3 Things I Learned at tekom tcworld 2015

[This blog post was originally published on the IXIASOFT website on November 19, 2015. It is reproduced here with permission]

1. tcworld is the largest technical communications conference in the world

Actually I knew this fact when heading over to Stuttgart, Germany, but it really only hit home when I first saw the conference hall. The building that holds the conference at International Congress Center is huge, roughly the size of an aircraft hanger. Or two. And plastered to the front of the vast double-story window facing the plaza was not only the words “tcworld conference 2015” but also the “DITA” and “CCMS”. I definitely felt like I had come to the right place to learn about the state of technical communications within Europe.

tekom tcworld 2015 Window Display
tekom tcworld 2015 Window Display

From what I understand Germany was quite the first country in the world to recognize technical writing as a profession, and the maturity of the industry was certainly in evidence at the conference. Most of the sessions were in German, though there were a number of sessions in English featuring relative interlopers like myself and others.

Though not the sole focus of the conference, DITA was quite noticeable at the show. Many of the English-language presentations touched upon the subject, a number of the vendors in the trade show hall name-checked “DITA” on their displays, and a wall plastered with job postings had at least a half a dozen listings that were looking for DITA experience. While DITA has not made the same inroads in Europe as in North America, it was clear to me that its prominence is growing.

2. Not everybody is a fan of DITA

On the first day of the conference I learned about DERCOM.de, an association of German CMS firms who have banded together to “inform the public about new trends, technical developments or other standards in the realm of authoring and content management systems”. It also appears to be taking a concerted anti-DITA stance.

This was particularly evident in a presentation given by Marcus Kesseler provocatively titled “5 Reasons Not to Use DITA from a CCMS Perspective”. Kesseler is the Managing Director for the German CMS firm SCHEMA, a founding member of DERCOM, though he made a point to disavow being a spokesman for DERCOM at the beginning of his talk.

On the whole the presentation struck me as being a missed opportunity more than anything else. DITA is not perfect and there are legitimate issues with its architecture, but none of those points were brought up during the presentation. In fact many of the arguments being made were based on fundamental misunderstandings as to how DITA works in practice.

There was a long break after his presentation and somewhere between half and a third of the original audience stuck around for what ended up being an extended Q&A session between Kesseler, Kristen J. Eberlein and Eliot Kimber—both long-standing members of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee. When asked whether he would prefer using a CMS based on an open standard (like DITA) or one that was wholly proprietary, Kesseler opted for the latter. Just about everyone else who chimed in with their opinions were on the side of open standards or wanted to correct the misunderstandings of how DITA is actually used in practice. The only person who sided with Kesseler in the room was someone else who apparently worked for SCHEMA, according to his name tag. As Sarah O’Keefe described it in her blog post, the presentation was very much “Sturm and DITA-drang” in Stuttgart.

Scene from the extended Q&A session at the end of Kesseler’s presentation
Scene from the extended Q&A session at the end of Kesseler’s presentation

On the second day of the conference there was a panel discussion entitled, “Intelligent Information” featuring two executives from SCHEMA along with Kris Eberlein and Eliot Kimber. Anyone expecting further sparks to fly at this session was disappointed as the session was for the most part amicable. The point was made, however, that DITA can serve as a good means of information interchange—as it is an open standard—regardless of the CMS being used.

The Panel Discussion on the Second Day
The Panel Discussion on the Second Day

Probably the most telling comment on the situation in Germany came up during an interview I did with a person on how they were using DITA at their firm. That person had asked a local German CMS consultant during a presentation a couple of years ago what they thought of DITA. The response: “DITA is only for global firms”. The person I was interviewing worked for a firm that operated globally and it convinced him that there must be something to DITA, and that local German CMS consultants were far too insular in their thinking and outlook.

After all, are there any firms that do not want to operate globally at some point? And more than that: interchange is not just about globalization, is it not also about interchangeability and interoperability within your own organization and systems? I truly feel like the value of content increases as it becomes easier to exchange and disseminate.

3. Training the next generation of European technical writers about DITA

I had the chance to speak more with my European IXIASOFT colleague, Nolwenn Kerzreho, about her experiences teaching DITA to students taking technical writing courses at the University of Rennes 2, located in Brittany. I was impressed by the number of students who have come through her program and their keen interest in DITA. A couple of her former students came by the IXIASOFT booth while at the conference and were profoundly interested in the workings of the IXIASOFT DITA CMS. It’s one thing to produce content purely using an XML editor along with the DITA Open Toolkit, and something else entirely to see it in action within a DITA-optimized CCMS.

Nolwenn About to Enter tcworld Conference
Nolwenn About to Enter tcworld Conference

While there were other CCMS vendors at the conference, IXIASOFT was notably the only one that was there touting the value of using DITA. Jean-François Ameye, IXIASOFT Solutions Architect, gave a well-attended presentation on how the IXIASOFT system works with branching and merging DITA content using DeltaXML, an IXIASOFT partner.

Sissi Closs, Professor of Information and Media Technology at the University of Karlsruhe, was also at the conference. In a conversation immediately after tcworld she mentioned that there was more industry demand for students of hers that had knowledge of DITA. I definitely came away with the impression that there is considerable and growing interest in the DITA standard in Europe.

Seeing and hearing the interest of students in DITA was heartening. While DITA usage in Europe has a long way to go before it has the type of market penetration seen in North America, the number of presentations on the subject at tcworld 2015—both for and against—strongly suggests that there is some serious thinking and possibly a general re-evaluation as to how technical communications is done across Europe. I for one hope that this leads to a more open dialog about the true strengths and weaknesses of DITA in this context. The technical writing students I met clearly had open minds and were eager to be able to apply what they had learned about DITA. I sincerely hope they have the opportunity to do so.

About

"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: keith@ditawriter.com.

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