Full transcript of 20 years of content strategy
00:00 Announcer: This is the Content Strategy Experts podcast produced by Scriptorium. Since 1997 Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way.
00:13 Bill Swallow: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. In episode eight we consider how the industry has changed over the past 20 years. Welcome, this is Bill Swallow from Scriptorium Publishing. I am here with Sarah O’Keefe, who is the founder and CEO.
00:30 Sarah O’Keefe: Hi everybody.
00:32 BS: And Alan Pringle, who is the Chief Operating Officer.
00:36 Alan Pringle: Hey there.
00:38 BS: So this year marks 20 years for Scriptorium. So we thought we’d take a little bit of time to talk about how much the industry has changed over the past 20 years. Before we jump into the industry stuff, Sarah, how did Scriptorium all start?
00:54 SO: I blame Brad Hessel. Brad was my manager at SEER Technologies about 20 or 25 years ago. And Brad had some really good connections in the game industry. And as it turned out, one of Brad’s friends called him up and said, “Hey, do you happen to know anybody who knows Pagemaker, knows how to do desktop publishing, can do some editing, and speaks fluent German, and can clean up a translation?” And Brad said, “Well, as a matter of fact I do.” Because at the time I was working for him doing enterprise software stuff, and he happened to know that I did also speak German. So Brad connected me with the guys at Interactive Magic, which was a game company, to help them with a game that they were producing that they had purchased from a German company. They had an English translation, but it wasn’t very good and it wasn’t very well formatted. And so they needed somebody to take a look at the translation, clean it up, and then rework it in Pagemaker. So that was the first project I did.
02:01 SO: I then went on to do a whole bunch of projects with Interactive Magic. Just on the side, I still had a normal full-time job. But by the time… The decision point rolled around as to whether to start Scriptorium as a full-time kind of thing as opposed to an on the side, “Let me do a little bit of freelancing gig.” I already had been doing that work for Interactive Magic for about a year and a half. So I was then at another company that did one of the typical hockey stick start ups. They went from zero to 500 and then back down to zero. And so I was in the position of needing a new job potentially, and I was a little cranky about the whole situation where the company had been acquired and really through no fault of ours, we were all being laid off because of some weird political stuff. That was also where I met Alan because we worked together there.
02:54 AP: Right. She actually hired me there.
02:57 SO: Yes. And so umpteen zillion years ago, that was how it all got started was that, at one point in time, I had the right skill sets for a very, very specific project and somebody who knew that I had the right skill sets, and gave me permission to go do that on the side; because I did of course have to get permission to go do a side gig. It wasn’t competitive to my full-time job, and so my manager allowed me to do that, and that’s how it all got started.
03:31 AP: And we were all 10 years old at the time.
03:33 SO: Oh yes. We were child consultants.
03:35 AP: Yes.
03:37 BS: Yeah. Speaking of which, I was a child of my own when I first met you guys, which I think was probably close to 18 years ago.
03:45 SO: I think it might’ve been at the Help ’99 conference in Dallas.
03:49 AP: Wow!
03:49 BS: I think so. But we did kind of know of each other before then. I think we were in contact online through the infamous listservs of the day.
04:02 SO: Yeah. Some of which are still around. I think the Framers list and then later the WWP Users list, both of which I think are still going.
04:10 AP: And maybe TechWhirl, I don’t know.
04:11 BS: They are.
04:12 SO: And TechWhirl a little bit later. Yeah.
04:14 AP: Yeah.
04:18 BS: So given Scriptorium’s been around for 20 years, you’ve probably had a chance to see quite a number of different projects. I know I have, and I’ve only been with Scriptorium for about three and a half years, I think. So what has changed? What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the past 20 years?
04:39 SO: The biggest change for us I think reflects a change in the overall industry and in the way that projects are done. And that is that 20 years ago most of the projects that we got were very well defined, and very often limited to a technical problem. So somebody would call us up and say, “Can you make us a FrameMaker template?” Or, “Can you train us on FrameMaker or WebWorks Publisher?” Or, “Can you build us a WebWorks template?” They wanted some technical help on something that was beyond the capabilities of the people that they had in-house and they just needed to bring in an expert to do one well-defined thing. Or bring in an editor to help with a specific project where there was just overflow. There was too much to do for the group that was in-house. Today, that type of very well-defined technical one-off, it happens, but it’s not the norm anymore. What’s the norm now is that people call us with a not so well defined problem. Like, “Our content isn’t good enough,” or, “We can’t keep up with our localization efforts and how do we fix that?” So the scope of what we’re dealing with is much broader and much less binary, in the sense that there’s a right solution and a wrong solution, would you agree with that?
06:04 AP: I would, and I think a big part of this is there has been this shift in content, in general. We no longer have this situation where this is just technical content, this is just marketing content, this is just training content. Companies more and more are saying that there are these kernels of information that are the same all across, and they’re asking for help. How can we consolidate all these what we saw as different kinds of information into one workflow? And that’s where a lot of our analysis work, in particular, has headed.
06:42 SO: Yeah, so I think the big change is that the scope of the problems has gotten bigger.
06:46 AP: Yeah.
06:49 BS: What do you think is driving that shift in thought and shift in need?
06:56 SO: Well it’s a cop out to say the web. But the answer is the web because… [laughter] The reason that technical content and marketing content are starting to converge and overlap and not be as separated as they used to be is because the web makes it possible and even likely that a customer can see both kinds of information. That you as the content producer can’t control which information the customer sees when. When everything was basically on paper, it was much, much easier to control the paper and control who gets what information. That filter is now gone and as a result the customers have much greater control over what they get to see, and as a result of that you have to worry as a content producer about making sure that all these things are in alignment which to a certain extent you didn’t have to do before.
07:56 AP: I think that gatekeeper angle is a huge part of it, and I think globalization is also a big part of it too. Now that companies are putting out so much information so quickly, they can’t keep up if they have a source language… Usually English in our case, not always, but usually. They need to get out the different other languages as soon as possible, and that’s driving a lot of these business problems and decisions that they’re making. They need to get that time to market shrunk down to where it’s almost instantaneous, English or source, and all other languages. And that’s pushing a lot of what we’re seeing too, I think.
08:45 BS: So considering all these changes that have been happening through the industry, was there one that’s sticks out as a total surprise?
08:53 SO: One thing that’s been surprising to me is that the best technical solution doesn’t always win out. There are cases where we look at a new product coming into the market place that supports the kind of work that we do, and it’s pretty apparent that it’s a really good solution and it will solve a lot of problems and it will do things really well, but it doesn’t always get market share. It doesn’t always win. And the reasons for that have to do with pretty much the obvious, which are things like, not very good marketing, or not very good communication, or not enough resources. But there have definitely been cases where I’ve seen something come into the market that I thought was going to be the obviously correct solution, or the obvious winner in the next few years, which then really didn’t succeed in the way that I thought it should based on the quality of what we were looking at.
09:50 BS: That really begs for an example.
09:53 SO: It does. An the one that really comes to mind is I actually… XSL-FO. XSL-FO, as you know but maybe our audience doesn’t, is a processing layer that allows you to take XML and turn it into a PDF. Now, it has some really great advantages because it’s fast, as in instantaneous, it allows you to automate everything, but it has some disadvantages, notably the fact that it is nearly impossible to understand. And we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for either that solution to take off, or for something similar to come along. And there have been attempts, there’s Prince and there’s XML plus CSS to print and some various other things. But there’s just nothing in that space that has really taken over that insta-publish to PDF kind of market. FO does very well in certain kinds of use cases but it really is still a niche product, or a niche technology I should say.
10:57 AP: It has not been commoditized yet.
11:01 SO: Yeah, and it hasn’t become the default under-layer that I thought it would.
11:04 AP: True.
11:07 BS: Do you think it will go that route? Given the whole shift away from print that’s happening?
11:14 SO: I think what we’ve seen with FO is that if a product or, sorry, a technology is sufficiently difficult to use and people don’t come up with ways to make it easier, then it’s going to be limited forever. So if you take something like a desktop publishing tool like PageMaker or FrameMaker or the late, lamented, not, Interleaf. Those were also constrained by the level of knowledge that you needed; by the amount of investment that was required in brain cells and training to understand how to use them and use them well. So I think the thing that I’ve learned is that these things are always going to trend down to the lowest common denominator.
12:02 SO: And when that means producing content, so in my desktop publishing example it means producing content that’s not as good, or producing it not as efficiently but in a way that doesn’t require you to become a hardcore programmer, then there are always going to be people that choose that solution instead of going with the scary stuff.
12:22 BS: Gotcha. So thinking about this shift that’s happened, I noticed you two talking about using PageMaker and doing print based publishing early on in your consulting days, or your freelance days, and now we’re talking about XML and automatic transforms that happen instantaneously. That’s a big shift, but what… It really hasn’t changed over the past 20 years, what’s pretty much been a constant?
12:53 SO: I think the constant is that people hate change.
12:58 SO: And those of us who go into consulting tend to think it’s kind of fun, and you have to remember as a consultant that thinking that change is entertaining makes you an extreme outlier, and not part of the sort of normal [chuckle] community. So that has not changed, human nature has not changed.
13:19 BS: So we’re abnormal.
13:21 AP: Yes.
13:21 SO: Yes, we are.
13:23 SO: The other thing is that you have to remember when you look at some of these tools, that in many cases the pain of using them, the pain of having to learn them goes to the technical writer, or the content creator, or whatever that job title is. They suffer through all the pain of dealing with XML. The benefit of XML or any other tool that you’re learning, typically goes to management. They get faster, more efficient, better globalization, or whatever. So if I’m the content creator, what you’re essentially saying is, “I want you to create content in a way that’s more painful for you, because it’s better for the business”. That’s actually a pretty hard sell.
14:11 AP: Especially when those content creators have invested so much time and energy in learning all the arcane aspects of these tools.
14:22 BS: No, I can see that. I remember even back in the standard desktop publishing days, when we made a big shift from Interleaf to FrameMaker, there was a lot of resistance there simply because they had to… All the writers, had to learn a new tool, and be proficient in it in a very short period of time in order to keep things moving forward.
14:46 SO: So Bill, I mean you’ve only been in sort of abnormal consulting land for maybe half your career.
14:53 SO: What’s your perspective on this looking at it; I wouldn’t say as an outsider, but I think you have a little bit of a different perspective on this than we do, coming from 20 years of consulting fun.
15:06 BS: Yeah, I mean I will say that, you’ve pretty much hit some of the big changes that are out there and some of the constants. And the big one is… It’s change management, is something that has been a need throughout. As far as what’s driving the changes and seeing what the different needs are, it really does come down to both the pervasiveness of the web, and the need to deploy global content, but there’s also a need internally to better manage a lot of information, especially as a lot of this content is being developed by many different groups. And I think companies are coming to the realization that they are sharing a lot more content, or duplicating a lot more content than they… I should say they’re duplicating a lot more content than they need to, and they want to be able to share this content more. That’s something that I’ve seen, even [chuckle] as a captive employee or a captive manager so to speak. When management comes down, or senior management comes down and says, “We need to be a lot more efficient with how we produce this stuff. We have problems where the tech support information is not matching what’s in the technical documentation, and that varies from what marketing and sales are putting out in the field.”
16:41 BS: It’s a real business problem, and they’re not exactly sure how to solve it. Usually they’ll come down and say, “Hey you have to really talk to these groups more, and make sure that you get your information correct.” But at the end of the day, if the information or the content is not being managed itself better, it makes it a lot more difficult to be able to communicate those changes, because you’re never sure if two people in the same meeting necessarily hear the same thing. So they may go off and do two very different things, to solve two different aspects of the same problem. So being able to share a lot of this content more, really is becoming a stronger driver. So there’s been a lot of technological change happening over the past 20 years, that changed the way companies view their content, and how they need to publish and manage this content. How about how either online communities, or how writers, and technical specialists, and so forth, communicate and collaborate globally over the web or what have you. I know early in the day we had various listservs for example, how I met you guys initially. How has that environment changed over the past 20 years?
18:00 AP: Social media definitely plays into that now. Twitter, in particular, I think is stronger in some of our content-heavy industries. And you see a lot of people, content creators, managers, and so on, getting feedback from the community through Twitter. I see that as being a little bit different and I’m sure Twitter, in particular, has made a dent in some of those online communities.
18:29 SO: Some of them, like the various mailing lists are, in many cases, still going strong, but in addition to that, 20 years ago, it was mailing lists, Usenet maybe, and in-person meetings of some sort, typically associations, chapter meetings, that kind of thing, oh, and some printed magazines. Well, now, we still have conferences, although, many of the conferences are different from what they were 20 years ago. You mentioned Twitter and I agree with that, in addition, we have groups on LinkedIn, you have purpose-built groups, community forums and then you get into things like Stack Overflow or Stack Exchange where people can discuss stuff.
19:21 SO: I’m on a couple of Slack groups that are for specific content strategy or other kinds of topics. So, there’s been this just complete explosion of options in terms of how you can connect to the community and get information to, I think, the detriment, in many cases, of the in-person meetings. So, instead of going to a once a month in-person meeting, people are connecting on these various communities, whether it’s the DITA users group, which is sort of a traditional mailing list or a DITA forum on LinkedIn, or anything else that you could mention, there are all these different places where people can go to get information and to connect with other people in the community.
20:10 BS: So, you’re seeing less of an in-person meetup, even though we do have meetup.com available. So, there’s less of an in-person community being built, and it’s more of a global, kind of disembodied community [chuckle] of sorts.
20:34 SO: Well, I’m not sure it’s less exactly, it’s just that there are more choices, so you can go lots of different places. And then to your point, an online group is gonna have a much easier time fostering connections among people that are geographically disbursed. So, I can have a discussion with somebody and form that bond with somebody that’s doing similar work to what we’re doing, that’s in India, or in China, or wherever, because I don’t have to actually, although it helps a lot, you don’t actually have to fly to India to make any sort of connection, you can make those connections online.
21:13 AP: And the globalization angle does help in a lot of ways. You get a slightly different perspective on things, because you are working with someone who, perhaps, is not in the same culture as you are. So, it’s not just a learning thing from a technical point-of-view, but you get to learn how business is handled a little differently in other countries and locales, and that is invaluable when you’re creating content, I think.
21:40 SO: Yeah, and of course, we’re still going to lots of conferences, including many that are not in the US, because, at the end of the day, that face-to-face in-person contact is better than all your other options. It’s also a lot more expensive, but over time, that’s where you foster and strengthen those business relationships that you’re forming on these various kinds of forums.
22:05 AP: And I actually had that happen, going to TC World in Germany. I had talked to a lot of people online and through forums and then actually seeing them in person was, almost, it was a little disjointing, a little odd…
22:19 SO: They do have a physical…
22:21 AP: Exactly.
22:23 SO: Body.
22:24 AP: Exactly. That’s interesting.
22:26 SO: That they’re not just a hashtag.
22:27 AP: Sure.
22:27 BS: And would you say that the dynamic of the conferences has changed, as well, over the past 20 years?
22:35 SO: That’s an interesting question. The conferences themselves have changed for the most part. So, we were talking about HELP ’99 in Dallas, which is no longer part of… There is no more HELP University. I remember going to the TechComm conferences that Paula Berger and Lynn Harris put on…
22:57 AP: DocTrain.
23:02 SO: DocTrain was there for a while. The STC conference has been there all along and is still there, but other than that… Oh, and WinWriters or WritersUA is still out there. But a lot of other conferences have come up that are new and different and focused a little bit differently. I’m not sure… I’ve noticed the attendees are getting younger and younger. I’m not sure what to say about that.
23:35 SO: But I think the conferences are still very much the same, in the sense that, people go there because they see value in making personal connections.
23:39 AP: Conferences, still today, do really help foster those personal connections that you can’t really completely make online, but what’s interesting is a lot of the conferences now have online presences, so you’ll have these virtual tracks for people who, because it’s too expensive to them to travel or they don’t have the time to make a round trip to another country or whatever. So even the conferences themselves are realizing that virtual attendance, online attendance can be a valuable thing.
24:15 SO: Yeah and it’s also, it’s becoming more and more difficult to travel internationally, in particular for many people outside the US it’s difficult to get the right visas to come here for conferences. And so at the same time that we have increasingly globalized business, we have increasingly challenges in getting a truly international conference. So for me this is a reason to go to some of the events outside the US. I’ve spoken to people for example at TC World in Germany who told me they were at that event because as a professional translator who runs a company that provides Indonesian language translation, it was much, much easier for them to get permission, to get a visa to come to Germany than it was for them to come to the United States.
25:09 BS: Interesting. So it sounds like a lot has changed over the past 20 years although some things do tend to stay the same. Any prediction for the next 20 years?
25:23 AP: One thing that comes to my mind is I think you’re gonna see more and more blur for content creators. I don’t write just technical content. I don’t write just marketing content. I write content, period. I think we’re gonna see more and more of these departmental boundaries dissolving.
25:46 SO: I’m going to make the bold prediction that some things are going to change drastically and some things are going to be the same 20 years from now.
25:53 BS: Very bold prediction.
25:56 BS: Well I think that’ll do it for this episode. Alan, Sarah, thank you very much.
26:00 SO: Thank you Bill.
26:01 AP: Thank you.
26:02 BS: And to everyone, thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.
26:18 SO: Would you agree with that, or?
26:21 AP: I’m thinking.
26:27 SO: And we can go oh, blah, blah, blah.
26:35 BS: We will. Ah, bleh.
26:41 BS: I wish I knew where that trailed off before I went into never, never land.
26:45 SO: This one’s gonna have awesome bloopers.
26:50 AP: This is a cluster.
26:54 BS: This is a cluster.
27:00 AP: Stop laughing.
27:03 SO: And on that note.
27:04 AP: I’m looking at the floor now.
27:07 BS: Oh, God.