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soap! A new conference for technical writers in Poland

Mar 18, 2014 • general

Pawel Kowaluk

Pawel Kowaluk is a technical writer in Poland who is organizing a new conference called soap!, scheduled for October 1-3, 2014, in Krakow.

I asked Pawel, who works as a tool specialist for technical writing at Motorola Solutions Inc., to share a little bit more information about the new soap! conference, including his reasons for organizing one in Poland, and some other details about the tech comm scene.

What's the tech comm scene like in Poland, and why put on a conference?

In Poland, the tech comm scene has not existed for more than 5 or 6 years. This is when huge corporations started their overseas centers in Poland. They were the only ones serious about content creation. But when it came to hiring technical writers, they had to improvise.

They began with hiring software and hardware engineers who spoke great English, but that did not go so well. For some reason, engineers were always more interested in jobs like software developer or tester. I am guessing it was because in Poland, “technical writer” was not a profession. When people saw the job offer, they had to google it to know what it was.

Companies started reaching out to graduates of English departments, and there were a lot of them. A lot of universities opened English departments and flooded the market with English majors. English majors had only two choices: become a teacher or become a translator. When those choices ran out, they also had to improvise.

Luckily, technical writing became a third option for an English major. Companies like Motorola, IBM, or Electrolux started expanding their writing teams. Then they began branching out into training, e-learning, and modern publication platforms. Soon, young professionals from Poland became valued members of their global teams.

But the infrastructure was still missing. There were no consulting agencies or training available for technical writers. No serious university programs for technical communicators. Any groups that that operated had local reach only. Native Polish companies still do not pay much attention to their content creation processes. They do not know what benefits they can get from great content.

Paulina, Gosia, and I decided that it is not enough to sit around and wait for things to change. We want to shape our environment and help our colleagues grow. That is why we decided to organize soap! conferences, webinars, and the entire community.

soap! conference in Poland
soap! conference in Poland

What will your conference focus on?

Our main idea is that content is an asset, not a requirement. We also think that the entire enterprise should come together when creating it. Specifically, this conference has the following goals:

  • Educate Polish professionals about technical writing. We want them to know that technical writing is a complex field with many roles to fill. There is writer, project manager, content strategist, innovator, evangelist, consultant, tech geek, and more. Tech comm as a broader field has even more roles, so people with different backgrounds can take part.
  • Show Polish tech comm professionals that their work matters and can make a difference in a tech business. Empower them to become valuable members of their teams. Tell them they have a role to play in the the success of their company.
  • Let company owners know content is value added and can help them grow their business. Show them why they should invest in well-prepared content and give them the tools to get started.
  • Create a sense of community so that we do not work on islands which are miles apart. Show everyone there are people they can turn to for advice or help.
  • Put Poland on the map and allow consultants and training companies know we are here and there is a lot of us. Overtime we want to grow our own training and consulting services and we need the competition to make them strong.

Who is your target audience, and how will your conference differ from other conferences (esp. WritersUA Europe)?

We want to bring the following audiences:

  • Tech comm professionals (tech writing, learning, localization, strategy, etc.)
  • Students who are the future tech comm professionals
  • Business managers, company owners, startuppers, project managers, investors, coaches, and more

It is that third segment that makes us different. We want tech comm people to learn the perspective of this third segment. We want the third segment to have an increased awareness of content. We want ideas to cross-pollinate. We are also counting on people networking and forging new alliances.

When the conference is over, we want the third segment to start spreading the word. Telling everyone that content has value and there are people who can help bring this value forward.

That is why we want to focus on networking opportunities. We will give people a common space and plenty of time to talk and exchange ideas. The conference will not just consist of talks, but discussions and panels, and coffee breaks. Lots of coffee breaks. With good coffee.

How will you provide value to attendees? Specifically, can you respond to some of the issues Neal Kaplan raises in his post, I don't get conferences”?.

I value Neal's blog and his insights, and I think he brings up a lot of good points.

What can we bring to people who do not need to use DITA, or Tin Can API, or come up with a content strategy? We can give them opportunities to network and get those one-on-on talks that Neal wants. We can also give them the option to learn about other aspects of work. Communicating with software developers is different from communicating with business and marketing. Neither are obvious skills that we are born with.

And what about new ways of getting across to our readers? Storytelling is one interesting trend, but there are other, not so obvious ones.

How about other things tech comm people can do? Our attendees will see hear stories from bloggers, entrepreneurs, and business coaches.

Or how about sales techniques? You might think they are not important when writing tech manuals, but what you hear may surprise you.

As for the cost, this might be one of the cheapest conferences you will ever go to that serves lunch. :)

How do you learn what you know about tech comm? (Reading books, blogs, webinars, conferences, trial and error?)

I do not have any formal training and I had to learn everything on the job. When I started as a technical writer, I came to a company which had its XML format and its style guide. But then we started implementing DITA and this is where my journey began.

I learned programming, creating stylesheets, and more. We had to come up with strategies for releasing, profiling, and tagging. We trained writers, implemented customer requirements, and so on.

I am grateful for this opportunity because it gave me a chance to grow. I would be a different person if it were not for that.

What's one of your greatest challenges as a tech writer?

I often deal with a lot of legacy content which is not written in a topic-oriented way and is in general of poor quality. The problem is, we rarely have the time to make it beautiful the way we want it to be.

Also, creating new content under time pressure may lead to poor quality. How do I make it all work? Are there tool possibilities to increase efficiency so I have the time to work on my content more? Or perhaps I can simplify the process? Or get feedback from my SMEs faster? I have been working on all this for a while and I still do not have the answers.

What might an attendee expect from attending soap?

This conference can be an entry point into the Polish tech comm market. Any professionals from the outside can count on a warm welcome, new ideas, and a completely new network of contacts.

I expect there is going to be a positive clash of cultures. Polish people had to work things out in practice. Western professionals have years of experience and education. I believe this clash will lead to a lot of creativity.

Students will get more info to decide if they want to continue into this career. They are the workforce we are hoping to create.

Polish tech comm professionals get a chance to get in on the ground floor. This is where it all begins and the future depends on us. Each and every one of us.

If you could correct the tech comm industry of one thing, what would it be?

I just learned recently that tech writers at a certain company create manuals and pass them on to people who assemble the equipment. Those people are not able to use the documentation as is, so they copy and paste into MS Word to create their own taskflows. I am sure this is one of many examples in the industry where we could do things better.

I guess I would try to give companies free, intuitive tools for creating content. This would open communication channels. Then engineers and tech writers could cooperate when creating content. And this content could be single-sourced to create user training. I see a trend towards this, but still, if you want to create DITA and use a CMS, you need to be careful about who gets to do it because (a) it is hard and (b) software licenses are expensive.


To learn more about soap!, see http://www.soapconf.com/2014-conference. To follow Pawel's blog, see http://ditawizard.com/.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.