Manufacturing/Industry, Computer Software/Hardware, TPC Alumni
By Mitch McDonald
It’s almost cliché within the technical communication field to mention that someone “falls” into technical writing. At first glance, it carries a negative connotation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost every technical professional you talk to is happy they didn’t follow their initial career intentions. It is also almost unheard of to find incoming freshman that have their sights set on becoming a technical writer.
And while the Ferris State University’s Technical and Professional Communication (TPC) program is disproportionately comprised of disaffected majors, most individuals have experience related to technical communication in some way. In the case of Ashley Nicol, a graduate of FSU’s TPC program, she was unwittingly training for her career years before she’d even heard of technical communication.
Like most fathers, Ashley’s dad was one who routinely threw aside directions, perhaps stemming from his years of experience in the high-end floor covering business. He was a handyman in the true sense of the term. Ashley would occasionally accompany her father to job sites, where she noticed her dad’s habit of diving right into a project. Ashley soon began studying the floor covering directions and material kits while her dad and his crew discussed the project.
Two things immediately stood out to her. For one, her father was ignoring documentation that could increase his efficiency and product knowledge immensely. Most of the directions and diagrams were correct and user-accessible. The second striking fact was that still far too many directions were horrendously ambiguous and lacked clear diagrams.
On several occasions, following the directions correctly ended in a botched job. Something had to be done about this inefficiency. Ashley began giving constructive feedback to the suppliers about the quality of their documentation. “My dad suggested that I could write better instructions, and I thought he might be on to something,” said Ashley.
Having already graduated with a degree that she’d no use for, Ashley set her sights on returning to college. Her sister was enrolled in FSU’s dental hygiene program at the time, so Ashley made a few visits to see how she’d fit in Big Rapids.
After deciding to attend FSU, with no idea what she wanted to pursue, Ashley enrolled in an English class taught by the TPC program. At the time, Ashley was only seeking her writing certificate from the program, but she found Erin Weber’s and Sandy Balkema’s enthusiasm for the industry contagious.
Ashley soon made TPC her major and went on to flourish until it was time to look for a job. Despite working for FSU’s Technical Assistance Center (TAC) for over a year under the direction of Sue Cherry, Ashley wasn’t getting the job opportunities she hoped for.
“Two weeks before I was supposed to graduate, I sat down in Erin’s (Weber’s) office in tears,” Ashley stated. Luckily for Ashley, Erin had just received an email from a college recruiter that day. Ashley contacted the individual and soon found herself on a 6-month contract as a technical communicator for the Amway Corporation.
Ashley thrived in her new position, but just as it appeared fortune was smiling on her, Amway terminated their contract with Ashley before the 6-month period ended. But, three months later, Ashley received a call asking her to come back to the company. And the call came just in time. If Ashley hadn’t found another job within the next three days, she had plans to pack up and move out of her apartment. Because of her hard work and adaptability, Ashley’s absence had left a void that none of Amway’s other employees could occupy.
Now that’s she’s back in her familiar position as project administrator, Ashley has the opportunity to work with a plethora of collaborative software platforms. Her typical day consists of tracking client invoices through Microsoft Visio, a program that allows recording of budgets and invoices of Amway’s clients.
Ashley is also proficient with SharePoint, a document creation system for Amway’s technical writers. With SharePoint, users can “check-out” and “check-in” files to work on independently, similar to Google Docs.
Routinely, Ashley also creates integration diagrams with Microsoft’s Visio program, which tracks how Amway and its client’s applications are exchanging information. As one can imagine, getting two applications from loosely affiliated companies coordinated can be a bit like “pulling teeth,” as Ashley explained.
To cope with the day-to-day life of being a technical professional, Ashley enjoys movies, television, and her weekends. Because she was working and going to school full-time at FSU, Ashley didn’t have many opportunities to enjoy college life. She still recalls all the Saturday nights when her friends would call her to go socialize, yet Ashley was busy making pizzas at her other part-time job.
She added, “This has a lot to do with my efforts to keep the weekends ‘sacred’ as I like to call it. Plus, now I can afford to make up for any fun I might have missed when I was making pizzas instead of beer-can castles!”