Archive for May, 2012


I spent four–five, effectively–days last week at the Society for Technical Communicators 2012 Summit. I was a student volunteer, which meant that I got in for free in exchange for helping with registration and room monitoring. There was no way I could say no–the summit was actually happening in my own town, Chicago!

Saturday was a pre-conference event, the Madcap 2012 Roadshow. It was free admission for summit attendees, and I’d heard of Flare and knew it was something I was supposed to know about, so I decided to go. Anyways, some of my tweeps were going, so it was a good chance to meet up IRL!

I actually did understand some of it. Speaker Mike Hamilton was a rockstar of a presenter, and was fun and easy to follow.

I believe I knew the least about Flare out of everyone there, so I had to do a lot of “guessing” and fill-in-the-blanks to figure out what they were talking about at any given time. I like guessing games, though. Oh, and they gave us the most fabulous breakfast!!

The first day of the Summit, I was arriving in a flurry from my choir gig. I was also parking at the L, since that was $5 and parking at the hotel itself was $20, so I had a few blocks to scramble down. It’s funny how I wear a nice suit and leather bag but still end up running barefoot across the hotel lawn. I think I ended up making it exactly in time.

We divvied up volunteer duties. It was a little complicated for me since I was switching between both registration and room monitor jobs, so I just let them give me whatever was easiest for them. As a result, I got assigned to a lot of under-attended talks that were sometimes really good, but just didn’t have the mass appeal on paper that the more in-demand ones did.

The keynote speaker was Scott Berkun, who gave a good enough talk that I bought one of his books. Both, I felt, were enjoyable, but didn’t contain anything particularly revelatory for me personally. Maybe because I’m an artist (and yes, I am an artist as Berkun describes, much to the detriment of my lifestyle and livelihood, though I’m trying to kick the art habit), I just kind of felt like I already think the way he proposes.

It’s hard to say what else I did at the summit, because I just used my program to kill a roach.

I worked registration during one of the quieter periods, which was nice because I got to say hi to so many people, some of whom remembered me later.

I worked various sessions, which mostly meant I took a headcount and had to run out of the room if there were any problems and find someone to fix it. I actually did get called to action a few times, which was fun. It makes me feel like a hero! Not in a Superman kinda way, but firefighter or something.

If there’s one thing that I learned, it was to ALWAYS do a sound check before you start a talk. The majority of speakers had their mikes too far away from their mouths and had to be interrupted because we couldn’t hear them.

The other thing I learned is that “technical communicator” is too generous a term for most of us. Only a few of the speakers I saw had any actual public speaking skills. The ones that did were great, but they were the minority.

Maybe all the other people were “technical writers” or “documentation specialists.” But this is the Society for Technical Communicators, and if you consider yourself a “technical communicator,” you need to communicate orally. And communicating orally is only 20% words. (I’m making that statistic up by roughly averaging the estimates in the second paragraph of this.)

I was living off-campus for the Summit, as my house is a 45 minute drive from the hotel. So I missed out on all the social activities, even the ones I really wanted to go to, like the jam band and the tweet-up. But it would have meant little sleep, and I get cranky if I don’t get my beauty rest.

I’ll still be eligible to student volunteer next year in Atlanta. Hopefully I can find a place to stay so I can go! I have always wanted to go to Atlanta. I love the South (that’s where my mom is from) and my parents actually met in Atlanta, though I’ve never been. So, hope to see you all next year!

One of my greatest woes as an up-and-coming technical communicator is the hailstorm of tools and programs I’m expected to know how to use. I feel like every job application I look at, I’m pelted with a new one. Viso! Flare! Framemaker! Robohelp! I’m still getting used to Adobe Creative Suite, so it can feel overwhelming.

Those that have gone before me have suggested attending live product demo events, and one of my gurus sent me a link to the Perforce Road Trip 2012, which was coming through Chicago. I was going to be in the River North neighborhood that day anyways, so it worked out perfectly!

The slogan for Perforce is “Version Everything.” I had no idea what Perforce was. I did know what versions were. I had never heard it used as verb before, but I got the picture. I decided to be surprised, rather than figure out what the product was like beforehand.

The event was held at the Westin Chicago River North, which was a beautiful hotel. I don’t stay in fancy hotels–when I travel I usually couch surf or stay in youth hostels–so I sometimes feel pretty lost inside them. I didn’t know how to find the room, and the only people I could find to help were at the “Preferred Guests” counter, and I wasn’t a Preferred Guest–I wasn’t a guest, period! But of course, all the people who work in fancy hotels are crazy nice because that’s their job, so they helped me anyway.

I checked in and got a name tag and a swag bag containing a hardcover notebook and a set of those cardboard box speakers you can assemble. (That seemed like an odd choice, but how many pens and t-shirts that don’t fit can you really use?) I was one of the first people there so I could sit wherever I wanted, but I quickly realized that the seat I had grabbed was too far back, as I was already having trouble reading the projector screen. So I moved up to the front. Even then there were things I couldn’t read. Projectors are designed to be used in the dark. If you’re going to use them with the lights on, you need to adjust accordingly.

Ironically, the guys behind me and I struck up a conversation where they were telling me about all these interns they were interviewing. Turns out I had applied for an internship for their company, but no one had ever gotten back to me. It was a completely different department, though, so they were off the hook.

I was one of the only women there, so there was no line for the bathroom!

So there were basically four lectures and two snack times.

The first lecture, “Managing the Flood of Content,” was my favorite. As a writer who does a lot of remote collaborating, the problem of figuring out which version of a document is the latest, or the “correct” version, and of knowing who changed what when, is far too familiar. And it’s something you can manage, but everyone has to be on the same page. Even if you’re just working by yourself, it’s too easy to not rename a new or old version of a file and assume everything will be fine.

The presentation featured some robo-cartoons, like XtraNormal or something, that were actually pretty funny. The line “Didn’t you get my file, ‘Project Version Two April 2012 Final 06 Really Final’?” (paraphrasing) hit home. Mr. Seiwald also made an interesting point about the problems in sharing documents via email. You end up with too many copies of the same document–all with the same file name–and it’s hard to know which have been edited. I’ve been hassled lately by the separate copies of my colleagues’ and my documents that are auto-saved in my mail downloads folder. My only complaint about the first lecture is that I understood what the product was for, but didn’t have a clear picture of how it worked. Some screenshots or demo videos would have helped.

The second lecture I had more trouble following. It was clearly geared towards developers, so as a documentation specialist I didn’t really relate to it.

Then we had a break with snacks and demos. I was hoping “demos” would mean we would get to try the product, but it was really just two stations of people showing examples of how it worked. I got one of them to let me try it anyway! I made a new branch and made an edit and saw how to merge it with another branch. That helped me a lot more than just watching.

The third lecture was even worse for me than the second. It was all about development, so there was nothing in it that spoke to me. If I hadn’t been sitting in the front row I probably would have ended up playing on my phone.

The final lecture was both interesting and over my head at the same time. It was two people who work for the New York Stock Exchange/Euronext explaining how they used the product and how helpful it was. Now, this kind of company is obviously an extreme case, which is what made it so interesting. Just the thought of all that money/all those transactions/all those countries. What a logistical nightmare, but at the same time, imagine the whole world depending on your systems. So most of the details went over my head, but I understood the larger concepts of why a product like this is important. Adam Breashears, who had a fabulous bass voice, summed it up best when he said, “If you don’t use a system like this, at some point you’re going to lose your job.” I can see that.

So then there was a reception with an open bar, where I talked to the guys who’d sat behind me and some of their colleagues, which was fun. It seemed like almost everyone there was a developer, so it was more like being around nerds than around business people. (I was all dressed up like a business person, but that’s because I need a job and you never know when you might meet a potential boss!)

Anyways, Perforce seems like a really great tool, but I don’t feel that it applies to me in my current position as a freelancer and student. It’s meant for people working on teams. I might work on a “team” with a client or a classmate, but I can’t expect every person I work with to download Perforce so they can work with me. If I were working for a big company, I would definitely want to use a tool like this.