Thursday, January 10, 2008

DITA: Why should you care? And why care now?

There are a few core reasons to care about DITA (regardless of whether or not you've been asked to use it in the past).

First, consider your current status. You likely are an independent contractor or an employee (or hope to be one or the other).
  • If you are an independent consultant, you work with a variety of clients and face a changing roster of projects on a regular basis. If you see yourself in a role that is evolving, if your client is likely to buy out others (or to be bought out), it could be worth exploring DITA. That way, if a new client asks, "Are you familiar with structured writing?" the experience of having learned about DITA can help secure a new contract.

  • If you work for a company (as a writer), consider what your role may be internally 2 years or 5 years from now. Will it be the exact same position, with the same manager and coworkers, performing the same role? If so, then maybe DITA isn't worth exploring. If you have your niche carved out and are in a solid and stable work environment AND you love what you are doing, great! Stick with it. If you see yourself in a role that is evolving, if your company is likely to buy out others (or be bought out), or you expect that your job/manager/coworkers may change, it could be worth exploring DITA--even if it's just to have the jump if a new manager ever says "Are you familiar with structured writing?" The experience of having learned about DITA can help secure the role of 'expert' internally.

  • If you work for a company (as a manager), then you likely have to face the question of "how can we do more, with less" and DITA may be the answer. You can effectively reuse content. From a phrase as small as a few words to entire topics, reuse is one of DITA's great strengths. You'll also end up with writers who create more consistent, more professional content. The speed with which you can convert materials (think single sourcing) or build a help system or convert legacy content to a new software tool will impress even the toughest skeptics. Finally, writers will be able to focus on what they do best: Writing! Instead of spending time planning to implement a full set of nested heading and bullet lists only to have it all change for another publication, writers can write. The layout and formatting is based on function and structure rather than writer effort. As a manager, you will see staff becoming more effective and doing what they were hired to do in the first place. And doing it well.

Second, DITA gives you access to ideas that are likely to be of great value regardless of the type of documents you create. Since DITA has an implied architecture and a set of logical rules beyond the structural rules, you gain a new view about how to write. DITA is topic based and really explores ideas that many writers may not have had a chance to explore in the past. Even if you don't use DITA, the ideas of topic-based writing and associated documentation planning should be of great benefit to you.

Third idea to consider: DITA is pretty cutting-edge even now, but it's far more popular than a year or two or three ago. It's at a tipping point and the major tech comm tool vendors are getting serious about it. Most CMS tools support it right out of the box. Adobe, PTC (Arbortext) and JustSystems have put a lot of time and money into developing for it. It's built for help development, book publishing, translations, software and hardware documentation and more. There are many companies using it now, and many more coming on board. The more you know about it, the easier it is to be the evangelist within your organization and to be seen as the expert.

Fourth on the list is that you gain new expertise. As you begin to get more familiar with DITA and how you can work in a team environment, you become the local resource. If you do end up getting your company onboard the DITA bus, you are the one that people will depend on to make things happen. You are the expert and get sent to training, you travel to conferences, and you have more job security. The last person anyone wants to lose is the one who knows the inner workings of the entire system.

Finally, a fifth reason to explore DITA is that it gives you a chance to play with features that you don't even know about yet. Very neat content reuse, powerful map documents, the free DITA toolkit and more. As you get a chance to see and learn about DITA you expose your mind to new ideas. The ideas may not even be used in the context of DITA, but you get a chance to see how and why the minds at IBM developed a documentation architecture that is growing far beyond the initial scope of the project. The wide range of ideas can be applied to what you currently do to improve your documentation and improve the way that you write, the way that people read content, and even the way that information is exchanged--both inside your company and with partners.

By learning about DITA, you will increase your value within your company, your value to potential employers and clients, and your ability to improve current documentation. You'll learn new and interesting ways of working with software and become the recognized leader in the technology at work. You'll also learn about the technological side of the architecture. Attending the upcoming STC Chicago workshop is a great way to spend a day and you leave with new knowledge. Heck, if you luck out, you may even leave with swag from leading software vendors like Adobe. :)

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