Editor’s Note: The Society for Technical Communications 2018 elections open on February 26, 2018 and run through March 9. Today we share an interview with Ben Woelk, one of two candidates for Vice President.
Who are you? What’s your background? What do you do for a living?
I’m a native Floridian who’s lived in upstate New York for the last 30 years. I’m an Associate Fellow of STC and the most recent recipient of the President’s Award for my service to the organization. I’ve held leadership positions in STC in the Rochester Chapter (currently VP and Spectrum Conference co-chair) and in the Society as a Director-at-Large, Chair of the Community Affairs Committee, and currently Chair of the Scholarship Committee.
My career has spanned blue collar work (installing floor covering) to being a doctoral student in History at the University of Rochester. Most of my background is in Liberal Arts, but I hold an Advanced Certificate in Technical Information Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)and I’m an approved trainer for the (CPTC) Certified Professional Technical Communicator. I’ve worked in the Information Security Office at RIT since 2004 in a variety of technical communication-related roles, currently as Program Manager. I’m a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).
When did you join the STC? Why?
I joined STC in 2006 when I became full-time staff at RIT. I joined because then I felt ill-prepared to work as a technical communicator, having a strong liberal arts background but no formal training. While I joined initially for skills development, I soon became involved in local leadership and then international leadership. My attendance at Leadership Day at Summit 2010 in Dallas has led to friendships that I treasure to this day.
Views on the Profession
Where do you see the profession of technical communications heading in the next five years?
Two major impacts—increasing job specialization and ever-changing technology make a five-year projection a challenge. Job roles that used to be lumped under technical writing have evolved into a number of specializations—user experience, localization, e-learning, marketing communications, Human Computer Interaction, API documentation, mobile application development, etc. The growth of AI, IoT, and chatbots are both impacting our profession and providing new opportunities in micro content. I don’t see any of this slowing down. We’ll be developing new content for new platforms, with a dizzying array of job titles.
What would you do as VP and later as President to support or change this course?
I would work to ensure our members are equipped for rapidly-changing careers in a global society by ensuring that STC provides learning opportunities that support that increased specialization, and helping our members understand that that specialization is occurring. Regarding the rapidly-changing technologies, we need to make sure that there is STC representation at the correct conferences, we do quick research to determine what skills those fields will need, and we provide access to speakers exploring those areas and recruit practitioners to provide needed training.
However, I don’t want to focus strictly on acquiring skills. One of the strengths of a good technical communicator is to rapidly adopt and understand and communicate about new technologies. We need to foster that mindset in our members by emphasizing the key basics of technical communication—audience analysis and contextualization of information for those audiences.
Operations of the STC
The STC has had well documented challenges and some wins over the last number of years. As one of the elected leaders of the organization your views on the organization’s operations are critical.
What do you see as the right roles for national board and the local and regional organizations?
The role of the international board of directors is to determine strategic direction for STC and to serve as champions for the organization and its members. Geographic communities (chapters) provide educational programming, leadership training, and networking opportunities for local members and increasingly to more distant members through virtual offerings. SIGs (special interest groups) provide opportunities for practitioners in specific subjects (Technical Editing, Instructional Design and Learning, etc.) or constituencies (Women in TC) to explore those areas and build an understanding of what’s important. There aren’t really regional organizations, although there are geographic communities operating with a regional focus.
Where should the organization and its board focus its financial resources in the next year?
The organization and the board should focus financial resources on growth and engagement in key areas such as advancing industry awareness of the invaluable role of technical communication in the workplace, standards development, and understanding new technology and trends. We also need to evaluate our current structure and determine what changes need to be made to ensure relevance and sustainability. As you’ve mentioned above, we’ve had significant membership attrition in the last 20 years. We need to reverse that trend by combining membership recruitment with a far more visible presence in the marketplace and industry. We need to champion the role of technical communicators so that employers understand why TC is so important and in doing so, provide obvious value to our members.
How does your role as an elected leader differ from that of the full-time paid staff?
I get to do this on top of my day job as a volunteer! Seriously though, the elected leadership (board) sets strategic direction; the full-time paid staff operationalizes that direction and deals with the day-to-day running of the organization. The board cannot and should not have that operational role. The board must be strategic. We need to know where we’re going and how to get there. Having a well-running car that’s moving in the wrong direction will not end well.
Members and Chapters
How should STC address the changing needs of organizations for technical content and the potential skills gap of STC members?
We need to be keenly aware of those changing needs and what technical content (on what devices, etc.) is needed. Our work is moving away from traditional documentation. We have TC practitioners writing micro content for chatbots, we’re engaging AI, and IoT growth is exploding. We have to work with practitioners to create the optimal learning support for working in these new areas. That may involve employing AI ourselves. We need to pay close attention to the work of high-level thinkers around Information 4.0, and understand what that means for practitioners
Although membership in STC surges from time to time, the general trend is downward. What would you do to reverse that trend?
All professional organizations have seen an erosion of membership. (Sladek, The End of Membership as We Know It: Building the Fortune-Flipping, Must-Have Association for the Next Century discusses the challenges in detail.) Changing demographics are having a major impact as baby boomers retire and expectations of the length of active membership tenure change. Our challenge is to be relevant to all of our members, provide good ROI on their investment, and to equip them for their rapidly-changing careers. (I expect that we will see a constant membership churn as boomers retire, GenXers hold everything together, and millennials engage for limited periods.) While embracing these changing demographics, we need to increase engagement by providing a compelling story of the role of technical communication in the marketplace and industry and to make sure that we’re sustainable structurally. We need to be visible in the marketplace and industry. We need to champion the contributions of our members and make them more visible.
Should the STC keep supporting the local chapters? If Yes, Why & How? If no, Why?
Absolutely yes. I’ve addressed this topic at length on the STC election forum. Here’s a synopsis of that answer.
I’ve spent the last seven years working on leadership development and supporting chapter leaders, either officially or unofficially. I’m proposing five things STC should do.
- Establish a mentoring program where experienced leaders partner with new chapter leaders to provide guidance on problem solving and to be the sounding boards that all leaders need from time to time.
- Work with chapter leaders to recruit leadership outside of their immediate geographic area, leverage an expanded mentoring program, and provide leadership training events.
- Explore the concept of LIGs (local interest groups) tied to existing chapters to bring networking opportunities to members outside of the local chapter area and connect them to STC. Although this initially sounds like more work for chapters, this helps chapters by providing a way to benefit from the leadership abilities of someone not local, while expanding their potential membership base.
- Ensure that we’re providing value to a changing workforce. What this means for STC and its chapters is that we need to offer meaningful experiences and programming geared towards the needs of new practitioners who’ve entered the workforce, while ensuring that we’re equipping our long-time members to become and remain competitive.
- Provide opportunities and platforms for chapters and SIGs to work collaboratively and share programming. I started to address this challenge in the last year by leveraging Slack to provide an online workspace (STCCommunityPrograms.slack.com) where communities can plan joint virtual programs. I’d like to see us leverage new technologies to increase inter-chapter collaboration and sharing of best practices.
The Office of Vice President and President Elect
What can you reasonably expect to accomplish as VP and President?
As VP, my main role it to understand the society and its needs and to work on specific projects as assigned. I hope to work with incoming President Jane Wilson to build a long-term strategy that reconceptualizes what STC and membership in STC means and start moving in that direction. This isn’t a one-year turnaround.
What will you do in the first 100 days?
As VP? I will ensure that I understand the needs of the membership, the paid staff, and work jointly with Jane to ensure we’re moving in the right direction.
As president? Move in the right direction, ensure we have a collaborative board that isn’t afraid to take contrary positions, and communicate clearly what we’re doing for the membership.
What will be your legacy after you’re done as VP and President?
One of the interesting parts of this campaign for me is hearing from community leaders about the impact I’ve had on them through years of service. I hope that my legacy as VP and President is similar and demonstrates a commitment to STC and our members through servant leadership and ensuring stability and relevance of the organization.
The Big Last Question … Why are you the right person to be the next VP for STC?
I’m the right person to be the next VP for STC because I’m an innovative and strategic thinker who’s produced superlative results wherever I’ve worked. The last several years of STC have focused on ensuring financial stability and providing quality and relevant educational programming to our members. That’s critical and we had to focus on stability while breaking new ground in education.
However, it’s no secret that STC has contracted over the last couple of decades as the field diversifies and other ways of sharing best practices have arisen. STC is more than 65 years old. That’s quite the achievement. However, our structure has not always proven to be agile; nor have we always reacted appropriately to market forces. We curate information, but we’re not the only source of information. I’m looking forward to working with the board of directors and STC staff to recast the organization to ensure that we engage the marketplace, that we’re relevant, and that we provide strong value and ROI for our members.
I bring a breadth of experience and effective work across small business, higher education, corporations, and STC communities that help me stay attuned to member needs and that make me well suited to work with the STC Board and Office. I’m a consensus builder, but I’m not afraid to take big steps. I’m also a leadership mentor and understand the leadership skills needed to grow our communities. STC and our profession are more than 50% percent introverts. I understand how to help them identify and actualize their innate abilities. I want to build strong leaders. With strong leaders at the local level and a well-defined strategy of growth and service to our members and the profession, we will grow. Are we trying to regain our “glory” years? Absolutely not. We’re working to ensure we have a leadership role in our rapidly evolving industry and that our members have productive and impactful careers, both for themselves and their employers.
We are looking ahead and outward, not behind and inward.
- Official STC Candidacy page
- Platform and 80+ endorsements
- Campaign Video
- STC 2018 Election Slate
- My STC Service