I don’t get conferences

I’ve been over-analyzing the process I use for content creation. In fact, it’s pretty simple, and the requirements are low. I don’t require a lot of technical overhead to create documentation for my company, and that includes written content, videos, screenshots, and diagrams. And tags and links and comments and a bit of organization.

I’m not creating a set of manuals, or building in-product help. (Not yet, anyway.) Which is what the majority of tech writers do, and I think that’s why I don’t get a lot of value out of most tech writing organizations and conferences.

A little more detail

That said, I’m not much of a joiner in the first place. I’ve never been a member of STC; it’s always seemed too academic and conceptual, and without enough practical value to justify the expense. It seems to be good for personal development and recognition if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, but I’m more afraid of being drawn into debates over “e-mail” vs. “email,” a pastime that many tech writers seem to really enjoy.

But…I attended TC Camp last year (I was unable to attend this year), and I went to LavaCon in 2012. And I enjoyed both of them. I talked to a lot of people, and went to a lot of panels, and took a lot of notes.

I just didn’t end up using a lot of that. Many of the panels deal with processes that I’ve followed for years: Topic-based writing? Of course! Who isn’t writing that way?

DITA and PDF generation? Nah, not something I need. Content reuse? I’ve gone back and forth over that one, and I’m now in favor of NOT having the same info copied in multiple places. But…I do have a few small bits of info in multiple places in my docs, because they’re very small and it’s more work for the user to go to a new page to get that little bit of info. But it’s not a great solution, and I intend to fix it…once I figure out a good solution.

Who I turn to

Probably no surprise, but I get the most value from Tom Johnson and Mark Baker’s blogs. Tom, for example, recently described my doc requirements almost perfectly in this post. I’ve been using Google docs to make it easy for SMEs to review my docs, but I hadn’t discovered the StackEdit piece of the puzzle. Now I can write in Google docs, use StackEdit to convert to HTML, and post that to my knowledge center (which runs on ZenDesk).

Since I’m writing online docs, I need to follow something awfully close to Mark’s Every Page is Page One philosophy: Topics must be self-contained, but at the same time must contain plentiful links to related topics to provide the reader with full context.

Sharon Burton and Sarah Maddox also provide very useful info, but I find that their blogs often focus on old school doc topics (hardly their fault, though, since they spend so much time working with companies who refuse to change those processes). For example, Sarah’s post about API types is an incredibly useful summary. I’ve documented SOAP and REST APIs, but I haven’t worked closely with the other types.

Problems with conferences

The first problem is the expense. Most small companies aren’t eager to spend money to send their single doc resource away from the office for a few days. I’ve had more than one manager who told me that they didn’t see the value in conferences, so that makes the request a non-starter.

When I look at conference schedules, I can often cross of entire schedule tracks. There are often entire programs designed around DITA, or specific tools that I don’t use (I’m sure ArborText is very nice; I am, however, perfectly happy to not be using FrameMaker anymore, even though the keyboard shortcuts are burned into my brain).

With the more relevant topics, I get the impression that the speaker is only slightly further along then I am. It would probably be more useful to sit down with that person and a small group and throw around ideas.

More value from small groups

That’s the benefit of working with tech writers: When you can get away from the silly grammar battles and focus on developing new processes. That’s why TC Camp was more valuable than the much more expensive LavaCon: LavaCon has an impressive lineup of speakers, but it’s just not as valuable for experienced content creators, or tech writers who aren’t using the most popular tools or workflows.

Which makes sense: A conference that appealed solely to content creators who do what I do would attract a very small number of people. Not a good business model. If most writers are use FrameMaker or RoboHelp or whatever, then conference organizers need to appeal to them.

With the standard speaker/listener role at the larger conferences, I don’t feel as engaged. But I feel like I should be engaged, and should be interested in conferences. Although maybe I’m just grumpy because my twitter feed is full of techcomm people on a sort of conference holiday month; but, again, that’s what happens when you follow a lot of contractors/professional speakers who are doing their jobs.

I’ll give TCCamp another shot next year, and maybe actually get off my butt and suggest some topics that I would find interesting. Until then, I have some problems to solve (largely of my own creation), and maybe I’ll come up with some answers that would be of more general interest.


13 thoughts on “I don’t get conferences

  1. I admit that I mostly agree with you about conferences. It’s rare that I get a lot out of them. However, when you present, preparing the presentation does often lead to a lot of insights and best practice realizations. Just having to prepare a presentation will help you get more out of a conference. I also like interviewing people — it’s both fun and tends to be more illuminating.

    I appreciate your honesty in this post. It’s refreshing to read.

    1. Thanks, Tom. Ironically, I guess, my fear is that I wouldn’t have anything informative to say, or that I would freeze when trying to say it (but I have been practicing public speaking).

      Interviewing is also a great idea. It’s rare that techcomm folks interview other techcomm people.

  2. I too appreciate your honesty, Neal. No one can say that you haven’t given conferences a fair shake. You’ve been to a few, and maybe they’re just not for you.

    However, you say that you get little value from conferences because you don’t write manuals or in-product help, and you don’t use DITA or create PDFs. But will that always be the case? For me, a big benefit of attending conferences is hearing about stuff I’ll need for my next job, and meeting people I might work with in that job — or who might help me get that job.

    Also, it sounds like you know your own job — the processes, the tools, the best practices — pretty well. I’d probably enjoy hearing you give a presentation about those aspects of your work, or chatting about them over a couple of beers. Conferences aren’t always about what you can get from them: sometimes you can give something too.

    I don’t attend nearly as many conferences as I’d like, mostly for the financial reasons that you mentioned. But I do think they’re valuable. And, yes, I’ll admit it: I think they’re fun too.

    1. Thanks for the comment. And I will readily agree that I’ve had fun at conferences. Of course, then I feel guilty about having fun on the company’s dime.

      I think I need more guidance about which conference is right for me (if any). There are lots of techcomm conferences, and even after looking at the schedules I can’t easily figure out whether I’d get more value from WritersUA or ICC or something else. And then I still need to sell it to my boss!

      At Lavacon, one of the most productive meetings was dinner with a group of writers, including Mark Baker, discussing our jobs, trends, and other interesting topics.

  3. I’m debating the http://conf.writethedocs.org/ meetups and the conference in Portland. I’ve pretty much given up on STC and those like them, because they tend to focus on backward-looking rather than forward-looking technologies. Much as I disdain the things in general, every three minutes or so a starry-eyed dev is telling me how awesome the group is, so I guess I ought to investigate.

    1. I want to like Write the Docs, but they don’t have a schedule yet. It sounds like a good idea, and it’s not expensive, but there’s still the detail of travel and hotel costs. Although I do like Portland.

      As for STC, I’ve never seen enough value to justify the cost. No employer has ever asked me whether I was a member, and in fact most people outside of tech writing don’t know about it. Their salary surveys are interesting, but they’re probably a lot more useful for writers who aren’t here in the valley.

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