Steve Plays Twenty Questions
I’m sure I’ve seen your name somewhere...
You probably have. You may have seen me quoted in the October Intercom (members-only link). You may have attended a CAC leadership webinar I’ve hosted, or my presentation at many Summits and regional conferences. You may remember I was on the STC Board previously, and you may have heard me talking about certification as chairman of the first Certification Commission. You may even have heard me perform as part of the BossTunes, a group of Boston-based STC members that performed at Summit Open Jams as well as at our local chapter.
In case you still can't quite place me, I’ve posted more photos here.
Do you belong to any professional groups beyond STC?
Yes, I also belong to the IEEE Professional Communication Society and Write The Docs.
What is your professional experience?
As a technical communicator, I’ve done a little bit of everything: writing, editing, illustrating, training, and managing. I learned the craft at Honeywell Information Systems, starting right out of college. I then worked at Digital Equipment Corporation, where in September 1992 I was appointed a Consulting Technical Writer. Since then I’ve been a documentation manager, principal writer, consultant, and documentation project manager. Currently I work at Oracle as a principal writer and a member of my business unit’s architecture board.
How has the role of the technical communicator changed during your career?
In the realm of tools and topics, it’s changed utterly. I wrote my first manual, about business computing, on a typewriter. (I had a cubemate who wrote drafts longhand!) Our group included writers, editors, illustrators, production coordinators, compositors, and proofreaders; if you can imagine it, the print production cycle took 13 weeks. Now I use a laptop computer to create XML files stored in a content management system in another state. My work can appear on the web in a few hours. Today we may be called upon to create documents, Web content, UI text, video, wikis, or podcasts. We do far more than writing, and produce content for many more channels than print.
Yet I think that the core skills of technical communication haven’t needed to change at all. We still immerse ourselves in technical subjects, determine our target audience’s needs, and communicate just what they need to know as clearly and concisely as we can. Today’s principles of UI design are converging on ideas we’ve always used. Our skills remain relevant and valuable. I tell people I do exactly the same things I’ve always done, just completely differently.
What have you done outside of technical writing?
I’ve written professional papers, magazine and newspaper articles, fiction, poetry, and a trade paperback. I’ve designed and delivered courses, seminars, and workshops, in the US and Europe, on technical and professional subjects. I’ve been an instructor at the Massachusetts School of Law, a proofreader for the Dummies Press, and a compositor for an academic book. I was recently certified as a scrummaster. I’ve even arranged choral music.
You have a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, and a master’s degree in science communication. Have they helped you as a technical writer?
Yes. A scientific background made me more methodical and mathematically inclined than most writers, and I’ve always kept notebooks. Learning FORTRAN to complete astronomy labs involved me with computers and programming. Science communication is a journalism subject that helped me with communicating complex scientific and technical concepts to lay audiences, and taught me the inverted-pyramid writing style (known to us as progressive disclosure).
Have you been active in your home community?
Certainly! For nearly 20 years I served the Boston (now New England) chapter competitions as a judge, lead judge, best of show judge, and judge trainer.
In 2001 I was elected to Boston’s administrative council. Then in 2002 I was elected second vice president, and served in automatic succession as first vice president, president, and immediate past president. During that time I helped revive the chapter newsletter and chaired numerous committees. And I’ve presented at many program and local SIG meetings. I was given Boston’s Landers/Carbrey Spirit of Volunteerism award in 2007.
I started a successful chapter mentoring program in 2014 and today serve as the administrator and as a mentor. I rejoined the administrative council in 2015 to support a member with health issues and took over as managing editor of the news website, a post I still hold. Finally, I have presented several times at our regional conference, most recently this year.
How about SIG involvement?
I’m a member of the Agile and the Usability & User Experience SIGs. For many years I wrote a newsletter column for the Quality and Process Improvement SIG.
And Society-level involvement?
I served on the Board of Directors from 2007 to 2010. I chaired the Certification Task Force from 2007 to 2011, and then the Certification Commission from 2011 to 2013. I participated in the International Technical Publications Competitions from 2002 to 2009 as a judge, lead judge, and best-of-show judge. I’ve presented papers at 12 Summits. I was named an Associate Fellow in 2011, and received a President’s Award in 2012 for my work on certification. I joined the Mentor Board in 2014 and have mentored several members. This year I joined the Community Affairs Committee (CAC) as facilitator of leadership webinars.
OK, got it. So if you’re all that, why the petition?
I was not selected as a candidate this year, but with all due respect I think I’m the right choice. I pose a dilemma because I don’t fit the candidate profile. I’m not a current Board member; instead, I spent 3 years establishing the Certification Commission. But I’m not a new face, either; I have extensive business management, non-profit, chapter and Board experience.
The petition process is outlined in the Bylaws, and only fully vetted candidates can launch a petition. Previous Board members have run—and won!—as petition candidates.
What do you offer as a candidate?
To start with, I have all the usual qualifications. I’m a 30-year member, Senior Member, and Associate Fellow of the Society. I’ve presented at many chapters, regional conferences, and Summits. I’ve been a successful president of a major chapter, an effective Board director, and the chair of a Board-level committee. I’ve won a President’s Award for my dedication and leadership.
But I’ve also been the head of an independent organization, the STC Certification Commission, dealing with STC as both a supplier and a client. And we accomplished something that 40 years of Boards could not do: launch the first certification program. So I have a very broad range of leadership experience, I know the Society both from top to bottom and from inside and out, and I have a record of major accomplishment. This set of qualifications and perspective is unique.
Also, I understand that this isn’t something I’m entitled to. I am actively working to acquire even more skills and knowledge to become a better leader and better deal with the challenges we face.
Your Board experience seems a little stale. What have you done for us lately?
I served on the New England Chapter council in 2015 to fill in for a member with health issues. I am currently the managing editor of the New England News website. I started, and today administer, the chapter’s mentoring program. I have presented at the last two InterChange regional conferences.
At the Society level, I currently serve on the Community Affairs Committee (CAC), as the facilitator of leadership webinars, so I'm familiar with the issues communities face today. I am also an active mentor on the STC Mentor Board.
Do you have experience leading other non-profit groups?
In addition to the STC Board and Certification Commission, I ran two company volleyball leagues, which became independent entities, outlived their corporate sponsors, and operated for 20 years each. I served for 2 years as president of my hometown community chorus, which is now over 30 years old. These experiences have taught me how to work with volunteers, operate within tight budgets, and create sustainable organizations. I also learned how important it is to attract new members—and keep existing ones happy!
In your view, what are the biggest challenges STC faces today?
First and foremost, our membership numbers have been in long-term decline, and the problem has reached the point where it threatens our effectiveness as an organization. Since 2001, membership is down 75% and the number of chapters is down almost as much. This is not because the profession is in decline; in fact it’s growing faster than average. And it’s not because previous Boards ignored the issue. Rather, it’s because demographic and technological changes have transformed our customers, the workforce, and the Society in ways we haven't adjusted to. There are more technical communicators today than ever before. But they’re dispersed and hard to reach, many don’t see themselves as technical communicators, and we’re not focused on reaching out to them—all to our mutual detriment.
Second, I’ve written about the value of volunteers to STC, but we ask more and more of fewer and fewer of them until they become frustrated and burned out. I see it happening to friends and colleagues, and it concerns me. We need to support and value our volunteers, and we need to recruit more of them. The leaders of tomorrow are the young practitioners of today, and if we expect them to step in and volunteer now we need to understand their needs better and offer things they value in the bargain.
Finally, we need to strengthen the communication and trust between the Society and its communities, because neither can survive without the other. I’ve been aware of problems in this area for 10 years, and it has become a primary focus of the CAC, but in talking to members, volunteers, and leaders in recent months, I see that despite our best efforts things are getting worse.
These challenges sound serious. What can you do about it?
They are serious. We’re long past the point where we can just tweak existing offerings and expect to turn things around. We’ve reached a strategic inflection point and now we have to set a new course. A member of the Board is only one voice with one vote. But if you decide to honor me with your support, I will support and pursue three goals:
- Lay the foundation for a healthy, vibrant, and growing STC, providing value to both members and practitioners so that they, and their audiences, can succeed
- Support and value volunteers, the Society’s greatest assets
- Reinforce the trust and communication between the Society and communities
For more detailed information, see my Platform page.
That makes sense, but talk is cheap. What specifically could the Board do?
Look around. We need to get outside the mentality of the boardroom and the trap of “boardroom groupthink.” We don't know all the answers.
Get around. We’re not the first association to deal with changing demographics and declining membership. Research and benchmark with other organizations that have overcome similar challenges. How have they done it?
Ask around. The largest group of practitioners today belong to the generational cohort under 35 years of age. Convene focus groups of both younger members and non-member practitioners, enlisting our members at larger companies to act as facilitators. By convening focus groups and constructing accurate personas, we can learn and visualize their goals, needs, and problems.
The information we obtain by looking around, getting around, and asking around would provide evidence to persuade the organization of the need for transformation and also suggest specific tactics we can use to achieve that transformation.
You talk about transformation and new members. Does that mean abandoning current members?
No! I'm a 30-year member myself, and the Society has been hugely important to my career. STC is optimized to support our members today. I’m looking to expand the Society’s focus to support members and practitioners today and tomorrow. That is the way forward for STC to survive and thrive.
What makes a good board member?
The most important quality for a good STC Board member is breadth of perspective. You have to be able to think both big and small—to consider the big picture as well as the gritty details. Some people come onto the Board thinking they represent one member constituency, but they really need to consider all members and the Society itself, as well as practitioners and the profession as a whole. Other people, accustomed to running organizations or their own company, adopt a hands-on approach that soon becomes micromanagement and drives away volunteers. The Board’s perspective must be strategic (where do we need to go tomorrow?), not just tactical (what do we need to do today?).
The other important quality is the ability to work collaboratively. No one on the Board, not even the president, gets to dictate or give orders. Instead, you have to motivate, persuade, and influence—in and out of the boardroom. You can’t do the work of volunteers. Instead, you have to set direction and trust them to deliver.
Why do you want to do this?
I’m a second-generation technical writer and a lifelong technical communicator. To me, our profession isn’t just a paycheck or a stepping-stone to some other field—it’s my career and my passion. I enjoy my work, I strive to improve whatever I work on, and I bring new people into the profession and the Society. I’m enthusiastic and fully committed!
Likewise, I’ve been an STC member for over 30 years, and the technical and leadership skills I’ve learned, plus the friendships and connections I’ve made, have brought me jobs, promotions, satisfaction, and success. I know the value of STC to me and to the profession. It’s high time I gave back.
Today I work for a large corporation whose business prospects will not be affected by whether I win or lose. Serving won’t advance my career, bring me business prospects, or complete my personal brand. And I know what I’m in for; the time has passed for business as usual. So why do I want it? Because I can make a difference! More importantly, I think I can help move STC onto a brighter path. Together, we can make STC better, and STC can make the world a better place.