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.
Why Being Told “You Can’t Do That” Helped Me Succeed
Some families have to kick, claw, and scratch to make a living, and I’m from that type of family. My dad bought a farm that no one wanted, and was turned down for a temporary loan to feed his family when the lender shook his head and said, “Gerald, you can’t make a living on that place.” I think that statement made Dad and Mom dig in their heels to prove the guy wrong, which is exactly what they did, and they successfully raised eight children on it. When I first started looking into technical communication in 1990 and attended a local STC meeting, a very senior member of my local chapter said I wouldn’t be successful in the field because I didn’t know anything about machinery or blueprints. About a year later, an IT co-worker told me I probably wasn’t bright enough to master Toolbook and develop computer-based training (CBT). I am so thankful that I heard these comments early in my career because the speakers gave me the motivation to prove them wrong. I’ve had a very successful career in technical communication, but it wasn’t just determination that fostered my success—it was primarily due to my involvement in STC.
As someone who transitioned from teaching junior high, high school, and college English and had a little coursework in technical communication during grad school, I soon realized there was much to learn about this field, so I had to position myself where I could network, ask questions, and read the literature of the profession. I passionately believed in our profession’s ability to make things—especially technology—simpler and even fun to use, and I wanted to do this with excellence. So the best advice I ever received from any boss was during my first tech comm job when I was advised to join STC.
Around 1992 when my consulting firm employer asked if I could develop CBT for a client, I contacted members of my local STC chapter and picked their brains. As a former teacher, I knew how to logically present information in an interesting way, write learning objectives, assess learning, and so on, but I had never designed and developed CBT. I applied the advice and coaching from my chapter friends and went on to earn two awards for my CBTs. In addition, the client’s excitement over the award resulted in two additional CBT projects and a lengthy engagement in writing online help. So gentlemen, thanks for telling me I couldn’t hack it in this profession. That was just the motivation I needed!
After winning some awards in STC chapter-level competitions (where chapters exchange entries) and from APEX, I volunteered to judge in the chapter-level competitions. Later, my chapter president asked for my input on possible programs for the coming year. I suggested some meeting topics and continued to attend meetings, make new friends, and learn from our monthly speakers and publications so that I gained confidence in my new profession. Then one August day I was asked to take over as manager of the chapter-level competitions because the current manager was moving to another city. Although I had never assisted with competitions, I was again successful due to the coaching and encouragement of my STC friends. The officers were so pleased with the job I did that in the following year when the chapter president-elect declined the presidency at the last minute, I was asked to assume the role of chapter president. Again, I had never served in a chapter leadership role, but I agreed to do it. That was a very challenging and exhausting year because we hosted the annual conference, but we won the Distinguished Chapter award (similar to today’s Community of Distinction award). I went on to serve as Program Team leader three times, and I continued to judge in local competitions, so in 2001, I was given the Distinguished Chapter Service award. I currently serve my chapter as membership manager and love welcoming new members.
If you’ve been in technical communication for more than five to ten years, you know that sometimes we’re regarded as glorified secretaries and people who make written things “sound pretty,” and that people sometimes think we’ll take direction from people who know absolutely nothing about style guides, online help development, or document management. Well, one of my STC volunteer activities helped me to gain some clout—helped me to be regarded as someone who knew what she was talking about. That was when I applied and was accepted to be a judge in the STC International Competitions. Besides being fun, helping me make more new friends, and teaching me great new ways of presenting information, it gave me an ace in my pocket so that when I took a new job and was told to change all active voice to passive voice in a job aid, I said, “Geez, I really can’t do that in good conscience because that’s not up to par with the current standards of my profession. You see, I’ve judged technical publications at the international level, and . . .” I’ve used that ace more than once in my career, and co-workers typically don’t question me again after I lay that card on the table.
This is not meant to be chest-pounding or haughty. You just don’t have to be in this profession very long without encountering people who don’t appreciate or respect us or who think we’re windvanes changing direction with the breeze. Coworkers and bosses sometimes don’t understand that our profession has certain standards and methodologies that we follow. You see, I firmly believe that employees are entitled to be respected as specialists, provided they’ve proven themselves in whatever they do for a living. I don’t presume to tell an administrative assistant how she should do her job, and I wouldn’t think of even recommending to an engineer what tool, technique, or development approach to use in his or her work. My involvement in STC and the professional growth I derived gave me that sense of pride in my profession. And I believe we all raise the regard for technical communication when we stand by our standards and methodologies.
I have been chosen to judge in the international competitions more than once, and one of those experiences led to my involvement in the Instructional Design and Learning SIG. In about 2003 I was judging training materials and soon figured out that technical communicators were being thrust into doing instructional design under the assumption that if you could write, you could write training materials. I decided to join with others to share knowledge of designing and developing instructional deliverables, whether online or in hard copy. So at an annual conference I participated in a meeting aimed at saving our IDL SIG from extinction. From there I served as membership manager of the IDL SIG for four years. I also began presenting at the annual conference (now called the Summit), which resulted in the Distinguished SIG Service award in 2006. I’ve served on the IDL SIG’s Scholarships team for the past few years, and I get excited just publicizing information about scholarship offering because they helped this little farm girl make it through college—the only one of eight children to do so.
Somewhere along the way, Professor Sandi Harner of Cedarville University invited me to serve on the industry advisory board of her Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) program. Members of this board conduct mock interviews with students, judge their portfolios, and often visit a class to offer guidance in navigating a career in tech com. This is a rewarding and fulfilling role and one I would never have been asked to do if it weren’t for meeting Sandi Harner through STC activities.
In spite of receiving two Distinguished awards, serving on a college board, speaking at conferences, and serving at the chapter and SIG levels, I could have been knocked over with a feather when Mark Hannigan called me one evening to tell me that I’d been elected Associate Fellow in February 2007. At the awards banquets during each annual conference, I had sat at my table reading the program and the biographies of the award winners thinking, “Man, I could never get any of these awards.” So I figured it had to be some kind of mistake when Mark called me. I had just accepted employment with a former client, so they were quite pleasantly surprised and impressed that I’d won the award. And in May 2010 I was awarded the rank of Fellow. Again when I read the biographies in the awards banquet program, I wondered why I’d be going up on the stage with these high rollers—that they were probably all a lot sharper than I. I wondered how a farm girl from a tiny midwestern town was getting this type of recognition, and I decided that all the kicking, clawing, and scratching techniques I’d learned from my folks on the farm had been put to good use.
Sylvia Miller has worked in technical communication for the past twenty years. As the Director of Training and Documentation, she built a training and documentation department from scratch. She has managed a remote documentation team, and she served as Director of Education Development for a startup company. Whether as an employee or a consultant, Sylvia has helped companies take their documentation and training to the next level, guided them from paper to online, and steered them from inconsistent quality to standards-driven documentation and training.
Recently she initiated a chapter Employer Outreach program to help employers in her area understand the value of hiring technical communicators.
Sylvia has been a presenter at several annual conferences and one regional conference. She earned the Distinguished Chapter Service Award in 2001, Distinguished SIG Service Award in 2006, Associate Fellow in 2007, and Fellow in 2010. She owns Milltech Communications LLC and consults in the Dayton/Cincinnati area.