Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sun, Surf, Sand and Shorts at the 15th STC Annual Conference, Goa!

That’s six in a row for me. The last time I was in Goa was not for the 8th STC conference, but for a family friend’s wedding when I was 11 years old. A lot has changed since then. 

I expected a big turnout, as usual, but it wasn’t as big as was seen in Bangalore and Pune conferences. People didn’t like the location or were maybe too broke?

There were many firsts at this conference
  • This is the first conference that I’ve attended that had ‘Surangani’ and ‘Bombay se aya mera dost’ as ‘welcome’ songs, complete with instruments! Had they gone on for any longer, some participants  would have hoped to start with cocktails to keep up with the mood!
  • It’s the first time we didn’t have the president deliver a speech (which I thought made sense). Usually they would have already had a chance to have their say in the conference handout. And it doesn't make sense repeating the same stuff. Moreover, many of us are ‘just’ writers not speakers ;)
  • It’s the first time where we didn’t get a conference ‘bag’. It’s time STC started collecting the bags back ;)
  • I’ve never attended the cocktail party… so correct me if I’m wrong… it’s the first time they got dancers from Russia? Maybe the drinks weren’t that good so they had to make sure the Russians didn’t understand the comments!
  • First time in October? Probably to take into account the non peak season in Goa). Smart move again.
  • And personally, it’s the first time we were staying at the conference venue. Except for the Bangalore conferences, I’ve always attended these out-of-town events with my family. Business and pleasure if you will. And no, I didn’t have any trouble convincing anybody for sponsorship. I’ve never had to. As Mak always says, consider it an investment. Of course Mak can say that, he’s a businessman. He can show such investments as expenses on his returns. Salaried slaves like us can’t!

The keynote speaker was one of the better ones I’ve listened to. And I’ve listened to a whole gamut of folks that included software professionals turned politicians! Sometimes, the keynote speaker is from one of the sponsors and not everyone likes to start with a sales pitch. Everyone in the audience I mean. I’ve seen people walk in after the introduction and the keynote is over. But anyone who did it this time, missed a few good pointers. Sharad Sharma is more renowned as the ex-CEO of Yahoo India. He’s currently the CEO of BrandSigma, a concern he founded. He was introduced to the crowd by Peter Yorke, who incidentally reported to Sharad, in a previous 'life'. ‘Great boss to have’ and 'provocator' were some of the phrases he used while introducing Sharad.

Sharad chose to look into the future and asked the audience if they would still be writing content in the future. A quick show of hands revealed that everyone was convinced that they would. It wasn’t going as per the plan! He had other forecasts to make. He looked at a future where there would be a lot more user generated content. He gave several examples of how only a few people were required to run massive initiatives (Aadhar). He talked about LEGO innovation and how organizations were preferring smaller teams. Sharad rattled off numbers to show that investments in MNC captive R&D centers in India were slowing down considerably. He categorized companies into the 500, 50K and 500K groups, according to the number of enterprise customers each had. He gave examples of organizations that are moving up and those that are moving down in this category. (To prove his point, he asked the audience how many of them had Nokia phones and there were like 2 embarrassed hands that went up. They probably used these phones for self-defense and it might really work too, unless the assailant also is using one!) At the other end of the spectrum he cited examples of fast growing organizations among which is one called Greytip that charges just Rs 10 per employee/month to do their salary processing.
His view into the crystal ball saw the need for content curators and the need to build engaged communities. Then there’s also content marketing as more and more selling is happening with 'no feet on the ground'. He cited the example of a Bangalore based company that helped with tweaking the position of your website on the search results page. He felt that these new demands could be met perfectly by today’s tech writers. Of course we had to do something - change. We need to become experts on the products we write for, develop our ‘Klout scores’, and continuously innovate and stay ahead (by a few steps, at least).

Guru’s session on documenting cloud operations policies… started off with an interesting exercise. He split the audience into several groups, and asked each group to create checklists for different aspects of setting up and managing a cloud based service. Right from installing, licensing, trials, signup, etc. After all the fist fights and verbal duels had settled down and we had our checklists, he emphatically drove home his point by pointing to the charts we created and saying – “these are the users you are writing for” (when it comes to documenting cloud operations…). From the kind of audience one would write for, he touched upon when users might use documentation, the information types, best practices, standard operating procedures, challenges and various compliance standards for different systems/domains - all this in the context of cloud services.

I expected something magical when it came to the technical consistency presentation. Tamara started by defining what they meant by consistency, and how Juniper’s customer satisfaction levels were taking a beating because of inconsistent documentation. They (Tamara and Prasad) went into details about how they zeroed in on the root cause of poor customer satisfaction when it came to documentation and why some documents were rated highly while others were not. Long story short, they refined their process to include what they called a knowledge requirement document that defined the level of detail for every topic at the smallest level. The knowledge requirements were categorized into ‘must have’ information and ‘good to have’ information. The benefits of the change in process resulted in lesser review and authoring time. A reduction of 66 percent. A little higher and it would have made Ripley happy.

And when it’s time to go, you have an exit strategy. Well, not really. That’s when your plan B is part of plan A. Kumar is again one of those speakers I’d choose to hear from, even if it was Barack Obama or Adolf Hitler in the next room. Or both! He does considerable amount of groundwork before coming up with some really insightful presentations. There’s usually a survey involved, so you can be sure he's not pulling numbers from a hat : ) 

The major problems when it comes to managing doc reviews from SME include comments, no feedback, inadequate or unclear and sometimes contradicting feedback. He picked up each kind of issue and suggested ideas to address them. He then discussed the advantages of online reviews as opposed to face to face reviews. He talked about how to manage reviews, watch review priorities, reiterate expectations (who, when, what, and how) monitor progress and facilitate reviews. Most folks know when to escalate. He ended with three myths...there's no perfect doc, no perfect product and no perfect reviewer. We'll let them off the hook this time!

It’s becoming more and more easy to select the track to attend. Especially when there are only two options. Unless of course, you are forced to choose between ‘heavy weights’. And this time I chose to go listen to 7 habits, one for each day of the week ; ) Habits are formed when we choose to do something over and over again. What you do often, consciously becomes a habit. It started off like a sermon. And like most sermons, the 'congregation' soon has to deal with pangs of guilt towards the end. Dang...I could have got rid of that habit and embraced a few good ones he talked about instead. Edwin has that ability. If you don’t attend his presentations for the knowledge and insights, you must be attending them for the laughs. Now, after 6 in a row, I’ve realized that there are certain speakers you can’t go wrong with. You may make a mistake with selecting the topic, but rarely do you go wrong if you just stick to a good speaker and allow him/her to make the difficult choice (selecting topic) for you. Better still, make sure you have a list of your favorite speakers. Of course when two of your favorite speakers are presenting simultaneously, we have a problem. And that's why they make coins!
Of the seven habits, I thought the read and write were given. The habit of solving problems, the habit of discipline and the habit of excellence made the most sense. Now if I could only get rid of this habit of making new year resolutions!

Infographics is not a new topic. But Faraz and Vimal did a kick ass job with the 75 slide presentation! From explaining what an infographic was, to why it is preferred over the other options, to some very simple examples, some of which were from the 17 century! The one I liked the most was the metro rail map, though inaccurate, (geographically) it did a great job in conveying the necessary information in the most easy to understand manner. They explained where to use infographics. Infographics were preferred because of their simplicity, and the clarity they provide. They are also language independent, more engaging and visually more appealing than other popular ways of conveying information. Flowcharts and timelines, are areas where one can use infographics. They introduced the infographic principles and also the process involved in creating a graphic. They talked about certain tools that can be used to create infographics. Some of the skills that are good to have include user experience design, information development, data analysis, and graphic design.

Paresh Naik’s panel discussion on “what the manager really wants from you” was based on the book “What the CEO really wants from you” and the 4 ‘As’ in the book – Accomplishment, Affability, Advocacy and Authenticity. In brief it was about executing with efficiency, delivering results, being friendly and courteous, being able to persuade without power and being yourself and not pretending to be someone you are not. His panel included the STC India president, doc managers and a director from Adobe, Citrix and Tibco respectively. The audience got to fire questions at the panel. I was busy laughing at some of the questions and answers that I forgot to take notes! Anyway, the winning question was not about what the manager really wants from you, it was about what the employee wanted from his/her manager!

One of the talks in the unconference was about the Adobe Presenter. This is one software that has everything I’ve been wanting for a long time now, for an entirely different purpose. We have an internal training ‘university’ where different departments create courses about various topics (including product, domain, department specifics, competitors) and then share knowledge over a webinar. But the problem here is that those who attend the event remotely, miss out on 70 percent of the content. Why? Because 70 percent (arguably) of all communication is non-verbal. Given the shortening attention spans of global audiences, even with horse blinders, it’s extremely difficult to concentrate. Your mind keeps wandering off after a while… just watching a screen that changes every now and then… and the voice of course is not going to be enough. It never was. Now add the video of the presenter to the equation, and you have what I think is a winner. Of course the downside is that you can’t make these presentation in your PJs and you better be at least ‘reasonably presentable’. You don’t want calls to your support saying… “How do I make the presentation full screen again?!”

Minimalism with Mugdha… oops.. Miffy, truly deserved the best paper award. As Fred said, it was the only paper (among the 25 selected papers) that made it to all the ‘presentation selectors’ lists. It was a well thought out paper. I loved the way Mugdha drew parallels between the Miffy characters and minimalism. I’m sure my daughter would have loved it even more! The slides were not dull (unlike many minimalistic presentations I’ve attended prior to this one). Though concepts were not very different, what made the difference was the delivery and of course the content. Loved the slide on how not to overdo things, that showed Miffy eating the cake! Take a look at the presentation, its self-explanatory. The fonts used was clear and legible. 
One of my biggest gripes when it comes to STC and even Twin conferences is that they don’t seem to have guidelines for presenters. Or maybe they do, but they aren’t implemented vigorously. Some slides have such a small font that I doubt even the presenter can read the text. When you look at it on your PC screen, it might look OK. But project it up on a screen and then try to read it from 50 feet away. Do that or have standards. Insist (and verify) that all the presenters use font sizes above a certain size, on all slides. The Miffy presentation was super, maybe they should use this as THE standard. Lots of cool graphics and the (minimal) text that could easily be read. 
And yes, my favorite speaker list just got bigger!

Like all conferences, there were a few stalls put up by various companies. Adobe again outdid themselves with competitions. And who won the communication suite? A well deserving freelancer!

And then came the 'Power Talks'.
Sunita Agarwal gave us a Tip a minute which included a few good reads.
  • Be a role model – be a mentor
  • Build credibility
  • Understand your company business from end to end
  • Share your knowledge and your Ideas
  • Take responsibilities personally (take pride in your work)
  • Read : Basic Black – Cathie Black
  • Read : Corner Office – Adam Bryant (interviews of C level execs)
  • Use
  • Stop whining
  • Never stop learning

Pawan’s power talk was about the importance of content marketing and the 3-step process of research, optimize and amplify.

Mak talked about how to lead a double life. Serious! He talked about the ‘S’ graph for one’s career and cited several examples of people who’ve had successful parallel careers or varied successful careers one after the other (cascading). Arnold Schwarzenegger excelled at body building, then went on to become an actor where he did well and is now into politics. Mak also talked about his ‘double life’. Part tech writer, part writer. The audience urged him to take up politics as the third option!
So what’s yours?

Then it was Paresh’s turn to explain the annual STC salary survey. Since the conference is early this year, the survey has not yet been completed. He agreed that it made more sense to conduct the survey by role. He had actually done this in 2005. Right now, everyone is assumed to be a technical writer. It would be great if there were at least two categories. Individual contributors and people managers. The survey might make more sense then.

Books to Read (compiled from suggestions from various presenters)
  • The Power of HABIT – Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg
  • I will teach yout to be Rich – Ramit Seethi (must read!)
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity – David Allen
  • What the CEO Really Wants – R Gopalakrishnan
  • What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live – Rachel Botsman
  • Don’t Make Me Think: A common sense Approach to Web Usability – Steve Krug
  • Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life) – Cathie Black
  • Corner Office: How top CEOs Made it and You Can Too – Adam Bryant

And there's a movies to watch too - Searching for Bobby Fischer (About Joshua Waitzkin – who won championships in chess and martial arts.)

We must appreciate Fred and team for the entire show and especially for how they managed risk. One of the presenters had cancelled at the last minute and they got Mak to step in as a backup. 
An area for improvement (after ensuring consistency in presentations) is to show the presenter and the audience how much of the 'show' is complete and how much is remaining. Kumar, in one of his earlier presentations about project management had demonstrated one way to do this. He had a small ‘line scale’ on all his slides that clearly showed the progress of the presentation. It’s another matter that he didn’t use it this time and had to hurry up towards the end! This was in spite of timing himself earlier and factoring in time for questions. Maybe, the organizers, by insisting on small rules, can help presenters complete their presentation on time.

Anyway, I'd support Fred for president! (After Pranab goes ;)

You may also like to read - A review of Zuri - White Sands.


  1. A detailed account of the event. Enjoyed.

  2. Nice writeup/account. Though it flagged the lows, the highs were not left behind and described well. The former outweighed the latter but still the writeup does not sound negative or unhealthy in its intent. Was fun to read!