The STC 54th Annual Conference

By Mike Hughes

Published: June 4, 2007

“Describing a professional conference is a lot like the proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant.”

Mike was the organizer for the Sharing Corporate Knowledge Institute, a track within the larger conference.

Describing a professional conference is a lot like the proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant. One felt the leg and thought it was like a tree; another, the side and thought it was like a wall; and yet another, the tail and thought it was like a rope. Jared Spool opened his blog about the recent STC conference, “Where Did Technical Writing Go? with the following observation: “It is at the 54th Annual Conference of the Society of Technical Communicators, this week in Minneapolis, where I’m getting a glimpse into what I believe to be the demise of technical writing.”

I think Jared must have been standing at the wrong end of the elephant. What I saw was a society of professionals emerging from a process of reflection and redefinition with a vitality and momentum that said, “There’s a new sheriff in town, and she’s brought the posse with her.” The sheriff is Susan Burton, the new STC Director who opened the conference by reporting on some significant changes that have happened this year:

  • the redefinition of the technical communication profession—This new definition for use in the Standard Occupational Classification system could have significant impact on how the profession compares with others and, accordingly, in setting appropriate salary expectations.
  • the addition of key staff members to support critical society services
  • the upgrading of society business infrastructures
  • a complete revision of the society bylaws

The leading member of the posse, Paula Berger―STC’s president―explained the innovations that this conference offered in response to suggestions from the membership:

All of these offerings were in addition to the member papers and presentations that traditionally form the mainstay of the conference. According to the Program Committee Manager, Phylise Banner Klein, only 20% of the proposals submitted this year were accepted—a clear indication of this year’s program committee’s commitment to quality. Demise, indeed!

Trends

So what was hot at STC this year?

  • Web 2.0—Scott Abel’s “Web 2.0 101: Understanding Web 2.0 and Its Impact on Technical Communication” went beyond standing room only—participants were sitting in the aisles. Unfortunately, his was just an hour-long session, but fortunately, he can get a lot into an hour. You can see his slides on SlideShare, an excellent example of Web 2.0 at work. Several other sessions focused on this topic as well. With Web 2.0, the Web has become more interactive and users can take control of their own documentation.
  • XML and DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture)—They just won’t go away. Familiar voices like Michael Priestly, Sarah O’Keefe, and others kept spreading the word. Read Michael’s blog about the conference.
  • Platinum sponsorship by Adobe—By securing the platinum sponsor slot, Adobe continued to make a strong effort to establish itself as a stable leader in the technical publications industry—after Macromedia made its disconcerting RoboHiccup, suggesting it would sunset the nearly ubiquitous Help authoring tool RoboHelp. Although I must admit, I enjoyed the cocktail party wars between Adobe and MadCap at the WritersUA conference in Long Beach more than their conservative vendor images at the STC conference.
  • Convergence—Technical communication continues its convergence with product user interfaces, user experience design, content management, and knowledge management.

Best Moments

  • Opening keynote—For me, this was the most entertaining presentation. Simon Singh—author, journalist, television producer, and the Society’s honorary fellow for 2007—told the story-behind-the-story of his documentary about the Cambridge mathematician who solved Fermat’s last theorem. Imagine that topic being entertaining and you get an idea about just how great a speaker Simon really is. Check out UXmatters columnist Luke Wroblewski’s blog on Simon’s presentation.
  • Networking with peers—At my breakfast one morning with fellow IBM presenters, I at last met the faces behind the email messages and the voices I hear every week on conference calls. These conferences are great networking opportunities.

Worst Moments

  • The very long walks between the convention center and the hotel.
  • The bratwurst inside the Exposition Hall that was older than information mapping.

Conclusion

“With its breadth of coverage, the STC conference is still, overall, the best conference for technical communicators.”

With its breadth of coverage, the STC conference is still, overall, the best conference for technical communicators. The recent changes I’ve described have made this conference more relevant than ever. Try to get your company to send multiple participants and share your conference experiences—otherwise, it’s just impossible to take it all in.

3 Comments

Mike, great summary. Wish I could have been there… so many conferences, so little time (and money).

I think that Jared’s quip actually meshes quite well with what you observed. He meant that technical writing is going away—replaced by a new definition of technical communication that includes UI design, HCI, UX, and so on. What better example than Susan’s effort to get the government to fix its definition of what we do?

Yes, I agree with you, Fred. I think Jared and I were describing the same phenomenon. There is a trend, however, even among STC members, to see technical writing as a dying profession. I prefer to see it as a gateway profession. Think of all the people with engineering degrees that do not engineer anything. Instead, they manage development, support sales, manage projects, manage products, and even write documentation. We do not speak of the “demise” of engineering. We see it instead as a robust platform on which to build to a diverse set of career paths. I see technical writing in the same light. I once heard Paula Berger give a keynote speech at a regional STC conference where she advised technical writers not to enroll in advanced degrees in technical communication, largely because of the trends Jared and I both commented on. I give the opposite advice; technical communication is a great entry into a rich field of professional options, and a cursory glance at most academic curricula shows that schools are in step with these trends. Just wanted to counter Jared’s glass-half-empty spin.

Hear! Hear!

Mike, I completely agree with your glass-half-full assessment of technical writing. A gateway profession is a very good description.

And I remember the objections to Paula’s comment at that regional conference!

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