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Some post-STC Summit thoughts

by Tom Johnson on May 20, 2016
categories: api-doc technical-writing

I attended the 2016 STC Summit in Anaheim, California this year. This is a brief, rambling post that recaps some of my thoughts and experiences.

Overall, I think the Summit was a good conference (as usual) – it was well-organized and executed, with top speakers and a wide variety of topics. I believe attendance was up this year, with around 600 attendees. The expo hall was full of vendors, including a virtual reality vendor with goggles that let you view an Ohio State University football game and campus tour.

The Anaheim location, however, was somewhat disappointing (but good to choose California). The Marriott provided a high quality conference venue, but Anaheim itself lacks appeal unless you plan to visit Disneyland (which I didn’t). Having lived in Florida, I’ve had my fill of theme parks. If you’re going to hold a conference in California, why not choose San Francisco for the location, or San Jose? Anyway… most people don’t venture far outside the hotel anyway. The Summit provided regular snacks, which were pretty good, particularly the taquitos and pineapple empanadas.

This year I participated on the proposal review committee (for one track), which was interesting. There were quite a few high quality proposals, and selecting the best often came down to preferences for topic relevance (at least for me). We submitted our votes, but someone higher up made the ultimate decisions. There were quite a few proposals that I thought we’d rejected but which apparently were accepted after all, so that was nice.

There weren’t that many new attendees. At the opening keynote, I think about 15 first-timers stood up. Of those who stood up, there weren’t many students or youngish looking attendees. One of my colleagues, Brenda Huettner, who I sat next to at the information booth for about 3 hrs and had great conversations with, also agreed about the lack of younger faces at the conference.

During the conference, I kept looking for my “aha!” moment. I usually get at least one or two great takeaways at any conference, not usually from any particular session but from just being focused on tech comm, surrounded by so many like-minded colleagues and professionals.

This year, I think I realized something more about myself than something specific to tech comm. At previous conferences, I often interview people for podcasts and videocasts. This year, because I was presenting a half-day API workshop on Saturday and a Jekyll session on Tuesday, and then leaving late Tuesday afternoon, I decided to just leave my recording equipment at home.

I regretted this decision. I found myself longing to walk up to someone and interview them for a podcast. Man, I wish I had brought my recording equipment!

So the aha moment for me was more to realize something about myself. I like being more of an active participant, guiding and directing the conversation and topics. When I was a baseball-playing kid, I loved playing pitcher because I could control the speed and tempo of the game. In the same way, when I interview people for podcasts, I get to be a pitcher, throwing out a fastball question followed by a change-up, and then maybe a curve.

I also realized that I like speaking. Sure, I feel a little stress before a presentation, as nearly everyone does. (People told me the keynote speaker, who delivered a brilliant and engaging presentation, was insanely nervous beforehand.) When I get stressed, I start grinding my teeth, which is weird and probably means I should start wearing a mouthguard. But once I start presenting, I enjoy it.

As a speaker, I get to control the topic of discussion. I have 45 minutes to decide what we talk about, and how. Of course during presentations, it’s mostly just me talking. But if I had my way, all conference sessions would be dialogues that I merely facilitate. I still have the romantic notion of a conference being a place where people gather to “confer.”

When I’m presenting, if I get bored, I can just go in a new direction. If I’m curious about something, I can explore it. I’m not trapped by someone else’s direction, which may not be going in the same direction as I want to go.

I’m not entirely sure what this little “confession” says about me, but I’ll be sure to bring my podcasting equipment to future conferences, at least. (However, I don’t see myself attending another out-of-town conference for a while, since my wife is now in an academic program at Stanford and I need to pitch in more around the house, especially with the kids.)

In other conference tidbits, I was happy to get some on-the-spot feedback from Phylise Banner about a visual map I was trying to do, similar to what I posted about earlier in How do you establish more context. I realized that what I’m really trying to depict is the customer journey. I’m convinced that all user guides need visual customer journey maps that guide users through the documentation. You’ll probably see more details about this in upcoming posts. Phylise’s advice was to make it look more like a workflow map instead of a table, which is how my depiction had recently evolved.

Speaking of Phylise, she and Joel run the virtual track. I’m happy to say that I didn’t face one technical glitch at all, despite using my own Mac computer with Adobe Connect, and having the audio routed through another process. Phylise and Joel are audiovisual virtuosos.

But on the topic of formats, I think the lecture format of conference sessions is on the way out. I can’t be alone in this. In my program management planning for the STC Silicon Valley chapter and WTD groups, I’m hoping to evolve the meetings to more dynamic, interactive engagements. Things like lightning talks on a theme, Moth-hour story telling, solve-this-problem interactions, doc peer reviews, mini-unconference sessions, and more are what I have in mind. I am purposely not scheduling any more speakers than are already planned.

Overall, the sessions I attended had solid advice. If I could put into practice even a tenth of all this knowledge, I would be a much more effective technical writer. As is, I can only do so much at a time. I find that I have a longstanding interest in API documentation, visual communication, and findability, so it was good to confirm these interests. I never tire of them. I didn’t encounter any totally new ideas, except for a tutorial on Regex, which covered a lot of ground I was unfamiliar with.

But speaking of new things, I think Jekyll was a new tool for many attendees. After my Jekyll session, one attendee (a tech comm professor at a college in New York) said, “You’re the future!” I’m glad he came away with that impression, because I think tools like Jekyll (open source, text-based, developer-centric, etc.) are the future as well.

But I had to laugh a little to hear him say this. First, I’m getting old. I mean, I am now 40 years old, and I’ve noticed signs of aging – I am more skeptical of things, I get tired earlier at night, my legs lack the bounce and spring they used to have on the basketball court, I don’t have as much energy to write lengthy, ambitious posts, and I’m more content with much less (for example, a new episode of some TV show and an hour of quiet time). I no longer want to conquer the world, I guess, but merely live amicably with it.

I’m not kidding about the aging thing. The years are sliding by, and at these conferences, I see the same faces and have the same interactions. It gets a bit too uneventful, I guess. We all have a constant desire to discover new ideas, new people, and new techniques no matter what our age. But having old friends is also a comfort, and it was great to chat with so many tech writers that I’ve come to consider my colleagues.

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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