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STC 2006 Conference Notes
2006, Q2 (July 05, 2007)
By Mike Boyd, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Mike Boyd
Mike Boyd

The weekend of May 6 more than 10 STC Carolina members headed to Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas hotels for STC’s 53rd annual conference in Las Vegas, NV. While slot machines dinged and clanked in the background, we learned about leadership, Web technology, techniques for improving writing, affordable usability methods, cost estimation, and dozens of other topics that were covered in the three days of conference sessions.

Some attendees learned new job skills and enjoyed demonstrations of new products useful to their work. Others enjoyed unique educational and networking opportunities, learned new tools and techniques, shared ideas, and previewed the latest software and services from numerous vendors. Read on to absorb some of the ideas and knowledge I gained while at the conference.

STC Conference Logo

Keynote Address

Presented by Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn
Watson and Crick had DNA. Cerf and Kahn had the Internet. To be fair (as the STC materials point out), they didn’t have the Internet all to themselves — Cerf and Kahn are two of many scientists and researchers considered “Parents of the Internet.” In the early 1970s, they designed the communication protocols that allow different computer networks to communicate with each other: transmission-control protocol (TCP) and internet protocol (IP).

Some Key Points from Their Presentation

Cerf and Kahn

  • The Internet has evolved from formal to informal.
  • A few people were involved early on; now, many are involved.
  • They were—and continue to be—very much in support of the Internet and its tools being open-source and available to all.

Food for Thought

  • Now, how much responsibility does the original owner of content have?
  • Can we incorporate user-created information into our documentation, particularly in content such as user’s guides? For example, can we allow users to contribute their own experiences?
  • With this openness and the wiki-fication (I don’t have many opportunities to make up words; please allow me this indulgence.) of the Internet, how can we maintain vigilance to offset incorrect information? One answer might be to use versioning software to prepare and protect valid backup sessions.
  • A related comment: In discussing strategies to move technical communication “from expense to asset,” Donna Sakson, a conference presenter, suggested “Don’t just send content to users—look at reversing the flow. Consider alternatives such as blogs, discussion groups, wikis, and web sites that users seek out for up-to-the-minute information.”

Improving Product Documentation through Customer Contact Programs

Presented by the Goof-off [Get Out OF the OFFice] team at Cisco Systems
This team’s approach to improving Cisco documentation includes:
  • Participate in customer site visits that are organized through local sales teams. The Goof-off team usually brings in lunch and meets with the customers in a conference room for sixty to ninety minutes.
  • Collect online feedback and conduct remote interviews with end users.

Benefits to customers and company are numerous; for example:
  • Involvement with customers reinforces Cisco’s commitment to customers.
  • Follow-up and dialog increases customer satisfaction. They have received great comments from customers such as:
    “That’s what I like about complaining to Cisco—someone actually answers!”
    “I appreciate your getting back (to me) so quickly… Keep up the great work. Feel free to e-mail me more surveys.”''

Benefits to technical communicators
  • Off-site visits give technical communicators a change of scenery and extricate them from their cavern of cubicles.
  • Visiting customer sites gives them the opportunity to discuss the customers’ experience using the documentation, tools, and web site.

Developing a Corporate Documentation Style Guide

Presented by Dr. Jackie Damrau of the STC Lone Star community
Damrau suggests promoting style guides using:
  • Intranet [articles, banners]
  • Email distribution lists
  • Newsletters
  • Team meetings
  • Informal training sessions

Damrau suggests maintaining style guides by:
  • Revising them on a pre-arranged schedule
  • Soliciting feedback from users
  • Publishing in a PDF format
  • Maintaining copies for historical records

Some of the style guide references Damrau uses include:

Closing Session: “Just a Drop in the Bucket: Technical Communication, Hurricane Katrina, and You”

Presented by Anita Salem
Anita Salem
Anita Salem

In her professional life, Anita Salem, president of Salem Systems Inc., helps organizations solve technical communication problems and create user-centered products. As a volunteer for the American Red Cross, Anita went to the Houston Astrodome a week after Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of evacuees to seek shelter there. In a situation where entropy and exhaustion overwhelmed volunteer efforts to establish order, Anita discovered that her skills in information design and usability were a rare and valuable resource for those attempting to help people in need. During the closing session, Anita shared her insights about the value of our work and helped us reflect on ways we can use our unique capabilities to improve many kinds of “user communities.”

Examples of how she was able to use organizational, usability, and information design skills:
  • Needing a list of available resources, the Public Affairs Office wanted an alphabetical list. Anita organized the list based on needs: medical, veterinary, telephones, relocation, showers, transportation, etc.
  • She developed a Pocket Guide — a brief FAQ book providing information on available services.
  • Most touching to me personally — she requested an editor.

Others in the audience described volunteer projects they’ve been involved in and how their efforts helped. This session gave me a greater appreciation of what we do and how important it is. One of the many reasons that I enjoy our chapter so much is that the members do so much good in the community. This closing session reinforced for me the innumerable benefits of helping others.

Tips for Future Conference-Goers

My advice to someone who plans to attend future conferences:
  • Attend the main sessions.
  • Use the materials.
  • Meet in advance.
  • Participate.
  • Give evaluations and be candid in those evaluations.
  • Have fun!

I encourage you to take advantage of attending these educational opportunities. Plan ahead for these STC conferences:
  • 2007 – Minneapolis, MN
  • 2008 – Philadelphia, PA
  • 2009 – Atlanta, GA

Mike can be reached at Mike dot Boyd at sas dot com. End of article.

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