Looking Back on CM Strategies/DITA Europe 2011 in Prague

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Joe Gollner, Gnostyx Research

Somewhat as expected, Prague provided an inspired, and inspiring, venue for this year’s CMS/DITA Europe gathering. The event brought together many old acquaintances from the DITA community and added a healthy number of new faces. And fortunately some of the new faces also came with a good local knowledge of Prague so they were able to guide us to great brew pubs for copious amounts of pilsner and goulash.

Eastern End of the Charles Bridge

I will confess that Prague held a number of attractions for me beyond the chance to mix it up with my DITA colleagues. For one, it is the home town for the great Franz Kafka, in whom I have had a long standing and not altogether healthy interest. So naturally, I just had to arrive in Prague a few days early in order to go on something of a Kafka pilgrimage. Part of this involved staying at the Hotel Century Old Town Prague, which now occupies the former offices of the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked for 14 years as a staff lawyer. Having added a note to my internet booking that I was something of a Kafka fan, I was pleased when the hotel took it upon itself to check me into a room in the hotel that was once Kafka’s office. This room included a very intelligent selection of photographs and a bookcase stocked with books by and about Kafka in at least four different languages. I was suitably impressed.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Shortly after having arrived in Prague I hit the cobblestone streets and quickly found my bearings despite the fact that the Old Town area retains its medieval street plan which is anything but logical. Nonetheless, as a former artillery officer, finding my way around in unfamiliar territory is one thing I can do. Interestingly it was only about six hours after arriving before the first tourist stopped me to ask for directions. In this case it was a group of Swedes who were holding their map upside down. I scolded them a little about the first rule of orienteering—which is “orient your map”. They accepted the correction in good humour and seemed happy that they would henceforth be walking in the right direction. Following my own path, I made my way directly to the Kafka Museum where those inclined to dig into the details about this fascinating soul could indulge their proclivities.

Come the Sunday evening before the event, familiar faces started to collect in the lounge of the conference hotel. And in keeping with one of the best things about these events, a number of new faces joined in. So the stories being exchanged covered the range from initial encounters with DITA through to wizened war stories from those who had been around the block a few times. Much pilsner, goulash and good times followed.

Prague Beer Museum

The conference itself kicked off at a crisp hour on the Monday morning and people immediately noticed that this conference already had a few things going for it from the outset. Specifically, the food that the conference hotel, the Marriott, laid on was spectacular. Without a word of exaggeration, I have had to double the amount of time I have been spending in the gym in order to battle against the effects of this non-stop feast. At one meal, I felt well served by pillaging the salad table and only later did I learn that I had missed the main course! There were, of course, other benefits provided by the event but the food definitely left an impression on many of us.

Prague Astronomical Clock

The conference program itself offered up a number of insights and a few themes definitely made their presence felt. One was the ever increasing importance of leveraging metrics to improve how we manage our content and how we communicate with the executive echelons. Frank Shipley from Componize (http://www.componize.com/) stirred up quite a bit of excitement by demonstrating some tools for applying a macroscope to your DITA holdings. George Bina, from Oxygen (http://www.oxygenxml.com/), then demonstrated how DITA metrics can be pulled from collections (providing a form of microscope) and the possibility of mixing these strategies seemed overwhelmingly attractive. Another theme that received a good deal of attention was the pressing need to improve how DITA environments interact with the translation process so that the results reach the desired levels of quality and cost-effectiveness. There was also a general agreement, augmented by an overt call to action from Kristof Van Tomme to convene some coding sprints, that as a community we need to collaborate more effectively on improving the DITA Open Toolkit.

My own presentation on Implementing DITA Solutions using Content Scenarios delved into an implementation technique that I have found to be consistently successful. In essence, Content Scenarios are robust demonstrations of planned functionality that are distinguished by the functional realism of the content and process steps being used for the demonstration. The use of the word “demonstration” can be a problem here because it can obscure the broader role of these scenarios. Prepared properly, Content Scenarios play a number of roles including as resources for testing and training as the envisioned system comes into being. Content Scenarios should really be understood as a way to make the requirements for a new content management system more explicit and more tangible and this, in turn, should help us to build better solutions. My presentation concluded with some observations on how this approach could be productively used by the DITA standard itself in order to exemplify and validate the requirements behind new features. I also provided a walkthrough of the first of a planned series of open source Content Scenarios—which it is hoped will help with the effort to advance the open source tools available to DITA implementers.

In summary, the DITA Europe event was very successful in bringing together seasoned practitioners and new adopters and in facilitating many discussions that have been continuing ever since. And it should be noted again that Prague, with its refreshing beer, warming food and memories of Kafka, was an excellent choice as a venue and I have no doubt that these elements helped to make the event a memorable success.

About the Author
Joe Gollner (www.gollner.ca) is the Director of Gnostyx Research, an independent consultancy that helps organizations get the most from their investments in open content standards and intelligent content technologies. Over the last twenty years, he has overseen the design and implementation of dozens of large-scale enterprise content management systems and he has done so in a wide range of industry sectors.

 

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