Meet the Candidates: Rick Lippincott for Secretary

This entry is being posted on behalf of Rick Lippincott, candidate for Secretary in the 2020 STC election.

Rick LippincottI’ve been a member of the STC for about 25 years. I’ve seen our profession go through upheavals and changes, some caused by the economy, and some caused by changes in technology.

When I started as a tech writer, I worked for a company that produced documentation essentially by hand: Most writers wrote drafts using pen and paper, drafts were typed up by a typing team, illustrations were created by dedicated artists.

Times changed. Word processing and desktop publishing resulted in faster writing, but as each writer began producing more words per day, the need for as many writers declined. Advances in graphics technology allowed writers to produce their own illustrations. The result? Technical writers have seen a serious reduction in ranks, technical illustrators have become almost extinct.

We saw a massive increase in our profession’s numbers starting in the late 20th Century, as computer technology grew at a rapid pace. Everything required a detailed explanation of even the most basic tasks, because we had to assume that every reader was just starting out for the first time.

But as time progressed, and as people became more familiar with the advanced technology, the needs for extreme detail began to fall off. Long ago, every computer technical manual included an early chapter “How to Use a Mouse.” By the late 1990s we were beginning to ask if this was necessary, by the early ‘00s the debate had been settled and the mouse chapter lost. Documentation became slimmer as people became more familiar with the subject matter.

While it seemed like a period of gloom and doom, it was really only a repetition of earlier cycles in system documentation that had been going on for decades. It’s largely forgotten, but in the first half of the 20th century automotive “Owner’s Manuals” were thick, hefty documents (produced by technical writers!) that detailed operation of every system in the automobile, definitions of every control, and everything else that the owner might have needed to operate, use, or replace.

Now, owner’s manuals are thin documents, normally stashed in a glove compartment, only referenced when we need some small bit of specific information: part number for a headlight, lubricant type for the engine.

For the first generation of drivers, the automobile was a brand-new and challenging piece of technology. But those early auto owners had children who grew up watching parents operate the cars. By the time the children started to drive they had already witnessed hundreds of hours of automobile operation. We knew all the controls, their locations, and their purpose, extensive explanation wasn’t needed.

We are going through a similar age of technological change today. A computing device that once filled a room and required a team of operators now fits in a pocket and can be operated by a child. Children and young adults are learning, by middle school, software techniques that not long ago would have been in the realm of experts.

While this has been happening, there has been industry standards set that have resulted in a huge increase of manufacturing and process documentation in most industries that produce hardware for medical, aerospace, security, and other fields that perform systems manufacturing. The need for the documentation outstrips the numbers of technical writers qualified for the tasks, and so much of the work has been turned over to engineers (who understand the subject matter, but aren’t as skilled in how to clear explain the process) or floor technicians who may lack writing skills. Everyone in the process suffers when this happens.

The Society for Technical Communication was founded in an era when this type of systems manufacturing was the norm, when technical writers had to know how a torque wrench works, and when the subject matter of the documentation might weigh a quarter million pounds.

In order to grow, we need to get back to those roots, find our long-lost colleagues who produce documentation for people who get their hands dirty and their knuckles busted, and welcome them back into the profession.

If elected as STC Secretary, I pledge to do my best to achieve this goal.

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