We return again with Path to Fellow, a recurring feature here on STC’s Notebook to highlight the rich contributions of our honored members. If you’re a Fellow or Associate Fellow and haven’t been contacted to participate in this feature, please email Kevin Cuddihy.
You Just Never Know…
You do not ever know where your career path might someday take you. As I write this blog entry for STC, I am sitting on an airplane bound for India, on my way to meet with the technical communicators I manage there. Who knew, when I entered the technical communication profession nearly 30 years ago, that I’d find myself here?
Certainly not me.
I always tell people that my becoming a technical communicator was an act of God. As I was approaching the end of my senior year of college, I was desperately seeking post-graduation employment. Most of my English-major peers weren’t thinking that far ahead or had already decided to become teachers. They weren’t scouring the job boards in the career center. That’s why I was the only person who applied for the entry-level technical writer posting. Consequently, I got the job.
I expected to work for a couple of years and then go back to school. But being steadily (and increasingly, lucratively) employed in technical writing kept me from considering a return to student living. And I found I had a knack for organizing information and writing clear, simple prose. I liked the immediate gratification of finishing projects and being able to say, “Look—I wrote that.” Among my peers, I was one of only two people I knew who could say they made their living as a “professional writer” with their English degree.
I first joined the STC in the mid-1980s. I was a local chapter member, attended some meetings, won local awards, and served as a judge at competitions. But it was at the international level that I gained the most benefit from STC—first from its publications, and eventually from my participation in the annual international conference (now known as The Summit), which I first attended in 1996. I was hooked and have since tried to attend as often as I can, appearing most years as a speaker.
The first “celebrity” technical communicator I remember hearing about was JoAnn Hackos. During the years when I was increasing my involvement with STC, she was rising toward her presidency. Her name seemed to be everywhere: leadership, books, courses, conferences. That was when I first realized there was an “upper echelon” of the profession that one could aspire to. But I didn’t aspire to hold STC office, and since many of the people in that “upper echelon” seemed to have risen through the ranks of their chapters to regional and eventually international offices, I figured I’d probably never be in that rarified space.
My career path changed drastically when I became a manager of technical communicators. That is where I truly found my niche. I earned the reputation for being the “toughest hiring manager on the street” with my demands to hold up a higher standard for practitioners of our profession. I began presenting at conferences and meetings on the topic of managing well.
In 2002, when I was managing a documentation department for a major financial services firm, I decided I needed an MBA to advance my career. So 20 years out of college, I finally did go back to school.
My degree program required a thesis project related to the theme of innovation. I decided to write mine on the future of technical communication. We were in the middle of the dotcom bust and I felt our profession needed to take a fresh look at itself. That academic work went on to be published in Technical Communication, win an award at the international level in STC, and eventually be published as part of a textbook on technical writing.
From that work came more opportunities to speak at conferences, more articles, and eventually my selection as an Associate Fellow. In 2010, I was selected as a Fellow.
While Fellow status was based on both my reputation as a manager and my academic work, it really would not have been possible for me to achieve this honor if I had not been so good at making and keeping friends all over the globe through STC. Not that becoming a Fellow is a popularity contest—it isn’t. However, if your work is known and your name is recognizable to many people across STC, you are more likely to come to mind when the Nominating Committee seeks candidates. The greatest benefit that I have gained from my affiliation with STC is the amazing network of colleagues who I can turn to with questions, rely on for support, and use to locate jobs—including my current one that is providing me with amazing global opportunities.
So what might your road to Fellow look like? Different from mine, I’m sure. But never say never, because you, too, might someday be on a plane to India for a business trip—or to a future Summit to become an STC Fellow!