Monday, July 31, 2006

Hubris and Lockdown

This is a continuation of my previous post about the SDK wiki. We had decided that the best way to document the development tools that came with our ECM product was to create a wiki site. We stood it up in December 2005.

It worked well. We were improving the quality of our documentation, because our developers and technical support teams worldwide could help maintain it. We were reducing the volume of calls coming into our support line. We were helping to advertise the capabilities of our product. You could say it was the victim of its own success.

At the start of the project, we'd sent out an email or two to staff about the effort. During the next few months, we quietly promoted it to select partners and customers. It proved to be a valuable resource for those that knew about it. A few customers even thanked us for making the information available. The information had always been in the documentation that shipped with the product, of course, but in today's Internet Age, if it isn't online it doesn't exist.

Six months after going live, we announced success. We posted a note to the site itself and sent out an email to staff. By this stage, the technical teams were doing most of their documentation for new features on the wiki itself. We thought the concept had proved itself.

Midnight Raid

Then, when the corporate homepage was redesigned in the middle of 2006, we decided to include a link to the SDK wiki. It was the link that caught the eye of a few reactionary folks in the company. I recieved an IM in the dead of night from one of the members of the R&D team: "They're going to shut the SDK wiki down!"

Ok, I'm being a bit dramatic. Everything sent to me from the R&D team arrives in the dead of night, because R&D is in Australia and I'm in North America. But it was still a shock.

Frankly, I'd expected one of our other experiments to have caught the attention of management first. On the heels of the wiki success, we'd decided to create a separate wiki site regarding the best practices for implementing our software. It, too, was publicly viewable, and much of the content was still under construction. We were using that wiki as a way to both aggregate knowledge about our software deployments, consolidate lessons learned, spur discussion and debate, and publish good ideas. Radical stuff for a company that had been afraid to mention the word "product" on its homepage.

Or it might have been triggered by the new online user forum, where customers could post questions and recieve public answers about our product. This was also controversial, because the company maintains a listserve for this information. The listserve had fallen prey to abuse from time to time, so I could see how the idea of an online forum might be met with resistance.

But the SDK wiki? What sort of problem could that be? Our first reaction was disbelief. What on earth could be the problem with posting our API documentation online?

Social Leper

The wiki was locked away behind a registration and login scheme.

Yes, that sounds relatively mild, but it's actually the kiss of death for many websites. The only sites that survive a login scheme are those with compelling, known content. The New York Times can get away with it. Everyone is familiar with what sorts of content a newspaper has to offer. In the case of the New York Times, most folks have an idea of the quality of that content as well. But a site describing the features of an API belonging to a little-known software firm? It might as well be invisible.

And it is invisible to the most powerful eyes on the Internet: Google. When locked behind a password, no search engine can index the site. Since almost everyone uses a search engine to find content on the Internet, making these search sites blind to your website is the modern day equivalent of becoming a hermit.

So it's not something to be done lightly. Why was it done? That's the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Grabbing at Straws

I promised I'd talk about the efforts to get the SDK wiki going at my company. I'll leave out the name of the company but I just can't tell the story without talking about the business it's in. My sense of irony wouldn't permit it.

You see, my employer is in the information business. Its job is to help organizations manage content-- as loaded a term as you'll find in this Internet Age. By content, I mean records, documents, audio, video, and other forms of stored knowledge. Not the stuff in people's heads -- nobody can help with that -- but just about everything else.

We make software that helps governments, companies, and other organizations, manage their information. It sounds simple, doesn't it? Actually, it's very hard. This story helps prove that point.

I work on the technical side of this firm. I was hired to help assist our customers and partners user our Software Development Kit, or SDK. It's basically a set of tools that allow folks to customize our software application.

We faced a few challenges with these tools. The main challenge was that most people didn't know these tools existed. Quite a few were uncertain as to how to use the tools. Others had trouble troubleshooting things they had constructed using the tools.

Compounding the problem was that the company is a global organization. The folks best positioned to talk about the SDK were in Australia, where our company and its R&D team is headquartered. Our other customers, particularly those in North America, had to deal with intermediaries. (That's me.)

Or they could have read the manual, the documentation, or the sample code that shipped with the product. But who does that nowadays? Nope, for most of our customers, the best option was to call or write an email to our helpdesk.

The problem was that email and phone calls don't scale well. We needed a way to capture the questions and answers, a way to refine our documentation and samples, and a way to get the word out about our tools. And we needed to do it fast. We're in a competitive industry with a lot of big players.

Wheteher due to inspiration or despiration, the API Support guys (including me) and the R&D folks turned to a tool that might help us solve the problem: a public facing wiki, driven by the Dokuwiki engine, that would allow all of our employees and partners to contribute to our knowledge base.

It sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? In the next few posts, I'll tell you how it played out.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Wiki Wackiness

As I mentioned two posts ago, I've been heavily involved in an effort to get my employer to embrace new communications channels. Key among these being a wiki containing documentation for our SDK, an online user forum, and a best practices site for our partners (and ourselves).

These efforts have hit a roadblock; hopefully a temporary one. It's tough work moving a conservative company in a staid portion of the software industry to embrace new things.

I've been pouring my thoughts onto these corporate sites. I've invested a considerable amount of time in them. I'm understandably proud of them, though I admit they've still got a long, long way to go. Those of us who set these sites up realized we were taking a risk, but even though we'd mentally prepared ourselves, it was a rude shock when they were locked down one day for corporate review.

Over the next few days -- possibly weeks -- I'll be chronicling the whole saga here. I'm still debating whether to list the name of the company. I've decided to keep all the key players' names secret, unless they tell me otherwise.

It won't be nearly as much fun for me as talking about computer games, movies, books, and other things. But someone else may find it entertaining, in that slow-motion car accident sort of way.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Another addiction?

I'm staring at an unopened box of HeroClix right now. It's a gift from my brother-in-law. He's a fan of comic books and board games, and this is a hobby of his. Now he's sharing it with me, but I can't quite bring myself to open the box to see what the game's like.

Every geek takes comfort in the thought that somewhere, there is an individual more geeky than himself. We all laugh at the Comic Book Guy while secretly fearing we're just as bad. For that reason, most of us geeks have secretly decided which cult classics and bizarre sub-cultures to avoid.

My wife, a cognitive science major, is proud of the fact that she has never watched an episode of Star Trek. Until very recently, I, an avid computer gamer from way-on-back, had never played an MMORPG. We both liked the fact that, geeky as we were, there were some lines we hadn't crossed yet.

I now play World of Warcraft, at the urging of a few insistent coworkers. It was a mock struggle. I spent several months doing my very best Cameron Frye impression from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Eventually, I caved in, and I've been having a great time, despite being one step closer to the Comic Book Guy.

I imagine I'll have a great time with HeroClix as well. But for a guy who already hangs Star Wars posters in his living room and still has a few Weird Al Yankovic cassette tapes lying around, I'm drifting dangerously close to the social pariah stage.

At least I haven't joined a troupe of Renaissance re-enactors.


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Where have I been?

So I realized that I hadn't posted a darn thing to my blog for about nine months. I blame my job.

I didn't want this blog to be about work, as so many blogs are. I wanted it to be a break from work. I wanted it to be a place where I could discuss my hobbies and other activities. Unfortunately, I haven't had many other activities lately, apart from Ultimate Frisbee and that unfortunate World of Warcraft addiction I've contracted.

I work for a software company that's facing some stiff competition. We're an interesting product of globalization: a small, global firm. We've got offices on three continents and roughly 200 staff.

Previously, each regional unit ran its own shop, but as our industry consolidated, we've had to start acting more and more as a single entity. It's proving to be a very, very hard thing to do. Headquarters hasn't really come to grips with the problem and as a result, those of us in the field have been groping for our own solutions to urgent problems.

So I've been embroiled in efforts to set up various wiki, forum, and blog sites in a desperate attempt to improve internal and external communications. So I've actually been authoring an awful lot of articles. They just weren't posted here.