Ramesh Aiyyanger, MITWA News

In an exclusive interview with Ramesh Aiyyanger for MITWA News, JoAnn Hackos, President of Comtech Services, shares her knowledge and expertise about Content Management and technical writing

Could you please tell us a little about yourself and CIDM?

I am the President of Comtech Services, Inc., a management consulting company that I started with my husband, Bill Hackos, in 1978. In 1998, we also inaugurated The Center for Information Development Management, an organization that supports best practices in information development and aids managers in many organizations to learn more about business processes.

I have a PhD degree in English, with a focus on structure in literary works.  I taught literature for many years and writing for many years at the University of Texas, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Colorado.  In each of those institutions, I actively supported students who wanted to develop their own publications.

I have two sons and six grandchildren.  My oldest son is a scientist like his father and my youngest son is a finance director for an international corporation.  My husband and I are frequent travelers worldwide and enthusiastic bird watchers.

You have been working in the field of technical writing for more than 25 years.  Could you please tell us how it all started?

I started my education in Chemistry and then shifted to English for graduate school.  Hence, I’ve always been very interested in science and technology.  As a PhD student, I did one of the first dissertations to use computer technology to analyze text, back in the 1960s and on a mainframe computer.

When we moved to Colorado in 1977, I became interested in technical information.  I was Director of Technical Communication Education at the Colorado School of Mines, an engineering school.  With a group of innovative faculties, we began a program of educating students in project development which included writing reports and giving strong oral presentations of their results to their clients.

At the time, I began publishing articles in engineering education and improving the effectiveness of writing instruction.  From the School of Mines, I moved to the University of Colorado at Denver to inaugurate a Masters Program in Technical Communication.  At the same time, Comtech was growing into a focus on technical documentation development, user studies, and sound management practices.  All of this work led to my first book, Managing your Documentation Projects, in 1994.  This book is widely regarded as the “industry bible.”

Could you please tell us the biggest benefits for organizations interested in adopting content management systems?

Content Management Systems (CMS) help organizations handle topic-oriented authoring, which typically produces thousands of small files that must be organized and tracked effectively.  A CMS allows you to automate workflow so that you move topics or larger documents from authoring and editing through review and publishing simply by changing the state of the file. An internal CMS workflow can be linked to an external localization and translation provider’s system so that you can automatically forward complete topics to the translator, improving your time to market.

A component-based CMS that works with XML content allows you to track and manipulate content that is inside larger topics or documents, enhancing your ability to single source content among deliverables.  Although a CMS is not necessary for an XML, topic-based authoring project, a CMS makes the process of organizing, tracking, and controlling your content significantly easier.

What are the major challenges faced by organizations while implementing a Content Management System?

Implementing a CMS takes careful planning and a dedicated staff who have time away from standard deadlines.  Many organizations try to implement CMS without dedicating resources, which greatly delays the project and results in lost momentum and discouraged staff.  The implementation begins with the development of an Information Model, describing exactly how your new content will be structured and how you will organize your content in the CMS.  An Information Model includes a metadata schema for your content and a file and folder structure for the database.  With a carefully crafted Information Model in place, you are ready to work with a CMS vendor to structure the database and build a workflow process.  I recommend setting up at least three teams of staff members to develop the CMS requirements and structures: an information architecture team, a process re-design team, and a tools team.  Leading the effort should be a management group with members from each of the technical teams and representatives of the major stake-holders in your organization.

You can read more about the process in my book, Content Management for Dynamic Web Delivery (Wiley 2002).  The book details the entire process of designing and setting up a CMS.

Can you share with us any memorable events?

I have found the increased interest in and acceptance of the DITA model throughout the world to be exciting and encouraging for the future of technical publications.  We have too often focused on a superficial notion of creativity and independent action by writers.  DITA moves us to an international standard based on a business-focused approach to information.  It recognizes the critical need for consistency and repeatability that has been recognized by our colleagues in hardware and software development for many years.

It provides support for those managers and departments that have fostered standards of their own development and provides a way of talking about publications with senior management.

As a technical communicator involved in a content management project, why does one need to know about implementation?

Implementing a content management system requires the participation of all the technical communicators in the organization.  A CMS requires a systematic approach to developing content and organizing that content in a database that is structured around a metadata model and a sound virtual folder structure.  An effective CMS requires a well-defined workflow.  If the technical communicators are not involved in this process of defining how the system will work for them, the system will be defined by the IT professionals in ways that may well be detrimental to its successful use.

What new trends and emerging technology will effect writing in the future?

Technical communication is a business, affected by business goals which today are focused on cost savings and reduced time to market.  Technical communication can no longer afford to be a cottage industry with a host of independent workers and no central strategy or control.  If we don’t respond to the calls for efficiency and effectiveness from senior management, we will be out of business; replaced by low-cost staff charged with nothing more than following the rules and turning out useless information that meets a checklist requirement (are the manuals in the box?) to compete with low cost and mindless, we need to be increasingly business-orientated and professional.  Given the ease of entry into technical communication, this kind of change will be painful to achieve but it must be achieved.

Could you please tell us about the contributions your company is making to society?

My company has long been a leader in the development of standards for information development.  My publication in 1994, Managing your Documentation Projects has become an industry “bible” that details the necessary components of a professional information development lifecycle.  We have continued to lead the industry in thinking about business issues in the field, which led to the establishment of The Center for Information Development Management (CIDM), which focused on the development of best practices in the industry.

We also contribute heavily to the standards industry, both through the OASIS Technical Committee that manages the DITA standard and through contributions to ISO’s standards on information development lifecycle processes.

What do you like about technical communication?

It continues to be a challenging field to do business in, even after 30 years in the field as a professional organization.  Many of the people we work with are dedicated to producing quality information for customers even as they maintain a professional business focus in their departments.

Where do you see Technical Documentation in 10 years?

Technical Documentation has to change significantly or disappear.  We’ve already seen significant losses in the number of technical writers employed by companies.  In many cases, departments are one tenth of their size 10 years ago.  Management insists on cost savings and we have to take them seriously.  We need to pay close attention to how people really use information to learn, rather than dumping massive quantities of useless content on them.  We need to recognize that for many of our users, “reading is boring,” to quote a customer. They don’t want to read to learn even if we and others in the development groups think they should.  As always we need more and more effective attention on customers.  Nothing else matters as much.

What interests do you have outside of work? How do you unwind and relax?

I’m an avid bird watcher.  My husband and I enjoy our backyard bird list, birding in local hot spots, and traveling to hot spots around the world.  The rest of my free time is spent reading and writing.  With seven books out now, I spend a considerable amount of time on my articles and correspondence.

What is your personal philosophy?

My personal philosophy probably centers on working hard and making a genuine and rich contribution to the profession and its future.  I probably work too hard and put too much time to make this field successful and increase its business recognition. I’m looking forward to retirement in a few years but it will be difficult to let go of the mission.

What would you like to see happen in technical writing…the world… life … to people…?

I’m an avid conservationist surrounded by scientists in my family.  We are greatly afraid of the affects of global warming particularly on our grandchildren and their children.  We see massive and dangerous changes coming for our planet and we notice lots of people  ignoring what is happening around them.  We see an increasingly hedonistic society focused on material goods and the pleasure of the moment.  Not very encouraging, of course.  However, I still believe that we can make a difference if we work together throughout the world and ask the people to make their voices heard rather than the politicians and the corporate moguls.

Finally, if you had one wish, what one area would you change related to the Technical Writing industry?

I would make every writer out there customer-focused.  I would get every writer into a customer location to see first hand what is really happening as people try to learn and use the products and services we support.