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October 9, 2023

ContentOps edited collection: Content operations from start to scale (podcast)

In episode 153 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and special guest Dr. Carlos Evia of Virginia Tech discuss the upcoming book ContentOps Edited Collection: Content operations from start to scale. This is a free collection of insights from leading industry experts that will be available in October of 2023.

“This is going to be a free book. We are not going to become rich and famous with this book because we decided that we wanted to make the content in the book accessible for everybody who is interested in learning about content operations. It’s going to be published as an open-access book by Virginia Tech Publishing.”

— Dr. Carlos Evia

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Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk about the ContentOps Edited Collection: Content operations from Start to Scale. 

Hi, everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe. I’m delighted to welcome Dr. Carlos Evia to our podcast today. Based at Virginia Tech, Dr. Evia is a Professor of Communication, Associate Dean for Transdisciplinary Initiatives, and Chief Technology Officer in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. He’s also Director of the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies and affiliated with the Virginia Tech Centers for Human Computer Interaction and Communicating Science, and also a member of the Stakeholder Committee for the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities. In his copious free time, aside from these things, he has been involved with work on DITA standards and especially the Lightweight DITA initiative. So Carlos, welcome aboard. I’m glad you found 20 minutes or so to join us here.

Dr. Carlos Evia: Hello, Sarah O’Keefe. It’s been a while, so good to catch up with you.

SO: It is good to catch up with you. So tell us about this new content ops book. You spearheaded it and I guess I should mention that I about a million years ago, contributed to it. I don’t actually remember what I wrote, so this could be a problem. So tell us about the book.

Dr. CE: Well, it’s new. It’s new to the world because it’s coming out next month and by next month, I mean October of 2023. But it’s a book that has been about 10 years in the making. And some sections of the book really read like creative nonfiction because there are characters that are people in real life and surprise, you are one of those characters. Because the idea for the book started some 10 years ago when we will meet at conferences. And I don’t even remember what happened first, if I invited you to come visit my class here at Virginia Tech or if I saw you at the STC summit, and I was like, “Oh, wow. She’s very smart. I have to invite her to come to my class.” But I don’t know, I guess we were already chatting and talking to each other. I cannot claim that we were friends. I would dare to say that now we’re friends. We’ve had many meals together, family involved, so I guess that counts as friends.

SO: I certainly hope so.

Dr. CE: So you and Alan Pringle in Scriptorium published a very handy book that I used for many, many years in my classes, Technical Writing 101. And you had three editions?

SO: Yeah.

Dr. CE: Yeah. So after the third edition, I started chatting with you on Twitter, when it was called Twitter and not X or whatever it’s called now. And I said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if we write a new version of that book because I have been using it in my college level classes for many years and I have ideas on how to expand it, how to improve it.” And we have been talking about it for many years. And then finally before the pandemic in 2019, we were together at a conference in your neighborhood. It was in Durham. And we sat down and we said, “Okay, let’s finally start thinking about it.” And we made an outline and then we both realized that we could not call ourselves technical writers and that we could not write another edition of a book called Technical Writing 101, because what we were doing was way more than just technical writing.

Yes, of course, what paid the bills was doing technical writing, but you were doing more sophisticated things. I was teaching more sophisticated things that were not just writing about technical subjects. So we brainstorm about many ideas on what do we call it? And we ended up with how about content operations? That’s a thing, and people are talking about content ops. And then the pandemic hit. And when the pandemic hit, everything stopped. And I remember that we had nothing better to do. We will get into endless Zoom conversations, and we started inviting people and we invited Patrick Bosek to chat with us about it. And he said, “Wait a minute, if you’re talking about content operations, we have to bring Rahel Bailie.” And we brought Rahel.

And I guess at the time the idea was that we were going to have a book with four authors and you were going to write some chapters and I was going to write some chapters and Rahel was going to write the introduction and Patrick was going to write something. And then we were like, “What if we invite more people?” And we started making a list of topics that we wanted to cover and we ended up inviting more people. And this is where we are. The book became an edited collection with several chapters written by experts in industry who had something to say about how content operations is impacting the work that they do, not just in our home neighborhood of technical communication, but also in marketing and other forms of more persuasive content.

And finally, the book after those delays, and there were a couple other delays that we can talk about later and we will talk about those later, finally, it’s coming out next month. And I was able to see a draft of the cover. I think I shared with you the draft of the cover and yeah, it’s coming out. Oh yeah, important thing to mention. This is going to be a free book. We are not going to become rich and famous with this book because we decided that we wanted to make the content in the book accessible for everybody who is interested in learning about content operations. So it’s going to be published as an open access book by Virginia Tech Publishing.

SO: So I think this means that if you want an electronic copy of it, it will be freely available. And if you insist on print, then presumably people will have to pay to get the actual physical print edition.

Dr. CE: That is correct. And I don’t think the print version will be an on-demand print service, and it’s not going to be very expensive. But there will be, I think, EPUB and PDF versions that would be downloadable from the Virginia Tech Publishing website.

SO: And I appreciate that Virginia Tech Publishing did this because of course, academic publishing is notorious for these $500 science textbooks and they’re apparently doing it all wrong, and I appreciate that. So this is great.

Dr. CE: We didn’t want to go in that direction on purpose because we know based on the kind of books that you have published with Scriptorium, the kind of work that I have published about DITA and Lightweight DITA, that we have readers in parts of the world that they just cannot buy a book, but they’re very interested in these topics and that’s why we, and I appreciate that you and all the other people who made contributions to the book accepted and signed the agreements to have this be released as open access with awareness that there won’t be any sweet money coming to you in royalties for the chapters that you contributed to this book.

SO: Well, I’ve done a number of commercial books that had royalty agreements associated with them, and I can assure you that the delta between that and what we’re doing with this book is far smaller than you might hope. I mean, it’s never been a big moneymaker. So in addition to Rahel and Patrick, I don’t want to leave anybody out, but I did want to mention that we brought in Kevin Nichols to talk about customer experience in content ops. Jeffrey MacIntyre is dealing with personalization. We’ve got Loy Searle on localization and content ops. Kate Kenyon did a really good chapter on governance, and then we’ve got some really interesting forwards and epilogues and afterwards from some other luminaries in the industry. So it was a really fun project to work through.

Dr. CE: Yeah, I’m very grateful that it started during the pandemic, and I will just email people that some of them we knew from conferences, some of them we didn’t know, and somebody will make a recommendation and I will knock on their virtual doors and be like, “Hi, I have this project that is going to be free and you won’t be making any money out of it, but people will know about content operations. Do you want to write something?” And they said yes. So that was very generous.

SO: So the intent here is to put a stake in the ground and sort of say, “Okay, this is what we think.” This is where we think content operations is and what it is and how it connects to all these other aspects of content, of I want to say communication, but what it looks like to have a content lifecycle that has all these tentacles into all these other pieces and parts. Customer experience is a great example because once you know what your customer journey needs to look like, you can connect that to, and thus I need this kind of content and therefore I need this kind of a content lifecycle. Who’s the target audience for this? Who do you think should be reading this book?

Dr. CE: Well, the way that we started conceiving the idea and what eventually became the book, and it goes back to when I first met you and I invited you to come and visit my class. And again, you were very generous to drive all the way from Durham to Blacksburg to talk to a class of 20 students who were learning about DITA. And I didn’t pay you, I just bought you dinner, and I really thank you for that. That was like, gosh, how many years ago, 13 years ago or something like that.

When I was learning and putting in practice the things that I learned when I was in graduate school and also my experience being a technical writer in industry, I always applied the things that I knew to my classes and I was reading and doing the traditional approach of exposing myself to new ideas, going to conferences. But I realized early on in my career as a professor, which I’ve been doing this gig for like 23 years now, don’t tell anybody, that one of the best ways to bring fresh ideas into the classroom was to invite guest lecturers.

And in particular, in the case of technical communication and the type of technical content enabling content that we do, I realized that bringing guest lecturers from industry and particularly consultants was the best way, in my opinion, to expose my students to practices and knowledge that were not in written textbooks, that were not even in academic journal articles because that was not the work of people who were in academia. So I think the book is structured like that, is the equivalent of a guest lecture. Somebody who comes to your classroom, in the case of people in academia, and is going to be presenting their ideas and give you some pointers on how to implement this into your content work.

And on the other side of the spectrum, we have people in industry, and this will also be the equivalent of having somebody who is a guest and comes to give a presentation about a new topic that people might be interested in. And from the work that Rahel and I were doing for a couple of years when we were working on our chapters for the book, we realized that there’s a lot of interest from many corners of the content universe on the topic of content ops or content operations, be it because people think that is related to dev ops or design ops or many other ops that are out there, or because people want to get an operational model on how to tackle enterprise level content.

So if you’re in academia, what I hope is that this book helps you expose your students and yourself to perspectives from experts in industry when it comes to technical content and marketing content and many other aspects of persuasive and enabling content. And if you’re in industry, I hope that this also helps you continue your learning or start expanding your learning on topics related to the content lifecycle that go beyond just planning how to do things in a content strategy, but really developing a good governance model for content operations that really keeps everything, we hope, under control, but we know that things are never going to be under control, and that’s when we are probably going to have to write a new book in a few years.

SO: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s funny that you talk about the intersection of academia and industry or practice. I mean, first of all, I live in Durham, North Carolina, so Virginia Tech is actually not that far, and it’s this really pretty drive through the mountains. So no particular trouble there. But I think the really important thing about this is that the work that you’re doing at Virginia Tech paying attention to this question of how do we apply, how do we look at what people are doing out there in the world and then intersect that with the rigor of the academic inquiry and practice and all the rest of it, I think is really important and unusual.

There’s not actually very many professors. There’s a few, but there’s not very many academics out there that are looking at this kind of information through a practical lens in addition to the study of rhetoric and all these other underpinnings that I think are important to the practice of whether it’s technical communication or any kind of communication. So I’m always happy to come and talk to students. They have a habit of asking questions that I can’t answer because they are much better grounded, really, than I am in the theory. I know an awful lot about how to make things happen, but anything I’ve learned about the theory that’s underlying it is kind of incidental to what I’ve done.

So it’s always interesting to hear those voices and hear people talk about the research that they’re doing, especially the grad students, but everybody, and the questions that they’re asking as they’re getting all this foundational learning. And you talk about being a professor for a while, it is very, very unusual for somebody in our age cohort to, we’ve had a longstanding argument about who’s older, but we won’t get into that just now. But we fall into the same generation certainly, and I think our birthdays are like a year apart or something dumb. And I think we decided I’m older, although for a while I thought you were older and that was awesome. Anyway.

Dr. CE: That might be correct.

SO: But the thing is that for us, a generation ago when we were in school, in college, there wasn’t a whole lot of any of this. There wasn’t really the study of TechCom or, I mean, there was certainly rhetoric but not rhetoric as applied to TechCom and enabling communications. And so people like me tend to be very poorly grounded in the academics and the preceding research that has gone into this. So I appreciate being able to do that. So how do you define, what’s your best definition of content operations and how that fits into the world?

Dr. CE: Well, the book actually borrows Rahel’s definition, that I think I have a coffee mug here with her definition that she mailed me. And she talks about you have your content strategy, and I guess at this point, people kind of know what a content strategy is. I think the listeners of this podcast need to know about content strategy or maybe they’re interested in content strategy. And that’s the plan of how do you develop, maintain, publish, sunset or revitalize content. So Rahel’s definition says that content operations is the implementation of that strategy.

So it’s like a good example that she has been using for years is that think about if you’re an architect and you make the blueprints for a house, that’s the strategy, that’s the plan. But ain’t nobody telling you in those plans how to live in the house, that you have to change the air filters of the air conditioning, that you have to clean the toilets. Nobody’s telling you that. So that’s the operational part of it, and that’s the content operations component. Other people, sometimes I’m in that camp, see content operations as bigger than that and including the process of developing, implementing and revising the content strategy.

So I think it’s a combination of knowing who is available, what is available in resources and what is missing or what’s needed to really keep a healthy lifecycle of content. That includes the planning, that includes the actual writing, creating, I was going to say filming, but nobody uses film anymore. The actual recording of videos and audio and the publishing and the evaluation assessment and then making new versions or just putting to sleep content that nobody cares about. So it’s really about how to live in that house that you created with all the daily and monthly and yearly transactions that need to happen that when they sold you the house, when they sold you the idea of the house, those were not considered. But based on the work from experts like you and the people who wrote chapters for the book, we are offering these lessons that say, “Hi, we have lived in houses and we know how to take a look at those operational components that you might not even consider now that you’re starting your strategy.”

So I think that’s a complicated way to tell you what I see as part of operations, but it’s heavily influenced by the work of Rahel Bailie, who was very generous to write the introduction to the book. And then last year when the book was almost ready, this close to being ready last year, Rahel and I sat down and said, “This is missing something. It’s missing a chapter that talks directly to content developers, not their managers, not people who are at the high level of strategy or the high level of governance, but people who are actually going to create the content. How does content operations can help you or create challenges for you?”

So Rahel and I went into a months’ long adventure of writing this long chapter that at one point we decided this might be a separate book altogether, but we created this new chapter that is included now in the final version of the book that is speaking directly to people who are going to be creating content. And how thinking about the work that you’re doing as part of a system and not just, “I’m here in my lonely cubicle or working from home because hashtag remote work forever and I don’t talk to anybody else.” So I think that’s the whole process of thinking about operations in a systems approach.

SO: Yeah, that’s interesting. And I think that looking back at some of this stuff, back in the olden days, there was really this concept that as a content creator, technical writer, whatever, I had ownership of a particular book or document or set of documents, but it was like, I’m the writer of the admin guide and you are the writer of the user guide, and I’m going to go learn admin things and write them down, and you’re going to go learn user things and write them down, and then we’re going to have this big complicated print production process. And I know an awful lot of things about press checks and blue lines that I haven’t used in 25 years. I used to know things about blue lines and press checks. But I think one of the reasons that we really need content ops is because the concept of authorship has fragmented, right?

I’m not writing a 500-page admin guide. In fact, it’s pretty unlikely that the organization is writing a 500-page admin guide. We might be writing 500 topics worth of admin stuff, but I’m writing a hundred of them and you’re writing a hundred of them and a couple of other people are contributing bits and pieces. And then we put it all together as the sort of, here’s the help for the admin person, and we put it online.

So the print production process is gone, the press check process is gone, the physical production is gone. And we are fragmented in the sense that nobody has the overarching view of what is this set of content. And because that doesn’t exist, because there’s not me as the owner of this book, which, by the way, from a psychological point of view, introduces a whole set of other complications. But because that owner doesn’t really exist anymore, our systems have to be better so that the five of us, or the 27 of us that are all writing three topics can contribute in a consistent and useful manner. Your systems don’t have to be as good when you’re relying on individuals, single individuals.

Dr. CE: And it might be that the system has people who are in charge of ensuring that the user experience of those who need the content is going to be good and satisfy the information needs. And that’s not the job of the developers. I mean, as the writer, as the creator of videos or audio, it might not be your job to ensure that whatever website, app, product that comes out of that machine that generates the content is going to satisfy the needs of a human being. And it might be that it’s not your job as the creator to be in charge of managing that whole process.

So that’s why the systems approach of thinking and being aware, it doesn’t have to be that happens at the big enterprise level, as you know, because that’s the job that you do every day at Scriptorium. Even small organizations, I don’t want to say corporations, have adopted these models of creating reusable chunks of content that you create. And based on the metadata and the connections that they have behind the scenes are going to be reassembled in different deliverables for the needs of different audiences and in different contexts and in different models.

So it’s not just the work of a lonely writer. It’s a combination of approaches. And I think that content operations really takes a look at that lifecycle. And like you have said before, not every implementation of content operations is going to be super high-tech and mega efficient. You might have your content operations approach that is based on the budget that you have and the scale that you have. And it might not be the prettiest, but at least you have an idea and you want to have, not that you can always achieve that, but you want to have some sort of control over your content publishing structure instead of letting whatever, I’ll just write a piece of paper and see how far it goes if I send it like a paper airplane. So yeah.

SO: So you mentioned the machine and the systems, and I don’t think we’re allowed to have podcasts this year without talking about AI. So do you think that the, I’m trying to avoid using the word fad. Do you think that the rise of AI, and especially this sort of 2023, all of a sudden AI is everywhere and everything is AI-enabled and everybody’s talking about AI, do you think that’s going to change content ops? How is it going to change content ops? What do you think?

Dr. CE: I think it has already changed it. Remember I told you that there was a couple of moments in which we had stopped the publication of the book and revised it. Well, the first one was, I told you, Rahel and I decided that we wanted to write a chapter that talked directly to content developers. And the second one was that Patrick Bosek and I and you were in one of those meetings, we sat down and we said, “We cannot publish a book on content operations without talking about AI and particularly ChatGPT,” because it was the boom of everybody’s talking about ChatGPT and all the conference presentations were about ChatGPT. So the book was already going to print when we said, “Wait a minute. We need to open it and revise Patrick’s chapter, which is about the technology that supports content operations and include a statement about ChatGPT.”

So I honestly think that artificial intelligence has already impacted and changed the work of content operations. It might not have affected, like you said, all the content operations implementations of the world because some might be with limited budget and limited scale. But I think that there are many use cases that are happening right now.

The main consideration is this. It’s not about learning to use the tools. It’s not about seeing how much money you can invest into having AI create your content. It’s about, as the person who supervises and is in charge of the whole operations or the persons, if it’s a large team, consider the ethical implications of using artificial intelligence and decide, “I’m going to use AI for this, to summarize this, to create this. What are the possibilities that by doing this, I put some of my users at a disadvantage? What are the implications of by doing this, I’m going to completely run my bulldozer over the diversity of my readers, of my users, and I’m going to have damaged their perception of their interactions with whatever information products I’m creating.”

So I think the big conversation has to be not is AI going to impact content operations or content because it’s already impacting it, but how do we supervise and bring this into the cycle of content operations in an approach that doesn’t leave people at a disadvantage? And it might be that doesn’t leave content creators or content managers at a disadvantage, and it’s concentrated on the ethical perspectives, on the use, implementation and feeding of artificial intelligence tools. So I think that’s where the conversation is really going to go in the near future.

SO: That’s interesting. And I think additionally to that, the question of trust and reputation. If you develop a reputation for generating junk because I asked ChatGPT to write my bio and it made up a bunch of stuff, and then I just used it because why not? But it seems to me that this is going to, and we’re already seeing search degrading because of all the AI generated stuff. So I think in addition to the ethical issues, there’s some really, really interesting questions around whether the efficiency that you get out of generated content, is the plus of gaining that efficiency greater than the minus of the trust and reputation problems that you’re going to have if you’re not very, very careful? I mean, you could generate it and then you can review it and clean it up and fix it, but you just gave back your efficiency gains. So then is it really a net positive?

I do think that gisting and summarizing can be very useful, but I have some real concerns about when you go in and you tell it to tell me how to operate this medical device, first of all, people don’t use Chat to ask it how to operate a medical device. But if and when you do, be careful because it might make some stuff up. And I can’t remember where this was, but yesterday I heard somebody say that, on a podcast I was listening to, and when I figure out who it was, I’ll dig it out and I’ll put it in the show notes, but essentially that when we create enabling content for new products, we are in the business of creating new content and ChatGPT does not do a very good job of creating new content. It only reissues what it has. And so if you’re creating something brand new, somebody has to do that work. And I don’t think the person or thing doing that work is going to be an AI-enabled large language model.

Dr. CE: There are many tests and forms of evaluating the content created by human beings or created, I mean, it’s not really created, it’s assembled by artificial intelligence. But I am old school when it comes to some of my metrics. And I know that some people have challenged this, and I know that some people have come up with better approaches for evaluating the content, the quality of technical content. But I go back to IBM’s Developing Quality Technical Information, and I want to be sure that the content either created or written or produced by human beings or by artificial intelligence is easy to use, easy to understand, and easy to find. And I send people back to reading the second edition of IBM’s DQTI.

And that is pretty valid today because you can have a machine generate paragraphs and paragraphs of content, and you can have very nicely machine-generated DITA tags that give it some structure. And you can have ChatGPT help you do the XLT to do a beautiful HTML5 transformation. And your content might look like it’s good, but it has to be measured by is this really helping human beings? Because otherwise it’s just garbage regardless of how pretty the code behind the scenes is, which is not necessarily that pretty because ChatGPT doesn’t know much about DITA and it doesn’t know how to establish the difference between a task and a general topic. But that’s a conversation for another day.

SO: And I mean, that’s probably a good place to leave it. I think we’ve raised more questions than we’ve answered.

Dr. CE: That’s what I do.

SO: But the book is going to be out shortly, we hope. So October 2023. And we’ll include a link in the show notes that will point you over to wherever it is that you’ll be able to order or pre-order it from. So we’ll set all of that up. I remembered who it was that talked about new content. It was Jack Molisani in our podcast from a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll add that link. And Carlos, thank you. This has been really interesting as always. Glad to see you. And sounds like we need to talk some more about what’s going on here.

Dr. CE: Yes, indeed. Thank you very much, Sarah.

SO: Thank you. And thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.