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March 11, 2013

From tech writer to DITA superhero

In the world of superheroes, technical writers could just slide down a pole or do a clandestine spin to transform themselves into DITA technologists. Of course, nothing is that easy, so what does the transformation from tech writer to DITA superhero really require?

If you’re thinking about becoming a DITA technologist (or are a manager looking to transform a tech writer into a DITA specialist), consider these prerequisite special powers:

  • Are you a self-starter? You must be willing to jump right in and poke around the DITA Open Toolkit and to learn about the many technologies interwoven into it (Ant, XSLT, XSL-FO, and so on). If you have job responsibilities that consume most of your work day, you will need to find a way to reduce your workload to accommodate this exploration, or you’ll need to do it on your own time. Don’t like the idea of exploring, using, and inevitably breaking the toolkit? Then you’re not ready to become a DITA superhero.
  • Can you learn by experience? A big part of mastering the DITA Open Toolkit is learning by experience. You figure out a fix and then reuse that technique to solve similar problems. If you can’t retain and apply (and reapply) your experiences, please don’t report for duty. (By the way, passive learning isn’t going to work—just sitting through a class or reading a book will not give you all the skills you need. You must get your hands dirty to learn the OT.)
  • Can you think and work like a programmer? If the idea of tinkering with code does not appeal to you, maintaining the XSLT and XSL-FO transformations in the toolkit is absolutely not for you.
  • Are you a dogged troubleshooter? The DITA Open Toolkit can be an annoyingly delicate creature. A coding error (a missing angle bracket, for example) in either source files or a transform will completely break your process, and the error messages you get from the toolkit can be extremely unhelpful. Be prepared to spend hours looking for needles in haystacks—Herculean patience and strong determination are required. Getting angry is not going to transform you into a DITA-smashing beast:

What special powers do you think DITA superheroes should have? Let me know in the comments below.