OK, I asked for it. I posted, in a public forum, that the price of attending the CMS/DITA Europe conference was too high for a lone consultant such as myself. The folks at CIDM, who organize the conference, told me to put my money where my mouth is, and graciously offered me a one-time discount that made it possible for me to attend – for which, many thanks.
I am not totally comfortable about receiving a privilege that might not be available to some people less in the public eye, and I seriously debated whether to accept or not. After consulting with some colleagues whose opinions I respect, I finally decided that yes, I would attend, but would also share my experience of the event here in this blog, honestly and publicly, regardless of which way it went.
Truth be told, I rarely attend conferences where I am not presenting or performing some official function. This time, however, I was there to listen. I wanted to attend DITA Europe because it is really focused on DITA, and I am in the middle of a DITA implementation with a client. My hope was to gain some insights and tips that could help me.
The DITA Gestalt
The attendance at this conference was a concentration of DITA practitioners, vendors and super-geeks. A goodly proportion of the OASIS DITA technical committee, working on the specification for DITA 1.3, were on site with us. This was a love fest, a revival meeting, a chatauqua of the structured-XML-documentation-DITA-flavour set. Hallway conversation centred around specializations, constraints, DTD tweaks and keyrefs. A number of us “old fogeys” also traded stories about “back in the day” – meaning, more or less the 80’s – much to our own amusement.
The conference featured two tracks – a technical track and a management track. I would estimate that most people were there for the technical track. I tended to flit between the two, but probably spent more time on the technical side.
It was a small conference, slightly over 100 people. This made for an interesting dynamic, though I think if there had been perhaps 50 more, there would have been a better balance between critical mass and intimacy.
Although not everyone was an expert on DITA, it seemed that no one was a rank beginner, either.
The conference was held at the Frankfurt Airport Sheraton Hotel. This was, perhaps, an unfortunate choice. While it was a convenient site (just across an overpass from the airport itself), its location pretty much eliminated any connection to the fact that we were in Europe, in Frankfurt, or, indeed, anywhere at all. We were in a quadruple-glazed, hermetically sealed fishbowl for the entire time, and venturing out of doors, while possible, was not tantalizing. The lack of real connection to place was, I also feel, especially unfortunate for the relatively high number of North American vendors and presenters at the conference.
For those who don’t know, DITA uptake in most of Europe is very much behind North America. The resistance or reluctance to adopt DITA often varies by country and culture, but the net result is that European practitioners are still relatively few, and they are considered mavericks.
So, there we were, a bunch of the technical communication avant-garde, gathered to celebrate and commingle.
The first day, I was somewhat disappointed. Many of the presentations I attended seemed to be a bit fuzzy about the level of attendee they were addressing. For example, the narrative was often pitched at a relatively basic level, involving illustrations that were, from a technical point of view, complex and quite interesting. However, these illustrations were shown briefly, too briefly to permit a careful reading of the XML code displayed, and without any but the most cursory explanation. This was, for me at least, a frustrating experience.
I was more than surprised to see a presentation, at a DITA practitioners’ conference, aimed at convincing people to adopt DITA. This was, in my view, a waste of a valuable slot. Perhaps this was because the presenter was also a vendor/exhibitor? I don’t know.
The highlight of day one for me related more to networking with fellow practitioners and getting more quality time with some of the exhibitors than you get to have at some larger events.
Though I enjoyed networking with vendors and learning about some products that were new to me, I appreciated less the relatively large proportion of presentations that were oriented to one vendor’s tool or another. A few vendors, most notably Adobe and Syncrosoft (OXygen Editor) did useful, interesting and mostly vendor-neutral presentations.
On day 2, I hit presentations that were closer to what I expected from this conference. Solid technical how-to information aimed at people with at least some DITA experience, and discussions of where DITA is, and should be going. In the management track, I attended presentations that gave solid advice on DITA and CMS implementation and project management, as well as thought leader pieces that tied management and technical orientations together.
One last comment on this conference: I was truly shocked that there was no conference WiFi service. No conference at this level, dealing with technical issues, should ever be without it. I know that hotels charge outrageous fees for this, but there are alternatives.
Bottom line on this conference: a positive experience with a mixed review.