Monday, November 30, 2009

Australia Post #fail

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Australia Post and Telstra both used to be the same organisation. Maybe it's because these Australian icons are big, fat, happy and could do with a heap more competition. Whatever the case, Telstra's closest rival in the poor service stakes is Australia Post.
Take this for an example: I ordered some replacement parts, back in September. They were sent to me via Australian Air Express - an Australia Post offshoot. They were marked for delivery on 21-9-09. But they were never delivered. Not a word, dead silence, nowhere to be found.
Today 30-11-09 I received a card through my door telling me that it was a "Final Notice" to collect the package from the Fitzroy South Post Office. It may be a final notice, but it's also a first and only notice. The parcel has been sitting at Fitzroy South Post Office since 21-9-09. Today they decide to tell me about it.
So when you see those stupid ads something about "Australia Post - we deliver", you need to understand that there's a word missing. The word is "don't" Australia Post don't deliver. At least not for over 2 months.
Also please take a lot of care in interpreting both the "Air" and the "Express" in Australian Air Express. There's nothing express about two months.
If this were a one-off occurrence I suppose I might not have written this. But it is not. I get mail delivered for every address under the sun - just not mine. Collingwood Post Office can take up to a month to get around to putting a letter in my PO Box.
Parcels are never delivered, the driver simply drives up to the door, doesn't knock and just puts a card through the door - I've watched them do it!!
Do something about finding some customer service and try to learn how to deliver stuff Australia Post. At the moment you don't do either thing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Formatting Doesn't Matter

Tools like Word and FrameMaker, InDesign...they're great. You can tweak and twiddle with the formatting to your heart's content. You can make the content look just like you want it to, down to the smallest little thing.
But here's the rub: It doesn't matter a damn. The reason you are creating this content is to communicate with others. The people you are trying to communicate with don't give a damn about all the tweaking and twiddling that you've done. They simply want something that's clear and simple to understand. So you spend a very high proportion of your content time fiddling with formatting - for no good reason whatsoever.
Before you come chasing after me and telling me I'm wrong, I know that what I've just said doesn't apply to marketing and advertising material. If you are going to put an ad in a colour magazine, then yes you should tweak it to within an inch of its life.
That kind of content however only accounts for a very small proportion of the content that companies create. By far the largest proportion of the content is what could generally be called "technical documentation". My contention is that formatting - beyond the most basic - only matters to one person: That person is you. It doesn't matter to the consumers of that content. The consumers of that content don't care about all the time that you spend tweaking that content. They only care that the content is clear and simple to understand.
I heard an alarming statistic recently: A company had a documentation process where the engineers wrote the documents in Word and then the writers came along and edited it and tweaked it until it looked right. How long do you think it took to create each page of documentation? Eight hours! Eight long hours.
That company changed to a process where the engineers input the content into an XML editor and then the writers edited it for sense. The content was output to publication through a standardised process. The new documentation approach took 1 hour per page of content.
That is a huge difference. It is a huge saving for any company, particularly when companies report that documentation costs around 6% of revenue.
I think there is a lifecycle with writers. At some point in their career they become obsessed with presentation. They love the tools that deliver that presentation to them. Whole departments become obsessed with presentation, and indeed whole companies can become equally obsessed with the "company look and feel". Fine if you are delivering a web site. Forget it for the rest.
Later writers and companies move beyond the attraction of presentation and begin to realise that most of their content is functional content. Functional content is just that: content with a function. If it fulfils that function and does it well, then that's what you are after.
That's why companies move to DITA, S1000D and other similar standards. Because they realise that they cannot afford to be fulfilling the fantasies of their staff who are obsessed with presentation. Presentation without relative benefit.
That doesn't mean that you cannot deliver presentation using XML standards. It does mean that the design and codification of presentation is a Write Once and Once Only process, just like with content preparation. Then you just run it when you need it.
The worst possible situation is to move to one of the XML documentation approaches and to try and drag your presentation fetishes with you. Then you really are taking it too far!
So for all those people who cannot free themselves from the tyranny of presentation my message is to Just Do It. I promise you'll feel better.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The next killer iPhone App

I'm going to tell you about the next killer iPhone app. It hasn't got a name yet because nobody's written it. At least not that I know of. So this is more like the Business Requirements Spec.
I'm getting sick of managing the flow of stuff that comes into my iPhone. There are 7 email accounts - yes I need them all. Then there's some Twitter accounts in Tweetie 2 (great app but let's not get distracted). Next there's the Messages app where the texts come in, and the phone app for missed calls, and Pocket Weather(AU) for the weather, and Skype for chats, and a few instant messaging accounts, plus NewsStand (I love it).
So my problem is that I can (and do) spend a lot of time flicking from one app to another to see who's sent me what. It's particularly frustrating when driving with Google Maps or the very excellent aSmart HUD 3D+ - bad name but great app and you hear a buzz from the phone.
So all you iPhone devs out there here are the four things that this new app has to do. I'll give you the specs and you go off and develop it please. I will help you beta test it BTW.
So four things you have to do:
  1. Aggregate incoming communications from all those sources and a few more;
  2. Display incomings as a ticker tape, on-screen, wherever I am in the iPhone, even when it's locked and only when you are needed. I also want you to do portrait or landscape automatically and I want to be able to say top, bottom, left vertical or right vertical in your settings;
  3. When I touch one of the incomings you have to take me to the relevant app and message;
  4. When I'm finished with that message you should deliver me back to wherever I was before I touched it;
See not hard at all is it? Can I have that before Christmas please? I promise you'll make a lot of money from this killer app.
No charge for preparing the BRS by the way - you can have that for free -;)
And if by chance this already exists can somebody please, please, please tell me its name?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Big T - Part Two

I was so frustrated at Telstra/Bigpond's non-action when I posted last time on this, that I tweeted the link to @Telstra. Quite quickly I got a response back on Twitter asking me to go to a web page and link in to the support mechanism.
This has been the highlight of the saga. A guy called Mark has stuck with me and been able to escalate stuff and get action. So before I go any further I'd like to say that Mark has done a great job and that Telstra/Bigpond need a few more of him.
Mark went away and explored the problem and came back and said - Tuesday 17 at around 1pm you should have a static IP. OK, it's a wait but what else can we do?
On Tuesday morning Bigpond was down for maintenance - OK now I see what's happening. The problem was that when it came back up I visited and could see immediately that the Additional Services functionality wasn't working still. Mark, true to his word, came back at 1:00pm and said "sorry the fix didn't work". However he had escalated the problem and had high hopes of an outcome. Waiting, waiting, then on Friday 20th at around midday a tweet from @BigpondTeam and an email from Mark alerted me to the fact that finally, nearly 3 weeks after applying, I had a static IP.
The advice was to go to a page link, look at the FAQ instructions and activate the static IP that way. Off I beauty, at last.
So the link told me to change my username from to @static.bigpond. So I did that and the link went down and stayed down...
Back to Mark who escalated to the product owner and got the same advice, so I tried some more. Still the link stayed down. If I went back to the original logon it came up and it had the static IP, but if I followed Telstra's advice it went down and stayed down.
At Mark's request I went to tech support. The less said about that the better. I was very civil - they're just part of a broken system - but again they didn't get the issue and chased red herrings. Every time...Finally during a lengthy call I came back from rebooting the modem, again, to find that the tech support person had simply vanished from the line.
Back to Mark again and a request to do a chat session with tech support and reset my password - whatever turns you on, so I did that but to no avail.
Finally I suggested to Mark that the FAQ is wrong, it appears that you don't need to change the logon, the static IP just tags you and stays with you. He wasn't sure but said he'd check it out. We wished each other a good weekend and so ended the week.
This is where @lbanister came in. He knew what Telstra didn't know: for the last couple of years you haven't had to change your log in for a static IP - it just comes along and stays along. @lbanister had been waiting longer than I had for his static IP and got it at about the same time. Thanks for your help mate.
So one final strike for Telstra/Bigpond: They still don't know their systems. People like Mark are the only reason you keep using this company, because there is no other good reason. The rest of Bigpond has lousy service and product knowledge. How is it that the product owner doesn't know what customers need to do to activate his/her product? If you are the product owner for static IP this is a great big fail and you need the sack: first principle is know your product and you clearly don't and you don't appear to care. How else could you let a situation like this occur?
So coming to you this morning from my shiny new static IP and much thanks to Mark...
BTW it is raining, and I mean seriously raining, in Melbourne this morning. Melbourne airport reports over 50mm of rain since 9:00am yesterday - not even 24 hours and it is pissing down still. Just what we need after the heat of the last couple of weeks. Just what the reservoirs need as well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Tuesday was a beautiful day, nice and sunny, hot and with a ESE breeze to keep us cool. My daughter and I decided to go down to the coast and cruise about to see the sights. That also involved navigating around a CTA step - 1500-5000.
The first leg was at 2,500 and it was a little bumpy, nothing major but just enough to let you know that summer is here. Our first turning point was a bit of an inconsequential hill. From there we went direct Torquay and then coastwise towards the Rip. It was the perfect flight for a perfect day.
The sight of the water however made my daughter speculate about flying to Tasmania. Now there's an old saying that computer games are for those who don't have the imagination to fly a tail dragger. Well all I can say is that thoughts of flying Bass Strait in a single engine light aircraft are for those who have never experienced up close, cold and wet.
I've made that trip a few times on small sailing vessels. Once we got caught in a SE gale and spent 8 hours hove to and wondering whether the next ship would run us down. It's not pleasant. We do it for fun but who knows why?
Soon enough it was time to turn and head for home. The return trip was just as good, we hit the airstrip straight off - how's that for navigation we said.
The icing on the cake was that the thermals got my daughter late on final and into the flare. She didn't make a perfect landing like she usually does. There is a god!
How is it that a little flight like that gives you so much pleasure?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

DITA in the real world

First, in case you've missed it, a little background about DITA. It stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture. It came out of IBM and has a strong theoretical and practical background. If you look back a few days in the blog you'll find some more background.
Initially DITA was seen as stuff for geeks. If you used DITA you must have been a geek. One of the great things about DITA is the Open Toolkit. It does all the heavy lifting for you, donated by IBM but open source and regularly and aggressively maintained and updated. Without the toolkit, in my view, there would be no DITA. The toolkit has allowed vendors to build tools around it, allowed users to generate output and generally turned DITA into a practical and usable technology.
Right now is an interesting time for DITA however. It has substantial uptake but, and it's a big but, it isn't by any means mainstream. I think there are two misapprehensions that are holding back adoption. I don't think these misapprehensions go away but I think they are easily managed. In short the misapprehensions are:
  1. You have to be a geek to use DITA. You have to be able to write ANT scripts and get your hands dirty;
  2. Nobody can author DITA content without a heap of training. Why can't they just let you use Word?
There's no doubt in my mind that DITA is ready for the mainstream, neither is there any doubt that there are substantial organisatonal benefits to using DITA. I'd go so far as to say that every organisation of more than 50 employees can mount a business case for DITA. Many smaller organisations can as well, particularly specialist organisations.
There are also some un-explored or at best under-explored use cases. The most compelling for me is proposal management. Most proposals generated by services organisations are replete with content that has been used in the organisation before. Most proposals would contain at least 60% of content that appears in other recent proposals. Examples include service descriptions, staff CVs, capability statements, solution outlines, descriptions of technologies, case studies, references, legal disclaimers...
Bid time is always busy and prone to errors, staff are trying to manage, often massive, proposals and copying and pasting material from everywhere. Formatting goes awry, the wrong content is copied, outdated content finds its way in and close to deadline time things get messy.
A further concern is that much of the material is written by high value staff. When you find those staff writing again from scratch, or perhaps worse pulling material from their own private archives rather than the organisational repository you know that your costs and quality are under siege.
A study I commissioned at a large services organisation showed that there were a number of major benefits to using DITA in the bid/proposal area:
  1. In excess of 60% of material in any proposal/tender could be treated as WOOO content - write once, once only. Put that another way - in excess of 60% of bid writing costs are wasted!
  2. Bid and marketing staff are continually under pressure from sales staff to prepare mini proposals, one offs and unsolicited proposals. Many of these requests can be turned into "roll your own" opportunities. If sales staff are given the tools to access the repository, select the required topics, order them and then produce them in a Word document then you have serious improvements in efficiency. What's more you lower the cost of responding to clients who say "what have you got to offer in this area?". It become cost effective to respond.
  3. Architects and other high value technical staff can focus on value added activities and fee earning rather than re-hashing the same content multiple times;
  4. Sales staff can generate "print on demand" services brochures and can tailor these brochures to the particular situation it is intended for.
  5. Quality control, approvals and version management are suddenly achievable and easily so.
  6. Bid staff have the capacity to manage greater numbers of bids, their job satisfaction is improved through reduced pressure, improved outcomes and a focus on adding value rather than scrabbling through content.
  7. Oh and the legal team can roll their own too by storing their clauses in the system.
Wouldn't it be nice? When can we do that? The answer is that the tools are available right now and this system can be implemented for a software license cost of under USD$20,000 and a services cost of less than that. That's a DITA solution, CCMS, proposal wizard, authoring software...the lot.
You'd pay for that in 3 months in even a modest sized organisation.
But let's get back to the main issue. How do you mainstream DITA? The simple answer is that you don't have to be a geek. What's more, authoring in any of the current crop of tools - XMetal, Oxygen, XMLmind, easy and what's more it's a relief! Once you are free of Word you'll wonder why you didn't do this before. The DITA DTD is not that complex and for little money you can specialise it just for your organisation.
The biggest single step though is the adoption of a CCMS that manages the content and the production of the outputs. This takes all the worry about links, searching, running the transforms and more away. That single step abstracts you from the geeky heart of DITA and makes it no more difficult than using Sharepoint, for instance.
Our little company is there already - CCMS, single sourcing, multiple outputs, massive content re-use.
The next killer DITA app? The one that, to my knowledge, doesn't yet exist? That's easy. When I have a Web Content Management system that reads from my DITA repository then DITA will have made a further massive step.
I'm talking about getting an outcome similar to what I can get with eZ Publish, Joomla, Drupal et al. At the moment I can generate HTML from DITA. What I want is a system that dynamically renders DITA topics to the web. I want a GUI that lets me place topics on a page - by reference and then renders those topics to the web. If I change the topic, I want that change to be dynamically rendered on the web.
In fact this isn't a Web Content Management system. Rather it's a Website Management System. The content is managed elsewhere. I simply want a GUI templating/content placement engine.
Nobody, to my knowledge, does that now and that includes Alfresco and Hippo.
There's the DITA challenge. But before that let's start implementing DITA more broadly, it's easy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Big T

This is the company that you love to hate if you are an Aussie. The problem is that they're big and therefore they make a good target. I don't make a habit of targeting them but this time they have brought it on themselves.
Telstra Bigpond have an additional service where you can request (for $10 a month) a static IP address for your home ADSL. That means that instead of getting whatever IP address they want to give you - and it changes from time to time - you get a single stable IP address. If you want to be found it's useful.
So you go to the site, log in and go to:
My Bigpond>AdditionalServices>Connecting & Roaming>Request Static IP.
Now there's the first thing. How the devil do you find that? Certainly customer service didn't know where it was.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I couldn't find it so I called customer service and they eventually found it and requested a static IP and said "you'll get an email within an hour with the IP address and log on details". Well that was last Monday and still no email, still no IP address.
In the meantime I have been back to customer service and tech support more than seven times - I've lost count. Either I or customer service have applied for this IP address at least 6 times. Still no IP address. In that time it's become evident that:
  1. The staff don't know the intricacies of the website they are supposed to support. And by the way it's the buggiest piece of stuff you are ever likely to use. A great big buggy problem;
  2. The staff don't know the process for getting new products either from them or from the website;
  3. The tech support staff - somewhere offshore - are convinced that it's a problem with my email (supplied by them)...but can't explain if that is the case why I haven't got a static IP yet;
  4. One part of Telstra doesn't talk to the other part of Telstra and tell them what's going on (that in fact the system is broken). That took me a week to find out;
  5. Most staff don't know the rules for applying for a static IP and are convinced that the rules are different to what they are;
  6. None of the staff appears to care that - it's finally revealed - the system for getting a static IP has been broken for at least a month and probably more;
  7. Nobody knows why it's broken, what's being done to fix it or when it might be fixed. At least not anybody I can talk to;
So today I called, yet again, and a customer support guy said "oh you need the domains team, they can get you a static IP quick smart. Here's their email". My little heart leapt! I fired off an email. Only to get an automated response from the general Bigpond tech support system saying that they might, just might, get back to me in the next couple of days. In effect the customer service guy had fobbed me off.
So here's one entirely alienated customer. I haven't told you about the other Telstra saga from last week - I can't bring myself to that one. It's clear though that the single biggest issue at Telstra, and in this case at Bigpond, is that nobody cares enough to bother. Some of the staff are super nice and very helpful but the system is such that they don't know what they need to know and they can't find out. They are just mushrooms in the system.
The buck has to stop with management. They need a severe wake-up if they think this constitutes customer service and customer satisfaction. I'm trying to buy something from them. How hard can that be?
Just while we are at it I can't help but talk about tech support. I suspect I know precisely where offshore their Bigpond tech support is. If I'm right then it's Telstra's biggest mistake. I've worked there and the culture, education system and management approaches all conspire to create a rigidity, lack of imagination, lack of creativity and lack of flexibility that has no place in a tech support environment. Every dealing I've had with Bigpond's offshore tech support has been, in a word, shitful. They have an absolute ability to get the wrong end of the stick, and a pig headed unwillingness to see other alternatives. They just keep reading the script and going down dead alleyways. It is a problem that I've never had with any other tech support apparatus.
Finally Bigpond, where are the line filters that you say you sent me 6 weeks ago? Which void are they lurking in?
Wake up Bigpond management, wake up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Zen of DITA

Why Zen? Because part of the key to success with DITA is letting go, freeing yourself. Most of us these days are "children of the word processor". We are used to formatting our documents as we create them. Formatting is an integral part of our document production process. What's more, many of us don't even use the style sheets and other tools which help us to control our formatting.
That's OK when you're writing a letter or a short document. Quickly however as version management becomes an issue - both from document changes and to support purpose variation - the process of keeping control of the document gets right out of hand. Then as documents get larger and more people have a hand in those documents the situation becomes worse. Finally, usually just at deadline time, we run up against some formatting foible and sit there cursing. Often as not our version management lets us down and the wrong version sees the light of day.
This is just the point where the three disciplines of DITA become important:
  • Separate content creation from content presentation;
  • Be minimalist in creation of content;
  • Follow the DTD;
It's similar to why some of us like using a text editor for writing - some of us even use vi. The mere fact that there are no presentational tools available means that we are free to concentrate on what we are writing, to the exclusion of all else. We don't have to worry about format - that problem comes somewhere else in the production chain. With DITA presentation is linked to purpose and purpose is provided for at run time - at the point we produce a publication, a set of HTML files, a PDF, a Word doc or whatever else.
That's another part of the separation. Not only is the presentation layer separated from creation layer, it's also abstracted from the user. It can't be casually tweaked at run time. It relies on whatever parameters have been set in the processing tool. This means that no longer are we able to or required to worry about presentation at run time. Those decisions have already been made and implemented.
This is of course anathema to some organisations and some people. They have become so used to, indeed so addicted to tweaking and fine tuning that they are both unable and unwilling to move beyond that process. For those who are able to free themselves DITA provides outstanding utility.
When Frame released conditional text it was a boon for many of us. Now for the first time it was practical to re-purpose a document, a single document, for multiple uses. It proved, however, to be clumsy to implement and manage. DITA takes a giant leap forward. Maps and conditional processing again allow the ultimate in content re-use and re-purposing. Key to this is the granularity of the content. Monolithic Word documents gave way to FrameMaker books and these in turn have given way to DITA topics. Cut and paste between monolithic documents is not a practical re-use strategy. Indeed it's simply courting disaster. You will stuff up and it isn't sustainable.
By adopting a minimalist approach to content we achieve two important outcomes: First we have to think about what we are writing and how it will be used. Topics become well tuned informational and instructional gems. Secondly we are purposing that granular content for re-use. By its very nature the level of granularity we achieve in constructing topics makes those topics ideal for re-purposing.
When we came to analyse whether DITA could be used for aviation documentation our first step was an analysis of what we needed and what we had. It quickly became apparent that DITA was absolutely ideal. Checklists fit naturally into tasks and whole documents simply chunked themselves into sensible topics. In fact it was surprising to see a whole complex Pilot Operating Handbook turn itself into a pile of topics - with very little heavy lifting on our part. Perhaps only one topic in the whole POH extended to more than a page. Most were significantly less. Issues of difference between aircraft types resolved themselves with conditional processing. Indeed there's far more the same between types than there is different.
The DTD, Schema, call it what you like, can seem like a straight jacket. You wrestle with an editor which simply won't allow you to mess with the structure of the document. It can seem like an unbearable straight jacket, constraining your every move. Or it can feel like an incredible weight off y our shoulders. We no longer have to concern ourselves with presentation and now we don't have to worry about the flow of the topic - the DTD mandates what comes next. For us the initial concern was whether the names of the elements would match our needs. It was a non-concern. Where they don't exactly match there is always a sensible mapping. So the DTD becomes a part of our freedom. It means we have one less set of decisions to make.
So that brings us full circle. DITA is capable of managing the most complex document structures and enabling the most complex publishing missions. It achieves this by dealing at a level of remarkable simplicity, by being highly granular and by ensuring that each chunk of information is simple and manageable. So simplicity and zen-like freedom in fact delivers a highly capable document production system.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Let them in, let them in!!

Why don't the government and the opposition both stop with the "immigration debate"? They are both competing to look more stupid than the other.
I'm specifically talking about refugees here. Why do the representatives of each side of politics have to compete with each other to look sterner, more pompous and "tougher" than each other on this subject? There is no way to win this guys. There are NO winners, not the government, not the opposition, not the Australian people and certainly not the refugees. There is NO prize for the "toughest" rhetoric. Ahh, but there's an election to win you say. Sorry guys you are not in touch.
The people are on to the fact that neither side has decent policy here, neither side is acting in a measured, sensible and humane fashion. Each side is just eyeing off the other like a couple of curs in a fight. Trying to work out when the other side will flinch and when they can make a rush on them.
Just get over it and get to work on some basic principles:
  1. Genuine refugees are good for this country. Yes they carry an initial burden, but meeting that burden is part of our obligation as a developed country and as humans;
  2. Yes we should work with our northern neighbours to try and manage the flow. No that doesn't mean sending the Oceanic Viking back to Indonesia, at who knows what cost, and then an embarrassing stand-off. That's stupid;
  3. Minimalist processing: Are they who they say they are? Have they done anything seriously naughty in the past? Are they healthy? And let's get sensible about that last one. This isn't about whether or not they should be denied refugee status because they have something wrong with them. You can expect refugees to have a lower health status than other immigrants. This is about identifying which people need additional health support;
  4. Identify what support individuals and families will need in the community and plan for its delivery;
  5. Rapidly transition refugees into society. The sooner these people are out in society the sooner they can contribute. Billing them for their own detention is simply bullshit. You detained them, you pay. Instead we should be focusing on very short detention timeframes and spending the money thus saved to kick start the new lives for these people. In this way everyone is a winner.
I acknowledge that at the moment there is an overwhelming demand for refugee status and that Australia can't take everyone. My view though is that if you get on a boat and take the risks then you are made of the stuff that we're looking for.
To satisfy yourself on this point just go for a walk down the main street in Footscray or down Victoria Street, Richmond. The hard-grafting small business owners might not have been Vietnamese boat people but many of them are there because of the boat people. That wave of arrivals has been overwhelmingly good for this country. In just the same way as a new wave of Tamil arrivals or arrivals from Afghanistan or elsewhere will be good for this country.
And Kevin Rudd: If you were really serious about slowing the rate of arrivals then you would seriously engage with the Sri Lankan government. It's very likely that you and other world leaders are standing idly by as a very large number of Sri Lankan Tamils are subject to yet a further round of genocide. At best this genocide is through neglect of the people herded into camps by the government. At worst it is an active campaign. We cannot accurately know because the Sri Lankan government has isolated those camps and refuses to allow outside observers in. It is the role of other governments to pressure the Sri Lankan government to live up to its international obligations.
The biggest single thing you could do Kevin, to slow the flood of refugees from Sri Lanka, is to get outside observers into those camps. The next thing would be to get some real humanitarian aid into those camps.
Stop posturing about refugees and act.