In the second edition of the Experts Ignite series, we talk to Paul Trotter, the Founder/CEO of Author-it Software Corporation and the architect of the Author-it product. Author-it was born out of the frustrations that Paul experienced producing documentation in the Telecommunications industry. His vision was to solve the problems that content writers face – not provide a cure for the symptoms. The result was Author-it; a product built from the ground up around principles such as topic based writing, single sourcing and separating content from format.
Regarded as a visionary within the industry, Paul is a popular speaker at events all over the world on topics ranging from technical writing and help authoring to content management and localization. Today, Paul continues to drive the product vision for Author-it. In this he applies his problem solving talents to the day to day issues that people face in creating, managing and delivering content. This vision has seen the development of world leading technologies such as Author-it Xtend and Author-it Live.
Could you share your experiences about your first technical writing job?
Yes, it was a long time ago now. I remember I was hired into work for a company that was producing a piece of software for managing hospitals and it broke up to a bunch of modules working on emergency room module. And they asked me to write a manual and gave me a Microsoft Word to do that with. And I was halfway through into the job, probably a few weeks, when they came back and told me “hey, we need an online help with this as well.” And they did not have any particular help in mind. And I said how am I supposed to do that. And they said oh, here’s this, just plug in to Word and that will just convert the Word document to help. It took me a few weeks to get it to work and there were a lot of things that I had in the Word file that I wanted to compile. And I said, “gosh there should be a better way of doing this.” And that is what led to the inspiration to create a tool that manages information better and is able to produce more than one format without having to sacrifice the capabilities of source files. And that was my introduction to tool sets in technical writing. I had come from an industry where there were lot of tools specifically designed and developed for your job and not tools that were kind of a bunch of macros someone put together without proper processes. That lead me to go back to understand what was the problem that I was looking into and eventually design something to solve this problem. And Author-it was formed.
How can technical writers learn about the ROI value they bring to their job?
There are couple of different types of technical writers from my experience – people that are more in the technical end and people that are more in the writing end. It really depends on where they come from before they arrive at technical writing. The actual degrees in technical writing and technical communication is relatively new compared to other IT disciplines so many writers the value that they bring to the role is when it is more technical side focused on tools or on technology behind the tools so they bring value in terms of their maybe their expertise in CSS, HTML or dealing with any particular technology. Then on the other end of the skull you got people who bring value to writing itself so maybe their technology expertise is less strong so they rely on each other to get the job done.
When you are measuring ROI in terms of product, then the ROI depends on the skill set that they bring. Most tools will create ROI by reducing the amount of labor required and Author-It is no exception to that. So we provide increase of efficiency and doubling of productivity. So how do you measure that? Basically you say I have got 10 writers. 10 writers are paid X dollars per year. If I double their productivity, than I can get twice as much as work and so the ROI that you see here is 50 percent of the value of the employment of those people can be redeployed and used for other tasks and most people when looking at technology they are concerned that a technical product is going to do them out of the job is not the case.
It has been my experience that, almost invariably, technical communication departments are overworked and under resourced for the work they have to do. What the tool does is merely allow them to meet their current deadline to current deliverables on their milestones without having to invest further and more and that’s the typical thing that we see.
So the other when you are dealing with a product that it takes away a lot of the technical challenges like Author-it does, we tend to hide a lot of the technology under the hood, it means that those people who are technical in nature will be able to refocus their expertise away from the toolsets and more towards maybe underline template design, and those people who are writers r is alleviate having to do with technology as usual the writer spent about 50% of their time dealing with formatting, layout and publishing type of activities. AIT almost eliminates all of those activities from the date they were the writer has for arm also one of the other are white whence you can get is the reuse of information so we typically see about a 30 to 40% reuse of information.
How is social media revolutionizing the communication channels? Can technical writers play a role here? If yes, how can technical writers integrate social media channels in their work?
Social media is revolutionizing many parts of our lives, not just in technical Communications. But Communications I think in a large way, as it is replacing or at least parts of e-mail communication started with the familiar texting and it has kind of evolved into the online chat, and to full-blown social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and so on. Where we are going to see it going, in Technical Communication is this type of interaction that now allows people to collaborate and communicate quite differently from how they were used to communicating. It has certainly brought communities closer together so people in technical communication collaborate with peers and their clients in a much more real-time fashion. So one of the ways that we see social media is, it is going to play a role in a technical communication in the process of reviewing content, and when you think about the process of reviewing content it is very much a social or should be a very social type of task, where, if you sat together in a room and you went through a document together you then discuss the changes and agree and disagree on things.
So what we’ve tried to do with the is what our latest products Author-It Reviewer is to bring that whole element of social networking and communication like a Facebook or Yammer and bring it directly into the review process so that the new review product that we have is a real time social review. I think that is one way that you consider bringing in technology, so when one reviewer suggests a change about an insertion or deletion, other reviewers will be instantaneously shown the change in real time and will be able to have a Facebook-like discussion and agree on a change.
I was presenting at an event recently and I was asked “How will this kind of social media work with our clients?” and to be honest I see contributions from your client communities being very similar to a review process. After all, that is the way you end up getting contributions from your internal organization and why should contribution from your clients be any different? And we see that kind of social base commenting in reviewing as being a mechanism that can also be employed to get feedback on your documentation from your end-users. You can also employ mobile technology so that the changes made by one of your clients or suggested that changes automatically appears on your mobile, your iPhone, your Android. You pick it up immediately, approve it and back it up on your output without you having to go and change anything, so that’s where social media creates a real difference in the way that we are working. It allows us to have really high-speed communication with our clients and also with our internal people.
How can technical writers make a transition to a content strategist role?
I think before technical writers can make such a transition there really needs to be the recognition in the organization that such a role is even necessary. The biggest problem in organizations is not one that the technical writer cannot do this role, but certainly organizations don’t see the role as necessary, or that content even deserves a strategy. So a lot of it is really just old ideas that documentation is not recognized as being a valuable asset that requires a proper management strategy, so that’s the primary obstacle.
Let’s say you’ve overcome the problem and your organization has recognized the need for a strategic role. What it means to a writer and a content strategist is that the first thing you have to do is divorce yourself from implementation because technical writers tend to get very caught up in technology, it is just their nature. As soon as you get caught up in the technology, with a mechanism by which a strategy can be implemented, you’re already thinking about tactics and not strategy.
To give you an example, we get lots of RFPs to respond to and I would say 80-90% of these are of these are written in a way that you have to just tick the technical boxes. Very rarely do we see an IT compass, where they say ‘here is a bunch of business problems that we have and how do you solve business problems?’. That is a really important distinction because you start to understand what the real business problem is and what the business outcomes you need are. Rather than ‘do I have this particular tag support of this particular XML schema?’. And even XML itself is an implementation, it’s not what you base your strategy around. And if you read some of Ann Rockley’s materials, she has a great book on content strategy and that book is called Managing Enterprise Content-A Unified Content Strategy. If you read the book carefully you will realize she rarely discusses technology in it. She talks about your information, as information modeling. The tool itself comes at the end. If you want a transition to the strategy role, first get recognition with the organization. That is important. Secondly be able to divorce yourself from the technology in order to think about the actual problems in a strategic way and not in a tactical way.
Could you share any interesting experience from technical writers using Author-it?
There are a few interesting experiences. We have a large number of clients, probably about three and half thousand clients and so I have heard many stories and some of them really need to be mentioned.
HP’s documentation implementation. The success of HP’s implementation, while I’d like to think Author-IT is the primary reason for the success, I can’t because success there has really been due to the gentleman who has set it up. He thought about it strategically and then took the tool and implemented the documentation system in such a way that they have managed to achieve an extraordinary level of reduced content and that’s the result of him executing a strategy that he had.
One of the really cool things I like is when users take a product and do something entirely new with that, which they would never have seen before. One of the achievements that we made last year was to release an SDK product which is something we have been working for years and it basically enables anyone to come along and create extensions of plug-ins. Over the last six months that it has been out, we are seeing new ways in which people are extending the product for completely new users. It has been really exciting.
We have Philips Consumer Electronics who were producing printed manuals and now produce the output of AIT into a Flash format and that Flash format goes inside the television. So you do not need a manual any more. You just use a remote control to navigate into the TV itself which is a pretty exciting story. We also have a business partner in Europe who has developed a whole bunch of extensions that allow Author-IT to be used for specific documentation around the solvency to market in Europe. The development of extensions that others have made are the stories that excite me the most because they are making the product do something new and innovative that we haven’t necessarily been involved in, which is great.
What are the future trends in technical communication? Will there be any dynamic change in the way product documentation is made accessible to customers?
Yes, this is the subject of a recent presentation I gave in the US, about the future trends in technical communication. In my opinion, I have seen a number of specific trends happening in the past few years and let me summarize it for you quickly.
The key trend that I have seen is moving from a Distributed Authoring to a Centralized Authoring environment. What that means is if you took a snapshot of most organizations today, authoring is distributed across many departments and is done using many different tools today. Marketing may use it for design and some web content management. The publications team uses a variety of tools like Word or other tools available in the market. So the trend we see is that the companies want to move from this solo distributed model to a completely centralized model using a single authoring platform to create content, rather than multiple authoring tools creating content as we do it today. This centralized platform will push content to various output formats like PDF, or help systems, or whatever is required.
Moving away from locally installed assistance to online assistance like a lot of the web-based applications. People are not distributing the Help files along with the product anymore and they are publishing it online. The advantage is you can access it quickly and data can be updated easily. In the old method, the update would happen only with every release cycle and it was a costly affair, but always-online format encourages self support and platform independence rather than being specific to a particular format. Above all, online content being tailored to a specific audience/platform/model is one of the most exciting features being developed now.
Moving away from self-hosted knowledge bases or websites by the customers themselves to the advent of cloud technology. This makes the provisioning of our systems to the clients much easier. This means if you want to implement/extend a knowledge base or customer portal for your clients, you would not need someone to do all that stuff and put on a web server. Getting provisions and permissions from IT is a big problem. So cloud technology helps you in self provisioning without the help of IT and running the dynamic knowledge base is safe and updated in minutes. It provides real-time scalability and anytime-anywhere accessibility.
Another trend is moving from Static to Dynamic content. Typically, most content delivered with software or any other product is static in nature and most help systems being shipped are self-static. By self-static, I mean it does not change and is same for everyone and there is no customization done for a particular audience. Whereas in a dynamic content, it gives you the intelligence to change content specific to your audience and changes are reflected in all places. Dynamic content is a big change, enabling much faster access and handling major release changes easily.
The last trend I’d like to mention is closed contribution which is the typical way of creating the content, with 10 to 12 people creating the content. The technical writing groups (a community based approach) are pretty much the only source of content. Now with wikis popping up all over the place, safeguarding content becomes a challenge. With this challenge in mind we are working to protect the community approach of content creation with safe measures and controls put in place for community contribution. In some industries like Healthcare, you cannot have someone come and change the content of presentations or articles. The users of these products are the best experts and add value to the content. Mark Saltz has done a lot of work in the safe community approach.
Compiled by an STC India volunteer