Getting Involved in the Technical Writer Community

On September 14, 2016, SF Chapter president Leah Scampoli presented at the Berkeley Chapter’s Job Fair on why writers should be more involved in the technical writer community. This is a copy of the prepared speech.

Today, I’m going to talk about how to get involved in the technical writing community–and why it’s such a fantastic idea.

So, a little background about me. In 2005, I was a wee baby technical writer, having just graduated from State Francisco State University’s Technical and Professional Writing Program. I went to my first STC SF Chapter meeting, which happened to be the Christmas party. I remember walking to the meeting at the old Elephant and Castle and feeling very nervous. I was about to be in a room full of real technical writers. People who knew a lot more than I did. But instead of feeling self-conscious about my entry level status, I felt so welcomed. Everyone was so enthusiastic to meet a newbie and share their thoughts and encouragement. I walked away feeling energized. I was also the new Hospitality Manager for the chapter.

Over the last 10 odd years of my career, I’ve grown a lot. I worked briefly in the financial sector, then several years at a couple of biotech companies, writing clean room certification reports, clinical trial data management software testing reports, and technical docs for medication databases. Now, I have a #dreamjob at Salesforce writing about how our search works. Along the way, I’ve also grown at the STC SF Chapter. From Hospitality Manager, to Secretary, to Vice President, and now President/Treasurer/General What Needs to Get Done Resource. So, you can tell that I’m pretty passionate about getting involved in the technical writing community. I’m here today to tell you why you should be passionate about our community as well.

The first and most obvious reason is  probably the most appropriate for this job fair. Getting involves gives you  great networking opportunities. I’ve gotten two jobs through the SF Chapter, and both were really milestones of my career. The first one was my very first technical writing job at Wells Fargo. At the meeting, a woman stood up and said she needed an entry level writer. And I sprung at the opportunity. The second is my current job. I had volunteered with another writer at the SF Chapter for a while before talking to her about a career at Salesforce. Being in a room with other writers, whether it’s at at a local meeting or an international conference, is a no-brainer for networking opportunities.

Secondly, being involved in the technical writing community offers a great chance to learn from others or share your own ideas and experiences, especially if you’re a lone wolf writer. I’ve been there, and it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to share problems and experiences with your own kind. Yes, there are online webinars, forums, and blogs, but it’s really not a substitute for being in the same room with a group and having that one on one interaction and flow of ideas. I’ve gone to most every SF Chapter meeting, and even when a certain topic didn’t immediately impact my job, I’ve gotten value. Often, though, topics have immediately impacted my job. Quite a few times, I’ve excitedly reported back to work about a topic with ideas on how we could implement it in our group. Salesforce was the first job where I used DITA. Thankfully, I had a pretty good idea about it given that for a couple years, it was the ever-present topic in technical writing circles. In another case, the great ideas from the community around API docs really helped me when I had my first major API doc set to write.

And meetings aren’t just about taking in information. Meetings offer a great opportunity to volunteer and beef up your resume, either with writing samples or project management skills or people skills. You can write an article for the newsletter or chapter website about a meeting or any related tech comm topic. In addition, I’ve learned so much about working with people by working with the volunteers and guests at meetings. Meetings also offer a chance to improve your public speaking skills, since they’re always looking for speakers. Presenting to your peers at a meeting is a great way to practice talks not ready for conference prime time, while getting thoughtful feedback on your ideas. For me, I know that having to get up consistently to speak at our monthly meetings, even for the silly chapter updates, has made me a better public speaker.

Finally, and this is a little more hippie sounding, but I feel that being part of a technical writing community is good karma. By that I mean that technical writing is my career, it’s my work passion, and it’s given me a lot of opportunities in life. I feel that because I’ve gotten so much, I want to be able to give back and help others.

OK, I’ve talked a little about the benefits about being involved in the technical writing community. But, how would one go about it? There are a bunch a ways. Our SF Chapter website has a Resources page with a bunch of links for you to check out. I’m going to go through a few good ones to get you started thinking.

First, you’re probably familiar with a little group called Society for Technical Communication? They have this thing called Chapters and Special Interest Groups, which host meetings. 😉 Obviously, I’m biased to the San Francisco Chapter, but all the Bay Area chapters do amazing work and are worth checking out. A lot of chapters have special events, like this one. Another event is the Touchstone competition, where you can enter your best documentation examples for review. Being a judge for Touchstone is a great way to become part of the technical writing community.

Another group you may or may not be familiar with is Write the Docs. They have monthly meetups in various places in San Francisco where the format is similar to an STC Chapter meeting. Some topics have included API docs and videos. They also have a YouTube channel and a Slack channel if you want to catch up or reach out to others outside of the meetings.

Next, let’s talk conferences. Of course, there’s the big annual STC Summit, held earlier this year in Anaheim. The next one is May 2017 in Washington DC, so you have plenty of planning time. I don’t think there’s a larger gathering of technical writers anywhere on the earth, which is pretty exciting and very nerdy. Obviously there’s the talks, which are great. But, if you want to really be part of the community, conferences are a great way to talk in person with the people you usually just read online.

I volunteered at one of the first TC Camp, which is the techcomm unconference. It was a blast! First off, it’s local and it’s a great deal, price wise. It calls itself an unconference because the topics discussed are driven by the members of the community, not some conference judging committee–so you get to be part of the discussion on what’s important. It’s also run by some amazing members of the community, so I can’t recommended that one enough.

There are a bunch of other conferences too:

Finally, another way to get involved is to reach out to local colleges that offer technical writing degrees or certifications. For more experienced writers, colleges are an amazing place to find quality interns or entry level writers. We all have been there and wanted a little help in our first years. Plus, having a new perspective works wonders for teams–and it’s a great feeling to mentor the next generation of writers. Both San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley Extension are great places to start.

So, in summary, here are my takeaways. Getting involved in the technical writing community is a good idea because it’s a great way to network, to add to your resume, to share ideas, to learn from others, and to give back. There are tons of ways to get involved. Think about entering a competition, visiting a conference, going to a meeting, and reaching out to a tech writing college program.

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