Interesting Times: Challenges and Opportunities for Technical Communication

An Interview with Alan Houser

A while ago, I got a chance to talk with Alan Houser, the incoming President for the Society for Technical Communication (STC).  We touched on his background, company, work in the STC, and his plans for the upcoming year.

Al: Thank you for taking time in your busy schedule for this interview.  We know that it’s very busy for you with the STC Summit almost here so please know that your time is greatly appreciated.  Let’s start with the basics, can you talk a little bit about yourself and how you got here in technical communications?

Alan:  Currently, I am a trainer and consultant in the field of technical publishing. I essentially operate independently but have a corporate structure that I created along with two full time employees and some subcontractors. I work as somebody who trains writers in some of the popular technical communication tools such as Adobe FrameMaker, structured FrameMaker, Justsystems XMetaL, and some of the popular technologies like XMLand DITA.

Working as a consultant, I work with clients to set up processes and workflows.  This can include templates and style guides, as well as, the infrastructure needed to create, to manage and to deliver technical information as efficiently as possible. One thing I have always been fascinated by, as a consultant, is just how different each organization is when it comes to their needs, their resources and constraints, requirements and current skill sets, and legacy systems. Given the variance of each of those you have a really wide range of situations that one is dealing with and every organization is just a little bit different.

Al:  So how did you get into consulting, what were you doing before?

Alan:  So I always wanted to run my own business.  This goes back to growing up delivering newspapers as a kid and the desire only got stronger as I went through college, and started my career. I studied engineering in college and have an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. My masters is in professional writing. So even as an engineering undergrad, I always wanted to be the engineer who wrote the specs and the plans. I knew I loved writing, but at the time I did not know it could be a career until sometime in the middle of my undergraduate time.

I was lucky to begin my career with large corporations like corporate Hewlett – Packard (HP), who are normally the first use some of the more modern tools.  My early work consisted of providing technical support on the tools and the templates,and design of the infrastructures.  When it came to having my own business, I knew I wanted to do some the combination of supporting others and working with companies so starting a consulting business made a lot of sense.  It was just a matter of coming to the right time in my life when I had the right combination of skills, experience, and contacts to do that. I have been consulting for a little over 10 years.

Al:  Before we move on to discussing the STC, a quick follow-up question on your business, so, what’s your documentation like for your company’s systems?  Everything single sourced, XML, etc?

Alan: Funny you should ask, Al. I’m a big believer in appropriate solutions for the task at hand. And “appropriate” means as simple as possible to get the job done. For example, we maintain a single-source architecture for our proposals, because any smart business will reuse content across proposals. But for other business content, ease-of-use, accessibility, durability, and security are far more important than reuse. That means tools like DropBox, Evernote, WordPress.

Al:  That is true. What are some of the skills from running your own business, which you intend to bring to the STC as president?

Alan:   Oh, Al, there are lots. To name a few: The importance of taking risks. The importance of “spending money to make money.” The importance of listening to your customers. The importance of getting buy-in for new initiatives. The importance of executing on plans. And the importance of the “rule of holes” – when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

Al:  Our conversation and the timing of this interview isn’t very random.  Next week you will be installed as the 52nd  President of the Society for Technical Communication.  For those folks who aren’t really savvy to the ways of the STC, can you talk through the election process?

Alan:  I was elected vice president of the organization in the 2011 STC election. In our bylaws, the Vice-President automatically ascends to President the following year.

On May 21, at  our annual Summit in Chicago the torch will be passed and I will become STC President. I’ll be joined by several new board members: Secretary Alyssa Fox, and Directors-at-Large Bernard Aschwanden and Ray Gallon. Also, current STC Director-at-Large Nicky Bleiel won election as STC Vice President, 2012-2013. Nicky will succeed me as STC President in 2013. 2011-2012 President Hillary Hart moves to the Immediate Past President role; Secretary Aiessa Moyna, and Directors-at-Large Tricia Spayer and Rich Maggiani will continue their terms.

I’m thrilled and excited to be working with this Board. I forsee plenty of challenges, and lots of successes, during the upcoming year.

 Al:  So how long you have been involved with the STC?

Alan:  I have been a member of the STC since the early 90s. Throughout the 90s while I was living in the New England area, I was one of those members who would show up at meetings, who would get a lot of benefit from the publications, from the meetings, from the networking but I never got involved as a leader as a volunteer.  I basically played in that pool for about 10 years.

In 1997 I relocated back to Pittsburgh, where I had grown up and attended college at Carnegie Mellon University  Shortly thereafter I became active in the Pittsburgh chapter and started getting more involved in the chapter.  First I began to come up with programming and later I ran for Pittsburgh Chapter Office. I served as Pittsburgh Chapter President in the early 2000s.During that time, I got to meet more speakers and leaders in the STC and Technical Communication.

As I got involved as a consultant and with my participation in the STC, especially at the international level I started to realize that we are all just people. I would see people who I knew from afar, who held lofty positions, and early I would be a little hesitant to talk with them.But when you sit down in a table with them it is just like you and me.

I remember an STC leader saying to a number of years ago, you know I think you would be a candidate for international leadership and at that time I thought… really? Naah! Me? I will always remember those words and who told them to me because their faith in me gave me the confidence to keep pushing ahead within the organization.  It’s one of the things I really enjoy about my role as Vice President and soon to be President, is keeping my eyes open for our next generation of STC leaders and helping them understand the leadership they possess.

From then on, I was very active. I have been on the STC program committee and started contributing to the STC summit, culminating in being the conference manager for the Dallas (2010) and Sacramento Summits (2011).  The Summit is our premier education and networking event in technical communication. It was a privilege to be to ultimately lead that team and through that I got to meet a lot of important people on the field, I got to work closely with the STC staff, and once again just knowing, getting to know people at a personal level helped increase my comfort level when I decided to run for Vice President.

There were others who encouraged me to do so. My network of colleagues and peers often pushed me try this or that probably a little bit before I would have done it myself. I will always be grateful for the people in my life that they have encouraged me to you know take the next step and try something new, maybe a little bit outside of my comfort zone.

Al:  So your plans as STC President for 2012?

Alan:  Before I answer that question, it’s probably worth probably providing a very brief summary of the structure of the STC. The STC is a non-profit association with a governance structure of an elected board of directors. The Executive Director of the STC, Kathryn Burton, is the board’s one employee and the only one the board actually directly manages.  The board provides strategic direction and approves the Society budget.

Kathryn then takes this budget and our guidance and hires staff to execute these plans.  As the elected President of the Society, it is worth noting that I am only one person on this team of board and staff. So part of going into the year is reciting the serenity prayer about accepting the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and having the wisdom to know the difference.

Al:  Final question on the inner workings of the STC, in this structure, are you the chair of the board?  Do you normally vote on items or reserve your vote for ties.

Alan:  Yes, I am chair of the STC Board of Directors, and am responsible for details like setting each meeting agenda and making sure that meetings run smoothly and are productive. Like many association boards, STC follows the convention that the President only votes in the event of a tie. Each chair runs meetings with his or her own style, and I expect my style to come through.

Al:  Thank you for sharing a little bit about the Society and its inner workings.  You seem grounded and comfortable with your new role, what are your plans for 2012, what are we going to be celebrating in 2013?

Alan:  Many of us are aware of the Chinese proverb or the Chinese curse, which says “may you live in interesting times.” And, these are certainly interesting and challenging times. There is a lot of economic turmoil, we all know of friends, colleagues and relatives who have been laid off and are hurting financially.  Certainly people in our profession are hurting through because of economic circumstances. It’s important that we manage the Society’s finances in a responsible way while still providing excellent networking and educational opportunities to our members.

Plan 1: education / networking to help people find jobs                

So part of 2012 will be working to assist our members while we leverage what I think is the most exciting time in the history of this profession—for doing what we do. So promoting the profession; getting the word out of our importance; providing a context in which people can learn about technical communication and technical communicators can learn more about the professions. You know, improve their skills, and improve their knowledge.

Al:  So how…

Alan:  [Smiling] How? Okay. Darn, I thought we were done. Face-to-face educational and networking events, like the STC Summit, can be invaluable experiences. But face-to-face events present logistical and financial barriers, and many people are unable to participate.

So how do we can provide educational offerings to our members but not make them travel across the country to do it?  How do we provide some of the experiences that you will get at conferences but do it digitally?

The STC has dramatically increased its online education efforts: webinars, and certificate programs. Our goal is to have the STC deliver webinars with the best speakers and the thought leaders in the world covering areas liketopic-oriented authoring, content management and content strategy. And, while we prefer all technical communicators to be a member of the Society, non-members can register as well.

But you get that experience of hearing these people, what they are saying today about the profession, and you also know the benefit of basic education, tech comm101, techcomm 201, for people new to the field, or people that find themselves with a need to create content, or the need to create technical content are also supporting that group as well.

Al:  Current trends for volunteer organizations ranging from the Junior Chamber of Commerce to Rotary show that volunteer numbers are declining.  Generation X’ers aren’t really into group participation but word on the street is that the Millennials are far more interested in getting involved.  Are the STC’s numbers following this trend? And, what’s the plan to stem the decline until the Millennials arrive?

Alan:  Sadly, we are seeing the same challenges with membership that you described at a macro-level. But, and this is reassuring, if you look at STC membership trends over the past, you know say 20 years we see the the membership trends follow the economy.  For instance, STC membership was stellar in the late 90s, with a big peak in 2000 and 2001, and then it started declining as the dot-com boom turned to bust.

However, I see this current downturn as the perfect time for technical communicators of all ages to get involved with the Society.  What better place for networking at the local chapters and building your marketable skills through training than us?

And, I’m really happy to say that we’re starting to see a lot of energy and lot of enthusiasm in a lot of our chapters, and from our student members and recent college graduates. These trends support the theory of the socioeconomic trend that the Millennials are more interested in joining and they’re more interested in face to face interactions than the Generation X folks.

On the membership front, the Serenity Prayer once again, because I think every STC President for probably the past eight or 10 years or so, has come in saying we’ve got to increase membership. I certainly campaigned on increasing membership. That is a big problem. But for many of those Presidents membership did indeed decline.  Will that be the story for 2012 – 2013? Time will tell, but we’re going to operate as best we can within the socioeconomic circumstances of the times. If increasing membership is not realistic, we need to be even more diligent about changing  some of the paradigms under which we operate.

Al: What do you mean by changing some of the paradigms?

In my anecdotal experience, I think interest in the STC has not declined, because we have a very strong brand.  In the interactions I have with people at conferences and colleagues of mine here and abroad, I see  a desire to participate in the Society, even from non-members. I get the questions: How can I support the society? How can I support the profession? How can I use my skills, my expertise to contribute to the profession?

So I think the STC needs to support or broaden efforts to participate that do not necessarily require membership. The membership is always going to be important. There should always be benefits to joining. But the STC has to continue to thrive as an organization. And, we’re already doing that through new services, publications, and educational offerings.

Certification is perhaps the biggest new effort in this area. I’m in awe of the work of the STC Certification Commission, the organization responsible for Certification. Launching a certification program is a huge undertaking, and I’m thrilled that it’s off the ground. The STC will be announcing the first certified technical communicators at the STC Summit in Chicago.

Al:  So you need to find the appropriate mix of offerings, to serve the profession and the membership, and keep the Society vital and thriving.

Alan: Yes, we cannot support the profession if we do not exist. The STC’s mission is to support the profession. And the STC Board of Directors is responsible for overseeing support of the profession, service to members, and the overall health of the Society.

Al: I know we’ve spent a good bit of time together so I only have a two more questions–In your epitaph, what will it read about your year as president of the Society?

Alan: He positioned the Society perfectly to support the unprecedented demand for technical communicators, driven by a universal need for clear communication and the global economic boom of 2013.

Al:  And now, maybe the most divisive question asked yet—one space or two after punctuation?

Alan:   I learned to type on a typewriter, so I had the “muscle memory” of two spaces after a period firmly engrained. But I was able to break myself of the habit. It took several attempts, and it wasn’t easy, but I finally prevailed. Now I lead a support group for other technical writers who want to give up the “two space” habit.

Al: Thank you for answering our questions.  Best of luck in the coming year and may the force be with you.

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