WritersUA 2009 Day 2

This week I’m attending the WritersUA 2009 conference in Seattle. Yesterday was day 2 of this very enjoyable conference. I’ve talked to so many great people and lots of interesting sessions. Here are my notes on some of them.

Sessions covered below:

  • Microsoft 2.0: What to expect in the post-Gates era
  • Using a wiki with modular and conditionally publishable content
  • Delivering open-source technical documentation through a wiki
  • Delivering enterprise technical documentation through a wiki

Microsoft 2.0: What to expect in the post-Gates era

This was the first session on Tuesday, featuring an interview with Mary-Jo Foley, blogger on ZDNet, journalist and well-known commentator on all things Microsoft. Matthew Ellison hosted the session. He posed some great questions and kept the session flowing very easily.

I found Mary-Jo’s style engaging, energetic and to the point. She told us of the early days when she first started tracking activities in Microsoft. One of her early fact-gathering techniques was to catch a ride on the Microsoft shuttle bus and listen in to what people were talking about. Eventually they posted her picture at the bus stops and instructed people not to let her onto the bus.

Background information from me: Bill Gates stepped down as CEO of Microsoft early in the year 2000. Until June 2006, he stayed on as chairman and chief software architect. In June 2006 he started moving away from full-time work at Microsoft, putting more of his energy into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He gradually handed over his duties to Ray Ozzie, chief software architect, and Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer. Currently Bill Gates is still the non-executive chairman. Steve Ballmer is current CEO.

Here are my notes from the session with Mary-Jo, where she discussed how Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era:

  • Ray Ozzie is a well-known software developer, who created Lotus Notes among other achievements. He is someone Microsoft always wanted to hire. They eventually got him by buying his company. As chief software architect, Ozzie now sets the strategic direction for Microsoft and is the new public face of Microsoft. But he’s very shy. He hates to speak in public. He’s an engineer’s engineer.
  • If you want to gain some insight into Microsoft’s strategy, take a look at the Internet Services Disruption memo of October 2005. Ozzie wrote it about 5-6 months after he joined Microsoft. It has quite a different tone to previous communications, and suggests that Microsoft should be more open,  Windows shouldn’t be proprietary, etc. Mary-Jo says Microsoft  is now doing exactly what Ozzie outlined in that document.
  • Who’s on the short list of candidates to take over as CEO when Steve Ballmer leaves? Kevin Turner, current COO (but not popular within Microsoft);  Robbie Bach, head of the entertainment division (Xbox etc); Stephen Elop, a recent hire who now runs the Office division (still the most profitable division of Microsoft). Mary-Jo thinks they may even recruit from outside, when Steve Ballmer eventually steps down as CEO. But he’s not going anywhere for the next 10 years or so.
  • What are Microsoft employees like? Well, 95000 people work at Microsoft (“Softies”), all over the world. So it’s hard to characterise them. Mary-Jo describes “Softies” as paranoid, but in a good way. “How do we suck?” That’s a question they often ask their competitors and customers. She also describes them as arrogant, especially the old guard. They believe they are the smartest people in technology. This combination makes them fascinating to write about.
  • There has been a market change in the period since Gates reduced his day-to-day duties. The emphasis has moved from science to business. Gates rewarded and concentrated on geeks — engineering. Steve is more focused on business — sales and marketing.
  • Usability is the new holy grail. Microsoft  is starting to value it more.
  • How about openness? Mary-Jo says that rather than attempting to be transparent, Microsoft  is attempting to be translucent. They want to be more like Apple: retain secrecy around new products, then make a big announcement. So Microsoft needs to be a lot more secretive than they have been in the past. Stop leaks.
  • Mary Jo has a PDF file containing the Microsoft project code names, which she tracks. You can download it from her web site. I haven’t found it yet, but I have found a list of related blog posts on the ZDNet blog.
  • Microsoft is moving towards consumer products. The theory is that if you can hook people via their home products, they are more likely to buy your business products. So there’s more emphasis on consumer version of Windows, Xbox, etc. We’ll see more and more of this over time. Also Microsoft feels that the big breakthroughs, especially in social media and new technologies, are happening first on the consumer side and then adapted for the business world.
  • How are the anti-trust judgements affecting Microsoft development policy? Windows 7 has a feature to allow you to unbundle some of its features e.g. you can choose to remove IE or add third-party features. This is an effect of the anti-trust laws and a concern about being sued if they put too much into a new product.
  • Software as a Service (SAAS): The Microsoft view is to have customers install the software (e.g. Office) and then use the cloud for add-on features. Their opinion is that most businesses are not keen to put their data in the cloud. A “software plus services” business model.
  • Mobile: Microsoft are lagging behind here. Windows Mobile 7 is coming out next year, but that’s a long time to wait. They have a lot of catch-up to do in the mobile space.
  • Office 14 coming next year. PowerPoint, Excel, etc will work as web-based products. But this is not exactly the same as Google Docs because of ties into SharePoint.
  • Microsoft is investigating what it would look like if Windows became a distributed operating system. This is a secret project inside Microsoft at the moment.
  • They’re also looking into virtualisation for Windows, client and server.
  • They’re trying different licensing modules e.g. advertisements along side in Office; monthly subscriptions.
  • What are Microsoft excited about? The whole “touch” experience. They see themselves as innovative in this area. (Mary Jo would rather see them getting wild and enthusiastic about keyboards.)

Using a wiki with modular and conditionally publishable content

This was a very interesting session by Rahul Mehrotra from Agilent Technologies. He started by giving us an introduction to content management systems and ran us through his team’s process for evaluating CMS versus wiki. He and his team looked in particular at input, storage, output and workflow.

  • Their first priority was to have just one tool. Everyone should use the same tool, and it should encompass input, storage, output and workflow.
  • They had a look at DITA, and thus realised that they wanted modularity and conditional publishing. That became their second priority. (Note: They don’t use DITA. But they used it as a reference for ideas on modular content, conditional publishing and link management.)
  • Seamless integration was essential. The tool must just work. No-one in the organisation would help them set it up. This became the third priority. They eventually moved to a wiki because the most complicated wiki to use is easier than the simplest content management tool.
  • Ease of authoring is essential. Fourth priority. The people who were going to use the tool should not need any training. Collaboration is also important.
  • Priority 5: Workflow. The documentation must be ready the same day as the product is ready to ship. They load the appropriate version of the documentation into the product via a nightly run.

Which wiki did they eventually choose? Atlassian Confluence, of course 🙂

(An aside: On Tuesday afternoon, after both our presentations were over, Rahul and I got together for an informal chat with some folk from Agilent’s Seattle office. I really enjoyed talking to them about their use of Confluence, about Seattle restaurants, and a lot of other stuff. They said it was cool to meet an Atlassian technical writer, and one who works on the Confluence documentation too.)

Going back to Rahul’s presentation: Rahul found it very interesting that “more people have embraced our wiki for its ease of use rather than for its bells and whistles.”

Rahul’s team have created a semi-automated process for bringing documentation into the wiki from almost any source. He sees this as one of the best choices they made in moving to the wiki. It also helped to move forward in terms of the adoption of the wiki by the developers and other teams in the organisation.

They have opened the wiki up for editing by everyone within the company. “It’s no longer our wiki, it’s everyone’s wiki.” The moment you let go the control, really good things start happening e.g. a developer creates a conversion interface from code to wiki markup.

Rahul gave us some excellent insights into problems they have run into now that they have conditional publishing and content re-use in their wiki. He finds that such customisations actually degrade the ease of use.

For example, their self-written conditional-use macro clobbers the WYSIWYG editor. So they have to add warnings to pages telling people not to use the WYSIWYG editor on affected pages.

Similarly with single sourcing, they have to tell people to click a link in order to edit the source of the content, rather than editing the page itself. Rahul pointed out that the Atlassian Confluence documentation is different, because it uses single sourcing right within the wiki.

I found this section of Rahul’s talk really interesting, because I could compare the way he has done things with the way we’ve chosen, and see the pros and cons in both methods. It was really cool that Rahul talked so frankly about the issues they’ve encountered when adopting a particular strategy and when choosing to depart from the simple wiki functionality.

Rahul gave us a lot more insight into his team’s publishing process and other aspects of wiki management. His was a really rich talk, with too much content to blog about here.

His parting shot was: “There are now 500 000 pages of content that 8 writers are able to take care of.” Magic.

Delivering open-source technical documentation through a wiki

Ragan Haggard of Sun Microsystems shared a “double scoop” session with me. He went first, speaking about the documentation for OpenDS. OpenDS itself is an open-source software development project. The documentation is on a wiki (JSPWiki) with a low barrier for others to contribute. There are two parts to the documentation: one for users and one for developers.

OpenDS is an open source project, so Ragan and his team wanted to use open source documentation too. Also, a wiki is a logical choice, because they want users to edit the documentation too.

They keep the entry barrier very low. A user must be registered in order to edit. The only reason to require a login is to prevent spam. People also have to click a button to accept the standard Sun terms.

Ragan talked us through the process of choosing a wiki. He strongly recommends a brainstorm session amongst the writers to get the list of requirements and prioritise them.

Next, they installed a few wikis to assess them. They eventually chose JSPWiki.

Ragan mentioned a few issues with this wiki:

  • Creating nested numbered lists is very complicated. This is the same in all other wikis Ragan has seen, except Confluence. Confluence has easy bulleted lists.
  • Renaming an article, i.e. changing the file name, is problematic. It needs to stay static, otherwise you break all links.
  • JSPWiki has no email alerts, only RSS feeds.

For release management, Ragan’s team have set up a separate instance of the wiki for the previous version. This archive is not editable. (This is much the same strategy as we use at Atlassian, except that in Confluence we can use spaces within a single wiki rather than having to set up separate wiki instances.)

Ragan’s team have also created a branded version of the documentation, also not editable. This wiki is on a wikis.sun.com site, which is a Confluence wiki.

Ragan’s team exports the documentation to DocBook XML, to provide their hard-copy solution ,i.e. PDF. DocBook also allows syncing between the Confluence (sun.com) and the JSPWiki (community) wikis. The XML also supports conditional text for multiple versions.

Ragan said that there has not been a significant vandalism problem, even though the wiki is open for editing by anyone. The spam level has been low too. On the other hand, they have not yet received a large number of contributions. They’re starting to come in now, but no complete articles yet.

Ragan finished by saying that collaboration is the way of the future. We need to remove barriers for users to come and tell us their stories. This gives us valuable information, such as the different deployment scenarios.

Delivering enterprise technical documentation through a wiki

Next it was my turn. I spoke on the topic of “Delivering Enterprise Software Documentation through a Wiki”. I’ve put my notes in a separate blog post. There are also links for you to download the slides and the supplementary material for my talk.

That’s it for day 2

I hope these notes are useful. They cover yesterday’s sessions. Today is Wednesday, the last day of the conference and another full day of interesting sessions. I’ll blog about them soon 🙂


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 2 April 2009, in Confluence, open standards, technical writing, wiki, WritersUA and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Sarah,

    The link to the other post about your talk seems to be broken.


    p.s. That picture of you is the only one I’ve seen, since the bookmark blog *never* shows you 🙂

  2. Hallo Matt

    Thank you for pointing out the broken link! Fixed. This sounds a bit like a comment on the Atlassian docs. Heh.

    BTW, there isn’t a picture of me in the WritersUA posts. It must be someone else. There is a head shot of me in my about me page. And every now and then the Travelling Worm blog does show bits of me too, though never yet my face 😉

  1. Pingback: Interview with Mary Jo Foley « CyberText Newsletter

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