Publisher’s Note: Connie Giordano also contributed to this interview.
Adobe’s Tom Aldous Talks Technical Communications
Tom Aldous, Director of Business Development and Product Evangelism for Adobe’s Technical Communication business, is a gracious man—he sat down with TechWhirl on several occasions to highlight the happenings in the world of FrameMaker and RoboHelp, discuss the issues pertaining to content management, selection and implementation of XML authoring and publishing tools. We found the conversations enlightening, informative, and entertaining.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you get into Product Evangelism?
I started off about 20 years ago as a Managing Partner for Integrated Technologies with nearly 30 people in the staff. We started in the Unix-world with Sun training—beginning with Solaris, for customers like Solomon Smith Barney. I was asked to explain FrameMaker to the client then.. Later, we had a contract with Belcore, a customer with 6000 FrameMaker users. We were asked to teach them Solaris and ended up with the largest contract in the country for Frame technology. The bottom line here is that I was an XML guy implementing XML within large enterprises. I was going sunset my time with the company and retire, but then Adobe TCS division called and asked me to become their Product Evangelist.
We’ve just brought on a new Product Evangelist. Max Hoffman was my first and only Frame trainer back in the day. He’s well-known, he’s trained a lot of folks, and we’re excited to have him on board.
I still remember what it’s like being on the outside and wanting to get information. So I truly understand why these questions come up. It’s not all about dispelling myths, but just talking to reality.
For the novices among us, can you provide a description of the differences between structured and unstructured authoring?
The difference between unstructured and structured content is the honor system. The word ‘unstructured’ is not defined well. But simply put, if you don’t use styles, it is unstructured. If you have a template or style guide, that is used properly, then it is a structured document. If the style is broken, it can’t be validated (as structured content).
When you start, FrameMaker asks if you wish to perform structured or unstructured authoring. This is somewhat deceptive. At the end of the day if you use a template that’s been well-designed, it’s inherently structured. It’s up to the author to make sure that the structure is adhered to. Truly unstructured content would be creating a letter or memo without any kind of template, something completely manual.
Unstructured, within the Frame standpoint, doesn’t have the layer on top that we call an EDD, it’s really just a DTD schema from XML deployment, with some formatting instructions used to both format and validate against that. Structured Frame is like an electronic style guide built into the template that validates whether it’s structurally correct. Authors don’t have to learn about the style guide or how it’s created. They just need to use it to validate, and you know that the document is structurally correct and it will publish perfectly.
DITA is a standard structure. If we create content with proper element tags, metadata information, and put in the correct format (conrefs). Rules in place separate location from the ID—that’s one structure. But they don’t necessarily have to be standard structures. As a consultant, I used to create custom structures. A client, Accenture in North Carolina, wanted to use structured authoring but didn’t want to force a structure on the authors. So I created a custom structure that used a guided authoring approach throughout the whole documentation set. You can make it extremely easy for the author to create the content, and depending on where you are, only the elements that are valid are available. It reduces the learning curve—instead of days it can be just a few hours.
You can have a third choice: Structured binary authoring that isn’t XML. One product that does this is FrameBuilder (Frame + SGML), which was structured authoring before it was fashionable. It’s a binary file just like an unstructured FrameMaker document. It’s evolved from the old Frame + SGML. Now with FrameMaker 10, you get a choice of unstructured, structured, or XML / SGML. It’s not always the answer to use a standard XML structure like DITA, and FrameMaker 10 can handle either Custom or Standards based structure. With structured FrameMaker, it gets easier. It takes the Unstructured FrameMaker template and adds an EDD layer (which is just the structure of content plus formatting rules)I can do a custom structure, a structured template, and workflow within a matter of hours.
We’ve had record attendance at many Saturday-based STC regional events, because Tech Writers want to know about Technical Communication Suite 3.5, FrameMaker 10 and XML, and how to convert unstructured content to XML. We know that we are still the 600-pound gorilla in authoring. And eventually you’re going to get a job that requires FrameMaker and XML. Success with our tools has everything to do with having one person, who is either a consultant or an internal employee expert, who can configure the structured templates and work with the content management system. Whenever I hear it’s hard to use, I’m willing to bet they never had that one person with the expertise to set it up properly.
At LavaCon, you mentioned that Adobe is expanding in the technical communication market. So can you dispel the rumor that pops up on our list from time to time and other discussion forums that FrameMaker is going away?
FrameMaker has some incredible things in the queue. Our programmers are busy building the next release. Our typical release cycle is 18 -24 months for FrameMaker, RoboHelp and Technical Communication Suite. Adobe has made the commitment to HTML5 and publishing ePUB file. So while we don’t publicize release dates or new features, it’s reasonable to assume we’ll be expanding what we can do on mobile devices.
It’s challenging to dispel some of the incorrect information that gets out there, like not being able to open XML content created in FrameMaker in another XML editor. For example, I was planning to visit a client site, made the courtesy call and discovered they were looking to upgrade and they almost cancelled because their CMS vendor told them that they couldn’t use Adobe products with DITA. Because I’m always concerned with misinformation coming from any source, I actually demo live, to show how exactly our solutions work and how easy it is.
I would think that most of the major CMS vendors out there would want to work with you.
Most of the major and minor CMS systems do integrate with FrameMaker. But some out there do have reseller agreements (with our competitors). So it maybe in their interest to move their customers away from FrameMaker. But many, most of them, want to partner with us. They do see the value of leveraging integration with FrameMaker. I’ve found that when adopting a major change in systems (XML), it’s easier to succeed when an enterprise keeps the tool that their employees are familiar with—and that is FrameMaker and RoboHelp.
Remember, the XML implementation cycle for an organization is usually more than one of our release cycles—enterprises have to change processes based on the tool they pick. I’m finding that back around FrameMaker7, large organizations may have went with Epic for XML editing, and now they’re reconsidering their toolsets. We’ve got XML editing and publishing down to a science, with a lot of companies that are coming back because we make creating, editing and publishing XML and unstructured content easy.
A common complaint, perhaps a misconception, is that TCS and FrameMaker are “overkill” for many organizations that produce technical content. Can you tell us if FrameMaker really can be all things to all communicators? Can it meet the needs of small shops, lone writers, and organizations that may have a limited view of what they need to publish?
Before I joined Adobe and worked in consulting, I used to integrate all technologies. I sold services, so I needed to give customers value reasons to transfer. The Technical Communications Suite gave me more things to sell. If you are a small shop and learn TCS well, you can sell XML, implementing CMS, unstructured. You can sell help creation, XML workflows, and so on. The CRX software that’s included is a web-based CMS with built-in integration—and it’s supplied free. I think you need to look at implementation and servicing holistically.
For small shops, they are looking at how the end users consume content. They’re blogging and tweeting, and looking at videos. You have to be able to produce all these forms of content. It will change the relationship you share with your customer. We give the small shops the ability to act like large shops. They can produce experiences that used to be only done in big enterprises.
A word of warning though (and why it’s important to get expertise for the underpinnings!). Sometimes, the really creative folks do amazing things with look and feel, but end up totally destroying the underlying content’s inherent structure. Do it as simply as possible using FrameMaker native features to accomplish all your needs. It’s hard to untangle what’s been done otherwise.
FrameMaker is a pretty robust tool, which I thought would have a fairly steep learning curve. It really is not as hard as it used to be in older versions. Can you give us some examples of organizations that make full use of all its functionality? What kind of opportunities do they represent for other technical communicators?
Not everybody has a single role. In a small organization you have multiple roles. In a larger organization you might be the one who just sets up the infrastructure or you could be a dedicated author.
The latest release includes a structured application designer, so you can setup an XML workflow easily. It’s wizard-based so authors won’t need to know specialized syntax. In the past you had to manually create read/write rules files. Now the wizard helps you create everything needed easily. FrameMaker 10 supports DocBook and DITA 1.1 and 1.2 right out of the box. We’re all about making it easier for the user and for the person who’s setting up the environment.
Why do you think there was so much confusion around whether FrameMaker is a real XML editing and publishing solution? Do you feel as if Adobe has made progress in dispelling that myth?
I don’t know if it’s confusion or misinformation. There are several reasons you could think of. For instance, an XML competitive vendor might need to poach some of our business. I think this is the year where some vendors drop out. If you have a great product you don’t have to say anything negative about the competition. If you don’t, sometimes you just have to misinform.
Another thing that some time happens, when deploying an enterprise’s XML effort, is that you have two types of people: authors and architects—those managing the XML network/architecture. The architects may choose to use a different tool to create a schema or DTD, they may choose XML Spy to create the DTD and do validation. The author’s role is totally different and that same tool cannot be used. You need a different tool for a different role. We’re not looking at the XML developers building the XSLT style sheet, we’re an XML authoring and publishing solution. Sometimes the XML champions in an organization like an XML development tool, but it’s not the same need for the rest of the organization.
Lynn Price, ex-Frame Technology person who’s now a consultant, developed an application that allows you to develop, create XSLT using FrameMaker. So you can actually do XML development in FrameMaker, if you wish.
Do you feel like you’re making progress on correcting that confusion or misinformation?
Sometimes it’s hard for me. I’ve only been here a year, so when I hear somebody who says something that’s not true, I want to go out to correct it, get the word out, and make sure everybody knows. But we are the industry leader, and if we address every piece of misinformation, we run the risk of validating their question. When you’re the big guy, they’re going to take shots at you. The biggest thing for us is word of mouth. I encourage people to call me; I really don’t mind spending time with them, showing them what we can actually do. They’ll talk about an hour with me and talk about their workflows, about getting the job done and how to get their problem solved. It’s a battle of attrition sometimes.
Adobe has inside sales, feet in the street talking about it. We didn’t have that a couple of years ago. We have the infrastructure in place now, and that’s why we had a great year. We can do better for sure, that’s the opportunity.
Can you provide some details to counter the notion that FrameMaker doesn’t handle review workflows very well?
Within FrameMaker and the TCS we provide a free workflow, you can use Adobe Reader to comment on PDF, and merge that back into source content. It can be housed in the cloud and become collaborative. It’s very powerful and influences a lot of companies, where they’re still printing out paper and where there’s still a lot of hand editing and commenting. It works for both RoboHelp and FrameMaker.
At the other end of the spectrum, the workflow is probably in the CMS and it can be expensive. Our solution is free for all the reviewers. Essentially, we give you workflow without the CMS.
Adobe offers forums, tutorials and a lot of excellent resources for training. Do you have advice for those who are apprehensive about the learning curve? How can they use these resources to their own best advantage, what path of training can they take, particularly if they at the very beginning?
Visit my blog for a seven-part e-learning series about unstructured to XML. Its duration is seven hours, totally free, and supplies files to work with. We have amazing resources, including training organizations; you can hop on a plane or jump in a car to get some outstanding training, and now you can get it at your office or your house as e-learning in a very affordable way. But the thing I’m most excited about is creating video. When I came to the role of Product Evangelist, I created mini-videos and loaded them up to Adobe TV and YouTube. But I didn’t have the game plan to organize it, people were consuming it and thanking me for it. Max Hoffman will be aggregating all of this information together. We’re figuring it out now, organizing it so that somebody can figure out where to go, which course to take. Then if there are holes then we can add to it.
We also just released a Certified Expert course for FrameMaker 10 and Robohelp 9, which guarantees that folks on the list of training vendors are certified in the latest products. We do have some depth in technical background, like Dustin Bond, our business development manager, wrote styles sheets. My background is in consulting and training. Basically, we try to help customers in every way we can.
The full license cost for TCS 3.5 might be out of reach for many lone writers or consultants. Are lone or small-shop professionals parts of the market for TCS 3.5? If so, how do you allay their concerns over pricing?
Yes, the way I see it, you must take a longer view. Prior to coming to Adobe, my company wasn’t huge. We eventually scaled to 40 people. We made decisions based on the fact that sometimes you invest in people and sometimes in advertising, but you need to consider the whole picture, the projects you can undertake. I think this still holds true for small shops. For a small investment of a couple of thousand dollars, they can now provide extra services to their clients, content in all forms in a branded way without having to outsource, and hire very expensive expertise. Managing the total cost of a project effectively allows you to take on more projects. For instance, you don’t have to outsource XSLT development as you can now do it with a graphical tool set like Techical Communication Suite 3.5.
For lone writers in an organization, it often depends on who their customers are. Today, end consumers want a variety of output, Adobe Air, PDF, paper, EPUB and so on. If you’re charged to do that, you will have to go out and hire a consultant to create the XSLT to make all those output formats happen. Instead, for one license, you have one person who can do this. This means you are really empowered for a small amount of money. Often people only look at the cost of the license, rather than being able to shorten workflow, meet customer demands, and the lower the total cost of the project. From that point of view it’s actually cheaper—don’t forget about the long-term, look at it from a holistic point of view. The cost of the license and training versus the output produced, better workflows, shorter cycles and so on. At the end of the day, you’re not writing checks to consultants to do all of this work.
Not every XML editor is the same. It draws non-experts and experts alike. When someone choses a tool, they are not bringing the user into conversation. Management needs to communicate not with just the XML developer experts but with the users (writers, and everyone alike).
Traditionally, tech writers in departments really undervalue themselves, which means they don’t show how they contribute to the whole chain. Write, produce video, embed into documentation, and reduce support calls. Employees need to believe in their own value to be able to get funded. TechComm is more than a cost center; we’re a way to ensure the sales department can sell more—with the ability to actually help grow revenue. If my clients need it, I will evangelize internally to help sell their value to management.
Are technical communicators taking advantage of the Return on Investment (ROI) Calculator tool of Adobe FrameMaker? Do you have recommendations for how they can build a business case for the suite?
We get marketing analytics that show they’re downloading the white paper and using the calculator. Are they using it, rather than just playing? It’s hard to say for sure. I created the tool right before I joined Adobe, and it was more about cost savings only when converting from unstructured to XML. The latest version brings in the total costs. We believe we’re the best solution once you decide to go to XML and the ROI Calculator proves it
Let’s take a look at Total Cost of Ownership. It includes things like the cost of editor set up, building templates, training, cost of setting up multiple versions, multiple languages. For instance, what’s it going to cost to translate and then publish, knowing that German is 30% longer language. You should consider putting together two business cases—should we go to an XML workflow, and secondly, if we do, what’s the best solution and TCO? And there’s substantial savings training people for a tool they have some familiarity with.
Many organizations are moving to SaaS solutions for a wide variety of enterprise needs, and cloud solutions appear to most small shops as a very cost-effective alternative. Is Adobe planning a cloud offering for TCS?
It’s not Adobe policy to talk about future releases, but let me say that we do understand that there’s a value to cloud-based authoring and we know it’s important to our customers.
Companies looking at an authoring and publishing solution have a lot to consider. I suggest when people pick tools, they should look to the future. Remember, you’re not just buying a toolset, you’re buying a company. You configure the organization around the toolsets you’re buying, and you need to know that the company is going to be around to support that toolset. The risk of us not being around is nil. Can that be said for any other tool vendors?
What are the plans for supporting HTML5 in FrameMaker and RoboHelp? Will support for Adobe FlashHelp be discontinued?
You know that Adobe made the commitment to HTML5, so it would probably be a rational belief that our newer version would leverage HTML5 in every way possible, new creative ways you may not even have thought about.
Technical communicators are being asked to take on larger roles in their organization and many are being proactive about asking to take on those roles. As we expand our influence and impact to other areas of the organization, do you have any thoughts around whether companies should consider using TCS and the Adobe Digital Enterprise Platform or Digital Publishing Suite?
The role of technical communicator is definitely changing. We used to be just wordsmiths, but the younger generation wants to see video, even create their own. So quite a few technical writers are becoming video editors, and doing 3D illustration. Now the PDF output needs to be branded and you need several versions of the application help and multiple web pages. Adobe bakes in Extend Script, which allows most of the Adobe products (like Creative Suite) to communicate with each other. So, Adobe is that one-stop shop. It’s holistic. You don’t need to go to a lot of small software shops and then have to integrate it all. It all works together now in one place.
How do you see the future of content strategy and technical communications?
It’s about future proofing your documentation—who knows what is going on in the next year? Things have happened quickly—smartphones, tablets, wireless. Is the keyboard going to be obsolete in the future?
If we structure our content with our metadata, then it will be future proof. We can repurpose it to whatever is required moving forward. Also I like the idea of managing the content—chunking the content itself. Some CMSs can make it work. Import and create a DITA map. If it is unstructured it may not be possible. Adobe bought Day Software and Day created CRX, a content management solution and we’re working to integrate with it even more robustly.
The future is going to be cloud-based. It should be easy to send content up for SMEs to change, make changes— into SharePoint, Acrobat.com .. in the cloud.
What about content curation?
Content curator is a role that is going to become more important. We need to be able to leverage the crowd. These people have knowledge and want to share it, know how to harness it.
There’s an ease of use with Frame—it has the ability to use a role-based UI. Based on user roles, it is really nice to allow certain access to certain parts of FrameMaker. It is a really nice feature. When you are hiring, are you hiring an expert who can use the tool? Or are you hiring an expert who knows the content? With the Technical communication Suite 3.5 and an XML workflow training takes a couple hours VS. a week. You can also limit the pool of people needed to be trained on the product.
Ultimately, it is important for someone to be a subject matter expert, not a tools expert. So it is important for the hiring management to find someone who knows the content. Anyone can jump right in and learn the tool. Applying the tool to content curation, strategy or technical documents is where the real skill needs to be.