2020 has been an awfully eventful year. I’ve been fortunate enough to work from home since March, and we’ve essentially been hiding in our home since then. I bought a new car in September and haven’t yet put any gas in the tank. (It’s a Prius Prime, but come on—it still shows the tank as full!) I’m politically active, but in the last few weeks I’ve spent more time sleeping and less doom-scrolling.
Over the last two years I served back-to-back terms as president of STC New England, and my blogging energy went into announcements on the chapter website. Now I’ve handed over the reins and ascended to the post of immediate past president. At the same time I’ve moved this blog to WordPress. So it seems like a good time to start blogging for myself again.
At this point I’m not running for Society offices and I’m not looking for a new job. I don’t know if my new circumstances will allow me to blog more, but if I do, at least my posts won’t be quite so focused on STC and self promotional.
The annual STC election, for members of the Board of Directors and the Nominating Committee, is underway. If you’re a member, you should have received a link to the election website (send email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have not). We have until 9 March to vote, and it’s important to do so. The Society needs our active involvement. You can find out more about the election slate here.
For what it’s worth, here’s who I voted for this year.
For Vice President: Ben Woelk
Ben is a President’s Award winner, an Associate Fellow, and has been very active in his chapter, the Spectrum regional conference, the Society (particularly the scholarship committee), and the Community Affairs Committee on which we both serve. He has generously shared his time and knowledge with many of us. I agree with him that the primary challenge the Society faces is demographic, not just technological. If he approaches the role with the same vigor with which he has approached the campaign, he will accomplish a lot!
For Secretary: Kirsty Taylor (incumbent)
Kirsty is running unopposed for re-election, but she is a long-time active member who has been an effective Secretary. To use a cliché, consider that she has put her money where her mouth is by traveling to Board events from Australia. Now that’s commitment. She has earned my continued support.
For Director: Ramesh Aiyyangar and Alisa Bonsignore (incumbent)
Ramesh is a past president and fifteen-year active member of the India Chapter, an Associate Fellow, a Distinguished Chapter Service Award winner, and, as I can attest, an energetic and effective member of the CAC. He recognizes the importance of moving past retention to a growth strategy for STC by expanding both our reach and our breadth. He would bring a welcome and important perspective to the Board. His work ethic, dedication, and perseverance continues to earn my vote.
Alisa, who is running for re-election, recognizes the importance of the CPTC program, which of course appeals to me. But she also recognizes that membership and revenue growth, not budget cutting, are the keys to our future.
For Nominating Committee: Jackie Damrau and MaryKay Grueneberg
Everybody in STC knows Jackie, who has been active at the Society level forever, it seems. This is an ideal attribute for a member of the Nominating Committee, and indeed she has served on the committee before. Jackie has also been a chapter president, regional conference manager, SIG leader, and member of multiple Society-Level committees. Unsurprisingly in light of her contributions to the Society, she is a Fellow. I admire her ongoing willingness to serve at the chapter and Society levels.
Like me, MaryKay has been a technical writer since she graduated from college. She has been a chapter president and has served on several Society-level committees. She is an Associate Fellow. I think she has the appropriate breadth of experience and contacts to go a good job on the committee.
The annual STC election for members of the Board of Directors is underway. If you’re a member, you should have received a link to the election website (send email to email@example.com if you have not). We have until 10 March to vote, and it’s important! The Society needs our active involvement. You can find out more about the election slate here.
For what it’s worth, here’s who I voted for this year.
For Vice President: Craig Behr
Craig, a 25-year practitioner, an academic, a current Director, and an Associate Fellow, has made important contributions to the certification program and the Body of Knowledge, two of the Society’s most important initiatives. He has been published in both Technical Communication and Intercom. His recognition of the importance of volunteers and mentors resonates with me.
For Treasurer: Tim Esposito
Tim, an Associate Fellow, is on the Society’s budget review committee. He has extensive experience as president of the Philadelphia Metro Chapter (PMC) and past treasurer. He has also helped organize regional conferences. I’ve worked with him for the last year as part of the Community Affairs Committee (CAC) and found him energetic, responsive, and committed.
For Director: Ramesh Aiyyangar and Jessie Mallory
If a board is made up of people with similar backgrounds and experiences, they can find it difficult to consider other viewpoints. Fortunately, this year three excellent and varied candidates can help avoid this problem. Ramesh is a long-time technical communicator, a past president and active member of the India Chapter, an Associate Fellow, and a member of the CAC. He recognizes the importance of a growth strategy for STC and expanding both our reach and our perspective. Ramesh ran a gallant petition campaign last year, and his dedication and perserverence earned my vote this year.
Jessie has been very active in a relatively short time. She’s already served as president of PMC, and now coordinates social media for the BOK committee. She recognizes the importance of student members and young practitioners, and I agree with her approach of directly asking us how to make the Society better. I think she will bring invigorating youth and energy.
For Nominating Committee: Larry Kunz and Grant Hogarth
I’ve known Larry for many years. More to the point, a lot of people know Larry, and he in turn knows a lot of people. This is an ideal attribute for a member of the Nominating Committee. Larry is an active and influential blogger with an excellent grasp of the state of the profession and the Society. He is a Fellow and a President’s Award winner. I admire his energy and dedication at the chapter and Society level.
Between two other worthy candidates, I made my second choice on the basis of geographic diversity. Grant has over 25 years of professional experience, has served the Society as a chapter president and ITPC judge, and is active in other nonprofit organizations.
The unboxing phenomenon lets us vicariously enjoy the process of receiving and opening a new product by watching videos posted by other people. Unboxing videos are very popular: Unbox Therapy has over two million YouTube subscribers, and this video garnered over two million views in less than two weeks.
There’s a sensuous feel to unboxing videos, because some products are elaborately packaged. We may never even get our hands on some of them. For example, “Weird Al” Yankovic posted a video of him unboxing his 2015 Grammy award for “Mandatory Fun.” (Vicarious and hilarious!)
Another class of video involves instruction on or demonstration of product installation and setup. Just as we once watched Julia Child or Bob Ross show us how to do things we didn’t know how to do, we can watch these videos to learn how to install or configure complex products. As someone who makes a living in part describing how to install and configure products, I’m interested in unboxing videos, and more so in installation videos. They give us a direct view of how consumers open, install, and set up products. It’s particularly relevant to consumer hardware, but software videos are increasingly available, and we can learn from them as well.
This Unbox Therapy video shows the unboxing and setup process for an Apple Watch. The effort Apple puts into their packaging is appreciated in at least some quarters (as of this writing the video has been viewed nearly two million times on YouTube).
This video shows the installation of a Nest thermostat. If Nest is smart—and I’m sure they are!—they’ve carefully analyzed this and other third-party videos involving their products. Why? First, although the “official” Next installation video is also on YouTube and more popular (viewed over 420,000 times as of this writing), the unofficial one has still garnered over 46,000 views as of this writing, and if it’s inaccurate, it could cause problems for the company. But also, even if it’s accurate, seeing how the product is installed from scratch in the real world by a real customer provides invaluable information. Many of us have had the experience of opening and assembling a laptop computer with both hardware and software components, developed separately and perhaps tossed into the same box. (There’s a story from DEC about a system that was shipped in one crate, but with three separate documents labeled “Read Me First.”) It’s a good idea to audit a first-time user’s initial experience, and an unboxing video affords us that opportunity. Installation procedures are painstaking, and usually we only have the energy to document the mainline, everything-works procedure. How much better the instructions would be if we knew of, say, the ten most common user errors and could head them off!
Chosen at random, here are two third-party videos of software installations. In Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2016, an experienced installer encounters and calmly works through multiple issues in this complex installation that might otherwise halt the process and trigger a support call. In Windows Server 2012, the installer walks through a maze of decision points that would make my head hurt trying to describe (but in this case the video might benefit from the time-compression techniques employed in “The French Chef”).
As technical communicators, then, what can we learn from unboxing videos?
That they may exist for our products right now, and that our customers may be using them
How our product is actually packaged and shipped, and how our customers deal with unboxing
How customers actually install and set up our products
How long steps take
Where points of confusion or error arise in the field
I hope you’ve received some nice products this holiday season and are enjoying unboxing them!
If you are a current STC member, I have a personal favor to ask. I ask you to sign my nomination petition to appear on the ballot as a candidate for Director at Large of the Society in the upcoming Board election. As specified in Article VIII, Section 2, Part D of the STC Bylaws, I must collect some 600 member signatures in the next month to get on the ballot.
Why do I need to take this route? Well, I was vetted by the STC Nominating Committee, but not selected for the preliminary slate. You know my qualifications: I’ve served as an STC Director at Large and chairman of the Society’s first Certification Commission. I’m a 40-year practitioner, a 30-year member, an Associate Fellow, a past chapter president, and a President’s Award winner for my dedication and leadership. I have managed doc groups and led multiple non-profits. I have experience, and also a unique perspective as someone who understands STC both from top to bottom and from inside and out, and who can help effect the changes we need to survive and thrive.
Signing the petition does not commit you to voting for me in the election, but it does support my opportunity to serve you by letting me appear on the ballot. If I am so honored, I will campaign as a regular candidate. But I pledge to you that I’ll work as hard for STC this time as I have in my past roles—and as hard as I’m working right now to get that chance.
April was National Volunteer Month, and, as it happens, when our chapter hosted InterChange, our regional conference. InterChange took a lot of volunteer work to pull off, and I have been thinking of late about STC volunteers. Like many of you, I volunteer time and professional services to STC, at both the chapter and Society levels. STC is careful to recognize the contributions of volunteers, and I’m not complaining. But there are ways to value volunteers—in every sense of the word—beyond simply thanking them.
This is a multi-faceted question. What is the value to an organization of a volunteer, as well as the volunteer’s work? Can a monetary value be attached to volunteer work? What is the value of a volunteer to STC in particular?
First, would you rather staff with paid employees or volunteers? Actually, each has advantages and disadvantages. You can direct employees, and influence their behavior through their salary. But once you agree on working hours, you can’t ask them to work nights and weekends. Volunteers do what they feel like doing, and can stop at any time. But a volunteer can agree to work nights and weekends, in general doing things that might otherwise not get done. So a mix of employees and volunteers, such as STC has, is a good thing.
Another way to answer the question is to estimate what it would cost to replace a volunteer with a paid employee doing the same task. Here’s an example. For a number of years the Boston (now New England) Chapter employed a professional accountant as a bookkeeper. We paid a regular stipend to cover a few hours of professional service. Now, you could argue (as some did) that we wasted our money—other chapters have tech writers as volunteer treasurers. Free beats paid, right? We thought so too, until our accounts became, shall I say, disorganized. (Our records were literally in a shoebox.) We reached a crisis point and needed professional help. The bookkeeper straightened everything out, and our records became immaculate. Over time, the bookkeeper assumed more and more roles with the chapter. Gradually this person became our program, workshop, and conference registrar; our vendor, sponsor, and venue liaison; and our contract negotiator; and all for the same stipend. Since her retirement it is taking us several volunteers to replace her. I say we got a bargain! Not only that: what is in shorter supply these days, money or volunteers?
As with paying a stipend, it’s possible to assign a direct monetary value to the work of volunteers. The accepted method is to track their hours and apply an average local prevailing-wage hourly rate. The overall US average non-farm employee costs $24 an hour for general labor (such as sitting at an event registration table). But specialized labor such as web design, and anything that creates or enhances non-financial assets, is figured at a prevailing local professional rate.
What’s the value of a volunteer to STC? STC is an international association with a professional staff and a multimillion-dollar budget, so how much of an impact could volunteers make? Actually, it’s quite significant. STC is hierarchical, run by a board and professional staff that sets direction and supports communities. But almost everything at the community level is done by, and so depends on, volunteers. This includes organizing and hosting local meetings, programs, workshops, and conferences; providing content for websites; running local competitions; putting on regional conferences; and other things we haven’t even thought of around these parts. For many members, STC is communities. For this organization, the impact of volunteers is magnified.
Can we quantify that impact? Let me run some (deliberately) very round and conservative numbers. If you want to play along, look up STC’s IRS Form 990, which is public information.
Today STC employs a staff of ten. The normal approximation of total compensation (salary plus benefits) in the US is roughly $200,000 per employee per year, but STC is very thrifty at about $120,000. (I’m not saying they all make $120K! A few do, but most don’t.) Not counting vacation time, a year’s labor is about 2,000 hours. So the STC staff annually puts in about 20,000 hours, and costs about $1,200,000.
STC claims 300 volunteers. If each of us donates 5 hours per month, then that’s 60 hours per volunteer per year. Using the general-labor rate of $24 per hour, that’s $432,000, and 18,000 hours, of donated labor per year.
So STC volunteers put in almost as many hours as the staff for a third of the cost (were we paying for it). Comparing the two sets of figures shows the relative magnitude, and value, of the work done by STC volunteers.
If anything, I underestimate. 300 volunteers works out to fewer than 3 per community. Hah! At one time the Body of Knowledge project organization chart listed 150 names. Five hours a month is a lot less than I, for one, donate. (How about you?) STC volunteers manage other volunteers, through Board-level committees, so the staff overhead for that task is low. And STC volunteers aren’t just staffing registration tables: we’re training each other through presentations, writing policies and procedures, designing websites, organizing events—all professional services. I think the actual number of volunteers, hours donated, and total value of donations are all higher than my rough estimate.
Whatever the figure, there are reasons for STC to valuate its volunteers. Generally accepted accounting principles cover volunteer services. From an accounting perspective, volunteer labor is both an expense and a revenue, so it cancels out. (Isn’t accounting fun?) However, listing volunteer hours also has the effect of reducing the relative size of other costs. The overhead of staff isn’t as great if you include the work done by volunteers. Doing so would improve our bottom line. Additionally, taking volunteer work into account would more accurately reflect the breadth and reach of the Society and amplify our impact. This matters to organizations that apply for grants; and corporations, foundations, and the US government offer various matching grants for volunteer hours to 501c(3) organizations.
While I’ve focused on value and valuation, recognition is also important. I think my casual analysis makes it pretty clear (if it wasn’t already!) that STC would have less impact, or perhaps wouldn’t even exist, without the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers appreciate recognition, and tracking their contribution is a form of recognition. If their efforts are tracked, the magnitude of their contribution can be known. Organizations that track volunteer time can directly recognize those who put in the most.
So thank you for what you do for STC! Perhaps some day the organization will recognize your rightful status as a gold-star volunteer…
The STC New England InterChange regional conference was held 1–2 April, 2016 at the Inn and Conference Center of the University of Massachusetts Lowell. We had excellent attendance and we heard some great speakers and presentations. (We even had fine weather for our Friday evening perambulation to the Lowell Beer Works.)