Path to Fellow is a recurring feature here on STC’s Notebook to highlight the rich contributions of our honored members. We want to tell your story! If you’re a Fellow or Associate Fellow and would like to participate in this feature, please email Kevin Cuddihy.
My path to STC Fellow was a twist in the road, and all because of love. I was supposed to be a professor, and I was midway toward that goal through my PhD in rhetoric at the University of Iowa. I was a member of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and had already given a presentation at the “Four C’s” conference (Conference on College Composition and Communication) in Chicago as a graduate student. And then . . . I met this guy. Within three months, we decided I would complete a master’s thesis to be able to exit my studies with a master’s in writing and we would head to California to find our future together. (And 29 years later, he’s still my husband!) So, during that final semester of graduate school, I took a word processing class and audited a programming class. Then, I sent out 50 resumes for jobs as a technical writer.
The truth is, my father, who worked at IBM on the east coast where I grew up, had told me all through high school about a new career that combined writing and computers, thinking he might give me something more practical to study than poetry. But probably because of that, I had pursued my BA degree in English with an emphasis on poetry, then spent a year before graduate school on a Fulbright Scholarship translating modern German poetry into English. Now, here I was, looking for some way to combine my love of composition and rhetoric with a way to earn a living outside of academia, and I remembered technical writing.
Amazingly, IBM in San Jose responded to my cover letter and resume and invited me to interview. I had had calculus and physics classes in high school and did well on the technical aptitude questions at IBM. I was told at that time that IBM was looking for strong communicators with an aptitude to learn programming, rather than trying to teach their programmers to write. I continue to think that was a good approach for the time. Of course, now we can hire students trained in four-year technical communication programs with all the right skills and tool experience. But at the time, IBM made me an offer and I started in San Jose as an associate information developer. I moved to California, got married, and started my job at IBM all in the same week.
From there, I have never really looked back on my career choice. Technical communication has been an exciting profession, always evolving and becoming broader and more interesting with every passing year. I joined STC nearly immediately upon taking the job in California, in the Silicon Valley Chapter. I presented at the annual STC Conference in 1987 and have since presented at 13 others. I volunteered as manager of the international STC Quality Special Interest Group (SIG) from 1994–1999, also creating the first “Handbook for SIG Managers.” From 1997–2003, I served as Secretary and Vice President on the administrative council of the Silicon Valley Chapter and was elected to the international-level STC nominating committee from 1999–2001. I was elected to a two-year term on the Board of Directors of STC as Secretary, from 2004–2006. There were many other STC roles—judge in the International Technical Publications Competition in multiple years, review committee member for articles for Technical Communication journal, contributor to a position paper approved by the STC Board of Directors on Social Media Strategy in 2009, SME on the “Body of Knowledge work group” in 2009, and chair of the Corporate Value Memberships committee from 2007–2008.
The importance of STC in my career is significant. STC kept me current, gave me a network of professionals to brainstorm with about common issues and challenges, and prepared me for future trends in technology and strategy. But even more significant is the importance of STC in my life. Some of my most meaningful long-term professional connections have become some of my most meaningful friendships. Through STC, I have met dedicated and delightful colleagues from around the world who have made technical communication more than a career—it is a shared passion, a shared avocation as well as vocation, a common way of seeing the world inside and outside of work. It is hard to separate the communicator from the person in a truly passionate tech comm professional, and I value that sense of common commitment across my STC network.
At IBM, I moved through several levels of information developer, lead writer, and team lead to my first management positions and then into middle management, in several divisions. In every role, I championed the cause of technical writers as professionals fully equal to software engineers while focusing on delivering work of the highest quality. My organization expanded its scope into usability, driving the implementation of User-Centered Design methodology at IBM’s Santa Teresa Laboratory (STL) in San Jose. In 1995, my team implemented the first IBM version of smart guides or agents, sometimes called wizards. I led the effort to convert our information to Structured Generalized Mark-up Language (SGML) by December 1996, and a decade later, to XML DITA. In 1998, I sponsored the publication of the first edition of Developing Quality Technical Information (written by the editors and information developers in my organization) through Prentice Hall, now in its third edition. My job expanded in 2002 to include globalization and accessibility, and in 2005 I was given worldwide responsibility (all non–U.S. locations in addition to my U.S. team) for information development and user experience across my division. In 2007, I became the first executive-level director in IBM for a divisional information development organization. I am proud to be able to blaze this trail for our profession in IBM, and well aware that this is not an individual success story but rather a reflection of my team’s extraordinary accomplishments.
I have also been able to combine my love of teaching with my industry career. I was one of three instructors who worked with Shirley Krestas in 1989 to develop a certificate program called Managing the Development of Technical Information at University of California Extension, Santa Cruz. I developed and continued to teach two of the five required courses for the certificate for almost 20 years. Later, I was selected as the first instructor to teach in a new nationwide STC seminar series on technical communication topics, beginning in Tennessee in December 1992. Once each year from 1988 to 2010, I traveled to Seattle to give guest lectures on technical communication topics at the University of Washington, where I also recruited for IBM on campus. In 2006, I was awarded the Mikey Award by the chair of the department of technical communication at UW, for achievement in the field of technical communication.
So, where does all this lead? I was named an STC Associate Fellow in 1998, and a Fellow in 2000. But looking back, I see that that was almost the beginning of a story, not an end. I continue to be an energetic and vocal advocate of technical communicators in industry, and to take the opportunity to share perspectives and experience through teaching whenever I can. And most importantly, I nurture and treasure my STC connections not only for professional value but as a core component of what I value in life. It seems I made two very good, life-long decisions that year in 1983!