The Power of Reaching the Summit is the first of a series of blog posts, curated or new here, discussing key takeaways by individuals and STC Communities to Keep the Edge gained at Summit 2017. If you would like to contribute a post, please drop a note to the series editor, Ben.email@example.com.
By Jessica Surdin | STC Member
I wanted to start a career in technical communication, and every book I read told me two things: join STC and attend the annual Summit. While I was looking forward to attending the STC Summit at the Gaylord National Harbor, I had only met one person who I knew would be attending. I’d saved and spent frugally all year to attend this conference.
Attending Summit this year was important. I made accommodations to stay at the Gaylord, which afforded me the peace of mind of having my room so close by. Everything needed to go smoothly, as I took this huge step toward what I hoped was the career for which I had been built.
After college, I settled into the service industry, never giving my BA in English much thought. What could it do for me? At job fairs, vendors would turn away at the thought of hiring someone to do the writing for their company. The university alumni association sadly offered me little direction. Hindsight rendered me regretful, as I looked back at my blissfully ignorant and youthful self. “It is what it is,” I learned to say.
In the service industry, I wrote various documents for the restaurants for which I worked: training manuals, flowcharts, diagrams, and walk-throughs. If I had to work in this industry, I thought, perhaps I could improve that industry and how it ran. I can’t remember how I realized I was staring down a career in technical communication, but the idea blew the door wide open and off its hinges for me.
I nervously eyed Summit ’17, took a deep breath, and set forth determined to succeed and to take away as much as others would share. I braced myself for a steep incline in a setting altogether foreign to me except for a few key terms; a stranger in a strange land.
Sunday started in the afternoon with Ben Woelk’s preconference workshop, Revive and Thrive: Strategies for the Introvert in Today’s Workplace. I chose this workshop because I was pretty sure I was an introvert and if this was true, I could at least learn a bit more about myself and how I operate with others in a workplace setting.
Starting the Summit with this workshop set me up for success in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I learned so much about myself, how I interact with people, what stresses someone like me, and even de-stressing methods for someone like me. Self-realization is precious, to be sure, but recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses and to stop struggling against your very nature was the last thing I expected to find. To find myself comfortable in my own skin was priceless.
Over the course of Summit ’17, I found myself among like-minded individuals who wanted nothing more than to welcome me, share ideas, and help one another. There was no hierarchy. No one was braying to be the best. No one stepped on anyone’s neck to gain an edge. Never in my life have I experienced such warmth, kindness, generosity of spirit, and acceptance without question. Mind blown.
One Summit attendee took me under his wing and introduced me to other people like myself, interested in the same areas of technical communication. He said he felt comfortable in this environment, among his “tribe.” And that’s exactly what this massive meeting of technical communicators was: a tribal gathering. There was an inherent and immediate understanding between attendees, even those seemingly standoffish; the secret handshake tacit and assumed. There were no earned statuses, no rites of passage. You were just accepted into this tribe without question. This tribe had my back and all the while never seeming inconvenienced in the slightest for their efforts, which to me seemed massive. It all comes naturally to them and it’s no big deal to take care of one of your own.
I worried looking at SCHED the week leading up to Summit. “What if I found myself in over my head in someone’s talk?” “What if I go to the wrong seminar because I misread the description?” There was nothing to worry about. No matter what seminar I attended, I found a wealth of knowledge from all sides: attendees voicing issues and others suggesting solutions, speakers, or presentations. I found best practices from technical communication bigwigs. I found important things to keep in mind in various scenarios and how to handle obstacles. Not once did I regret one seminar choice over another.
Another valuable facet of the Summit was dining out with STC Leaders. This gave me an amazing opportunity to ask questions, and meet new people. (I don’t want to use the word “network” here, because it sounds too cold for this experience.) I rarely dined with the same people twice and got to experience the “tribal community” as they are: human.
At Summit ’17, I learned a few valuable conference hacks, like snapping pictures of slides on my phone during presentations. I noticed that attendees tended to fill up the aisle seats first, so this next hack came in handy. Sunday during the opening keynote and general session, I sat in the back row. One veteran attendee in a backward-tilted black fedora pulled back a chair two seats to my left, squeezed in, and pulled the chair in behind him. I used this tactic throughout the Summit. (It would come full circle at the closing general session on Wednesday when he did it again, this time two seats to my right.)
People say, ‘attend the Summit,’ and I recommend it whether you’re just starting out or have never attended. Everyone is friendly. EVERYONE. The mentorship of those willing to help someone in need is awe-inspiring. I had so many positive experiences at Summit: emotional breakthroughs; the relief of being included no matter my experience level; complete strangers offering valuable advice; excitement; and comradery like never before. It takes its toll emotionally, that much is certain. But after all that, I would absolutely do it all over again. To have such a transformative and positive experience doesn’t happen every day. Then again, maybe it does. Perhaps you’ll attend Summit ’18 and see for yourself.
Jessica Surdin moved to Baltimore from State College, Pennsylvania in 2009. She studied English at Penn State University with an emphasis on creative writing and minor in theatre. Technical communication laced her lengthy career in the service industry in various ways: instructional design, training manuals, flow charts, and spreadsheets. Currently looking to wade deeper into the pool of technical communications and out of the baby pool, Jessica recently attended STC’s 2017 Summit and looks forward to becoming certified in technical communication. She blogs occasionally, spends time with her husband, Matt, and their two dogs, GiGi and Otis.