The STC Certification Program: Revisiting the Debate

Transcript of the TechWhirl Certification Podcast with Steve Jong

Editor’s Note: Back in October of 2011, debate raged on the TechWhirl email discussion list concerning the launch of the Society for Technical Communication’s Certification Program.  Al Martine and Connie Giordano sat down with Steve Jong, who chairs the STC Certification Commission to discuss the program history, application criteria, costs, and long-term plans.  During the STC Summit, the first group of Certified Professional Technical Communicators (CPTC) were recognized. We thought it would be appropriate to publish the transcript of our original conversation.

Background & History | Criteria,  Costs & Application Process | Marketing to Employers | Ongoing Development

Logo for Inside TechWhirl PodcastAl: Welcome to Inside TechWhirl. My name is Al Martine and while we had promised that the next time we were going to have our Halloween show podcast, some other stuff kind of came up that we thought it was a really good idea to start talking about. What we are referring to is a very long detailed conversation that has been occurring on our email discussion group on the new Society for Technical Communication certification program. Last week they had sent out some announcements and made some additional details available. All of the sudden this spurred a lot of conversation, with a lot of questions that going back and forth. So we reached out to the Steve Jong, who is the Chair of the STC Certification Commission, and is a volunteer. In real life he is a team leader at Tekelec which is a telecom based in North Carolina but he is in the great state of Massachusetts right now. He has agreed to sit down and speak with us about this certification program, answer some of the questions that we saw coming through the list and just being able to elaborate a little bit on the program. So I am going to hand over to the other person on our call today–Connie Giordano–who is the editor for Tech Writer Today magazine.

Connie:  Thank you Al. I am really glad that we got this opportunity to sit down with Steve who has been one of the fires behind getting certification going. This has been a matter of discussion for a really long time on the Techwhirl discussion list for ever since I have been a member of it back in the 90s. And I imagine that even longer than that would have been in the STC itself. So it has been probably a pretty busy year for Steve going out and talking about how important this is and what are the aspects of. So decided that we were to get and have a chat about that and Steve, welcome.

Steve:  Thank you Connie and thank you Al. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. And by the way I love what you have done with the place on Techwhirl.

Connie:   Thank you very much. We have been excited that we are seeing a lot of new faces and hearing a lot of voices out there, and we are glad to be able to has the chance to liven the community a bit more.  And now we are going to do a little bit more with the podcast. So I guess the first thing to that I wanted to really ask about it, it is just to get a little bit of background. As I mentioned the certification debates them going on for a really long time and I was wondering if you could kind of give us a little bit of background on what the circumstances were that finally brought about this actual real live program.

Background & History

Steve:  Sure. Within the technical communication community certification has been an issue going all the way back to the annual conference in San Diego in 1964. We have records that the certifications have been talked about that long. And it has never gone away. There has been activity at STC on and off since at least 1975, when the first certification task force was set up. We’ve taken a number of polls, done a lot of background work. It has never been out of sight, actually got as far as a business proposal to the board 25 years ago which the board tabled, decided to put it off for two years and that turned into 25. It has been in the last five years that it has become more active and onto the front burner partly because STC has started to look at what means to be a professional technical communicator. What is the definition of the professional?

At that time I was on the board of directors of STC, so I will say we (although the certification commission itself is legally separate from STC and it is a different group) on the STC board started looking what constitutes a profession and hired some consultants to look into it. They came back and said the things that would distinguish a profession are a body of knowledge, a code of ethics, and certification. And we set out to do those things. STC now is working on a body of knowledge. We had a code of ethics and now we have certification. So now we can legitimately take our place as a group of professionals alongside other professions.

I think in the last five years, STC also started to see the characteristics of associations that would be successful in the future. As you know, we have on the staff not just people who are technical communicators but people who know how to run associations. What their sources told them was that the associations that would be successful in the future, the ones that provide value, are ones that have certification programs. So there was a synergy there.

Connie:  You mentioned that you were on the board of directors when this came up again about five years ago. So how specifically did you get involved in establishing a programming and sitting on the commission?

Steve:  There was a certification task force that existed at the time, and when I joined the board the president at that time, Linda Oestreich, was staffing committees and looking for board members to head committees, and she did not have anybody for certification. The subject came up and I made, a fairly strong statement in support of certification, and then another board member stood up and made a fairly strong statement against certification and Linda looked at the two of us and said you know Steve you sound like somebody who would be interested in doing certification. So that is how it happened. I didn’t know any better. And I did not step back fast enough.

Connie:  Oh yes the problem with not being quick enough when volunteers are being scrutinized.

Al: We had theorized that during the first meeting you had been absent and you know that is how you got voted in. That’s how I’d ended up as the chair a couple of times and I think Connie did too. So whoever does not show to the first meeting.

Steve: No it was worse than that. I opened my mouth.

Connie:  Why don’t you give us a little bit you know some of the official “party line,” the more formal description of how you would describe the benefits of the certification program for the applicants, the profession as a whole, and employers. And feel free to embellish that with any of your own thoughts or what you personally feel like are the key parts of this.

Steve:   The first thing the people would say to me as I have talked about certification it is, “you are just trying to make money for STC. Right?” As if that is a bad thing in and of itself. I will leave that aside but a certification program that is just about making money for the certifying body is going to fail. There have to be other reasons beside that. That is a reason, but there have to be things that provide value to the people who we are trying to get certified, to the people who are looking for certified professionals, and there has to be come value to the organization that is going to spend the money to put the program into place. The reasons that you would want to have certifications are called “drivers” and we established the set of drivers several years ago. For an applicant–a person who would want to get certified–it allows an applicant a chance to stand out. It allows an opportunity to increase their employability and their salary. There is a very strong correlation between people who get certified, and who continue to advance their careers through continuing professional development and success on the job. Employers notice that. Employers themselves would say “we like people who stay current in their field” rather than just coming in and punching a clock and doing the job and going home. So there is some value in that. And finally because certification is the last piece to calling ourselves a profession (or calling ourselves professionals), it provides the measure of respect of legitimacy, and I like that as an individual practitioner.

For the employer, the situation that we are in now with technical communication is not a real great one because most employers have a difficult time picking out the person they want. They’ll go to advertise a job and they get a 100 resumes, and some HR person looks through a 100 resumes, not fully equipped to distinguish what makes one writing candidate a better candidate than another. So they look through a 100 very quickly. They don’t know what they are looking for. Something like certification can serve as a flag. Oh here is somebody who knows what they are doing. If they have got two candidates and ask “which one do I interview? This one is certified.” That can be a tie breaker. And I am not speaking about technical communications specifically. It is about any professional field. HR people tell us certification is a tie-breaker. Certification makes a difference. If you apply for a job on Monster these days there is a field there for what certifications you hold?

It is important for employers who are looking to pick between candidates certification can be a tie-breaker again between two equally qualified candidates. This person is certified. That person is not. And it also makes a difference in situations where employers do not get the chance to interview. I have spoken with hiring managers. I have been a hiring manager myself, and we all think we do a fine job of interviewing people. And we do not need any kind of background certification. We can find out for ourselves who the good candidates are. Well that may be. I will say I can do that. But what happens when I am trying to engage a third party, an outsourcing firm–a company that has a lot of tech writers on staff? Which firm do I pick? Who has the best staff? I have no idea. I can’t interview them. What does make a difference, and these third party agencies have told us themselves, is how many certified staff members do they have. The ones with more certified staff members tend to do better.

For the profession this helps to set standards of performance. Right now there is nobody who says “this is what a good tech writer does; this is what a bad tech writer is like.” There are no performance standards. This helps to establish performance standards, and it can help increase performance standards over time. We have a mechanism by which we can change what the profession requires. For instance, DITA, XML, information architecture–these things are more or less cutting edge. There are a few companies that are using them, and a few that are using them a lot. My current employer uses it a lot. Before my company was acquired a couple of years ago, I had no need for it, then my company was acquired, and suddenly I am working for another employer who uses these concepts a lot I have to know them. Things change. The field advances. This is an opportunity to move things along, and in some cases set standards and may be raise the bar over time as things change. So there is a value in it for applicants. There is a value in it for employers. There is a value in it for the profession and oh yes there is the question of non-dues revenue for the society that is underwritten the creation of this program and to the extent that keeps dues from rising, it is a good thing for everybody. I think this is a win-win-win as it has been in other professions that w have studied.

Criteria,  Costs & Application Process

Connie:  What other professions did you guys look at when you were trying to develop these criteria?

Steve:  We looked at other professions that involve communication: American Society for Training the Development, The Project Management Institute (that is a big one that has a very large certification program), BELS (the bureau of editors in life sciences in Canada) we looked a little Tekom. We looked at a certification program or certificate program in the UK. We tried to look at a number of them, and then focused on ones that were close to our domain to get a sense of what they did, what they were looking for, or what they charge. And what worked and what didn’t work.

Connie: Yeah I was curious about that because earlier in my career, I got my certification in public relations from PRSA (back in late 80s). It was a very rigorous program, but at that point didn’t have a lot of cache among employers. I heard a lot of the same arguments on for and against certification in that field as I’ve heard for tech com. So I was curious to what kind of communication fields you guys looked at for this. How did you determine the model that you were going use for this?–of doing this packet of project and work-based justifications for how you made decisions that you made and in the groupings that you put them in, etc.?

Steve:  Part of it was that we engaged a consultant who is an expert at setting up certification program. And we followed what he suggested and I have been pleased with the results. Part of it is working towards setting up a program that practitioners in the field would be comfortable with. What I am thinking of is talking to technical communicators, mid career professionals or beyond that have been in the field for 10, 20, and 30 years. And a very strong response I have got back from that in the week, I got back from them was “I have not been to school in years. I am terrified at the thought that I am going to have to take a test to keep my job. Do not give us tests.” We have portfolios. We are comfortable with the model of showing people what we have done. There is a body of knowledge but it is not fully fleshed out yet. It is getting there, but it is not there yet. If we had a full body of knowledge, as some other professions have, you test against the body of knowledge because these are the things that you need to know to do the jobs. We are going to test on these critical areas of practice, and you can prepare tests right off of that. We don’t have our body of knowledge in that state yet. We have a lot of people who are working professionals who have portfolios but are reluctant to do tests. So that steered us in the direction of portfolio-based assessment. One of our guiding principles was that the assessment will have to cover multiple modes. It could not just be one kind of a thing. So that steered us in the direction of something that is more common in the education field: the portfolio assessment plus commentary.

So the primary structure is: show us a sample of what you have done in a specific area, and write an explanation of how this meets the requirement and why you made the decisions that you did in order to get there. So you’ve got to show that you can do it and you’ve got to show that you understand what you are doing. In the education field this kind of assessment, a portfolio with commentary on what you’ve done is called “true assessment.” They’re really excited about the way it works and they feel it is very honest and accurate assessment of what people in the education field can do. And we thought it would work well for us as well.

Connie:  I noted that one of the questions for those who may listen in on this, who may or may not be active or on the list, one question that came out of that discussion was how the STC program compares to the one that is being instituted by Tekom, the German professional association, and I was wondering if you have been able to get any information yet on how they have structured their programming comparison.

Steve:  We had a commissioner, Kathryn Burton at Tekom at their conference this past week. She is going to report back. I do not have quite enough information to give you an informed opinion about what Tekom is doing. I do know when we looked at them before they were offering a certification for technical communicators working in Germany in German. That’s fine. We are not going after that market. They have started to do is offer a certification for people working in English. I do not know whether they have recalibrated what they are asking what they are seeking in a market outside of Germany. I also do not know the details of the program. At first blush, it appears to resemble a certificate program that might be offered by a college in the United States where you take a small number of classes (three or four) from them, you do a test, and then you are certified. That is a preliminary suggestion and it is my opinion from looking at it from a distance, so I would not put much weight in it just yet. We will find out more so we can understand better what they are doing.

Connie:  Okay. I thought it might be a little bit early yet. I want get into a little bit of the details as it pertains to the cost, because that is always a big concern no matter what field you are in if you are thinking about getting certified. What was the rationale for how you designed the cost structure that is in place with the application fee, assessment fee, maintenance fee, etc.

Steve:  We looked at the overall cost in comparison with other certification programs, as well as the cost of STC’s certificate programs (the classes that STC offers). Our current certification prices are actually lower than the cost of individual classes that STC offers, and it is even a little below the mid-range of other comparable certification programs. So I am comfortable with the price, although I know that it is a lot more than people have been used to paying–this is a new thing.

The way we structured it is to split out the cost of application. There is a fee to apply. Then there is a fee to have the packet evaluated, and there is a fee to maintain your certification year after year. we split it into a yearly fee which is currently 49 dollars and will be 49 after the first of the year for STC members and someone higher for non-members. We split it out for several reasons. Partly it reflects the costs and the timing. You apply, but you do not have to put in our packet immediately. You can take up to a year to turn in the individual pieces of your packet. So there’s an upfront cost that the staff consumes in going through the application and validating and verifying it. There is a fee for evaluation because there is a cost of evaluation. We are giving it to evaluators and the evaluators will be compensated once we get the program fully rolling. this is important, it does involve people’s livelihood. This is not going to be amateurs looking at packets and saying “yeah that looks pretty good.” They are going to be trained and they are going to be paid. That is part of the cost structure.

In the maintenance it is very standard to have a fee for maintenance and when you renew your certification you are going to be saying “in the last three years I have done these professional development activities. I have attended these classes. I have gone to these seminars. I have been active in STC or I have been active in some other professional association.” But this all has to be verified, and if somebody says “I took a class in this at this school,” we are going to have to do some validation that it is the kind that we should accept as continuing education for a technical communicator. Or is it out of the field completely and we should not count it? There are also costs for ongoing marketing and ongoing development and maintenance of the certification program itself. So there are costs we are trying to spread out, trying to avoid sticker shock. The consultant initially suggested “well here is your recertification fee. This is standard in the industry.” And we looked at it and said “oh I do not think, I do not think our members and practitioners are going to go for that at all. May be we could spread it out as a yearly fee rather than hitting them all of at once.” So we are trying to just soften the blow a little bit. Within the structure of this being a mid price or may be an even a little mid price certification. So spreading out the cost is the part of it. The time gap is part of it. I think I have explained what your certification dollars going to go towards. I should hasten to add that the certification commissioners are not getting a penny of this money. I am doing this out of my interest in certification. I am not getting paid. And I’m not going to be.

Connie:  Okay. I think that is important for folks to recognize it there is you know first to know from mercenary rationale for this. And you’re to be commended for taking so much time to work on something this massive.

Steve:  Thank you I will also add that there are going, the staff is getting paid. They are charging us for their time. And you know when we say process 150 applications, that is not free. Their time is being paid for and that is part of the reason we have fees. But the commissioners are not being paid.

Al: Steve as you were talking about that, you were talking about the evaluators. Can you talk a little more about the evaluators, who they are and how do they qualify. What constitutes the graders in this?

Steve:  Sure I am not going to tell you who the evaluators are because this is a double blind process, where the evaluators do not know who the candidates are. There will just be a candidate ID number, and the candidates would not know who the evaluators are. Somebody on the staff who knows which evaluator did which candidate and who their candidate is. There is a kind of “chicken and egg” or bootstrapping problem today. Ideally, the evaluators should themselves be certified. We do not have any certified evaluators yet. The program is just starting. So who is going to evaluate. What I was saying a year ago if you have gone to the conference a year ago, I was saying all-star evaluators and we may still do that. But right now it is the commissioners, because we helped develop the scoring criteria, and we are the best trained on what we are looking for. So it is going to be us for a while. But as soon as we can get out of that business, we will get out of it. We will provide a new generation of evaluators. They will be trained, and they will sign non-disclosure agreements. We have already signed non-disclosure agreements, so you don’t have to worry that we are going to blab about your company’s secrets. We do not care. And the samples that we are looking at will be small enough so that there need not to be any secrets in the them at all, or you could recreate your work.

I would mention that the scoring criteria which we developed with the help of our consultant is utterly unlike the judging criteria that you might imagine came out a publications competition. This is completely different. I have been very impressed and pleased with the scoring criteria as they have been developed. They are much more objective, and they are much more quantifiable. We have a clear idea of what constitutes competent work: what meets the standard, what exceeds the standard and what is not at the standard. It’s clearly defined and I think we can quickly and accurately assess samples against those scoring criteria. So this is the sort of thing that we will train the evaluators on. And we will also be able to test evaluators–we can evaluate evaluators. The way the program is structured an applicant will send in submissions in blocks. There are actually nine submissions within the total packet. And we can set up a double blind system where an evaluator gets a packet identified only by a number, and will render an assessment on that packet. Well if they do not know what the packet is it might be a packet from an applicant. It might be a test packet of somebody who the commission already looked at and said “this is a pretty good answer, pretty good submission.” Or it could be a submission that is not so good. And we have already said “you know if somebody submitted this it would not be good enough.” So we can put these test packets in the stream once the stream gets big enough and the evaluators are not going to know whether they are evaluating a live candidate or a test submission. But we will look at the results that come back. And if there is an evaluator who is constantly passing everybody even for submissions that we know are not any good, or somebody who is not passing an awful lot of submissions, including test submissions that we know are good, we can make some adjustments there.

Al:  Gotcha. So that sounds like you are attempting to reduce any of the variance that can come for any of the reviews. So I have a follow-up and also a couple of questions and then we will bounce back and forth on a number of questions about promoting this to businesses. But the next question that comes to mind: Passing. Getting certified–not a lot of questions there. Right? I get the big packet and it says congratulations. But what happens if I submit my packet. I go through the entire process and at the end I fail, I do not get certified. What can I do as an applicant to challenge that initial decision?

Steve: If you pass you will be told congratulations. You have passed. You are a certified technical communicator. If you do not pass you will get “we are sorry about you have not passed.” We will give you some minimal feedback, “this is the area which you need to work on some more.” You will be welcome to apply again. The fees are non-refundable, so you do not get your money back if you do not pass. I think we will allow it immediate reapplication but you might not want to.

Al:  Okay. So to, if I do not pass then the process itself is also using it as a teachable moment. But I’m able to get some feedback that this part of the portfolio was not strong enough. It sounds like the evaluators will provide some sort of detail feedback.

Steve:  We will provide feedback. It will not be detailed feedback. But it will be feedback. The other part of your question is appeal. The process is already set up so that you have avenues for appeal. One of our guiding principles is that there needs to be some kind of remediation in case somebody does not get certified and so we will have that process. We will be able to bring in a senior evaluator to take another look if you want. If you pay a fee, you can say “I do not think this was right and I want you to take another look at it.” But we will have somebody else who was not involved in the original decision take another look. And if you feel that there was something unfair about it or incorrect. We did not follow our process there will be an appeal mechanism. The appeal board will be the certification commission itself, and we can make a determination as to whether we followed the process correctly and did it the way we said we would do it.

The certification consultant that we use we picked because he knows how to set up certification programs that are legally defensible. One of the things the STC board was concerned about was the potential legal liabilities of getting into a certification program. So we were attracted to somebody says “I have set up a number of programs that have not lost a law suit yet.” this is not a foremost on our mind but certainly there is possibility when you are talking about people’s income and their livelihoods that somewhere down the road somebody is going inevitably to say “I am going to sue you,” and we are preparing for it. We are setting up something that is as share and defensible as possible.

Marketing to Employers

Al:  Okay. Thank you for elaborating on that. Let us talk about just for a little bit to the students and those who are getting certified who are really only half of this equation. The other half are the businesses that are evaluating it. What is the STC doing to promote this new certification in industry?

Steve:  We have talked to industry leaders, as we have been working on defining the procession and setting up the certification program, to ask what they were looking for. We will market the program. I know what else on the STC board people said you really need to market the profession. Well part of your certification dollars are going to go towards marketing certification and the profession. That is going to be an important component of it.

Al:  What type of marketing is intended or has been happening?

Steve:  Not too much has been happening. The program has not generated enough revenue to get into much marketing. We have had some proposals out there. We have got some responses and probably after the first of the year we will start funding marketing efforts. There were some very different ideas and suggestions on how to get the word out, but it is contacting businesses not just through the STC channels but through other channels as well. And things frankly thinks like this speaking on TechWhirl, going to STC programs, chapter programs speaking at the Summit that is part of it too. It is going to take some time but the ball has began to move and we are going to keep pushing on that ball keeping it going, getting it rolling.

Al:  So let us say I am en employer and I am looking at one candidate who has the new certification. And one that does not. Everything that was just completely equal. What is this certification telling me as an employer, if I chose that person that has the new certification?

Steve:  It is telling them that this organization is warranting that the certificant, the person who has the certification, is a competent professional and can do the job. It tells them that we looked at that candidate’s educational background and work experience and determined through asking questions and looking and evaluating the answers, that they have a broad general knowledge of the profession. If I am a small employer and I do not know how to interview a technical writer this may be sufficient. This may be all you need to know. This person is certified. They must know what they are. If it is a large employer who is looking at a staffing agency that employs a lot of technical communicators, it gives give them some assurance that the staff knows what they are doing because so many of them or some number of them are certified. It is not meant to replace domain knowledge. We are not saying that the certificant is versed in a particular field like medicine, or finance, or physics or any particular domain. It is their knowledge of technical communication that we are certifying.

Al:  No domain knowledge but what is it not telling me?. Obviously not that the candidate is an expert in that particular industry. But what else should I not infer as an employer looking at that certification.

Steve:  That is an interesting question. Certainly domain knowledge is an important thing that we are not covering. That is something that an employer is expecting to look for or verify on their own. For example, if a pharmaceutical company wanst people with backgrounds in biology., we cannot certify any more than the employer can what the candidate’s background is. So we are staying away from that.

We are not certifying that the person is a toolsmith. We have stayed away from tools knowledge. The skills, the knowledge and the ability of a technical communicator include, but are not limited to, tools. You could just as easily hire an administrative assistant who has strong tools skills in certain tools. High school students routinely now are taking Microsoft certification courses and getting certificates in Microsoft Office. There is no point in our saying we certify this person as an expert with Microsoft Word when that does not distinguish our certificate from a high school graduate. No, we are looking at things that are technical communication. So that is the area we are in, and domain and tools are out.

Connie:   That seemed to be one of the big points of contention on the list — what people were afraid would be misconstrued value or lack of value. Because a lot of folks feel that employers are increasingly looking for people with specific domain knowledge as opposed to generalists who can then be taught that. I do not know if you can speak to this on behalf of the commission or whether it would be your personal opinion and either is certainly relevant… Have you run into those kinds of issues in your discussions with the industry in terms of “ I want somebody who knows my business as much as they know about communications.”?

Steve:   We have talked about a little and I did see that thread coming up. One of our guiding principles was that we are offering a certification in uniform areas of practice where technical communicators provide unique value. That is a quote right out of the guiding principle. And implicitly, in areas that employers cannot test for themselves. If I am in aerospace and I want to hire may be a technical communicator, may be an engineer, I want to hire somebody who has an aeronautical engineering degree. I can get, I can find that information out myself and STC is not going to add any value in certifying that the person has that degree, they are going to check for themselves. It does not make any difference, what STC says. If that is what you are looking for then the person with the aeronautical engineer degree is going to have leg up and ought to. In situation where you have got two people with aeronautical engineering degrees, one of whom certifies as technical communicator and one of whom is not. That does make a difference. Throughout my career there has always been this dichotomy or this dual stream of people who come in to my profession, people who understand technology and people who can communicate information. The people who can communicate information have to learn the technology well enough to describe it to others. The people who know the technology have to learn how to communicate it to others. You get both times coming in but it has been my experience, I think it is a general experience that it is easier to teach domain knowledge than it is to teach communication. Companies are prepared to teach their technology to new hires no matter who the new hire is. They are good at that –they can train their customers. They train their new employees. But not very many companies are good at taking new employees and teaching them how to write or teaching them how to communicate information. So that is where we provide the value. That is why we are staying away from domain. It’s not something where we provide unique value and it is not something that we can test and certify on that employers cannot.

Connie:  So I take it that by the same token, education criteria, you’re not including math or science degrees for the same reason?  Or were there additional reasons why listing relevant if not direct undergraduate math and science degrees were not listed?

Steve: The educational requirements think of it as two reasons. One is that somebody who has a degree as used that they could be the lifestyle of learning information and then applying it. If that is one of the fundamental skills that a technical communicator needs, learn a technology and then communicate it to others. So just having a degree has some value, but these specific degrees were looking at are degrees related to technical communication. The directly related degrees on the list are technical communication, information design, science journalism, professional communication, instructional technology, instructional systems, and human computer interactions which is usability. These things are directly related to the areas of practice that we are certifying on the things. That we think are fundamental to all technical communication. The other things, the other degrees are domain specific. I know a question that came up about the related fields not directly technical communication but are similar to it, which includes English, adult education, journalism, public relations, organizational communication, and computer science. But not computer science because we are all software-oriented when the profession is not. It is computer science with the human / computer interaction emphasis. It’s the usability part of the computer science that we are interested in because it pertains to an area of practice. It just happens to be the computer science is a domain. But that is not what we are looking for.

Connie:  Okay I’m curious as to why marketing was not included as a relevant degree? Purely personal curiosity.

Steve:  Well I was kind of hoping that physics and astronomy would be because that is my degree but no it did not make the cut either. We have an academics standard sub-committee. These are what they proposed. There is a great deal of expertise and experience with setting up certification programs within that subcommittee. I am comfortable with the list that we have. I cannot really speak to why this degree and not that degree except for the generalities of it.

Connie: Yes it is interesting because public relation is listed but marketing is not, which I just thought was a little odd. But yeah they are going to make judgments about what things are truly relevant and that is why they are there.

Steve: It is a flexible list. If somebody has a degree that they think should be on the list either as a directly relevant degree or related field they can contact us. We expect to make adjustments over time. The list of degrees can get quite large. We do not know all of them. It changes, so we will make adjustments as warranted.

Connie:  And one more question on that educational criteria prerequisite. In some of the other certification programs I have seen over the years, graduate and postgraduate education is often listed as if not an automatic certification, then certainly adding quite a bit to application. And it is not mentioned here at all was that done deliberately?

Steve: I am not sure it was done deliberately. I do not think there are the lot of masters and PhD programs in technical communication available. because there are only a few, it think that may have had something to do with it, but I cannot speak to it specifically and as I have sent before this is the list that is flexible and we may make adjustments over time.

Connie:  Yeah I mean that you know when it is a new program there is always going to be fair amount of fine tuning that goes along with it. these were some of the key things that came out time after time you know and can be 150 or so posts that we have had on this topic on the discussion list. So I just thought it would be worth bringing up but you know I think people will see over time that a lot of this will adjust to changes and what is going on in the education world as much as anything.

One other question I have related to when Al was discussing what happens if somebody fails relates to if you do have an applicant who fails to achieve the certification. You said that you are looking at figuring out what the time frame this will be able to reapply. Will they need to pay the full set of fees again to reapply?

Steve: Yes that is our expectation.

Ongoing Development

Connie:  You’ve touched on difference pieces regarding some of the accreditation certification programs that are out that require written exams. For example, you mentioned we do not have a robust body of knowledge as yet, encompassing best practices and methodologies. One of the programs that I did take that certification and require an oral exam because it was a communications-related certification. They felt like it was very important part of that to be able to speak coherently and articulately about the work that you have done over the years. Did those kinds of additional criteria come up for discussion as you were trying to make sure that the program established ensure the program does the job that we expect it to do for the profession and for employers?

Steve:  We did look at other ways of certifying. Our consultant is certainly familiar with all of them. I know that for instructional designers there is a certification program in which you have to submit a video tape of yourself presenting some material. And obviously the ability to communicate orally is very important for trainers anyway. That’s not something that technical communicators in general are real strong at, and a lot of us run away from the camera not towards it. But they write very well. They may illustrate very well. So we needed something that is appropriate for our practitioners.

I go back and forth as to whether rigorous enough over the time that we have been developing the list of knowledge, skills and abilities (the KSAs) that we thought were important for technical communicators. The process of winnowing them down, with the surveys of thought leaders, led to the things that we thought should be the small group that we are actually going to assess on. Then as we developed the questions to assess these things, sometimes I thought “You know this is really easy. I know these things. I could do this.” And at other times I thought “ I am not sure if I can pass this. There are some of these things I’m not fully versed on.” So I go back and forth personally on this. In the end, what is important is that we are certifying competence. This is not a certification that is the gold standard… we are not saying that if you are certified you are the crème de la crème, you are the best in breed. You know you are the champion. No no no… this is establishing that you are a competent professional and competence is not at the same level as a PhD. So we do want to be rigorous.

We are looking in this scoring criteria very closely—at that just barely passes/ just barely does not pass line. That is the important point. In the publications competitions, I know we have spend a lot of time arguing over whether entry is worthy of an award of merit or an award of excellence or an award of distinction. And people will spend a lot of time arguing between excellence and distinction. This is a different thing and the argument should be at this person is just competent we pass them. This person is not quite competent we do not pass them. That is what the important point is. The idea of an oral exam or face-to-face exam, it does not work for the great majority of the practitioners, but also as a practical matter, that system does not scale very well. We have done a business plan. We know how many technical communicators there are in the world and how many we would like to certify, even at a modest fraction of all of the practitioners in the world. We are talking about at least a 150 ,000  just in North America, Germany, and India. If even a small fraction gets certified that is a lot of face-to-face exams. That is a lot of evaluation of packets. It is not going to scale well. We are looking forward to having a body of knowledge set up and being able to draw tests from that. That scales very nicely. That is what we are heading towards.

Al:  So Steve I know that the announcement for certification, while there has been rumors, really occurred at the Summit in May, and I saw the email come through last week, (and all of a sudden you guys helped us do a bit of business on our email discussion group) after that. What kind of response on average have you got to the charter campaign so far?

Steve: It has been encouraging but modest. We have not been overwhelmed with applicants but that is really what we expected. Our consultant told us you it was going to take a while for this to get going. The success model that we have looked at is PMI, the PMP certification. That organization started their certification program 25 years ago, about the time the STC board decided to table our plan. After nine years PMI had one thousand certified project managers. It took nine years to get to a thousand. That is not real fast. Of course today they have over 400,000 certified PMPs. So the potential is tremendous. There are ten times as many project managers as there are technical communicators in the world. So at the very beginning you got to take a look at that number to have any sense of what it might look like 25 years from now in the technical communication field. But even 40,000 would be a transformation of the profession and of the Society. And that is the vision that is keeping me going. We get anywhere near that, that will be great.

Al:   So that is a long term goal but what is a successful number for certified professionals in this initial period?

Steve:   Though this is plan we had talked about certainly not, you know not a thousand, you know a 100 would be a nice number. I am from New England. We have the reputation as being thrifty, and I am thrifty. We have invested a significant amount of money in this effort, and I am very conscious of it. None of this going into my pocket, but I know we have spent money on consulting We have spent money on research. We have spent money on staff, on legal fees, to get these things done. And I think of it in terms of we are down a certain number of applicants–until we get this number of applicants we have not reequipped our investment yet. We are not planning on recouping it by this coming May, not in several years, but the plan is a five-year plan, and if it is realistic we will certainly have it recouped it by then. And then as the program goes, the certification program will become a revenue generator instead of a revenue sink.

Connie:   On a similar area of more long-term kinds of planning, what kind of processes are you guys going to put in place to help the certification evolve? I’m thinking specifically about things like different levels of certification. I know Knowledge Management Professionals society has a couple of different levels in their certification program. Because, say you got a degree in technical communications, and you got certified as soon as you were eligible. What you represent at 30 is very different than what you represent when you are 45 and have been in the business for 10 or 15 years. So my question is really around have you guys put some thought into this kind of evolution is going to start occurring.

Steve: Yes we have. Another of the guiding principles we are working on is that the initial certification provides the basis for sub-certification going forward. I know that was one of the questions that was asked on TechWhirl. And the question was in the form of “Are you going to certify a DITA writer?” or “Are you going to certify a Frame writer?” We are not looking at it at that level of granularity. The level we want to have is base certification for a technical communicator and then a sub-certification in illustration, instructional design, editing, management or something like that. So that is going to require a body of knowledge that we can test against. That is going to take some time, but it is in the works. It is under discussion, we see the need for that. The model for this is the same as the model for medicine. You get a medical degree and then you are essentially a general practitioner. And then many doctors go on to study specialties and emerge for that process as brain surgeons or obstetricians or something else. But the brain surgeon can still set a broken limb or deliver a baby if necessary because that physician has that knowledge. They just have additional specialized knowledge.

Another aspect of this is that we are asking the certification holders stay current, continue to develop professionally and that is part of the maintenance of the certification. Well we cannot sit still neither nor that we have a list of questions a list of things we expect applicants to do, that list is going to have to evolve and we are aware of that. And we will continue to keep it up to date and may change it over time as we see new areas of practice emerge or emphasis in areas of practice change. That is something we expect to do ourselves and we will do that.

Connie:  Okay and I’ve got one final question. You have mentioned in our of your posts on the Techwhirl discussion list you are not able to apply for certification, and I understand now that is you know, that is because you are going to be one of the evaluators. When your term expires or you planning on going for your own certification?

Steve:  I am going to apply for certification as soon as I am able to. And I will be able to some period of time after I leave the commission once I do not know what the right answers are anymore. When that day comes I am there. I was hoping to be first in line but then the consultant said “No you cannot do that. That is not fair. That is not right.” And I said “Darn all right I will have to wait. I will be there.”

Connie:  Okay that’s great. I am sure you will do excellently when you get to that point.

Steve:   I think I will actually.

Al: (laughing)So you are saying you are going to wait till you no longer know any of the answers. You are going to apply for the certification. I just want to make sure I understand it.

Steve:  Yes but I know you know that I do not have to be frightened that this is going to be something that only a few people are going to pass. Now I know I am competent. I am confident that I will be able to demonstrate my competence.

Al:  Right. Well Steve thank you so much for spending time with this, this afternoon.

Steve:   I appreciate this opportunity. It has been fun.

Al:  We have been speaking with Steve Jong, Chair of the STC certification commission who has helped organize and the new Certified Professional and Technical Communication program. And before we go special thank you to our sponsors Adobe Systems, Madcap software, ComponentOne, EC software, and for full disclosure the Society for Technical Communication on there as well, and the folks in Vancouver Island University. And for everybody at Inside Techwhirl thank you and so long.

The Society for Technical Communication Certification Commission (STCCC) announced the names of the first practitioners to earn the Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC)™ certification at the Society for Technical Communication (STC) Summit in Rosemont:

  • Beth Agnew
  • Judy Agraz
  • Carrie Chambers
  • Stephen Daugherty
  • Meredith Kinder
  • Michael Opsteegh
  • Cheryl Taylor
  • Michele Wallace