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STC Certification: An In-Depth Interview with Steve Jong

by Tom Johnson on Jan 26, 2012
categories: technical-writing

The following is a guest post by Steve Jong, chair of the STC Certification Commission.

What does the certification program involve?

First, for an introduction to the subject, I recommend the Wikipedia article at Our Certified Professional Technical Communicator™ (CPTC) credential provides assurance to employers and the public that the certified practitioner possesses the knowledge, skill, and ability expected of a competent technical communicator to meet the demands of technical communication projects, today and tomorrow.

To become certified, a candidate must submit a packet of material covering five areas of practice: (1) user, task, and experience analysis; (2) information design; (3) process management; (4) information development; and (5) information production. The packet is given a double-blind assessment by a team of evaluators according to objective criteria. If the packet meets or exceeds the criteria, the applicant is certified.

Once achieved, certification is good for three years; to maintain it, certified practitioners must continue their professional development, through continued learning, attending programs and conferences, or other professional activity—the choice is theirs.

What led to the development of a certification program?

It's been a long and winding road. The first recorded discussion of certification was an STC Annual Conference all the way back in 1964! STC formed an ad hoc certification group in 1975. Certification languished as a chicken-and-egg problem: members wanted proven value before embracing it, but without a program there was no proven value. Repeated member surveys showed majority support for the concept, though always with a vocal minority in opposition.

In 1985 the committee reached the point of presenting a proposal to the STC Board to undertake a one-time certification of members. Extrapolating from another poll, the plan would have exactly broken even. Given what they felt was a lack of consensus, the Board decided to postpone a decision for two years, which in the end turned into more than 20. During that time certification became much more common among other professions, with plenty of successful examples.

Five years ago, STC commissioned a study that told us we needed three things to be considered a profession: a code of ethics, a body of knowledge, and certification. Independently, we saw that certification is a key characteristic of thriving associations. We already had a code of ethics; we began the BOK work, and certification took on new urgency.

The incarnation of the certification task force that I chaired was able to define overarching areas of practice that are unique to our profession yet shared among our many subgroups. We also came to realize that the certification market was much more than STC members; that certification was not a one-time event but an ongoing operation; and that STC would benefit not just from application fees but also from recertification and training. From this three-dimensional perspective, the economics of certification made sense, and in April 2010 we wrote a proposal that the Board could accept.

Has anyone completed the certification program yet?

We are collecting packets right now. When we have enough we will calibrate the scoring system. We expect to announce the first group of certified technical communicators at the STC Summit in Chicago.

What are the goals of certification?

At the 2009 STC Summit, a group of STC thought leaders brainstormed a list of drivers, or reasons for certification. The STC Board subsequently accepted the list as fitting STC's strategic goals. This is what the certification program is trying to achieve:

  • Legitimize the contributions of, and respect for, our profession
  • Establish uniform worldwide performance standards
  • Increase the employability and salary of certified practitioners
  • Satisfy employers' expectations
  • Reduce hiring risk for employers
  • Generate non-dues revenue for the Society

What kind of resistance have you experienced in starting the certification program?

I've been presenting the program to audiences for several years now, and a few common themes have emerged. Some people question whether any meaningful assessment can encompass the diverse specialties within our profession. Some people cite a poor doctor, teacher, or plumber they once encountered as proof that all certifications are meaningless. Some people think there's no need for them to get certified because they personally either have a strong portfolio (when job-hunting) or conduct interviews well (when hiring). Some people say they cannot show their work because everything they do is internal, proprietary, or secret. And some people think the program is just plain too expensive.

How do you respond to some of the objections people have made to certification?

Like other professions that offer certification, technical communication is a broad field. But we are not certifying expertise in subject matter, which employers may determine themselves, or specific tools, which vendors may certify. That narrows things down considerably. What we are assessing is competency in the unique skills we offer, and at that level technical communicators share a core set of knowledge, skills, and abilities regardless of job roles.

We can all think of someone who couldn't do the job. Ours is not going to be a perfect system, and I'm sure that on occasion someone less than competent is going to slip past us. But that's no reason to abandon certification. Despite individual examples of incompetents with credentials, no one in the real world seeks out an uncertified doctor, teacher, or plumber. In actuality, that's the first thing we ask for!

Certification will not replace a strong portfolio or a skillful interviewer. But when we apply for a job, our résumé is only one of dozens skimmed by a recruiter or HR person. In the moment of consideration it gets, certification makes it stand out, which can give you the opportunity to show that portfolio. And at the other end of the process, when a hiring manager has to choose between equally qualified candidates, certification can be the tiebreaker. Our certification is an independent, objective, third-party assurance, and in time it will become a meaningful distinction.

Evaluators must sign blanket non-disclosure agreements, drawn up by our legal counsel, to protect applicant submissions. However, we set up the process so that you can become certified without ever showing a piece of real work. You can use older work, redacted samples, recreations, even simulations. Of course, it's easiest to use samples drawn from your own portfolio, but you don't have to.

Finally, certification is an individual decision, and there is no guarantee you that if you get certified your salary will increase or you'll get a promotion. But in the professions we've studied, the average certified practitioner enjoys a salary premium that far exceeds the cost of certification. Compared to certification programs for comparable professions, the cost to obtain and maintain CPTC certification is midrange or slightly lower. So I dare say it's a bargain!

Who is the target audience for certification?

The CPTC credential is available worldwide to experienced technical communicators who work in English and wish to demonstrate that they have the ability to meet the North American standards for practice. That's a mouthful, so let me unpack it a bit. We require a combination of experience and education to qualify. While a bachelor's degree is plenty, if you have five years of experience you really only need a high-school diploma or its global equivalent. (This is how PMI certification works as well, by the way.) With a specialized degree (such as technical communication), the experience requirement is reduced to as little as three years.

You don't need to be an STC member to get certified, and you won't need to get certified to be an STC member. Our evaluators work in English; in future we hope to expand to other languages. The mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities we're looking for were qualified for the North American market, though we're working to qualify the mix outside North America.

Is the BoK comprehensive enough to be the foundation for a certification program?

Yes and no. To quote its charter, the Body of Knowledge is "attempting to organize, make accessible, and connect together the plethora of information necessary to train for and practice within the profession." That certainly fills the bill! But the BOK will take time to flesh out. And the BOK team is cataloging material as it arrives, not concentrating on the subset of information we're certifying. For now we are evaluating submission packets prepared by candidates, which better fits the portfolio model familiar to practitioners. When the BOK is ready we will switch to exam questions drawn from it. So if you're nervous about taking tests, I suggest you get certified now.

How much does certification cost?

For charter applicants (until 14 February 2012), the application fee is $99, the assessment fee is $495, and the yearly maintenance fee is $49. Additionally, if you return your submission packet by 14 February 2012, we will rebate $100 of the evaluation fee. After that, prices will increase, more so for non STC members. So if cost is a concern, or you're not an STC member, consider applying now.

What would be the advantage for established professionals to go through certification?

As I mentioned before, certification is a tiebreaker both for setting an interview and for getting an offer. I'm not blowing smoke here: this is what we've heard from HR professionals and hiring managers. In uncertain times, certification program applications go up. That's because people look for every edge they can get.

For a gray-haired veteran, certification won't make as much difference as it will for a mid-career professionals. But as the Wikipedia article puts it, professional certification stands above your résumé (which is you writing subjectively about yourself) or a reference (which is someone speaking to your role in one place) as an independent, objective, third-party assurance of your competence.

There's something else to consider. Take my personal example: I was named an STC Associate Fellow this year, and—how shall I put it?—I'm most of the way through my working life. I am not in the target demographic for certification. But I am at the point where I think in terms what is good not just for me but for STC, the profession, and my colleagues. Certification will transform the Society, the profession, and the careers of people working today. To me, anything I can do to help accelerate the growth of the program is worthwhile.

Is there a way to participate as a trainer in any of the certification courses?

Yes! In other professions, the typical certification applicant spends more for training than for the certification process itself. By starting CPTC certification we are establishing a market for certification courses. STC plans to participate in that market, but it won't be exclusive. Anyone can offer training in the areas of practice.

Steve Jong is a life-long technical communicator, an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, a former STC Director at Large, and a former president of the STC Boston Chapter. He is the chairman of the STC Certification Commission, which has been established to oversee the STC certification program. You can read more about certification here. You can follow Steve Jong's blog here.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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