My STC Summit Experience 2014

By Nathaniel Lim

I had the privilege of attending the Society for Technical Communication’s 61st Annual Conference (STC Summit) in Phoenix, Arizona, May 18-21. It would be impossible to tell you everything I learned and experienced in the limits of an online post. Instead are nuggets and tidbits which I found important or interesting from a few of the several sessions that I attended.

Opening Session

Chris Lyons, the Society’s Chief Executive Officer, highlighted STC’s year in review. The Society has stopped trying to define the profession and instead focused on the technical communication field itself. STC wrote a new mission statement: http://www.stc.org/about-stc/the-society/mission-vision. The emphasis now is more on core skills and a set of secondary skills (such as programming). STC is also partnering with other organizations. Mr. Lyons highlighted Rick Lippincott’s article in the April issue of Intercom, “We Explain Things.” STC’s new slogan is, “Building a Better World.”

Vikram Verma, a product manager from Adobe, talked about the state of mobile publishing. Mobile publishing is no longer new. Smaller companies (62%) are adapting to it faster than larger companies, because of the extra bureaucracy that larger companies must go through. Mobile publishing is widespread across industries.
Takeaway: Mobile publishing is hot. Get in on it.

Jonathon Colman, the Summit’s keynote speaker, talked about “Wicked Ambiguity.” The biggest problem in the technical communication profession is that people outside of it think we are just writers. Of course we are more than that. We are also designers, researchers, editors, information architects, content strategists. Our differences do not matter. We stand united against ambiguity. We make the complex clear. Most people run away from ambiguity but not the technical communicator. We need wicked problems to solve because they motivate us to innovate. People are terrified of uncertainty but not us. We run towards it.
Takeaway: Embrace ambiguity.

Saving Your Sanity through Better Client Relations by Alisa Bonsignore

This session provided help for freelancers and contractors. Ms. Bonsignore shares her personal advice with us.

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly in the beginning. When Ms. Bonsignore was a rookie freelancer, she charged too low a rate and apologized for it. She also did not know the answers to everything and apologized for it. She was afraid of getting caught if the phone ringing when she was having lunch. She had trouble saying “no” to her clients and told about the client from hell. They were so difficult to work with, she let them go. She learned that you can fire a client.

Takeaways: Other people make mistakes. No client relationship should make you feel like a prisoner. Contracts should account for this. You do not always have to say “yes”. Go with your gut instinct. Let voice mail pick up all unscheduled calls. This gives you a chance to listen to the call and research an answer before calling the client back and avoids a snap promise over the phone. Charge by the project. Do not charge hourly. Even as a freelancer, you are not alone. Other freelancers are out there.

Mastering Scrum – Developing Documentation in an Agile Environment by Christine Brouillard

In this progression session, Christine Brouillard shared her experiences as a Scrum Master for her technical publications team at work. Like most writers, she initially entered the Agile development process for her company as member of more than one inter-department sprint team. Other writers did the same. But, they soon found that it was more advantageous to have a sprint team composed of all the writers. Not all of their projects fit neatly into the areas assigned to each Scrum team. For example, the What’s New PDF file that they generated for each release spans all departments and areas of the software. Because engineers were coding up to the last minute, her sprint schedules always intentionally ran a one day behind the regular sprint teams. Below are her lessons learned from her STC proceedings:

  • Do not let your team get away with writing insufficient user stories, and do not write the stories for them!
  • Talk with other Scrum Masters in your organization as much as possible. We meet weekly as a Scrum Master team and sharing success stories and failures has been invaluable.
  • Build bridges with other teams to make removing obstacles easier.
  • Do not forget that the team members are also just people. I add a personal question to each retro (What is your favorite ice cream? What type of music do you like?), and we always learn something about each other. This is especially important for distributed teams.

Note: Progression sessions are only supposed to have no more than eight people around a table including the speaker. However, progression sessions with agile topics had at least 12 people each.
Takeaway: Agile development is hot. Get in on it.

Mentoring and Growing Junior Writers by Betsy Kent

In this progression session, Betsy Kent explains how to mentor and grow junior writers. She distinguishes between mentoring and growing. Growing involves teaching and implies a more junior person. Mentoring involves advising and implies that the person has more experience.
Takeaways: Acorns take time to be mighty oaks. Be patient. Do not grab their mouse. Instead, grab a stress ball, and let them do the driving. Do not overfill their heads. Teach them something useful and let it rest. Then, teach them something else.

Conclusion

This is my 10th STC Conference/Summit, and I always learn new takeaways at every one. I have heard that the Summit is more beneficial for newbies, but I disagree. In recent years, STC has focused more topics for intermediate and advanced communicators. This is evident in the Program offerings and Proceedings. I realize the costs are not inexpensive and employers are not always willing to send you. But consider this an investment in your career. You do not have to go every year. Consider going every other year or every third year. I hope to see you next year in Columbus, Ohio.

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