t say the same for the rest of my career at the moment. While I don’t have a direction, I knew that staying longer where I have been lately was not good move for me. I want and need to be able to do more, and I am in a spot where financially I can take the break, and I have the support of my family and my tech comm community behind me while I figure out my next steps forward.

So, that’s where I’m at. TechCommGeekMom might still be looking for her place in the tech comm world, but I’m hoping that with a little luck, maybe what I’m looking for will be found. I’m hoping that in coming months, I’ll be able to bolster this blog again, and you’ll see some more content coming through.

But I’m still here!

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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….