Thoughts on the 2014 STC Summit

This is a collection of random thoughts based on my attendance at the 2014 STC Summit earlier this week. I will try to post my more detailed notes from the various individual talks over the next days and weeks.

Lots of proprietary tools, not so much open source

There are lots of proprietary document creation and management tools, and their vendors seem to be well-represented here. Coming from a hybrid tech-writing/programming background, I have to admit that some of the proprietary solutions looked sort of strange to me. Many appeared to be Windows-only to boot.

It seems like there is a lot of opportunity for open-source software to make inroads here. I wonder what it would take to bring the XML-editing capabilities of open source editors like Emacs and Vim up to date (if they aren’t already) to match the capabilities of proprietary tools like Framemaker, Oxygen editor, Madcap Flare, and the like.

There are a few reasons why open source and tech comm could be a match made in heaven. Especially when you consider that whatever improvements in process or tooling you create in open source environments are yours to keep, free of charge, forever. This is definitely not the case in proprietary environments. When you develop your own automation and tooling against proprietary tools, and the vendor breaks stuff, you’re often out of luck.

DITA and XML

It turns out that XML and the transformation tools that work on it such as XSLT and friends are pretty powerful. I have been aware of the existence of these technologies but haven’t used them much thus far in my career.

I feel like I understood the appeal of the DITA XML spec/style better after attending a great talk given by Caitlin Cronkhite and Ted Kuster from Salesforce. As I understood them to say, DITA is just a way of structuring your XML into topics that other tools can then use to create your documentation set with minimal repetition on the part of the writer. (I will put up my notes from that talk in another post.)

However, I admit I still don’t fully understand the reason for layering the proprietary environments over the top of the structure provided by DITA. I would probably prefer to author directly in XML using Emacs and nXML-mode. Alternatively, I’d use a markup language, such as a Markdown variant, that could be translated to XML with a script much like my own confluence2html, and build the various document sets I needed using Makefiles.

Key Takeaway: Do More Professional Development

The number one lesson from this trip was that I have a lot to learn (this should be evident from the preceding paragraphs). There are so many tools and techniques out there that I am not aware of. I’ve only been at this tech writing gig for a couple of years now, after all.

I look forward to engaging more tech writers working in other industries to learn about how they do what they do. My hope is that this will allow me to develop my own skills by stealing some of their best ideas while sharing some of my own crazy notions as well.

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