Tackling Content Reuse Head on: Fast 5 Interview with RocketSled’s Rick Schochler

Rick Schochler, COO of Crowell Solutions talks about content reuse, enterprise XML content authoring, and invites technical communicators to take a look at RocketSled™ at LavaCon Conference 2012.

Crowell Solutions will be attending the LavaCon Conference 2012 in Portland, ready to show attendees how its RocketSled™ XML editor can make content reuse a reality across the enterprise, because provides XML authoring in MS Word. Rick Schochler, Crowell’s COO took a few moments to answer TechWhirl’s Fast 5 Interview questions and offered an inside look at RocketSled and what’s on the horizon.

1.  Please tell us a little bit about your company Crowell Solutions.  There are a lot of companies in the content management and XML publishing space. Who are your competitors, and what makes Crowell better or more unique?

Crowell has been around about 10 years or so. I joined as COO and a co-owner four years ago. Several of us have been in the XML “racket” a long time. Historically, we have been a services company, because that’s what we “grew up” doing. At previous companies we were brought in to recommend CMS’s, integrate publishing systems, provide training, etc. That’s what we knew and know, and, frankly, we were damn good at it.

As a result of doing so much integration work for customers, we had, over the years, heard several questions over and over again. One of these questions was “why can’t we author XML content in MS Word”. And, we had all of the stock responses: Word can’t handle XML, you can’t achieve single source publications, and even if you could create XML content inside of Word, it would be so simple as to be virtually useless.

Yet, we knew a problem remained: The only people adopting XML were tech writers. Remember, the promise of XML when it was first rolled out in 1998 was that it was going to be ubiquitous. And there was a lot of excitement around it. I can tell you personally that we were selling a LOT of XML training back then to a very excited crowd for a lot of money. And there were some interesting and rather unanticipated advances, namely in using XML for messaging. What didn’t happen, however, was wide spread adoption. So, 10 years later, technical publications groups are creating XML content, but other groups such as engineering, legal, HR, etc. are not. And these were groups who could really use the advantages that having content in XML provides.

So, the question we would be asked and that we would toss around internally was “why not”. Why hasn’t XML spread beyond technical publications? Why aren’t engineers using it to create content? Why aren’t legal-oriented enterprises storing data in XML? Why isn’t marketing and HR insisting upon other groups creating XML content so that they could easily repurpose that content? And the answer that we kept coming to, both internally and from our customers, was simple: The tools required to do so were too cumbersome for those persons whose primary charge was NOT creating data.

So, a few years ago, we asked ourselves the question again “is creating XML content in Word a reasonable request for customers to make?” We decided that, yes, this is a reasonable request.

Next we asked ourselves, again, “but is it possible?” We devoted some preliminary R&D time to this question. We knew several things: We didn’t want to make a tool that was smoke and mirrors. New customers wouldn’t buy it, and our existing customers would not forgive us. We knew it had to do everything that current XML editors do, but it had to do it as simply as possible, utilizing as much of the familiar Word environment as possible. So, we did just that. Our initial R&D efforts were successful. As a result, we decided to dive head first into creating this product. We told ourselves that if we could truly do this…if we could make it possible to create robust XML content in Word in a simple and intuitive manner, that this product would take off like a Rocket sled. Hence, the name.

So, to the question of what makes us unique in a crowded field, I answer with the following:

We have a fully functional XML editor that operates in MS Word. It uses MS Word constructs to format and present data and prints data just as it appears on the screen. True WYSIWYG editing for an XML editor is a first as far as I know. Because of its simplicity, RocketSled can be used throughout the enterprise to create data that can be reused, repurposed, and mined. It doesn’t take a programmer to format RocketSled documents, anybody familiar with Word styles can accomplish the task. You do not have to use a simplified schema and run it through complex transforms to get munged up XML. Use can use DITA, S1000D, Docbook schemas, or customized schemas…your choice. I truly, truly, truly believe that we have created the easiest and most intuitive XML editor that is on the market today or that will ever be on the market. And we’re enjoying watching it take off like the Rocket sled we knew it would be.

  1. 2.  What are the key benefits of RocketSled™ to a technical communicator or content manager?

The key benefits of RocketSled™ for technical communicators (and other end users) is that it is intuitive and easy to use, while at the same time giving users all of the benefits of traditional XML editors. While the ease of use is beneficial for technical publication departments, it is particularly beneficial for groups that otherwise would not adopt XML as their data creation standard. Secondarily, it is very easy to format data in RocketSled™, and to do so in ways that are either very difficult or impossible using transition languages such as XSL-FO. For instance, producing multiple column data with floating graphics is a breeze, as is producing documents with varying page requirements.

RocketSled allows true WYSISYG XML authoring in the familiar and ubiquitous MS Word enviroment.

For a manager, the possibilities of deploying RocketSled are pretty interesting. Managers can start sending and receiving data from multiple sources and departments. By using transclusion functionality with RocketSled, data can be created once and utilized as many times as needed, thus saving money and reducing errors. The possibility of sharing and reusing data across the enterprise becomes a possibility.

3.  Dan Crowell founded Crowell Solutions in 2001. What have been the biggest advancements Crowell Solutions has witnessed in the XML publishing industry since then?

Since 2001? Hmmm. Well, I guess modular publishing (DITA, S1000D and the like) would be the biggest change, although, frankly, modular authoring has been around since the SGML days. You could certainly make a serious case for the vast amount of XML-oriented tools that are available. In that sense, XML has fulfilled its promise of becoming ubiquitous and is much larger than its precesssor, SGML. However, as I’ve stated before, and with admission of complete bias, the promise of XML being used by everyone, and within every aspect of a given enterprise, still has not happened.

4.  What are the major technology and standards drivers that content strategists should be paying attention to right now, and what can they do to get and stay up to speed?

With so many advancements in the publishing industry it is hard to decide which is most significant. If we had to select one that we think is of utmost importance to the sustainability and success of the industry in the face of a new generation of content consumers, it would not be a technology at all. What we see as most promising is the sea change in the way we look at the challenges and the way that they are being addressed. In 2001 the idea of a Chief Content Officer or the role of a Content Strategist was relatively unheard of. Today, with the help of these great minds we are looking at the challenges and reorganizing our practices in such ways that will enable us to both meet and lead in the content revolution. Crowell Solutions is here to enable such practices with the tools to make those strategies a reality, not just for some but for ALL.

We’ll leave it up to someone else to address cloud computing and tablet/portable devices. We aren’t discounting the importance of either of these movements AT ALL, but whenever someone asks “what’s next” those are the two obvious answers, as they probably should be. We, in fact, are addressing the tablet movement by developing CMS software that is focused on enterprises wishing to deploy tablets, but we’ll save that conversation for another time (ask one of our people about ‘Quarterback’ if you are interested).

For us, at Crowell, we believe it’s time to tackle content reuse head-on. This was one of the major promises of XML, but it’s just not happening as much, and in the ways, that we’d like. It’s fine that someone within tech pubs can use paragraphs from technical manuals across their spectrum of manuals. What we’d like to see if that content originating in engineering, legal, etc and getting repurposed throughout the enterprise. That would help enterprises focus their message and produce quality data, and it would help us, of course, sell RocketSled.

5.  What do you think the next big innovation will be in the next two years and what products do you have in development to address them?

We see two primary things as it relates to publishing/content and data creation: Mass adoption of XML, and mass adoption of portable devices.

  • Mass adoption of XML across enterprises. As you know by now, our tool for that is RocketSled™. We believe we’ve made it simple and intuitive to create XML no matter the role in a given enterprise. With data in XML, the possibilities to share, search, mine, and reuse data grow exorbitantly.
  • Mass adoption of the use of tablets and other portable devices. Our tool for that is Quarterback™. Quarterback is our CMS application designed from the ground up with tablets and portable devices in mind as key components of an overall system. Imagine taking a tablet to a remote country to work on a vehicle. The data you have on your portable device is oriented to a specific configuration of that vehicle. If you need to change to a different configuration, you simply select that configuration and all your supporting data changes on the fly. Off to a new job working on a completely different vehicle? Use your same device, select a new vehicle and configuration and you’re off. No thumbing through mountains of information you don’t need. The system doesn’t fight you or delay you, it helps assists you. It, in a real sense, knows what you need almost before you do.

Rick Schochler serves as the Chief Operations Officer (COO) for Crowell Solutions, Inc. Rick has over a decade’s experience working with Content Management Systems, XML-based applications, and developing XSL-based transforms. Prior to joining Crowell Solutions, Rick worked for Innodata Isogen, serving in the training department and as a Senior Analyst before assuming the role of Vice President of Aerospace and Defense. Rick enjoys rolling up his sleeves and helping his customers solve complex technical challenges.