I had a great time in Philly for the STC Summit, and here are some of my takeaways.
Collaboration is a huge part of our jobs, whether it’s finding others in your company to collaborate with as the two technical writers from Sun have done while creating screencasts with a “rock start developer” or the collaboration they do with users as they became community members and sometimes moderators, collaborating with the developers who use the product they are documenting. Collaboration means that you’re willing to learn another’s language, whether it’s another country’s language or learning the vocabulary of Scrum. Collaboration and structure can work together, such as the power of collaboration on a wiki, if you can find a common language (or currency), such as DITA.
My manager’s takeaway had a lot to do with Agile, and I see Agile as the ultimate collaboration mechanism for writers to integrate themselves not only with the development team, but also the business analysts who take the product to early beta with customers, and in that way, technical writers can get even closer to customers. I wrote an article for the CIDM Newsletter last year with ideas for thriving and surviving an Agile environment, so the topic is near and dear to me, but since I’ve not had to be part of an Agile dev team since leaving BMC, I chose not to focus on those sessions. I enjoyed the writeup by Richard Hamilton describing Mike Wethington’s Agile talk with each slide as a sprint followed by discussion. Agilists are living’ it, folks.
Conversation was another theme I chose to follow, due to my interest in writing a book on the topic of designing conversation and community into documentation. I was fascinated with the Asynchronous Conversation talk that Ginny Redish gave and she offered so many examples of how even the writing you do can be re-written to be more conversational – not just having style guides that allow for informal style and voice, but also removing passive voice, ensuring you know who’s the actor and what is being acted upon, and so forth. Confirmed my instinct that conversation, collaboration, and content are close cousins if we can figure out how to best combine them all.
Community is a huge part of what I have been paying attention to, and the sessions I attended and the attendees I spoke with gave me more insights into tapping the power of communities. I also found it fascinating that speakers at two different talks (Sun and IBM) mentioned finding “celebrities” when building wikis or screencasts, because communities wanted to watch the “rock star” work while they built the wiki or listen (and speak back) to their heroes while the heroes did their jobs as a subject matter expert.
Career plans and the business aspects of convincing others where your worth lives as a technical communicator were constantly brought up in the question part of the sessions. How did you prove that a wiki and screencast were the right way to take the content, when the online help had to be further minimized to do so? In our collaboration panel we were asked, what if you’re in an environment where obviously the wrong tool was chosen for a technical publications group, yet the writer felt powerless to prove the absences of ROI (Return On Investment) for that particular business and tool decision? I listened to these questions with a heightened sense of awareness of my own weakness in this area. While I can implement great ideas, proving that the idea needs to be implemented in the first place means understanding how to convince management of the value.
So, putting your manager hat on, where’s the value in conferences?
I read Tom Johnson’s notes from the conference with interest, and while I haven’t asked him this specifically, I think he and I share some struggles of attending and presenting at these conferences – we’re often invited, sometimes compensated, but it’s not our “job” to attend and present, as it is for the consultants of the world. I’m a reluctant traveler, though eager presenter. How can I justify the time and expense? Believe me, I have to justify to myself and my family before I even purchase a plane ticket, step foot on an airport shuttle, or draft up a Powerpoint slide deck.
My overall plan is that I try to go to the STC annual conference about every other year, when I’m not pregnant, ha ha. Before Philadelphia, the most recent annual STC conference I attended (and presented at) was three years ago (is that right?) in Baltimore, Maryland, and for some reason that one did not seem as “big” as this one. With probably over 1,300 attendees, Philly felt large to me, even though SXSW Interactive was probably the largest attendance I’d seen at a conference recently with over 9,000 people there just for Interactive.
Personally, I’m finding the value in interactions
I hope she doesn’t mind if I mention this, but I owe a huge thank you to Char James-Tanney who listened to my internal struggle via email while I hemmed and hawed over whether to attend the STC Summit at all this year. Working parents know that the burden is placed on the spouse at home with the kids, and my husband rocks all over the planet when they have “boy’s club” days with me. But. Family life lately has involved some funerals, minor medical issues, and just plain life, which always complicates travel plans. And then there’s things like how much really young kids grow and change in a matter of days. For example, my 18-month-old son who couldn’t reach doorknobs before I left for a conference, could open doors when I returned. And that was after a four-day trip!
Yet I have always found that the people I talk to and the relationships I forge in face-to-face meetings show enough value to make the travel hassle and lost kid growing time worthwhile. Heh, I wonder what my sons will say when they read that in ten years? I also believe that it can be good to be away from family just so you appreciate what you have when you return. I know I do.
Sarah O’Keefe and Scott Abel have been wonderful for me to simply email or call when I’m looking for mentors in this strange grey area between (not) consulting and offering expertise on the web. I didn’t necessarily have to attend a conference for these generous people to let me reach out, and it’s plain fun to get to know them.
Balancing act, of course
What I’m trying to do lately is find a balance and see what I can do to share my knowledge remotely and do a lot of blogging, emailing, e-networking, and local networking. Austin’s a completely awesome place to work and live and meet others who are forward-thinking, business-minded technical writers and managers. Heck, I can meet them for lunch, and not have to travel further than a few miles to do so. I’m also finding ways to collaborate on STC services with STCers around the world. I’d love to hear others thoughts on the balancing act and whether it changes as your life at home changes. From what I’ve observed, the long view is the most varied view when it comes to participation in STC and conferences.
What I mean by that statement is this: some of the greatest, most active STCers I’ve been fortunate to know, hit their stride when their kids went to college. I plan to be around STC for the next 20 years at least, and I’m already nearly 15 years in. STC is the kind of organization that can support that long view if my observations of others are any indicator.