Vol 44, Issue 3

January/February 2005

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Learning XML

by Renee Schurtz, STC Puget Sound Chapter

Lately you may have noticed the increase in newsletter articles, seminars, and STC meeting topics that relate to XML. If you haven't been keeping up, you might be wondering, “What's all the fuss about XML?” Or, “Why do I need to learn this if my job doesn't have anything to do with XML?” If you haven't kept up, you might be interested to know why you should.

What Is XML?

Early in its life cycle, Extensible Markup Language (XML) was seen by some as an excellent technology for technical writers. “At this point, all signs indicate that XML offers the potential of being an ideal tool for tech writers to learn and use. In fact, tech writers are ideal candidates for using this technology because we already have the information development, design, and presentation skills necessary to develop these structured document formats,” Deborah S. Ray recently stated on the TECHWR-L Web site.

XML is a markup language that was designed to be an alternative to HTML as the language used to manage content on the World Wide Web. Unlike HTML, it enables the writer to create customizable tags, or labels, if you will, that make sense for use with the writer's content. This feature allows the writer to create a document or system that is content based or designed around the content, rather than a document or system that is designed around the limitations of HTML's inflexible tags. Currently, technical writers use XML predominantly as a way to create content in one file format that can be reused for different purposes and transferred to many formats such as printed manuals or Web pages. XML's flexibility has driven its application to other uses such as Web services, transferring data from one system to another, or ensuring that data exchange between systems is valid.

Why Should Technical Writers Learn XML?

The proliferation of various applications of XML has increased dramatically in the last few years, not the least of which is Content Management (CM). Demand for CM services will increase significantly in the next few years. In 2003, http://theWhir.com, reported that “...content management services represent an attractive growth segment for the information technology services industry.… Worldwide content management services spending will increase to more than $7.5 billion in 2007, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.8 percent.… A huge installation, customization, and training opportunity will occur during the forecast period as a new content infrastructure emerges.” Installation, customization, and training all sound like areas with potential job opportunities for technical writers and communicators. And guess what technology is compatible with many of the CM programs on the market today, and is expected to be an integral part of the growth and evolution of CM? XML.

If futuristic projections aren't good enough reasons to learn XML, some of the more practical and “here and now” reasons may be. Although there are a variety of reasons to use XML that are beyond the scope of this article, some of those most common to technical writers are included.

Reusability of content may be the single biggest reason to learn and use XML. Whether you will be plugging it into specific CM software or a less formal system of managing content, once created, the same content can be used repeatedly for different purposes and in different output formats such as Web pages, handheld devices, PDF documents, online manuals, or printer materials. This feature of XML also lends itself nicely for use in a single-source system.

Customization is another reason to use XML. Creating customizable tags and structure for your content allows you to create a system that will meet very specific needs for you or your customers. At the very least, learning about the various components of XML such as tags, elements, and attributes will give you the ability to participate (politics aside) with other team members during the planning stages of the next content management or other system that will affect you. Increasing your ability to communicate with developers and other subject matter experts is an added benefit.

Receiving a significantly higher salary can result from having XML skills. According to http://online-learning.com, technical writers with XML skills “can add an extra $19K” to their salaries. The skill set that will be expected with this higher salary may include the ability to develop XML documents, understand and work with DTDs (Document Type Definitions) and schemas, and create and work with style sheets that interact with the XML documents. If you're ready for the challenge and growth of learning a new technology, you can expect a higher salary after gaining XML experience and skill.

XML's independence of proprietary platforms and formats and its ever increasing application in the workplace means that its use will continue to grow, and with it the likelihood that you will interact with it to some degree. It sounds like it's time to start learning XML.

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