Conferences I’m Attending This Year

I’m attending three conferences this year: Confab, the STC Summit, and Lavacon.  Why did I pick these conferences, over others?

Ben Minson and me at the last STC Summit

Ben Minson and me at a previous STC Summit

I attended Confab’s inaugural conference last year and felt it was a good fit for my web publishing role at work. Although my job title is “senior technical writer,” I spend about 60% of my time being a web editor for LDSTech. LDSTech has a blog, wiki, and forum, and in many ways, it’s the communication/awareness arm for our IT group.

Confab is a perfect conference for anyone involved in web publishing. I’m still wrapping my head around content strategy. Last year I learned that it means a lot of different things to different people. Mainly, whatever techniques you employ to give your content an edge is a content strategy. More than anything, Confab seemed like a web publishing / marketing / content strategy conference. Only a few technical writers were there last year, and you probably know them all (Scott Abel, Rahel Bailie, Ann Rockley, and a couple of others). Yes, only about five technical writers out of hundreds of attendees). Just like 2011, the Confab conference sold out early again this year. (I don’t pretend to understand conference dynamics, but their staff seems to openly defy the law of supply and demand.)

When I’m not being a web editor, I write help material. Most of the applications I document are small in scope. I never document anything that has 1,000 topics or more. I remember once talking to Joe Gollner at a conference. He works on projects that have hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of topics. I can’t imagine documenting anything so vast. I guess this means I’ve become more of a technical writer involved in lightweight projects. That suits me fine, though.

I initially wasn’t going to attend the STC Summit this year. I submitted a proposal, but then changed my mind about the conference and withdrew my proposal. Because I helped review proposals for one of the tracks, I received a discount on registration. Despite canceling, I still had a nagging desire to attend the summit. Not so much for the education sessions, but because it’s a conference that all my professional friends attend. It’s the epitome of #techcomm. Some training budget funds opened up last week, and I managed to squeeze it in.

I’m not staying at the $200-a-night conference hotel, though, especially when that price doesn’t even include Internet. The point in attending a conference or visiting any city isn’t to abscond oneself in the hotel watching cable and lying on luxury pillows. The point is to get out and interact. I love walking around the city, exploring new places. I enjoy getting out of the hotel perimeter, past the point where every store caters to out-of-towners at hotel prices. Also, my travel budget isn’t so vast that I can afford to stay in fancy hotels and attend multiple conferences a year.

The trouble with attending Confab and the STC Summit is that they take place two weekends in a row. This only goes to show that the Confab conference planners aren’t targeting technical communicators, or that too many competing disciplines have conferences in the same short period of time.

The final conference I’m attending this year is Lavacon. I’ve never been to Lavacon, though I’ve helped out with the website for it. Jack Molisani asked if I’d like to present, and I got to thinking how nice it is to get out of the office in the fall, outside of the regular conference season. And yes, I do have a topic percolating that I’d like to present about: crowdsourcing writing tasks. The Portland venue makes the conference even more appealing, since I’m a northwesterner myself, born in Washington State.

Apart from these random details about conferences, have you ever wondered about the deeper reasons why we go to conferences? What draws us to attend? Perhaps it’s because conferences hold the promise of an idea. Put together hundreds of professionals from the same discipline in a room, and all kinds of innovation should take place. Why doesn’t more innovative thinking happen? Are we stifled by hearing the same voices again and again in presentations? Are we distracted more by the schedule than by the point of the gathering? Do we not attend with enough questions and problems to solve?

Last year my former colleague Derek came back from WritersUA and said the conference consisted of many excellent presentations and information. Like what, we asked? Tell us what you learned. Unfortunately the details of that conversation never materialized in much depth, which makes me think that the takeaways from conferences might not be any notes you write down from presentations, nor the people you meet during all the “networking opportunities,” but rather an igniting of thought about your discipline and how to move forward in your professional endeavors. Derek returned more determined than ever to implement an enterprise-wide authoring strategy.

Although I’m not presenting much this year, I do lean towards a preparation model that may not be entirely sound. Whereas most conferences invite speakers who are recognized experts on topics they’re familiar with, I think you should submit a proposal based on a topic you want to explore for the year. Then present your findings about your exploration at the conference. The conference acts as the culmination of months of research, experimentation, and thought about the topic.

I did that last year with the topic of findability at the Summit. Knowing I would be presenting on the topic motivated me to keep it foremost on my radar, and I explored the heck out of it, writing more than 40 posts on findability. But because of the difficulty of the topic, I never reached the triumphant conclusion that would lead to a knockout presentation. And not having that triumph in hand led to enormous stress as the date of the conference approached. Good stress, but perhaps more than I care to repeat.

This year, with just one topic on the agenda — crowdsourcing writing — I am taking it a bit easier. I’m not a total expert on this topic, but I’ve been wrestling with it for the past 8 months now. I’ve made more progress than many, and I know how to do it, just not how to pull it off on a grander scale.

I look forward to interacting with you at some upcoming conferences. Is there a conference I’m missing out on? I’d love to hear about it. More than interacting, though, I’d love to learn what unspoken takeaways you get from attending conferences.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Scott Abel

    Great post, as usual, Tom. I’ve just finished Intelligent Content 2012 in Palm Springs with Ann Rockley. Biggest event we’ve had to date (and some say, the best). Next year’s event will be in San Francisco. I’m in London now for the Publishing Expo and Content Strategy Applied. Rahel Bailie (note spelling) and I are here with a few others from the #techcomm space, helping to spread the word about innovative publishing projects and content strategy.

    We’ll aslo be bringing Content Strategy Applied to Portland this year and co-locating it with LavaCon. So, look for that announcement soon.

    I’ll be attending the STC Summit again this year. It was a struggle to decide whether to present or not. In the end, ever though I was mostly against it, I decided to do so. More for the same reasons as you, than for the act of presenting. I find the event taxing in so many ways, especially because so many in our field seem hellbent on protecting the status quo. But, maybe with the new world of mobile devices and eBooks and eBook readers, we’ll see some forward motion in our little corner of the world.

    I’ve decided to use my budget to attend some book publishing and mobile device events this year, as well as continuing my focus on attending events with a global (internationalization, localization, translation) focus. I figure if you want to be involved in innovative projects, big, global multinational ones are a good place to start.

    Hope to see you at upcoming conferences.


  • Sarah O’Keefe

    “watching cable and lying on luxury pillows” — I must be attending the wrong conferences. At last week’s Intelligent Content event, I did register that there was a TV on the wall in my room (in fact, a rather large flat-panel), but I never had time to turn it on. I am pretty sure that the bed was horizontal. Didn’t notice much else. Too tired.

    • Kirsty

      Sarah – obviously being a booth babe was so exhausting, you didn’t notice your surrounds. :)

  • Scott Abel

    You had a bed?

  • Sarah O’Keefe

    Like I said….a soft horizontal surface. It was probably a bed.

  • Tony Chung

    I’m gonna miss hanging with you all at Summit this year. I spent my conference budget on a spanky new guitar. Maybe next year after get some content for mobile applications experience under my belt, I’ll feel more confident about my reasons or attending conferences.

    Like your former colleague, I return from conferences all charged up without any objective data to share with my associates. Last year I returned with a bunch of photos from our Alcatraz excursion and the best job hunting advice ever in one sentence. The conference itself was too overwhelming to take in.

    Maybe Rahel will book a road trip for our team to help with the Content Strategy and Lavacon in Portland. 😉

    So Tom, I’m open if you want to chat about crowd sourcing. I’ve been investigating that monitors hash tags, emails, and SMS messages, an plots their locations on a map.

    Then there’s the iHappiness iOS app, intended to measure and report the level of happiness experienced by users in the UK.

  • Tony Chung


    Would you please be so kind as to fix my iPhone typos and grammar, so I don’t sound so much like a dork?


  • Scott Abel


    What makes us all so believable is that we actually do make typos. Be proud of them and own ’em!

    Just had breakfast with Rahel en route to Publishing Expo London. I’m working on that field trip to LavaCon / CS Applied NA for you.

    Scott :)

  • Suchi Govindarajan

    Agree completely with this part of your post: “…the takeaways from conferences might not be any notes you write down from presentations, nor the people you meet during all the “networking opportunities,” but rather an igniting of thought about your discipline and how to move forward in your professional endeavors.”

    For me, it is definitely about getting some time for self-reflection. Somewhere in between the sessions and the tea-time interactions, you get some mindspace to see what can be bettered at your workplace. These ideas may not be directly related to what you’re hearing, but what seems to help is the simple act of being slightly but not completely distanced from your daily routine.

    The other intangible benefit is simply getting to know what other people do (which is different from networking). Most tech writers are naturally curious people–I know I am! I like hearing what other companies do, whether the writers work alone or in a team, what their background is, etc. It’s not so much about adding another contact to your list, as it is about broadening your mind.

  • Scott Abel


    I’d say that if you play your cards right, Portland and CSA might be in your future. :)


  • Kirsty

    I’m still figuring out what will work for me from a budget perspective (as it all comes out of my personal budget, not company budget). I’ve committed to STC now, and have been planning on attending the Lavacon graduate event in Hawaii – it’s only 9-10hrs flight from home! So close! :)
    I can’t get to the main Lavacon in Portland, as the timing won’t work due to family commitments.
    I’m thinking of submitting a proposal for Localization World in Seattle, just got to figure out what I could talk about.

  • http://notyet! Richard D. Hovey

    Tom, I wondered where you had re-materialized after your stint at AUC. I came across your AUC writing website while teaching writing at Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ, and thought it the best writing site I’d come across. Perhaps it was the “10 Easy Steps” principle that appealed to me, because I was always looking for simple and effective ways to communicating to my students what writing actually entails and trying to get across to them that to write effectively requires diligence–you know, if at first you don’t succeed. . . .

    Well, I’m now tutoring and I’ve rediscovered your old AUC website, which I’ll be using again to reinforce the concept of the step-by-step writing process (even if the steps are out of sync). Your old website at AUC must be quite popular, since it is still up after nearly 12 years.

    This was meant to be a simple “Hi, there!” and “Thanks a bunch,” but I see I’m rambling on. Anyway, Hi, there, and thanks a bunch.

    • Tom Johnson

      Richard, nice to hear from you. I’m glad to hear the 10 steps site was useful. After I left AUC in 2004, I no longer had access to the files. I did manage to get a copy, and then I uploaded them on my own server (, but I haven’t updated the content. I should do so, though — esp. that section on search engines. If you’re interested in updating the content, I would be happy to send you the files.


  • Bruce

    I’m continue to figuring out what is wonderful for me from a budget perspective (as it comes out of my own budget, not company budget). I’ve dedicated to STC now, and are already planning on attending your Lavacon graduate event during Hawaii – it’s only 9-10hrs flight from a home office! So close!: )
    I can’t be able to the main Lavacon around Portland, as the timing won’t work as a result of family commitments.
    I’m pondering submitting a proposal to get Localization World in Seattle, just got determine what I could talk about.

    • Tom Johnson

      Bruce, I think Lavacon in Hawaii was canceled this year; only the Portland one remains, but it will be combined with a content strategy workshop that dovetails on the date. More info will be announced soon if you’re interested.

  • Kirsty

    Hmm, “Bruce” seems to be an exact copy of my comments on this thread, with a link to a dress site from his name.

    • Tom Johnson

      Sorry for the spam. I recently changed spam plugins from antispambee to akismet. Akismet actually does a much better job. I’ll delete the existing ones that slip through.