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.

President’s News and Notes

As we start this new year off right, I want to first say a special thanks to all our Chapter volunteers: Mysti, Marie, Monica, Marc, Riley, Hallie, and Bonnie. You all make the Chapter possible!
Interested in being part of the club? We have a bunch of volunteer opportunities available, most of which can be completed with your laptop from the comfort of your couch.
Twitter Manager – Update our Twitter feed.
Volunteer Coordinator – Emails and updates volunteers on tasks.
Hospitality Coordinator – Backup for the meeting greeters (must attend the meeting in this case)
We’re also kicking off the new year at the Chapter with a couple of changes. You may have seen the notice that we’re lowering our monthly meeting ticket prices by $5. Another smaller change: We’re upping the ante for whoever writes the summary of the meeting for publication on our website. Now, once the article is published, the author receives a free meeting coupon. I hope people take advantage of this because if there aren’t any takers, we don’t have a summary for those who couldn’t join.
Speaking of remote folks, I know that many of you ask about recordings or streamed meetings. We tried last year, but there were too many technical and audio issues. If we get a volunteer who can devote more time to this, we promise to try it again!

And…

In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share a couple of resolutions.
Drink more tea. This is really “drink more water” but disguised in Egyptian Licorice and other earthy flavors.
Do less harm. I’ve been thinking about how much my food and other purchases have an effect on myself and the environment, so I want to re-consider what I buy.
Meditate more. Taking a couple minutes to slow down seems so difficult, but mindfulness can be a powerful force in your life.
Keep challenging myself. Whether at work, training for a race, or fitting more yoga into my life, I want to keep pushing to do the best I can. I’ve found that I accomplish much more than I ever thought I would by having confidence in myself.
I hope you resolve to come to more Chapter meetings in 2016!

Thoughts from Our President

Although it comes up pretty often, I’ve been recently thinking more about how I would teach someone how to be a technical writer.
Spurred on by a programmer friend, I began going through online programming lessons through Codecademy. Since I don’t have any background in development, it was an uphill struggle. Luckily, my friend was there to help me. I’m happy to say that I completed a few courses and learned so much from the process.
At the start of a long car ride, my friend asked if I could return the favor and teach him about technical writing. And, I promptly drew a blank. Granted, I’ve been a technical writer for many years. And it’s been many more years since I took tech comm 101 at San Francisco State University. So, I was at a loss for how to condense my years of knowledge into chunks or even lessons.
So, I stumbled around for a while:
“Well, you have to know the basics of grammar…” 
 
“And, you need to write, but you need to learn how to write as little as possible because people don’t like reading docs…”
 
“You really need to know how to interview people…”
 
“White space…”
 
“Audience and purpose…”
 
“You’re really an advocate for the user…”
Granted, I probably could have shared more useful information if I spent some more time thinking on it, or was a skilled instructor. Looking back, it was interesting to see how difficult it was to start from zero explaining what I believe can be a difficult profession to pin down.
I’m working with an intern at work for the summer. It’s my first time working with an intern as a senior writer. And, I feel an immense sense of responsibility to share what I’ve learned with her. Luckily, as a technical writing intern, she’s learned the basics. But, remembering my earlier, sad efforts with my friend, I’m starting to think more seriously about how to share information.
I had a rocky start at my first “real” technical writing job, so I deeply understand how important it is to support those who are starting their journey in technical communication. Maybe I won’t give a perfect lesson every time, but I will try my best to be patient, encouraging, and generous with my time.

President’s News and Notes

I recently attended the live webinar Trends in Mobile Software User Assistance by Joe Welinske. It was a very interesting presentation, and I really appreciate Joe taking the time to speak to those who registered.

I haven’t written specifically for a mobile user interface, so in addition to learning about a new documentation delivery trend, I was also interested in the topic as a consumer.

Here are points that Joe highlighted:

Small Screens Means More Integrated Help, Visual Cues and Icons

There’s a very small amount of visual real estate on the mobile screen. This means that traditional documentation formatting is often abandoned for transparent overlays or highlights. In fact, two of the latest apps I downloaded (Alien Blue for Reddit and Duolingo) didn’t even have a help system at all. After some navigating around, I didn’t find any help pages either. Instead, both apps used icons and menu headings to inform the user on where to go.

This is not uncommon for mobile interfaces. Joe indicated that fitting traditional help documents into a small screen is not a wise choice, given that people consume information in a wildly different way on their phones. However, single sourcing content but exporting for print, web, and phones makes sense without too many more steps.

First Impressions Are Important

App users need the most help on the first couple interactions with the device. Once they get the hang of the program, there won’t be much need for additional assistance, unless new or vastly updated features are introduced. Sometimes, a company will communicate these changes, with user help, via other forms of social media or some type of pop up window.

So, as the first interaction is key to a user understanding how to use the system, some companies are taking the extra step of using guided help or a getting started tutorial. This may take the form of several pages of explaining how to complete common tasks. Another common device is the use of transparent overlays or arrows directing users to where they want to go. I’ve come across this type of help in apps that have complicated or multi-step processes, such as Stellar.

 

Missed the Webinar? You’re in Luck!

If you would like to request a recording of the webinar, please fill out the contact form on Joe Welinske’s website and include the name of the webinar, Trends in Mobile Software User Assistance, and that you are part of the STC San Francisco Chapter community in the comments box.

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season!

There is a lot of exciting work going by the Chapter elves to prepare for the New Year.

First, we are working on organizing some great presentations to start off the year. I hope you can join us starting in January to hear Floyd Smith on the environment, a great follow up on a recent presentation by Linda Urban on sustainability.

Starting in January, our meetings will be held at a community meeting room at the Rincon Center Salesforce office. Full directions are available on the website and are included in a separate article in this newsletter.

We are also working on updating the Chapter’s website. The address will stay the same, but there will be a brand new look and feel. In addition, we will be able to have more frequent Chapter updates and news posted.

Finally, I want to thank the new and continuing volunteer elves of the Chapter.

  • President: Leah Scampoli
  • Treasurer: Marc Smirchich
  • Programs: Marie McElravy
  • Website: Andra Zamacona, Riley VanDyke
  • Newsletter: Sherry Nugent, Christine Calderon, Keith Albert
  • Hospitality: Hallie Sinor, Sherry Nugent
  • Rewards Program: Bonnie Kim
  • Marketing: Steven Birdwell

We couldn’t have a Chapter without everyone’s help! A big thanks to everyone for volunteering their time. If you want to volunteer, please contact us at info@stc-sf.org. Many of the positions require a team effort or backup.

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

As Halloween is almost upon us, I thought I would share some tricks and treats (aka milestones and experiences) that I’ve picked up from my work, along the way.

TREAT: After over a year of working on my first API reference documentation, getting to finally see it available to customers. (And getting rave reviews internally)

TREAT: Not having to use my written notes to send out emails because I finally learned the confusing email program that we use to send emails with.

TREAT: Being able to write great REST URL examples.

TRICK: Hearing that a customer thought a part of the documentation was very confusing. Even though I didn’t work on that section, not the greatest to hear, nonetheless.

TREAT: Completing my largest documentation set ever.

President’s News and Notes

Although we are only just past the half way point for the year, the Chapter is already looking to next year to start filling volunteer positions. I know you have previously heard about all the great benefits of volunteering for the chapter, but I hope you will indulge me once again.

Besides giving back to the local STC Chapter, volunteering is a great networking opportunity, as you get to interact with other technical communicators face-to-face–both the guests of the Chapter and the speakers at the monthly meetings. It’s also a real feather in your cap for LinkedIn profiles and resumes.

Our volunteer force deserves so much gratitude and thanks for all the work they have put into the Chapter. And, they also deserve a little break from the roles they have been filling for the last couple years.

So, I am hoping that over the next couple months, you will think about volunteering some of your time with the Chapter. Given everyone’s busy schedule, we need volunteers for some key positions to ensure that our Chapter continues providing great meetings.

I fully understand that everyone has a lot of work and personal responsibilities to attend to. However, most volunteer positions can be done virtually for just a couple of hours each month. And, there are a variety of roles that suit many interests:

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer
  • Hospitality Manager/Team
  • Program Manager
  • Webmaster
  • Chapter Support Team

If you are interested in any of these roles, or would be interested in being a backup/assistant, please let us know at info@stc-sf.org.

Let’s make 2015 a great year to volunteer!

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

Although I wasn’t able to attend this year’s STC Summit, I did take a look at the track descriptions. That got me to thinking about how the themes have changed over the last few years. Comparing the last five year’s track descriptions, I noticed that, aside from a few lineup changes, the track descriptions have remained mostly unchanged. However, there was interesting recent development.

Early on, Web Technologies was a mainstay. However, this year, Mobile Content Design and Development made an appearance as Web made its exit. I don’t think it’s necessarily that writing for the web is any less important, but more that writing for the web is now an emerging and vital skill. With improved smart phones and tablets, more and more people are viewing the web and other applications on their portable screens. This type of viewing is very different than reading off of a large monitor and presents a new set of challenges–and skill set. I can only assume mobile will continue to be part of future summit tracks.

Much like the rise of wikis and user-contributed content changed the technical writing landscape, the omnipresence of smart phones and tablets (and the possibility of watches and glasses) seems to be a trend that will only grow in importance. I think that the STC has done a great job by placing the topic on its track lineup to keep its members ahead of the curve.

Do you have any STC Summit stories to share? Email info@stc-sf.org to submit your thoughts.

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

A few months ago, I was placed onto a new project at work: API reference documentation. It’s been challenging, rewarding, confusing, and frustrating–all at once.

I’d never worked on API documentation before, which I don’t like to admit in the company of other technical writers who seem to all be experts in this arena. But, for whatever reasons, I’d mostly worked with consumer documentation, no less technical or difficult, but definitely different. It’s only been the last couple years that I’ve edited developer documentation or written instruction sets for developers. But, never traditional API reference information.

I was lucky enough to be put on the project at work and have the support of an amazing team of product managers and developers to work with, who understood my inexperience writing this type of documentation but had enough faith in me to still produce high-quality documentation without putting too much of a burden on them.

Early on, I started researching how other companies were presenting their API reference documentation, both to get an idea of what was required and to compile some best practices. Together, the team and I identified Amazon Web Services and eBay as having some really great examples. It made sense given that these companies are large and well-established that they would have the resources to devote to documentation. Although smaller, start-up type companies tended to not have such polished documentation, it was always a pleasure to come across a company that had clearly prioritized documentation.

With so many great examples, it was a fun process to pick and choose the best ideas to use in our documentation. As this was a new service and there was no API reference model so far, I had the unique opportunity to create documentation from scratch, without any constraints on consistency or style. This allowed me to create something that was user driven.

Of course, this was only possible because of the great support from the team. Not only did they make the time to review the documentation, they provided really insightful feedback on what a developer would–and wouldn’t–need and like to see in the documentation. It was refreshing to work for a team that understood the importance of documentation. For instance, time was taken to perform usability testing on the tutorials. I’d always heard of, but never thought I would be part of, such type of invaluable, but rarely realized, documentation testing.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges. It was difficult to learn everything about API documentation in a short period of time. Learning new terminology, new tools, and the basics of programming was something I always knew was part of technical writing, but something I hadn’t yet come across in my career.

Sometimes I was confused and frustrated that I wasn’t getting it quicker. But, with a little patience and yogic breathing, I was able to finish the documentation on time for the first, major milestone. It’s in no way complete, and there’s a lot to add. But, it’s been no less rewarding to hear compliments and congratulations.

I’m really appreciative that I had such a great first experience with API reference materials, and I look forward to expanding and building upon what I’ve learned to create even better documentation.

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

At the time I’m writing this, it’s the weekend before Thanksgiving. Besides making food shopping lists and dreaming of leftovers, it’s an appropriate time to give thanks to the absolutely amazing volunteer team for the Chapter. Andra, Keith, Marc, Marie, Monica, and Riley make each newsletter sent out, LinkedIn or MySTC article posted, announcement emailed, treasury report created, and meeting organized.

But, we need your help.

In order to give our team some extra time and to allow the Chapter to expand our offerings, we need additional volunteers. We understand that between work and at home time, little time is available. But, there are many opportunities that take only a few hours a month or can be done remotely. In addition, many can be handled by multiple people to spread the load.

Do any of these positions sounds interesting to you? If so, email info@stc-sf.org for additional details.

  • Hospitality Manager
  • Programs Manager
  • Webinar Manager
  • Marketing Manager
  • Assistant to Webmaster
  • Assistant to Newsletter Editor

Building our volunteer base allows us to offer more to the technical writing community in San Francisco. Looking forward to 2014, which always begins to happen at this time of year, we hope to offer even better presentation topics. I am also especially excited that we have been exploring how to offer those who can’t attend the meeting in person to log in remotely to experience the presentation. By offering webinars, we hope to increase our circle of presenters and allow those outside of the Bay Area (or those who can’t always make it into the City that night) the opportunity to join us, albeit virtually.

It should be an exciting year, and I hope you can join us!

Thanks, Leah