An Interview with Dawn Stevens


I met Dawn Stevens many years ago, at my first Content Management Strategies/DITA North America conference. This was at a time when I was trying to learn more about DITA on behalf of the company I was working for. Even back in those early days Dawn was able to answer a lot of the questions I had about deploying DITA, and she was (and is) a welcoming presence at the many Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM) events I have been to since then, including multiple DITA North America conferences, a couple of DITA Europe conferences, the online-only Ideas conferences, and the non-DITA specific Best Practices conferences focusing more on documentation management issues. The parent company, Comtech Services, does a lot of training and consulting as well, and I thought that she would be a good person to talk to about the current state of technical writing in this time of Covid-19. She has also been a driving force behind ConVEx, a wholly virtual conference that will take place in September, and I wanted to learn more about what to expect at that event, and to learn more about she came to work at and then become the head of Comtech/CIDM.

DITAWriter: Could you tell me a bit about your history with CIDM and how you came to be the head of the company?

Stevens: My history actually starts 10 years before CIDM, at Comtech Services, CIDM’s parent company. I joined Comtech in 1989, as I was finishing my master’s degree in Technical Communication. In those days, Comtech’s primary business was outsourcing—writing technical manuals for a variety of companies. I started as a writer, working my way up through to project manager and ultimately Vice President of Operations in 1997. We began to talk about Comtech’s future and the possibility that I might take it over. I co-wrote the book Standards for Online Communication, with Comtech’s president JoAnn Hackos, to begin building my name recognition.

However, Comtech’s business was slowly shifting: away from the outsourcing model to a consulting and training model, and that meant an increase in travel. I found I was away from home and my young daughters more than I wanted. So as CIDM officially began in 1999, I quietly exited, leaving right before the very first summit, which ultimately became the Best Practices conference. My exit didn’t end my relationship with CIDM though; I was eventually able to secure the budget to become a CIDM member for several years during my absence and even had JoAnn conduct a process maturity study at my new organization.

Fast forward to 2010. I tearfully sent my youngest daughter to Kansas State University and then waxed poetic about how much more interesting it had been to work at Comtech and interact with so many different companies and travel all over the world. As luck would have it, Comtech needed another consultant and I returned in November 2010. It was certainly in the back of my mind that I might resume those early discussions on taking over Comtech (and with it CIDM), but succession planning wasn’t at the top on the list, and it took about four years before it came up again. In the meantime, I had a lot to catch up on, most notably DITA which had become a focus of the company while I was away. Eventually, JoAnn began to decrease her involvement in consulting projects and started thinking of retirement and in 2015, I began the acquisition process. Originally planned to be a 5-year process, we decided to accelerate that plan and in February 2017, JoAnn officially retired and I became sole owner.

DITAWriter: For many people, CIDM is probably best known for its conferences, especially CMS/DITA North America and CMS/DITA Europe for those in the DITA community. Thanks to Covid-19, I know that the original CMS/DITA NA scheduled for Spring 2020 was canceled, and in its place is the new virtual ConVEx conference in the Fall. Can you tell me how all of this came about?

Stevens: It has definitely been a roller coaster ride. We were well into the planning of DITA North America, and a new conference Journeys to be co-located with DITA NA, when Covid-19 hit. It was a daily discussion – Do we go forward? Do we go virtual? Do we reschedule? Do we cancel? It seemed on a daily basis those answers were different, which you see as you follow the path of our various announcements: we first announced we would stay live in April but add a virtual component. Then Arizona shut down all hotels, and we decided to move both events to September (still with a virtual option), with a cascading rippled delay to our Best Practices and DITA Europe events. It seemed at the time that September was a long way off and we’d surely be through the worst, but as time and the virus have progressed, we decided in May that we had to switch to an all-virtual approach.

In so doing, however, I set some very important criteria:

  • The event couldn’t be 8 hours a day of watching presentations online. No one wants to do that. People attend conferences for the networking as well as for the learning.
  • The event could not exclude our colleagues around the world who also attend DITA NA. Watching recordings after the fact is not satisfying.
  • Our job was not to find a stop-gap substitute for an in-person conference. Instead, we needed to start from the ground up and design something new – something that takes advantage of what we have available and by the end of it makes everyone wonder why it hadn’t existed before

To me, these items were and are non-negotiable. Honestly, I get somewhat frustrated with the world looking forward to things returning to normal. When you do that, you lose the opportunity to create something better than the old normal. So to emphasize that what we’re doing is something new, I also decided to create a new brand. We aren’t holding a DITA NA, Journeys, or DITA Europe conference this year; they were canceled due to Covid-19. Instead, we are introducing a completely different event type. This is not DITA NA Virtual! Comparing ConVEx to DITA NA is like comparing apples and oranges. At their origins, they are both fruit, but in their specific implementations, they are completely different in appearance and taste. To emphasize this, I have a “swear jar” – if you refer to ConVEx as a conference, you put money in the jar. (Ironically, I’m the greatest offender and may be personally funding the entire event given the steep fine of $5 an occurrence.)

ConVEx does offer the same strong programming that you expect from a CIDM event, but it addresses the inherent weaknesses of an in-person conference. You don’t have to intake all the information in just three days, essentially drinking from the firehose. You have up to 13 months to take it all in. You don’t have to make difficult choices between certain presentations – you can watch them all. You don’t need to remember things that might apply to you down the road; you can revisit relevant presentations when you’re ready to apply them. You don’t have to wait in line to talk to a speaker or try to catch him or her in the hall; you can go to a dedicated Q&A session or you can chat with them in the speaker Slack channel. You don’t have to sit quietly during a presentation but are encouraged and given tools to share your insights during them. Our focus with ConVEx is connecting people in a variety of ways, giving you a voice to share what you know and gather what you need.

We are truly excited about what we’re putting together, and I look forward to welcoming everyone to this new experience.

DITAWriter: I know that CIDM also does training, so I am guessing that you would have some insight as to how technical writers are coping during the pandemic. How are technical writers faring during the pandemic in your experience?

Stevens: Generally speaking, technical writing is well suited toward the situation in which we find ourselves. Technical writers are used to gathering the information they need virtually, writing in isolation, handling remote review meetings, and so on. It may not be ideal as we strive for more collaborative efforts across silos, but in many situations, the forced isolation has seemed to spur more collaboration than was achieved when people worked just a few cubes down from each other. There’s a more conscious effort taken to keep everyone informed about progress and decisions.

Obviously, the economics of the pandemic has impacted the industry, and individual experiences have certainly been diverse. We know of layoffs and furloughs, but on the flip side also some great opportunities. Some companies are postponing initiatives such as transitioning to DITA or changing tools, while others are going full force to get these initiatives complete while their other work is potentially slower. We have found on our consulting projects that expectations are definitely for a faster turnaround as many of our clients race to get things done before their other work ramps back up. We chose to make all our online training courses available during the summer months and have seen typical registration numbers, and our Summer IDEAS conference is on track for its highest attendance ever, so it seems that writers are still being given the opportunity for professional development.

DITAWriter: Not many people will know this, but I know you are an active member of the DITA Technical Committee and have helped champion a few proposals for the upcoming DITA 2.0 standard. Can you talk about the additions to the draft specification that you have helped with? 

Stevens: Being on the Technical Committee is an important part of CIDM’s success because we are able to keep our members informed about the enhancements being planned as well as raise challenges that our membership has as they implement DITA. Although I have served as a reviewer of several proposals, I’ve actually just championed my first proposal, which is to introduce a <diagnostics> element to the troubleshooting topic. In troubleshooting topics, there are several possible relationships between a problem’s cause and its solution(s):

  • One cause, one solution
  • One cause, many solutions
  • Many causes, one solution
  • Many causes, each with their own solution

In cases where more than one solution exists, particularly in the last situation, users of the troubleshooting topic must first be able to determine which cause applies to their symptoms before they can begin to implement the solution. Currently, there is no semantic element in which to place this type of diagnostic information. My proposal addresses that gap.

DITAWriter: What are your thoughts on the state of DITA right now? Where do you think DITA is going? 

Stevens: Based on Comtech’s consulting projects and attendance at CIDM’s DITA events, DITA adoption is still increasing, albeit more slowly than in the past. Companies see the benefits of structured authoring and they realize the practicality of adopting an industry standard for that structure rather than creating their own schema. DITA tools are mature and stable. There are a plethora of case studies and people who can share experiences and advice on the pros and cons of adoption. In terms of the “Crossing the Chasm” technology adoption curve, we are certainly in the mainstream market, and I would venture to say we are beyond the pragmatist, early majority, and into the conservative late majority part of the curve.

Nevertheless, DITA takes a lot of criticism about its complexity, and as more and more companies look for ways to enable information developers from all silos to collaborate and share information, it seems that criticism gets worse. Despite many tools on the market designed to hide those complexities, we hear a lot of concern about the willingness of engineers, trainers, support personnel, marketing, and so on to adopt DITA, and we hear of companies abandoning DITA as a result. That’s why I think one of the most important developments in DITA’s future is Lightweight DITA. Companies are looking for solutions that still allow others to use simpler, more familiar markup, like Markdown or HTML, and Lightweight DITA will enable these all to work together more easily.

In addition, we can’t lose sight of the continuing size reduction of content. Twenty years ago, we wrote manuals: monolithic ones that covered everything anyone knew or thought they knew about the subject. Today, most companies have accepted that users don’t want to read that much information and have shifted or are shifting to topics designed to answer a single user question and get that user back to work. But the leading edge, early adopters are looking for solutions to use even smaller pieces of information – microcontent – to carry on a tailored conversation with each user. I think the long-term future of DITA lies in the ability to show its applicability as a source for artificial intelligence. Fortunately, many of our industry’s leaders are working to do just that.

For now, though, it’s important to remember that even if we are in the late majority of the adoption curve, this still means that only 50% of the ultimate adopters have made the move. I would venture to say that DITA, even without addressing my two points, will be an important part of the information development community for as long as the people reading this column are still working.

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