Perspectives on tech comm from the VP Candidates — Q&A with Ben Woelk
In 3-5 sentences, can you describe who you are, what you do, and why are you running?
I’m a transformative servant leader, innovator, and problem solver who has been able to make a positive impact both at the local and international level of STC and in my industry vertical, higher education information security. I’m the program manager in the Information Security Office at the Rochester Institute of Technology where I manage many of our information security initiatives and teach Technical Communications and Computing Security classes as an adjunct instructor. Leveraging a technical communication skill set, I’ve been able to build an effective and respected information security awareness program. I’m running for STC VP because I love the organization and I believe I can help lead its transformation to ensure we’re sustainable and have a positive impact for our members and the profession as a whole.
In your view, what’s one of the most pressing issues facing technical writers today? Why is it an issue?
There are many pressing issues! For the purpose of this question, I’m going to talk about preconceptions of what a technical writer does and the lack of understanding of the impact they can make for an organization. Even the term “technical writer” provides only a small window on the types of work we do. To put it more succinctly, as Richard Lippincott captured in an _Intercom _article a few years ago, we explain things. We do that in many ways besides traditional technical writing!
An issue for a portion of our membership is that they don’t believe the marketplace understands what TC practitioners do and why that role is important. This is a pressing issue because if employers don’t understand what we do, they don’t hire us or may underpay us. There’s a corresponding issue of members not believing that their employers understand or appreciate what they do. That’s reflected in a lack of advancement and pay issues. I’m discussing a proposed strategy with the STC office to address these issues which will include publicizing success stories of significant impacts TC practitioners have had in their organizations.
What’s one of the most pressing issues facing the STC organization today?
All professional organizations have seen an erosion of membership. (Sladek, The End of Membership as We Know It: Building the Fortune-Flipping, Must-Have Association for the Next Century discusses the challenges in detail.) Changing demographics are having a major impact as baby boomers retire and expectations of membership tenure change. Our challenge is to be relevant to all of our members, provide good ROI on their investment, and to equip them for their rapidly-changing careers. (We’ll see a constant membership churn as boomers retire, GenXers hold everything together, and millennials engage for limited periods.) While embracing these changing demographics, we need to increase engagement by providing a compelling story of the role of technical communication in the marketplace and to make sure that we’re sustainable structurally.
What do you personally get out of your membership in the STC?
What I get out of STC has changed as my career has matured. Initially, I learned a lot about the various facets of technical communication and how to do things. More recently, it’s the ability to mentor and build leaders in STC and to help practitioners make the connections they need to grow in the field. I’ve also built deep friendships with people I’ve met through STC. In the future, I hope to help transform STC and equip our members for rapidly-changing careers in a global workplace.
How would you compare the STC with other organizations (whether formal or informal)? How is STC different?
To keep this relatively brief, I’m going to limit my discussion to a few organizations that are TC-related.
STC was formed about 65 years ago. It’s a traditional tax exempt 501c3 organization whose chief purpose is education. Structurally, it has a centralized administrative staff and a mix of probably 50% of members who are engaged in 60 geographic communities, many in various special interest groups (SIGs), and another 50% who are members of STC but not part of a geographic community. We have a formalized structure that has evolved incrementally, but not always agilely. STC has an annual Summit conference and several of the geographical communities hold their own regional conferences. (The geographic communities all have their own tax IDs, tax exempt certificates, and adhere to filing requirements.)
As a 501c3 and a formal organization, STC has been able to work with government on initiatives such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics listing Technical Writer as its own category and on Plain Language initiatives. STC provides an annual salary survey. STC offers online courses and has partnered with APMG International to offer a practitioner certification program. STC membership is primarily North American with a strong contingency in India.
Write the Docs (WTD) is a grassroots community with a loose organizational structure and is primarily concerned with software documentation. As a friend has described, it’s adept at F2F meetings and online discussions. It has a totally different mission, structure, and membership engagement strategy.
ISTC (Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators) has a primarily UK-based membership. It’s led by volunteers and outsources its administrative functions. There are Area Groups that don’t hold funds. Its members work primarily in small IT-focused firms. ISTC doesn’t offer courses and there are no TC programs at the University level. (Thank you to Ellis Pratt for providing this information for me.)
tekom Europe is a European-based association founded in 2013. Its growth has been rapid. It works to organize groups of practitioners and is a lobby organization that engages at the EU level on policy development and worker education. It’s also involved in the development of international standards.
My goal is to partner with these organizations and not regard them as competitors.
One of the STC’s strengths is its research and publications, but it seems like not a lot of members read these publications, esp. the journal. Any thoughts on helping TC academics and practitioners become two sides of the same coin?
One of the things I most like about working at the Rochester Institute of Technology is our focus on blending academia and industry. Much of academia in general is focused on theory and not on practice. I think that, by and large, graduate technical communication programs are good at providing both a theoretical and practice-focused education that prepares their students for the marketplace. The basic skills of technical communication: audience analysis and contextualizing our messaging for those audiences, are covered well.
I think it’s important for TC academics to engage practitioners in their research and ensure that that they also engage practitioners to help both sides understand the ramifications of that research for practitioners as well as for TC theory. Journals such as Technical Communication strike that balance well. (Part of the issue with members not reading this publication and TC research is that they may not understand that they’ll often have takeaways that directly impact their work.)
Can you tell a story about a recent project you worked on (could be anything from docs to management or even cleaning your garage). What was a challenge you faced? What did you do to try to resolve it? Was there a case where something seemed simple but turned out to be complex, or vice versa?
One of my challenges as the Information Security Program Manager is building and sustaining security awareness. Both end users and security staff face threat fatigue as we encounter a variety of attacks focused on tricking end users into revealing their login credentials. (Tricking end users is more cost effective to the attacker than an attack on technology.) I work in a university community of about 26,000. We have limited official communications vehicles that are overused and often not read (and regarded as spam). We’re facing this challenge by developing a security awareness gamification program to increase engagement by building some excitement, reinforce desired behaviors, and “harden” our end-user population against attacks. I’ve recruited a working group of security practitioners through the EDUCAUSE Higher Education Information Security Council to collaborate on the development of best practices for creating and managing gamified security awareness programs in higher education. We’re still in development, but we’re working to overcome the lack of attention given to security by end users by creating an innovative method to engage them.
Why do you think you’re a good candidate? What makes you unique?
I’m a good candidate because I’m an innovator and strategic thinker who’s made a positive impact wherever I’ve worked. It’s no secret that STC has contracted over the last couple of decades as the field diversifies and other ways of sharing best practices have arisen. STC is more than 65 years old. That’s quite the achievement. However, our structure has not always proven to be agile; nor have we always reacted appropriately to market forces. We curate information, but we’re not the only source of information. I’m looking forward on working with the board of directors and STC staff to recast the organization to ensure that we engage the marketplace, that we’re relevant, and that we provide strong value and ROI for our members.
I hesitate to use the term unique when describing myself. However, I bring a breadth of experience and effective work across small business, higher education, corporations, and STC communities that helps me stay attuned to member needs and that make me well suited to work with the STC Board and Office. I’m a consensus builder and I’m not afraid to take big steps. I’m also a leadership mentor and understand the leadership skills needed to grow our communities.
What are some important trends that technical writers should watch and follow in the field?
Technology! We’re seeing the introduction of AI (artificial intelligence), IoT (internet of things), and chatbots. It’s exciting and a bit overwhelming. We’re learning to develop micro content. We’re seeing efforts by leading TC thinkers to define Information 4.0 in a molecular way as our work is increasingly affected by and encompasses these rapidly-evolving technologies. (These technologies are interesting from an information security aspect as well, both in terms of securing this technology and in its ethical use.) Information Energy 2018, Amsterdam, 1-2 March will provide a forum to discuss many of these issues.
What is something that few people don’t realize or know about you (that you would be willing to share)?
I’m an introvert! (Actually, almost everyone knows that because of my work in Introverted Leadership.)
In high school, I played French horn in the county orchestra, marching band, and wind ensemble and was All-State my freshman year. In college, I played in the Fighting Gators marching band and in the University of Florida Renaissance Ensemble (recorder, crumhorm, kortholt, zink). Yes, I wore tights. No, I don’t believe there are any pix. I hope.
- Campaign video
- Official STC Candidacy page
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Leadership Philosophy Recordings
- My Thoughts on Leadership, Ed Marsh Content Content Podcast, September 2016
- The Content Era: Thought Leader Thursday hosted by Tom Aldous, July 2016
- An Introvert’s Journey to Leadership, meRIT webinar, December 2017
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.