By Jessica Smith
John Auchter is his own company—literally. John created his own company, JPA Consulting, Inc.
Graduating from Michigan Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in Scientific and Technical Communication with a minor in Engineering, John was told by an educational counselor that, since he was good at math and science, he should become an engineer so he “wouldn’t starve.” Not wanting engineering as a career, he transferred into scientific writing.
“Once I found that [program], it was like a light went off,” said John.
Michigan Tech’s program was then on the trimester system, and John ended up going for 4 years plus one extra trimester. Between his senior year and fall term, he was going to complete an internship at Texas Instruments but, instead, ended up working at a bottling plant where returnable bottles went to the plant, were washed, and returned.
He said among many part time jobs he held that summer, “sadly, that one was the best.” John noted they really didn’t have any sort of internship program at Michigan Tech at the time.
After John graduated, he landed a job at Thermotron in Holland, Michigan. In 1986, he went from an entry-level position at Thermotron to “more or less” becoming in charge of the department as people started to leave.
“Through the 90s, that’s what companies did. Employees moved from parts of technical communication area to other parts of the business,” John explained.
He noted that most of the jobs at the time were in technical communication departments within big corporations, such as IBM. The department would have 25-30 people and the editing, writing, or illustration tasks would be split among the staff. “It was very compartmentalized,” said John.
One of the reasons that John ended up creating his own business was that many of his tech writing colleagues were getting cut. “You got down to one or two people in departments doing all of the work, so we just cut the department and hired consultants to come back in. [That’s] a lot of the reason why I ended up in my own business,” said John.
For John, the best part of being a technical writer is the “variation of things that you can do,” he said. Although John has his own business, a lot the work he does is for Elexicon, Inc. in Grand Rapids.
He explained that when he graduated, back in the old days, he wrote manuals that a company would publish, send to a printer, print thousands of copies of the manuals, and then send the copies to their clients or customers.
Now, John explains, the variation consists of online help, tutorials, “stuff that kind of melds in with the product design, like user interface, design, working and helping develop a software product.”
The focus has changed, John says, so that now the software must be easy to use. Years ago, “technical writers would be at the end of the line, and the engineers would give it to you, and you would ask ‘Why does it work this way?’ and to the engineers it was easy, but your job was to explain it, not question it.”
“It’s a lot better than it used to be; just the whole level of respect and of what a technical communications person does,” John said.
As far as the technology of the technical communications field, he said it’s so much more complex now than the old traditional print technology. John, in fact, considers himself a computer expert. He has had to learn many different applications and has to be up to date on what’s coming “because it’s part of survival.” He has a couple of different computers: the “really old” Macintosh, the brand new Macintosh, and a couple of Microsoft Windows Computers. He works with the entire creative suite from Adobe, Microsoft’s office applications, such as Word and PowerPoint, as well as more “esoteric” programs such as Framemaker and Googlehelp.
For John, a lot of his day-to-day job comes down to juggling tasks and projects. He has many different clients with many different projects, and he said it’s a matter of making sure he’s on task with all of them.
Another of John’s “regular” jobs is being a cartoonist; he has deadlines he must meet for his editorial cartoons. John creates editorial cartoons for The Grand Rapids Business Journal and Editorial, a Grand Rapids family magazine in West Michigan. His cartoon themes are typically local politics.
He mentioned that although he’d love to be cartooning full time, it’s not because he dislikes the technical communication field, instead, it’s because cartooning is what he likes to do best. The benefit of working independently, according to John, is that he can set his own schedule, “which is great; I have three kids,” he said. He also said it’s great to have the flexibility. He tries to keep a regular schedule, making sure all the work fits with the general Monday-Friday work hours.