Scott: Thomas, thanks for agreeing to chat with us a little today about making the move to structured XML. For those readers who don’t yet know who you are, tell us a little about yourself and your experience in the content industry.
Thomas: Thanks, Scott. I am a principal owner of a company called Integrated Technologies, better known as InTech. We began as a UNIX training company back in 1989. Within a few years, we made major inroads in the Engineering, Financial and Telecom industries. One of our first financial clients was Solomon Brothers. You may remember them. Solomon Brothers was a very large investment house that was purchased by Smith Barney, who was then purchased by
At this time, I was bored with only working on the business development alone and decide to take this FrameMaker project on myself. My first FrameMaker training class was a four day Basic and Advanced, that ended on a Thursday. Now this is where luck comes in. At the same time, we just received a UNIX training contract with the research arm of the baby bells called Bellcore. They were based in NJ. When my class ended at Solomon Brothers, I decided to visit the Bellcore curriculum manager in charger of the UNIX training contract. This curriculum manager introduced me to one of his colleagues who asked me a question that changed my life forever. The question was “I just received a project and have to train thousands of employees on a product called FrameMaker, do you know anyone that does this. Well, needless to say we became the largest FrameMaker trainer in a matter of months. In addition to Solomon Brothers and Bellcore, almost every Unix training contract we had, also picked up our FrameMaker training. At the same time, we developed a reseller network of Unix Hardware Vendors to sell our training offering for a margin. It was a new concept at the time, they were used to just passing the training portion of their deals back to the hardware vendor with no margin.
Let’s say hiring and training new trainers to deliver FrameMaker training to our customers under our “Edutainment” methodology was my new pastime.
Along the way, I listened to our customers. We helped them convert their legacy documents from Troff, Interleaf, Word Perfect and Word—to named a few legcy formats—into Unstructured FrameMaker and FrameBuilder (Structured). Our customers also involved us earlier on with exporting their content to SGML and then XML. We worked with them to integrate their documents into Content Management and publishing systems.
It was exciting, and this industry continues to be so because of the pace at which technology changes. We were getting into real information management. We partnered up with RR Donnelly, a financial reporting firm for all the large public corporations and we started looking at chunking information.
Scott: I know that your firm, Integrated Technologies, is a provider of various types of services designed to help folks make the move from unstructured to structured content. But what exactly does your company do? What types of services do you provide today?
Thomas: Basically, we are everything from a one-stop shop (handling everything from information architecture to implementation) to a provider of individual services that augment an organization’s existing talent pool. We start with training content managers on the possibilities and go from there. We find most companies are now trying to transition from creating unstructured documentation to creating structured XML, which the goal of integrating their newly application-independent content into a content management system so they can efficiently manage their information assets. Of course, we get excited when they mention DITA specialization, XSLT, DTD and Schemas. Every project is a new challenge and we enjoy creating software tools to automate the conversion process to the structure our clients need. The more we can automate the process, the less time our clients’ documents are off-line. Often they are only off-line for only minutes. If we don’t have the knowledge and skill needed to provide a specific service, we help our clients find someone who can. Doing so allows us to focus on the entire project rather than just pieces.
Scott: As a content technologist who specializes in XML publishing solutions, what are the main reasons the organizations you serve say they are moving to XML? Give us a few examples (and name drop, if you can – with URLs, where possible)
Thomas: Each organization usually has it’s own unique reasons for moving to XML, but usually it is because of cost savings and compliance. For instance, TEEX, the Homeland Security Training Arm of Texas A & M wanted to lower costs by eliminating duplication of efforts when creating Homeland Security training manuals. Content reuse was the primary goal. We helped them modularize their information and placed it into a CMS making it easy for them to update and reuse their content.
Another interesting case was a client who wanted to move to XML, so that they could disseminate their content internationally, in any language. Converting their content to XML enabled them to expand their market exponentially.
We are currently working on an interesting project in the Nuclear Industry. This customer chose to migrate to XML from their legacy Interleaf system with specialized DITA structure, so they could separate content from formatting. They use Adobe FrameMaker and they own an Enterprise Level License for Documentum. Because there was no FrameMaker / Documentum / DITA integration, we developed it (with the help of a software business partner). It will be released for sale shortly.
Scott: As you know I speak at a lot of conference and get to talk to people who are trying to understand the rapidly changing publishing landscape, I want to ask you a few questions that I hear commonly. First, what is unstructured legacy content, exactly? And, what do you mean by unstructured?
Thomas: Unstructured legacy content is usually defined as content that has been created using software (authoring tool) that may or may not have used formatting tags, but did not have programmatic validation against a set of rules on how and where these tags could be used. Word users may have used styles or not. FrameMaker users may have used Paragraph and Character tags. Interleaf users may have used components. But these examples are all unstructured content.
In very general terms, the real difference between structured and unstructured content is that in the structured editing environment there are rule sets called DTDs or Schemas that define where we can place a certain piece of content and what metadata information can—and should—be provided. In Structured FrameMaker formatting can be accomplished with an EDD that will both validate the structure and apply formatting based on that structure. In most other major XML editors and also FrameMaker XSLT-FO stylesheets can be written for various outputs like PDF, HTML and mobile devices.
Scott: What is the most common type of content you are asked to convert?
Thomas: MS Word, Unstructured Frame, Interleaf and plain ASCII text are the most popular.
In most cases there is some inherent structure in an unstructured document. What I mean is that when an author created the content, they probably used a style guide that was either written or understood. They may have had rules like Heading1 always goes before Heading 2. They may have only meant to use these tags to create the formatting (or look-and-feel) of the document, but what they were actually doing was enforcing a simple structure. InTech makes software tools to help aid the legacy content conversion process that extend the inherent structure of unstructured documents.
Scott: As one would expect, as a user advocate I often chastise vendors of XML authoring tools for failing to properly set expectations for their customers who are moving to XML authoring. For instance, I have found that about one in four technical communicators aren’t good at creating reusable XML content, not because they didn’t receive proper training, but just because they just aren’t very good at writing non-linear, context independent content very easily. In your view, what are some of the biggest obstacles to adopting XML? And, how can these obstacles be overcome?
Thomas: One of the biggest obstacles to adopting XML are the “experts” either in the form of a consultant or an employee who set up roadblocks because of lack of knowledge. They say something cannot be done because they don’t know it can be done or they don’t want to admit they can’t do it. We have to educate these experts as to the possibilities and we have to educate those who want to move to XML that there are experts out there who may not advocate for them out of unawareness. There have been so many times that we have come midway into a project that has floundered because the customer has been abandoned. Usually, at this point, they don’t believe anyone and have shut down completely.
Perhaps, it is about time to create a strong certification program, so that organizations will know who they can rely on for accurate information and expertise. Right now, anyone can call themselves an expert.
Scott: Many newbies to the world of XML publishing become frightened—with good reason—when they realize their pure-play XML editor does not provide publishing capabilities. Then they find themselves having to learn about another XML standard, XSLT. What is XSLT, why is it needed, and what do writers need to know about it?
Thomas: The first thing I’d like to make clear is that you Structured Frame users don’t have to worry about this because XSLT is not required, but can be used if needed. For those of you who are non-WYSIWYG authoring tool users, XSLT, is part of the Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) family. XSLT files are used to transform XML files into other formats like HTML or formatting objects for generating PDF files. XSLT makes context and level rules that allow the building of formatting rules used to create various outputs like PDF. The most difficult concept to understand when talking about XML is to get users to understand that formatting at the XML level DOES NOT MATTER. Formatting is dealt with through XSLT or Structured Frame Templates.
I would highly suggest that people download a thirty day evaluation copy of Altova Stylevision. It is a graphical tool that is easy to use to create XSLT stylesheets for various output formats like PDF, RTF and HTML. The good news is, when you build a template using this tool you are also building a template that is used in their free XML editor called Authentic. It’s not an industrial strength editor, but it is a very good editor for light-weight situations. And, for the techies among us, Altova also provides a free Authentic ActiveX Control that can be embedded into a webpage.
Scott:What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to sell the value of XML?
Thomas: Great question, Scott! “Misinformation” and its partner “misconception” are my greatest enemies when trying to point out the value of XML. Three of the biggest misconceptions I am faced with are: high cost, the length of time documents are pulled out of production, and the work involved with moving to XML. Overpricing the move to XML understates the ROI model and this stops people dead in their tracks. Another misconception is that organizations think their documents will be out of production for days and the truth is that this can be greatly minimized. Depending on the method of conversion, we can minimize this time down to minutes. We can streamline processes and create customized code that will enable us to complete the conversion and acceptance process quickly and efficiently. And lastly, the “difficultly” challenge. Some experts wave around Stylesheets that look complicated and difficult when in reality, new users who use the DITA standard can utilize the DITA Open ToolKit, which provides standard XSLT stylesheets that can be used as a starting point. These existing stylesheets can be modified to create custom outcomes. You don’t have to build a new house if you just want to add an additional room or make a change to the floorplan.
Scott:Selecting the right XML tools is critically important to any structured XML authoring project. What should folks look for when evaluating XML tools? Can you provide some tips on how to select or warnings about what to avoid?
Thomas: When evaluating XML tools, organizations should look at their individual needs and find the tools that work for them. It’s not a one size fits all, when it comes to XML authoring. XML by definition is application independent. We recommend different authoring tools and CMS’ based on our clients’ needs. Of course I have my favorites as of today’s technology, but tomorrow that may change due to a new innovations, so I’m not committing.
Scott:Thanks so much for taking time to help us learn a little about you, your firm, and XML publishing. For our readers who have additional questions or may want to get a quote for your services, how should they contact you?
Thomas: Scott, anyone can call me at 401-431-6992 or email me, firstname.lastname@example.org