A Post-Industrial SWETer at Work

by Hugh Ashton

Hugh Ashton originally came to Japan to write audio equipment manuals. Fifteen years later, after a few detours, he’s still doing the same thing, aided and abetted by his wife and more technology than is healthy for two people.

Most of my work is done from my home office. Although I can set my own working days and hours, I try to keep to a routine that syncs with my major customers’, usually equating to a five-day (Monday through Friday) week and a nominal 8-to-7 workday. Sometimes I find myself collaborating with others in the United States or Europe, and I adjust my schedule to reflect this.

The first job every morning (preferably in the 30 minutes before breakfast) is the overnight email. I have a spam-trapping service that comes as part of my j-views Web site and email service, and it filters at least 60 to 70 messages per day, but a little still comes through— I have the service trained reasonably well by now, but I still check the “junk basket” on the Web every other day or so. To alert me to important messages, I’ve written a small AppleScript to enable my Mac OS X computer to read the sender name and subject of messages from major customers out loud as the messages arrive. There’s relatively little customer communication using telephone or fax?maybe one fax a week at most and only fractionally more phone calls from customers; email leaves a permanent trace of who said what and when they said it, and it’s easier to deal with in your own time (for both parties). My email gets checked every five minutes, anyway, so there’s little lag (always-on Internet has changed my life).

After the work-related mail, I browse the SWET list and the other half dozen mailing lists I subscribe to, and occasionally add my pearls of wisdom to the pool. Then it’s breakfast (a late night the night before reverses the email-breakfast order), and then the workday begins just before 9:00, with me clutching a large mug of coffee.

My work involves planning, writing, checking, DTP, and illustration work on end-user manuals for professional audio equipment (mixers, digital recorders, and the like), and a typical day involves all of these, with the bulk of my time devoted to writing, on the basis of my notes taken in meetings with development and marketing teams and also from the Japanese marketing and engineering specifications. A large manual can take three months or more of nearly continuous work from the start of planning to release, so I am hardly ever faced with a rush job on this kind of documentation. My main software tools are Adobe products (FrameMaker for structured writing and layout of long documents; InDesign for more “graphic designer” documents, such as quick start guides; Illustrator for line illustrations; and Acrobat for the production of proof copies and as a reviewing tool, as well as for the production of final camera-ready pages), mainly because they’re industry standards (though I happen to think that Acrobat is worth every yen—more on this later). Final “sanity checking” for pagination, misplaced illustrations, etc., as well as the last round of spell checking and typographical (wrong font, etc.) proofreading is almost always done on paper—I’ve never regretted investing in a large PostScript laser printer that does double-sided printing a couple of years back. All work-related printout is shredded when the job is finished— much of the material I produce as well as my source material is confidential until the release of the product.

I’ve been using FrameMaker on PCs for over ten years now; I write and lay out whole pages using the shortcuts without ever touching the trackball (trackballs are better for your hands than a mouse). Mind you, the work is heavy on keyboards—I wear out a PC keyboard in just over a year, and I insist on a U.S.-layout keyboard; I can never get used to the punctuation layout on a Japanese keyboard. For Illustrator, I often use a Wacom graphics tablet and find that it really can save a lot of time and temper.

I almost always listen to music (MP3s converted [“ripped,” in the jargon] from CDs or [legally!] downloaded from the Internet) while working; anything from Renaissance liturgical music to Radiohead comes out of the computer speakers, but when I’m writing or proofreading, music with lyrics in a language I understand is distracting. Mozart operas are fine; my Italian isn’t good, but I know the sounds well enough to join in with the arias in a convincing (to my ears) way.

Corrections and drafts of manuals are sent back and forth as PDF files, as mail attachments (preferably the comments only, rather than the whole PDF). Of course, this demands that the recipient have a full copy of Acrobat, rather than just the Reader, in order to be able to make comments and send them back. Over the years, I’ve managed to convince my major customers that the cost of a full Acrobat installation pays for itself in just one project. As an alternative to email, the drafts sometimes live in a secure server area on MyDocsOnline, an online document storage and sharing service. That saves mailboxes from clogging up, and also ensures that everyone knows where the latest version resides. The workflow tracking isn’t great, though?I have vague plans to implement my own server when I get a fiber connection. Final delivery is typically as a camera-ready imposed PDF.

I am not a translator, so if I get large amounts of Japanese comments or corrections, I either call in my wife to help (she’s a tax-deductible expense!) or run the text through an automatic translation program (Pensee from Osaka Gas, which was on special offer when we bought it some time ago?it works, sort of, but I wouldn’t recommend it highly) and try to unravel the resulting English into some sort of sense. Incidentally, Windows 2000 (English) is nearly bilingual-capable and Mac OS X is almost entirely so, so there are few technical problems involved.

Lunch is usually a quick meal at about 1:00 of homemade bread, and cheese and salad, or the like with my wife, who’s been taking care of her father in the morning. If the weather’s not too bad, I’ll go out and walk round the block for about 20 minutes or so; otherwise, I’ll get no exercise for the whole day; walking also clears my mind a little.

The afternoon is similar to the morning, except that some of my customers get panicky a few minutes before they’re meant to stop work for the day and demand (politely) that I do a day’s work in 30 minutes, such as produce an addendum reflecting the latest software upgrade to a CD player. I try to wrap things up before 7 p.m. if possible, and most of my customers know that I will not normally be available for work after that time (at least, I rarely check my email after then). Of course, when there’s a real deadline (and I try to ensure the “deadline” is not the product of a marketing manager’s diseased imagination by asking pointed questions of the development and/or production engineers), I work until the work gets done; but this typically only happens about once a month or so. Often I find that the “deadline” is arbitrary—the new software will actually be replaced by a newer version in the morning, and mass production of the CD player in China is being held up for a month for lack of a particular chip. Cooking the evening meal, if I have time, is a good way of unwinding after a hard day slaving over a hot keyboard.

On my days out of the “office” (I spend at least one day a week at a U.S. brokerage in Tokyo as a documentation consultant, and I have a status meeting with my major customers at least once a month), I always travel with a laptop computer and a DoCoMo wireless (PHS) modem, allowing me to make a 64k connection to the Internet almost everywhere in the Tokyo metropolitan area. I don’t use it for Web surfing, but I often collect email and reply to urgent messages using it. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to discover a wireless “hot spot” (Starbucks or the like) where I can use the wireless network card. I make meeting notes, etc., on the laptop and transfer them to the main system(s) when I get home—many of my applications have two-way licenses, meaning that I can use the application on both a laptop and desktop computer, but only on one at a time.

All my data (drafts, layouts, finished camera-ready files, and so on) is stored on my own server, where it’s backed up to tape every night. Part of my job is making sure that the technology keeps running, and on a bad day I seem to spend more time fighting technical fires (typically with Windows systems) than actually using the computer—a bad software fault can take half a day to put right, but these only happen a few times a year. The bad old days of having to pay three times the market rate for English-language software have at last gone, thanks to the Internet; and most of my software (and some hardware) is bought using the Internet—some shippers will quite happily sell me software marked “not for export outside the U.S.A.,” bless them.

Basically, I’m lucky. I enjoy writing; I enjoy music and audio; and I enjoy computers and technology; and my job allows me to work with all of these. Of course, the self-employed aspect of things tends to bring me awake in a cold sweat in the wee small hours of the morning sometimes, but I’m much happier running my own little technology empire than I ever would be running somebody else’s.

From Newsletter Number 103 (November 2003)