For the past few months, the STC-MGL 2022-2023 Council members have been planning and hosting programs, virtual meetups, and a book club. As we look forward to our annual December social event, it is my pleasure to introduce you to some of faces behind STC-MGL’s Executive and Extended Council.
First, Vice President Wes Schoenherr shared about himself, his job, and his experience as an STC member.
Tell us about yourself
My path before TechComm was a winding one. I grew up in Michigan and earned an English BA from Eastern Michigan University. After graduating, I went to Xi’an, China where I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for four years with a basic certificate. While there, I met and married my wife, who is from Xi’an. We moved from there to San Francisco, where I earned an English teaching credential and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) MA from the University of San Francisco. I taught high school English in California for three years. My two children were born. Our family then moved back to Xi’an for a year where I taught ESL again. Finally, we moved to Kalamazoo, where my parents are. I taught high school English for three semesters at Battle Creek Central High School, then became a technical communicator. Whew!
Why did you decide to pursue technical communication as a career?
One of the aspects of teaching that I enjoyed the most was creating the instructional materials for my lessons. However, with all of the other demands that are on teachers (many of which I didn’t enjoy) I felt like I never had enough time or resources to develop those materials to the level that I wanted. I also didn’t have a good work/life balance. Technical communication seemed like a career in which I could spend more time on something similar to the part of teaching that I most enjoyed and was best at, and also have more flexible work hours. Having been in my new career for almost two years now, I know that it was the right change for me.
Why did you decide to join STC?
I had a lot of skills from being an English teacher that were transferable to being a technical communicator. However, I needed to learn some specifics of technical communication, develop a portfolio, and earn a certificate to show that I was invested in the career. At the same time, since I had just finished grad school, I didn’t want to go through a formal, multi-year program.
I found STC by doing a Google search for “technical writer association.” After checking out the website, I decided to become a member for the discounts that I could get on the CPTC Foundation Certification Exam Prep and TechComm Fundamentals Bootcamp classes. I enjoyed doing the assignments that Leah Guren gave us in Bootcamp, so I was certain then that technical communication was the right direction for me.
I also joined the STC-MGL chapter and enjoyed participating in the virtual meetups and book club discussions. Talking with technical communicators in my region helped make everything I was learning seem more real and that the career change would really happen.
Where do you work?
I’m a Technical Content Developer at KMC Controls, which designs and manufactures HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) controls and software for building automation systems. Our products provide facility management teams with tools for achieving prerequisites and credits for LEED certification in the categories of Indoor Environmental Quality, Energy and Atmosphere, Sustainable Sites, and Water Efficiency for green buildings.
I found the job through STC’s job bank. KMC Controls posted it there first and would have posted it more widely later if they hadn’t found me.
The company is located in New Paris, Indiana. Most days, though, I work from my home in Kalamazoo.
To give you a more concrete idea of the industry, I’ll talk a little about the two biggest projects I’ve worked on so far. The first was creating documentation for a new hardware product that measures the amount of outside air that an HVAC system is bringing into a building at any given time. This is an important solution for meeting IAQ (indoor air quality) standards, especially in our pandemic era in which people are more keenly aware of IAQ.
The second major project was creating an online help system for our SaaS (Software as a Service) product, which is essentially Cloud software for a building’s operational systems (HVAC, lighting, security, etc.). Modern control devices (installed in places that most people never see in a building) send data to each other (on their own type of network) in order to maintain the desired indoor environment. That data is typically hard for a facility management team to access for maintenance and reporting. Our gateway and its software gathers the data (which is not on an IT network), sends it through the Internet to a Cloud database, and provides ways of visualizing it from an Internet browser window. This allows the team to use their laptops, tablets, or phones from anywhere to gain insights into the status and health of their buildings and make adjustments. Our software can also send the data through our API to third-party analytics and AI software that help optimize the functioning of the building’s systems for energy efficiency.
What are your job activities?
I’m responsible for updating the existing documentation (datasheets, selection guides, installation guides, application guides, and technical bulletins) for one of our hardware product lines. I also create documentation for new products (like our airflow measurement system) that get added to the line. Third, I’m responsible for the documentation for our SaaS product.
To fulfill these responsibilities I test out the products myself, interview SMEs, and revise the documentation multiple times as the products evolve. I use Adobe InDesign to update the PDFs. About a year ago I learned MadCap Flare and created the online help system for our SaaS product, with a PDF that builds from the same source files. We only had a 150-page PDF before. I’m hoping to gradually convert our PDFs for our hardware into Flare as well to create an online knowledge base.
In addition to all that, I do some smaller tasks, like making product pages on our website using WordPress, and writing up announcements of the documentation updates for our company’s monthly newsletter. Occasionally I also write scripts based on the documents for how-to videos that are put on our YouTube channel.
How has being an STC member helped you with your career?
When I was applying for jobs I received valuable feedback on my resume and cover letters from an instructional designer mentor (now retired from Bank of America), who I got connected with through STC’s mentor board.
Besides the learning and resume-building it helped me accomplish to get into this career, the STC continually gives me opportunities to learn new information and skills, which makes me more effective at my job. Additionally, I’ve found the STC’s salary database to be very valuable when negotiating salary. Also, I recently attended a webinar by MK Grueneberg titled “Designing Your Career: Making Power Moves!” which gave good tips.
Since I’m kind of a solo writer at my company, in the near future I plan to enter my work in contests held by STC chapters, and maybe even volunteer to be a judge one day. It seems like a great way to get wider feedback for improvements and also ideas by seeing what other technical communicators are doing.
What advice do you have for students as they are entering the field of technical communication?
This is kind of a hard question, since I never thought about this field when I was a college student. Recently I attended a TechComm KnowledgeXchange panel discussion where Tim Esposito (currently Vice President) coined an acronym to describe the core skills of technical communicators. The acronym is CAIRO: Communication, Adaptability, Interpersonal skills, Research skills, and Organization. I say focus on developing proof that you have those skills, and don’t worry too much about specific software tools or even the specifics of a particular technical industry.
I think I got hired because I proved to my manager that I had CAIRO. I trained myself a little in some software tools that turned out to not be the ones I needed for the job, but that helped prove that I could learn software tools quickly (Adaptability and Research skills). I didn’t know anything about the HVAC controls industry except the little I was able to learn before the interview, but they had training videos on their products that they knew I could quickly learn from.
Finally, don’t worry too much about a fit between yourself and the content of a particular industry. When I was a college student I would’ve thought writing documentation for HVAC controls sounded boring. Actually, I’ve discovered that it’s pretty interesting. What I’ve found is that the process of the job is more important than the content. I could do this type of work for any industry because I enjoy designing and wordsmithing. By the way, I recommend attending a TechComm KnowledgeXchange event or even just watching the recorded panel discussions on YouTube. You can learn a lot about the field from them. You don’t have to be an STC member yet; prospective members are welcome!
What else would you like our readers to know about you?
During my lunch break at home, I enjoy working toward my personal fitness goals by rowing, boxing, strength-training, and practicing Tai Chi—activities I never had the time or energy for as a teacher!
Thank you for sticking with me through my long answers. I hope the details help student readers envision what this career can be like in reality.