From documenting networks and custom applications to developing a solid sales pitch, consultants are the communicators of the IT industry. For those of you whose job involves communicating technical information, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) provides resources that will help improve your work and move your career forward.

We spoke with Deborah Sauer, a consultant and longtime member of the STC, and Carol Elkins, an independent consultant and technical writer, about the benefits they’ve received from the group. Here’s an overview of the organization and their take on the benefits of membership.

STC’s goals and membership
The Society’s mission is to gather a critical mass of technical communicators from disciplines as diverse as engineering, law, and medicine and to educate its members about the issues and advancements in the technical communication field. STC has over 20,000 members and 152 chapters worldwide, most of which are in the United States and Canada. It also has chapters in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Benefits of becoming an STC member
Sauer was working in cancer research when she began editing a colleague’s articles for submission to the New England Journal of Medicine. The work spurred her interest in technical communications, which she pursued as a graduate student at Northeastern University. She joined STC in 1985.

Sauer said she joined the STC to lend some credibility to her new career and to find a mentor in the field. The membership also allowed her to search industry publications via the STC Web site, which helped her with academic research.

Seventeen years after joining the STC, Sauer is now an independent consultant who has developed software user manuals, Web content and design, help systems, and user interface specs for clients. Sauer said the networking opportunities STC has afforded her have led to new business. For example, she’s done work for Avid Technology, which builds film-editing software for creating special effects. She knew the firm’s reputation because it won many awards in STC-sponsored competitions, and formed a relationship with the company through an STC contact.

It’s all about who you know
Carol Elkins, an independent consultant and technical writer in Pueblo, CO, has had the same kind of experience as an STC member. As a published scientist working in the biotech industry, she went through layoff after layoff. Eventually, her writing skills landed her a job managing a start-up pharmaceutical company’s technical communications department.

“When I first started calling myself a ‘technical writer,’ I thought it might be a good idea to rub shoulders with ‘real’ tech writers to find out what I needed to know to validate my new job title,” Elkins said.

She joined the STC and found that she was “just as much a tech writer as my software/hardware colleagues” and didn’t need to worry about validating her job title. Unfortunately, she did have to worry about paying the bills, when she was laid off again in 1995.

She was networking with the STC chapter’s job list coordinator when she learned that a company had posted a new consultant job in her old hometown in Colorado. She called her mother, “who knows everyone,” she said, and got the contact information for the hiring manager.

”I was one of six off-site consultants hired for this project and I was the only one who was asked to do more work after the initial project was completed,” Elkins said. “They kept me steadily busy for four years. During that time, I got my ‘consultant legs’ under me and have had a very successful career as an independent consultant ever since.”

The cost of membership
The fee to join STC is $140. Students may join the group for the discounted rate of $50. Membership provides the following benefits:

  • Discounts on subscriptions to STC periodicals
  • Reduced fees for attending educational conferences and seminars
  • Ability to join STC Special Interest Groups (SIGs), subgroups of members with a common interest or specialization like information design or online communication
  • Access to STC’s Jobs Database, which, according to the STC, contains thousands of current job openings in the technical communication field
  • Access to the results of STC’s Annual Salary Survey with statistics on pay and benefits for technical writers and editors in the United States and Canada
  • Group rate insurance through STC
  • Mailings from local chapters, meeting announcements, and newsletters
  • Unrestricted access to the members-only sections of STC’s Web site, with resources like a publications search and a directory of STC officers and members

Staying on the leading edge of technology
Elkins said STC has been helpful for networking, and it’s helped her keep up with trends.

“As a consultant, I need to know what many different industries are requiring of tech writers and there is no better gathering of diverse tech writers than at an STC meeting,” she said. “From these people, I learn about tools, techniques, and technology that I could not learn even if employed in mainstream corporate America.”

Very often, she said, she doesn’t use the information immediately, but it’s important to know what the options are and to know enough high-level information about those options to make an informed decision when writing a bid or speaking to a potential client.

Sauer has also developed some skills through STC that have helped her career. For example, in 1995 when the Web was starting to explode, members of the STC introduced her to HTML. Not only did she begin working with the technology before it was commonplace, she also has a bevy of colleagues internationally that she can reach out to when she comes across a unique or stubborn problem, she said.

Special-interest groups
Some of the contacts Sauer has made are part of STC’s SIGs. She’s a member of the Boston chapter’s contractor and independent consultant SIG and a Society-wide usability SIG. At SIG meetings, members talk about issues that affect their specific space. For example, Sauer said she was recently talking with members of the independent consultant SIG about making client contracts legal and binding.

You get what you give: Volunteering at STC
With nearly 20 years of experience in the field, Sauer said she still finds that the STC provides many benefits, and that the more volunteer work you do for the organization, the more benefits you reap.

“You get out of it what you put into it,” she said.

Sauer, who eventually became president of the Boson STC chapter, now helps plan the group’s international conference and other regional conferences as the assistant to the president for conferences.

STC’s annual conference features educational sessions, workshops, vendor exhibits, and displays of the winning entries of the Society’s international competitions in categories including Online Communication, Technical Art, and Technical Publications. Sessions from the last conference included technical topics like “Working with Cascading Style Sheets” and “Designing Help for Web Applications,” as well as more soft-skill topics like “Intranets That Save Money” and “Are You Ready to E-lance?” You can view materials from past conferences on the STC site. The next event is scheduled for May 18-21, 2003, in Dallas.

Building skills
By working to put together the conferences, Sauer said she has gained valuable project management skills. Because of the size of the organization, she’s had plenty of practice managing cross-functional teams, large budgets, and complex schedules. Even having to “cold call” members to do volunteer work for chapters has helped her develop skills she uses in her consulting career, she said.

“Those are all skills that I have directly transferred to my consulting business,” she said.

Societies, clubs, and orgs

Are you a member of a club or organization that has provided a career boost? Send us an e-mail and tell us about your experience.