Interview with RJ Jacquez, Adobe Product Evangelist, Adobe Systems

TCW: RJ, thanks for agreeing to chat with me today. For our readers who don’t know who you are, please tell us a little about yourself, your past experience, and your current job as a product evangelist with Adobe Systems.

RJ: Scott, it’s my pleasure and thank you for the invitation.  Much like many of our FrameMaker users, I too have been a fan and a strong advocate of FrameMaker pretty much since day one when Frame Technology owned it.  Along the way, I’ve done many things around the product, including consulting and training and later became a Product Manager at several companies, including eHelp Corporation and Macromedia, where I led a team in developing RoboHelp for FrameMaker.  I joined Adobe 6 months ago where I’m the dedicated Product Evangelist for both FrameMaker and RoboHelp.  In this role, I am the point of contact for our customers first and foremost.  I also work very closely with our FrameMaker and RoboHelp ecosystem partners to make sure that together we can address our customers’ needs; and of course as an Evangelist, I also get to represent these products at conferences and speak at many of them.

TCW: Evangelism is a relatively new role for many organizations. Is your evangelism aimed only to audiences outside of Adobe (customers) or do you find yourself evangelizing to internal audiences inside Adobe? And, if you do find your services are needed internally, what types of internal audiences do you serve and what types of information/services do you provide?

RJ: Inside Adobe, I work very closely with our sales teams and sales engineers to make sure that they have the technical help they require when addressing our FrameMaker and RoboHelp customers’ needs.  This is particularly important because as you know, our FrameMaker users are highly technical and we need to speak at their same level.  Additionally, I also work with Marketing and support the team. And finally, I work with Product Management, Engineering and Technical Support, to ensure customers’ wish lists are considered in new releases. My job gives me a great position to observe current industry trends, and I try to bring that perspective back into the company, too.  So there’s a lot of my plate, but I’m having a lot of fun.

TCW: So, it sounds like you are the “go to guy” for anyone who is interested in information relating to either Adobe FrameMaker or Macromedia RoboHelp. What types of information can you help our readers answer and how do they get in touch with you?

RJ: I spend a lot of my time engaged in conversations with our customers either in person or ”virtually” through our Acrobat Connect (formerly Breeze) software. Acrobat Connect has proven a great web conferencing solution, allowing me to share presentations on our products and show live demonstrations.  When a customer contacts Adobe to discuss how to move from an unstructured, style-tagging workflow (using applications such as Microsoft Word or FrameMaker in unstructured mode) to using FrameMaker with XML or DITA, I’m usually the guy that responds.  With the exception of tech support questions, I’m always available to our customers and they can contact me via email.

TCW: You can’t open a technical communication magazine these days without seeing a full-page ad touting the online help tool du jour as a “replacement for RoboHelp.” Members of several technical writing listservs have spent significant bandwidth discussing the “demise of RoboHelp.” What’s the scoop on RoboHelp?

RJ: RoboHelp is alive and well and as we speak, we are in the middle of a beta program of the next major release. I can’t think of a better way of dispelling these rumors than by shipping a new release, which includes great functionality and the Adobe brand behind it.  RoboHelp has found a great home at Adobe, a business unit that also houses technical communications stable mates FrameMaker and Captivate. RoboHelp is now one of the lead products in Adobe’s technical communications portfolio.

TCW: Now that we know that Adobe is developing a new-and-improved version of RoboHelp, will Quadralay WebWorks Publisher still come packaged with future versions of Frame? And, if not, will a limited edition of RoboHelp find it’s way into the FrameMaker box?

RJ: WebWorks Publisher Standard Edition ships today in FrameMaker 7.2, and it will continue to do so throughout the life of that version. Because it is Adobe’s policy to not comment on unannounced versions of products, I’m afraid I can’t speculate on the content of future versions of FrameMaker.

TCW: What options do FrameMaker users have for moving their content from WebWorks to RoboHelp? Are there any tools being supplied by Adobe to make this transition easier?

RJ: The workflow for FrameMaker users with WebWorks is quite different to the workflow of RoboHelp X5 users. So migrating from one tool to another is a lot more involved than the simple data migration one might expect. I think that’s why today I don’t see a lot of RoboHelp users switching to FrameMaker, or FrameMaker users switching to RoboHelp. People tend to stick with the tool they initially pick, and given that both tools (FrameMaker and RoboHelp) are provided by Adobe, that’s fine with me! Looking to the future, I would expect the tools provided by Adobe will do more to leverage each other’s strengths, but again that’s speculation until Adobe makes a formal product announcement.

TCW: Several of our readers have written in asking advice on whether they should move to MadCap Flare or stay with RoboHelp. What advice can you give folks who need the make the case for RoboHelp to their management? 

RJ: Changing the tools you use on a day-to-day basis is often daunting, costly and disruptive. People invest so much in their tool choice – not just the software but in their content, in their working practices, in learning the nuances of how the product works, and so on. And with many RoboHelp users having used the tool for upwards of 10 years, that’s a lot of investment to risk throwing away! There was a time when Macromedia owned RoboHelp when the product’s future seemed dubious, and I’m not surprised people started looking for alternatives, even if there was going to be a cost attached. But now that RoboHelp’s future is so positive, I see that a lot less. When people raise their concerns with me at tradeshows and other venues, I love telling them the good news, as it always gets a welcome response. I’m sure there will be people who will debate the relative merits of MadCap Flare and RoboHelp, but for many folk that’s not the point. RoboHelp users can feel secure in the knowledge that the product is here to stay and that there’s no need to look around.

TCW: I understand that there’s a beta test of the new RoboHelp going on right now. How do my readers get involved in helping to shape the future of the product?

RJ: Whenever Adobe runs a beta program, it limits the number of participants to ensure quality – particularly in the case of “closed” betas such as the one we are running for this version of RoboHelp. But there are still some open slots for the current beta program, and if your readers would like to participate, they can apply by sending the beta testing folks an email.

TCW: Recently, it seems like Adobe is recommitting itself to the technical communication market. In an earlier article, we predicted that Adobe would release a technical writer’s tool kit made up of several Adobe products, kind of a Creative Suite for technical communication pros. Were we right? Is there a “Technical Writer’s Suite”?

RJ: I can see how people might come to this conclusion. Today many technical communicators use multiple Adobe tools. Most FrameMaker documents end up as PDFs and most FrameMaker users also have Acrobat. The same content in the documentation is often reused in an Online Help system. Many people are excited about Acrobat 3D, which handles 3D models inside a PDF for viewing and manipulating using the free Reader, and are interested in integrating that content into their mainstream deliverables. Many RoboHelp users have begun to introduce short “how to” demonstrations and simulations created with Captivate into their Help systems. And there seems to be a growing trend towards more convergence, as Technical Communicators’ roles are expanding and now the same person producing the user manual has to also produce the Help System, as well as create content for eLearning. But as Adobe has not made any announcements in this area, I can’t really speculate on any future intentions to introduce a suite or collection.

TCW: FrameMaker is one of our favorite products. Is there a new version of FrameMaker in the works? If so, what can you tell us about it?

RJ: The FrameMaker team has been hard at work since the release of version 7.2. In recent conferences we’ve been talking about how we’re tracking some key trends in technical communications, including increased globalization and localization of technical content, increased use of structured content and XML, and increased integration of rich media, such as 3D content and animation. Our current assumption is that the next major release of FrameMaker will be in the first half of 2007, although Adobe has made no formal announcements at this point. 

TCW: We were delighted—but very surprised—by Adobe’s foray into the application pack arena. Releasing both an S1000D and a DITA pack was quite ambitious. Why did you decide to take this approach and what benefits do application packs provide FrameMaker users?

RJ: You’re right, this was very much ambitious and I think it points to how committed we are to FrameMaker and to XML and in particular to these standards.  Our application packs provide a lot of documentation and a reference implementation that shows how you can quickly and easily author and publish documents that conform to these standards (DITA application pack documentation, S1000D application pack documentation). We took this approach so we could respond to a rapidly emerging trend in technical communications outside of the constraints of a typical, full product release cycle. The feedback has been extremely positive – especially on the DITA app pack, which even goes as far as showing how to integrate the DITA Open Toolkit into your workflow, and how to specialize your DITA implementation.

TCW: What does a DITA application pack provide FrameMaker users that they don’t have already? After all DITA is an XML standard and Frame supports XML. What are folks who aren’t using the DITA application pack missing?

RJ: The DITA application pack is actually the second generation of DITA support that Adobe has provided for FrameMaker. Adobe was one of the pioneering users of DITA internally. Our own technical communications group at Adobe was one of the first to use this new approach to authoring and successfully created the Help system and documentation that ships with our Creative Suites 2 applications. We were able to leverage some of the lessons learned during that internal use to create the DITA starter templates that ship in FrameMaker 7.2. But these templates only went so far, and so in the application packs we decided to take things to a whole new level. 

There is a lot to the DITA application pack, as you can tell from the fact that the documentation on it is covered in three, quite lengthy white papers. To get the full scoop, I recommend your readers should download the application pack from Adobe’s Labs web site.

But put simply, while FrameMaker has had all the tools for anyone to put this together, the application pack includes a plug-in that adds a menu to FrameMaker called DITA. This menu gives users access to templates for creating new DITA topics, tasks and references, as well as ditamaps.  It also includes a powerful DITA reference manager for inserting and maintaining conrefs. IDs are also important for reusing common content in DITA and so the app pack provides automated ways for handlings these, as well as a right-click option for assigning them manually.  But perhaps the most exciting feature added is the ability to create a regular FrameMaker book from a Ditamap, where users can then add a Table of Contents, an Index, a list of Figures, etc., and create pristine PDF output from it, and people really like this. We cover how to integrate FrameMaker with the DITA Open Toolkit, and we show how to specialize your DITA implementation to customize it for your own unique needs.  I’m also working with CMS vendors who are excited about this and want to tie this DITA functionality to their own technologies.

TCW: Some say FrameMaker isn’t the right tool for creating DITA content because it was based on a book-building paradigm. Obviously, this isn’t true. But, where does the confusion come from and can you help our readers understand why this objection doesn’t make any sense.

RJ: One of FrameMaker’s strengths is its easy-to-use, WYSIWYG authoring environment. As you edit and create content, you see on screen just how it would look in final output. But people aren’t used to this level of user-friendliness in other XML authoring tools. People have almost become conditioned to think that, if you are editing XML, the experience has to be code-oriented and technically challenging. But the reality is that FrameMaker’s structured authoring environment provides just the same level of support in creating valid XML that you find in other tools – it just makes it seem too easy! Similarly FrameMaker has great support for book building, which you don’t find in other tools. But there’s no compulsion to use FrameMaker’s features if you want to limit yourself to what the other tools provide.

TCW: Are there any other application packs in the works?

RJ: Again, I can’t comment on future product releases, but I can tell you that we continue to work closely with many industries that are beginning to take advantage of XML and which would like to use FrameMaker as their premiere tool.  We want to make sure they hit the ground running quickly and efficiently.

TCW: Will application packs be rolled into future versions of Frame or will they be stand-alone applications that have their own upgrade path?

RJ: This is something that we are carefully considering and so we will see what happens. On the one hand, having the application packs baked-in to the product makes distribution easy. But on the other hand, our current method of distribution through Adobe labs enables us to be very responsive to change.

TCW: How many people around the world use FrameMaker compared to other XML authoring tools. And are there any audiences aside from technical communicators that use Frame?

RJ: As far as I know, there are no independent sources of market share on XML authoring or even on technical communications tools in general. At Adobe we have our own internal estimates, but we don’t typically disclose this information. But let’s face it; FrameMaker has been the tool of choice for technical communicators for 20 years, so we’ve built up a huge base. Unlike some of our competitors, who were previously limited to sales into SGML accounts, this base of users was built on both unstructured and structured uses of the product, so it had a much wider appeal. The fact is, since we introduced FrameMaker 7.0, every FrameMaker user on a maintenance plan, upgrading from an earlier version, or buying a new license has received the same, full XML capability. Whenever we do user research, we find the use, and intended use, of structured FrameMaker and XML is growing substantially. Just go to a conference or seminar these days, and see how many sessions are on FrameMaker and XML.  As was the case with FrameMaker before, there are markets outside of technical communications that the product addresses. The big trend at the moment is where companies are pushing XML use into the engineering department, so that the exchange of content between subject matter experts and professional technical communicators is streamlined.

TCW: For those who are still shopping for an XML authoring tool to replace Microsoft Word, what features does FrameMaker offer that other tools don’t?

RJ: We see a tremendous opportunity for FrameMaker as Word-centric companies make the move to XML, primarily because of FrameMaker’s superb WYSIWYG authoring environment, which resembles closely to using a word processor.  FrameMaker was the first WYSIWYG XML tool and even now it’s still the only one that can enable a user to create well-formed and valid XML documents without having to worry about the intricacies of XML markup.  The analogy that I always use is that FrameMaker is doing for XML what Dreamweaver did for HTML in that it enables users to use a familiar style of authoring, without having to worry about the markup involved.

The second thing is that FrameMaker gives you Print and PDF for free and this is very big for our customers since PDF is the king of formats and most other XML tools fall short when it comes to producing Print and/or PDF, so this is also a big strength for us.  And of course the list goes on and on and on…

TCW: When will the new version of FrameMaker be available? And, how can our readers provide feedback to you about the features they’d like to see in the next version? Is there a beta test?

RJ: As I said earlier, Adobe hasn’t made any formal announcements in this area. But our current assumption is that the next major release of FrameMaker will be in the first half of 2007. I recommend to anyone who doesn’t have FrameMaker 7.2 to try it out and take advantage of our application packs, as well as our multiple undo capabilities, XSLT and Schema support and our enhanced conversion tables, which now keep the formatting of legacy documents that are being converted to structured documents. There are many great white papers on that deal with subjects such as migrating from unstructured content to structured, and using XSLT in your authoring and publishing workflow. In preparation for FrameMaker 8, our customers are also taking advantage of our maintenance program, which gives them entitlement to FrameMaker 8 once it begins shipping. Our product management team is always looking to gather feedback directly from customers, and I am happy to act as an introduction service for any of your readers.

TCW: Are there any questions you wish we would have asked? Now is your time to ask them.

RJ: Yes.  We have a very strong ecosystem of content management system partners, plug-in developers, database publishers and consultants and trainers and I’m working closely with all of them to make sure they have updated information about our tools.  For example our CMS vendors are building bridges to FrameMaker and many have menus inside the product and that’s great news for our customers who are looking at implementing a CMS in-house.  There are approximately 100 commercially available plug-ins out there for FrameMaker, which do some very impressive stuff.  We have experienced consultants that are not only well-versed in FrameMaker, but also in XML and open standards like DITA that are helping our customers implement various workflows around FrameMaker and then we have over 100 certified FrameMaker experts that spend most of their time training on FrameMaker, so we really have a well-rounded pool of talent that is helping us take FrameMaker forward.

TCW: Do you have any good stories about your FrameMaker customers that you care to share with us?

RJ: We have very loyal and dedicated FrameMaker customers and we really like that.  The most common story I hear when I go to conferences is how people have declined well-paid jobs because the company wanted to force them to use Word instead of FrameMaker.  It doesn’t get any better than this and not too many companies can say this of their users, so we will continue to innovate and bring best-of-breed tools to all of our users and we look forward to it.