TCW: Karen, thanks for allowing us to interview you today. For our readers who don’t know who Karen Castle is, tell us a little about yourself and how you became involved in technical communication as a profession.
KC: While my husband was in the military, I taught computer applications classes at a secretarial school. When we relocated to the DC area, I consulted as an in-house technical trainer at a large trade union. Part of that job involved writing the training materials and user guides for their in-house software. I enjoyed developing the documentation much more than being in the classroom, and tried to aim my career in that direction. I think my background in adult education helped me to write documentation that enabled users to more easily accomplish what they needed to get done.
TCW: Why did you decide to move away from traditional technical communication and accept your current position at CMS Watch? Tell us a little about your journey, what CMS Watch is, and what types of products and services you produce for them.
KC: After my first daughter was born, I cut back quite a bit on my work. By the time my second daughter was a few months old, I was lucky if I billed 10 hours a month. Serendipitously, CMS Watch was looking for someone to do some administrative work about the same time. When I learned what CMS Watch does and they learned about my background in technical communication, we realized we had a lot to offer each other.
CMS Watch publishes independent reports on content technology marketplaces. Our reports are known for their technical depth, readability, and absolute neutrality. We also publish articles and maintain a blog on our website about content management practices to help educate the broader community.
When I first started at CMS Watch, we published only one report, The CMS Report. The work was done in one giant MS Word file. I converted it to Adobe FrameMaker and set up separate files for each section and a book for the full report. That made it much easier for multiple editors to work on the report simultaneously. Over the past two years we have added three new reports, The Enterprise Search Report, The Records Management Report, and The Enterprise Portals Report. I have been working to increase the usability of our reports by adding summary tables, indexing, and improving the page layout.
TCW: Not everyone can say their mother introduced them to Adobe FrameMaker. But you can! Tell us how your mother steered you away from creating documents with Microsoft Word and convinced you to give FrameMaker a shot.
KC: Before she retired, my mother was a technical writer for the phone company. She worked exclusively in FrameMaker and knew I was struggling to make things look nice in Word. She suggested I give it a try for a few short projects I was working on. Once I tried it, I was hooked! There was no going back.
TCW: So, it’s true. Once you move to FrameMaker, you never want to go back to using Microsoft Word. This is a common refrain. Why do you think that is? What problems did you have when you used Microsoft Word as a technical writer that you solved when you moved to FrameMaker? Were they just little inconveniences or were they productivity-draining tasks that limited how much content you could produce? Give us some real-world examples that our readers might be able to relate to.
KC: My problems with Word ranged from minor inconveniences to absolute show-stoppers. My chief complaint about Word which FrameMaker solved beautifully was the numbering problem. In training materials and user guides there are typically many short series of numbered steps. I always had a hard time getting my numbering series to restart at 1. Then sometimes, out of the blue, the document would renumber itself and I’d have a document with Steps 1 – 467. Then I’d have to go back to each set up steps and restart the numbering the first step in the sequence. Not something I wanted to spend time doing on a short deadline.
Other times, all of my graphics in the document would turn to red X’s, and I’d have to reinsert all of the screen captures, etc. I hear Word fixed this problem in later versions, but not before I had permanently switched to FrameMaker.
I also found it difficult to collaborate with other writers when working in Word. Work lacks FrameMaker’s strong book feature, and so we tended to keep a single publication in a single Word file. We then found ourselves fighting over who go to work in the main file and with occasional version control problems.
TCW: Our research shows that when an organization actually takes the time to measure the time-wasting activities that add little or no value to their technical publishing efforts, making a move to a structured XML authoring environment is a “no brainer”. If most CEOs knew how much money they were wasting by relying on outdated content creation and delivery approaches, they’d fire a whole lot of people and bring in some new blood. What were the reasons your clients gave for not moving away from Word and toward a structured XML authoring environment like FrameMaker?
KC: All the usual ones, both reasonable and ridiculous – the cost of the software, training and support issues, the learning curve for existing employees, concern about finding new employees who knew FrameMaker, wanting to maintain a standard desktop configuration, needing to get buy-in on the decision to use a new product from the entire chain of command.
TCW: Tell us a little about your work at CMS Watch. What types of information products do you create and why can’t you just use Microsoft Word to create them?
KC: We create four main reports. Each report ranges from 200 to 600 pages and can include product reviews for 20 or more vendors. Some of our reports have multiple versions, with vendors appearing in some versions but not others.
I use FrameMaker to compile the reports. I have separate files for each of the report chapters and vendors and combine them in book files. A typical report averages 35 to 40 files. Some files are unique to a certain version; others are used across multiple versions. We have several authors and editors who need access to the individual report files as we are producing a report. The strength of FrameMaker’s book feature alone eliminates Word as a possibility to prepare our reports. We use a secure online repository for version control.
TCW: So, without FrameMaker you would not be able to efficiently manage and deliver the types of products you do today. It seems that the next step for CMS Watch would be to deliver on-demand reports, maybe even allow users to “compare and contrast” two products. Do you think FrameMaker can help you create these a la carte products and what steps do you need to take in order to get to that point?
KC: This would be ideal. I frequently get requests from customers for just two or three product reviews. We did start publishing single-vendor reviews, but I think most people would like a bit more information than that provides. I can imagine some sort of interface where users check off the products or topics they are interested in, a la carte. Their customized PDF report could then be generated on-the-fly. Or maybe my thinking is too trapped by our current way of doing things. Perhaps the info they requested could be delivered online as a set of customized web pages. But, yes, absolutely, this is what we should be working toward.
I think FrameMaker’s XML features would play a big role in setting a system like that up. I must admit that my current focus is making the files work on paper only, so I think there would be a lot of work involved if we change that focus.
TCW: If you’re like other content heavy organizations, you probably have a variety of writers working in geographically dispersed areas, on disparate computing systems. That means some of the content you need to process does not come to you as structured FrameMaker nor XML content. Do you have to integrate content created in Microsoft Word into your FrameMaker environment? If so, what are some of the common challenges you experience with source content that comes from Word? And, what type of extra, unnecessary manual work does this situation cause?
KC: I do receive some files in Microsoft Word. I think the biggest challenge is formatting the tables and removing the strange extra markers that Word inserts in the files. And then if one of our authors who uses Word to update a report, I have to convert all of the FrameMaker files back to Word. Then when their revisions are complete, I’ll need to convert the .docs to FrameMaker again.
TCW: Do you use any third-party FrameMaker tools to create CMS Watch reports and if so, which ones and why?
KC: Yes, there are two third party tools I love. The first is Paragraph Tools by Silicon Prairie Software. My favorite feature is that it allows you to search for a paragraph style override. Sometimes I find that authors have applied paragraph styles manually, i.e. formatting body text so that it looks like a heading, but without actually applying the style, the text won’t show up in the table of contents.
The second is PageLabeler from Carmen Publishing. This tool transfers FrameMaker page numbering styles to PDF files. I use roman numerals for the introductory pages, background, TOC, etc. It used to drive me crazy that the page numbers in my PDFs did not match the page numbers in the footer of my document, i.e. page 1 of the document might actually be the tenth page in the book. Then the rest of the page numbers in the PDF were then off by 10. With PageLabeler, the page numbers in Acrobat match those printed on the document, even if they are roman numerals.
TCW: Do you ever wonder why Adobe doesn’t just snatch up these little plug-ins and make them part of the tool set? If so, which features would you like to see added to FrameMaker that would eliminate the need for third-party applications or manual work you find yourself doing today?
KC: Definitely the two I just mentioned. I also feel FrameMaker’s indexing features are tedious to use. For a program that is ideal for long documents, it is surprising that the indexing is not more automated and user-friendly.
TCW: There are many technical communicators looking to explore new career directions. Which technical writing skills are the most applicable to other types of content creation and delivery jobs? Which ones do you find the most valuable in your role at CMS Watch?
KC: Everything that is published for an audience, whether it is in print or online, technical or non-technical, needs to be well-written and thoughtfully designed. I think that strong writing, editing, and page layout skills will always be readily transferable to other fields. Since I have been at CMS Watch, I have done very little writing, but a significant amount document production work. I have probably become a bit rusty as a writer, but I have learned an enormous amount about FrameMaker and I think the improvements we have made in the report format have been very well-received.
TCW: How can our readers learn more about CMS Watch and the products you create?
KC: Visit to our website. From there you can download sample reports, view our vendor lists, and read our articles and blog.
TCW: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with our readers. We really appreciate you taking time to help us understand how your technical writing knowledge has transferred to your new role.
KC: Thanks for your interest. I always enjoy the opportunity to “talk shop” about FrameMaker and our CMS Watch reports.