An Interview with Steve Davis, President, Author-it
The technical communications industry has been anticipating and asking for authoring and publishing tools that follow the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. In December, Author-it Software launched Author-it Cloud® as a “breakthrough for enterprise content authoring.” I caught up with Author-it President Steve Davis in the midst of a flurry of launch activities to chat about the company’s remarkably successful year, the new cloud solution, and future directions for Author-it.
TW: Thanks for giving me a little time out of your busy schedule. I’d like to start out with a basic question: Who do you consider the key audience to be for the new Author-it cloud product?
SD: Author-it has led the way in tech pubs authoring, end-to-end component-based authoring, and publishing for a long time. We call it enterprise authoring, and we’ve just had the most amazing year in developing and releasing the cloud solution with absolute acceptance by our beta customers.
We’re not moving out of tech pubs, but we are moving into other industries such as pharma and insurance. Pharma has medical writers, who become adept at document management solutions, moving through regulatory requirements. They’re using structured authoring, but topic-based and single sourcing not as much, so in-house systems generally failed. Author-it’s strength is as an end-to-end tool, with the ability to import and publish to any output. And the look and feel are similar to Office products. Pharma is getting into enterprise authoring because they have complex deliverables and follow workflow for regulatory compliance.
It’s similar for insurance and other heavily regulated areas. We saw that actuaries were building risk models for insurers, using Word. We’ve recommended using topic-based approaches to facilitate reuse. And we found that dynamic publishing is a big factor for them, they’re looking for solutions that can produce docs assembled on the fly.
So we’re focusing on heavily regulated industries, where documentation is critical. And Pharma produces two things: drugs and documentation. Post purchase documentation is the realm of traditional tech comm, and we see tech comm as the milspec of writing, exporting to other industries like pharma and insurance.
TW: What does Author-it Cloud do for users that other products do not or cannot?
SD: The biggest differentiator is that we built it from the ground up. Author-it has a huge body of experience with large and small organizations. We do end-to-end and our focus on ease-of use is key. But many clients don’t use all of our technology, such as dynamic publishing. Now, the cloud gives us the opportunity to deliver all services to all of our clients. On-demand, anytime anywhere. Author-it Cloud offers all the new cloud benefits with our body of experience and no one in the market matches us in terms of innovation. It’s also true assembly-on-the-fly-at a very competitive price.
TW: Why would clients, or prospects, choose Author-it Cloud over Author-it On-Premises?
SD: The cloud is the future of enterprise apps and the market is ready for it. But On-Premises probably makes more sense right now in cases where company policy dictates it. And some companies may not be ready to move yet. At Author-it, we’re replacing our internal on-premises as quickly as possible. We believe most will eventually move to the cloud, but we continue to support on-premises because of our large client base. The on-premises Author-it product is subscription-based, which makes it easier customers to expand to more departments, and to monitor cost centers and who’s paying for what.
The technology features are the same for both solutions, but the cloud product allows for quicker assembly of documentation, and the support is handled completely from our end. There are higher support costs with on-premises.
TW: Are you encountering any resistance from existing clients, perhaps with the IT staff, concerning migrating to the cloud product?
SD: It’s really too early to say. But the megatrend is that the purse strings are being taken away from IT and the IT function is being downsized and moved to business unites. IT is now seen as enabling department, while business units often see them as a barrier. You have to wait for them to provision. But at the CIO level they’re looking to drive efficiencies and SaaS is one major factor in that. In many companies, Tech Comms is usually not mission-critical so it’s ideal to move to the cloud early on.
Another trend: Some companies are moving mission-critical functions to the cloud, but they are very careful about how they do it. We’ve built the infrastructure to handle that. We have so many levels of redundancies, it probably seems like it’s nuts. But the likelihood of a complete failure is very remote. Essentially, implementation is not the clients’ problem, it’s our problem. Our structure, with multiple data centers ensures adequate failover to make sure they stay up and running. And if we have multiple data centers failing, we still have the data, so we can stand it back up. When we meet with clients, we’ve got to talk about business continuity because it’s huge for them…
I also think the security question is really interesting at the moment. I actually think cloud solutions are more secure. The reason why is that all cloud solutions have single point of entry, rather than so many points from devices, the internet and such. Companies have come to expect a strong security standard for their operations. We’re determined to deliver a solution that meets or exceed those standards.
TW: The launch and deep-dive webinars hosted by Paul Trotter provided a lot of information on features and benefits for technical communications teams wanting an enterprise solution in the cloud. I have a feature-related question since the webinar. Does Author-it Cloud produce Output to wikis or KBs?
SD: We’ve done a little bit of work on wikis but it’s not a major focus. In one sense wikis are great because they’re free and open and tend to have a lot of participation if they’re supported. But the downside is that the controls around wikis are weak, so the organization can end up with spaghetti instead of an organized system. We tend to stay more on the structured side than wikis. I’m not aware of any solutions out there that reuse content from wikis.
TW: How quickly does the typical organization realize ROI from the Professional or Enterprise editions?
SD: The ROI varies from company to company. You pay monthly, you get the benefit monthly, so you’re not trying to get the investment back from the large perpetual license cost. The cloud should be vastly faster.
Training is also a factor in ROI. During the beta period, we had power users train users before they went live and got incredible results. So it really depends on experience and background. If you have users who’ve never used it before, we usually see a three to eight-week period to learn and become productive.
Companies may also find savings during implementation itself. A typical implementation includes migrating legacy and breaking it up for reuse, so the client can start that immediately, concurrent with other activities. If they’ve never produced help or KB before, they can do the import and turn it around pretty quickly. Migration takes place much faster on the cloud than any on-premises solution. For example, we’ve worked closely with HP, and they had 80 percent reuse, vastly improved efficiency, and savings that could be used for localization. We expect to see similar ROI with other customers.
TW: Did you perform studies to show how authoring time was reduced?
SD: We asked client questions as they prepared for and completed their implementations. Some clients have gone through detailed performance analysis to understand the full ROI from moving to the cloud. We investigate current installations and current methods so we have a baseline for post Author-it performance. Understand that ability to reuse is somewhat based on the kind of industry. So companies doing the performance analysis will determine the appropriate level of reuse within a particular company, and determine the results from looking at how the writer was doing it before Author-it.
TW: Can you give us a quick update on support hours for east coast North America?
SD: Author-it has a Support organization on the US west coast and in New Zealand, which runs to US business hours and quite a bit later. In the first quarter of 2012, hours will become 9 am Eastern to 5 pm Pacific. And because of the New Zealand team, hours are actually til midnight. We are building a tiered support structure in US… you’ll be able to log your question, which will be triaged by the US team and passed to the New Zealand team, which does developer-level reviews of issues and resolutions.
TW: How is the learning curve for users coming from “traditional” doc production backgrounds, with word processing, help authoring backgrounds?
SD: I think the biggest challenge for tech writers new to this is understanding the single sourcing concept, and getting your head around writing in components and not writing in complete document files.
TW: Suggestive Reuse was first available in the Enterprise Authoring Platform. How does this work? Does it “learn” over time?
SD: Suggestive reuse is great, I use it every day, I use it all the time. Suppose we’re in an enterprise or writing group. I can’t remember what I wrote, or know what you wrote. Author-it is managing topics using a workflow that assures only approved components are used. When you want to write something new, it suggests as you type, at the paragraph level.
We have a patent on this technology. You can adjust granularity. Author-it uses fuzzy logic matching, similar to translation memory products. It also shows me how many times the content’s been used, where it is in review so I can make an intelligent decision about what to do in another topic. It was built from the very beginning around reuse. It takes a lot of work to reuse content effectively, you have to constantly manage it and think about it, and suggestive reuse makes the whole process much easier.
TW: In what ways do you engage with your clients and users? How has this kind of engagement shaped the product development strategy and vision?
SD: We consider it our duty to be extremely close to prospects, clients and users, and both Paul and I spend a lot of time with customers. First, we know it keeps us focused on the requirements of our client base, and translating that into a vision for the product. Secondly, it shows that we’re intimately interested in what goes on with them. We’re very hands on with clients, but not as micro-managers. I believe nobody sees as many companies in a year as we do. I’ve done more than 60 demos myself this year . Author-it has well over 3500 clients, and we can take that assembled experience to translate the vision and where we should go, the way we should change our service offerings. Author-it Cloud is good example of that… it’s the biggest thing that has happened since we launched the company.
TW: How is Author-it addressing the challenges presented by integration of community/user generated content?
SD: We put a lot of thought into user generated content. With Author-it Aspect, you have the ability to enable to consumers to provide feedback and to provide content themselves. In some industries, at companies like Dell, support answers are generated by users. Coming releases will enable that to a much larger degree.
TW: How does the cloud product handle configuring workflows into product development lifecycles?
SD: Author-it facilitates much of that right from the get-go. Review products and requirements. If a company wants to explore that, they should do it during planning. It’s a marvelous idea to work that way. Tech writers have a huge amount of expertise. They can do spec development with Author-it as well and tech writers can be involved in the review process. Then in the technical design phase, writers can start to frame up documentation.
TW: Can you implement workflows that incorporate a content curation aspect?
SD: Content curation usually refers to ad hoc, unmanaged content coming from sources beyond our control. Once we bring it in, it can be managed. Here, we use Google alerts and twitter to find mentions, and it’s useful for our marketing team. We also write our blogs from Author-it, so that content is availible for reuse or repurposing. As always, you have to be careful in making sure that it’s really available to reuse (and not plagiarized).
TW: Where does Author-it see the enterprise authoring platform moving in the next 2 to 5 years?
SD: Obviously Author-it Cloud is the big one. Web-based solutions are the way to go. In fact we think the entire drive towards mobility, facilitated by Steve Jobs and Apple will set the direction. We’re already seeing ubiquitous devices with touch screen, the smart devices. We’ve got a prototype for touch help under development now.
The other area is dynamic content. Static content is fixed at the point of publishing, but dynamic is focused on assembling the content on-the-fly, based on the user profile. As a result, we put a lot emphasis on dynamic content solutions.
Terabytes of content are being generated now, and one of the biggest challenges is in how to sift through it and deliver personalized content—personalization a big thing. It’s no longer acceptable for us not to know what your customers are using on what platform. Dynamic, personalized content is becoming the standard, and Author-it is positioned perfectly to help companies deliver that.