Living with Technology
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
– Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)
Here are some guidelines for living with technology.
- Not every problem can be solved with technology: If you spend enough time with technology vendors, or if you work for a technology vendor, it’s easy to assume that technology will solve any problem. Expand your toolkit beyond technology to consider the structure of your content, your processes, and the skills of your team whenever you try to solve a problem or make an improvement. Technology is just one way to improve the quality of your product or the productivity of your team.
- Technology must follow, not lead: Your job is to produce a product, not use technology. The latest, hottest technology is worthless unless it helps you do your job. Technology is seductive, and it’s very easy to let a new technology tell you where to go.
Consider content re-use. If you read a few vendor white papers and go to some conferences, it’s easy to assume that you need to go out right now and buy an XML Content Management System (CMS) to maximize re-use. But wait a minute. Do you know what the number one productivity problem is for your team? If it isn’t re-use, or if you don’t know what the number one productivity problem is, then you’re letting the technology lead. Don’t feel too bad about this; technology vendors are in business to sell a product and while they may not be as skillful as tobacco companies at marketing, they have a product that is nearly as addictive.
- Keep it simple: To paraphrase Einstein, “Technology should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The problem is that technology, even open source technology, is developed by people who want as many users as possible. And every one of those users has different needs. Therefore, developers load up their products with as many features as possible. That means that all products will have a bunch of features you don’t need and will never use. You won’t need all those features, but they will get in the way.
Content Management Systems take the prize here; they are almost always too complex. If you’re managing a few thousand pages of documentation, you probably don’t need a full-blown CMS. All the bells and whistles will simply get in the way. On the other hand, if you have millions of pages of documentation that are constantly being updated, you probably do, but you can still turn off three quarters of the features in the system.
- Take advantage of the broader community: Any technology you’re likely to be using will have a community of users outside your company. You should look for news groups, wikis, message boards, user groups, and mailing lists for any tool you’re using or considering using. If you can’t find a group of people actively using that technology, consider that a red flag (see the next guideline). Once you’re linked into the community of people using the same technology, you’ll have access to information and people who will save you a lot of time and frustration.A great example of this is the community of people who use the DocBook XML standard. The DocBook mailing lists are regularly monitored by the members of the DocBook Technical Committee, which is responsible for defining the standard, and by the people who maintain the DocBook stylesheets.
- Avoid orphans, oldtimers, and newborns: Avoid products that no one is using, are past their sell-by date, or are brand new. You want a product that is mature, is evolving, and has a strong and growing user base. This isn’t hard to spot; just spend a little time on the web. A quick romp through a typical month in any user group will tell you a lot about the viability of the technology. The clues are an enthusiastic group of users that responds quickly on user groups, more discussion about how to take advantage of the product than discussion about avoiding problems, active participation by the technology’s developers, and productive discussion about future releases.
While it’s pretty obvious why you should avoid the obsolete and orphans, it’s a lot harder to resist new technology. But, even if it looks like it will cure cancer, feed the poor, and eliminate bad breath, you don’t want to be an early adopter unless you’re experienced in adopting new technology, have the internal expertise and time to shake out problems, and have a real need for that specific technology. Otherwise, let someone else take the hits and wait for the technology to mature.
- Garbage in, Garbage out: This one applies particularly to Content Management Systems, though it could apply to other technologies. If you don’t have well-structured content—and in this case I mean large structure more than markup, though both are important—then no technology will save you. You need to put some serious effort into the structure of your content to get benefit out of a CMS.
Copyright © 2007 Richard L. Hamilton