Tuesday 18 October 2005

About me and my work at Cilix

I'm working on a lot of things for my work at Cilix, an engineering firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. First off, let me be clear on one thing: this blog is not officially sanctioned in any way by Cilix; this is 'just me'.

We call ourselves "A Knowledge Company". What that means, at least in my understanding, is that we apply professional knowledge and experience, augmented heavily by technology, to solve customers' knowledge-management and IT challenges. As such, we do a lot of writing — documents, Web pages, software, ad (nearly) infinitum.

We're a small shop as these things go, and our competition comes from much larger organisations with instant multinational name-brand recognition. Like any small firm, we have to win our first projects with a given client by promising — and delivering — a better value proposition than our competition. Where we get repeat business — again, like any similar firm — is by being agile, efficient, and above all, competent to the point of being unquestionably the least risky vendor for a particular solution.

Those attributes, in turn, lead us to consider issues like process, quality, and superlative knowledge of everything we are about. These issues, and how we as an organisation work through them, were what originally attracted me to the Company when I was approached and offered a position here. These issues are also the foci of what I expect to accomplish with this blog and the related collaboration tools (such as the Wiki).

I am also trying to evangelise and lead the implementation of open documentation and data-format standards at Cilix. This involves, among other things, migrating away from proprietary, binary formats like Microsoft Office documents to open, preferably text-based formats. As it happens, many of these open, text-based formats are based on XML vocabularies, such as Docbook and SVG.

Wby are text-based formats preferable? Lots of reasons:

  • They are usually much more compact (and compressible) than comparable binary formats. Converting mostly-text Microsoft Word documents to Docbook equivalents often yields size reductions of 80% or more (think how much more convenient email attachments would be);
  • They are usable with a wider variety of tools. I can throw a text file on my PalmPilot and fiddle with it far easier than a Microsoft Word document, for instance;
  • The are more amenable to most version-control systems, particularly cvs and subversion. Instead of making copies of each version of a binary file, all that is required is to take the difference between two different versions of a text file — a much easier and more reliable operation. I have seen version control systems of all flavours — SourceSafe, cvs, Atria/Rational ClearCase — irretrievably corrupt binary files when insufficient care was taken by the configuration manager in dealing with binary files;
  • They are more amenable to being stored in databases. Many databases (such as MySQL can return result sets packaged as XML fragments; this, combined with an XSLT parser and stylesheet, opens the door to some truly compelling presentation capabilities.

By taking advantage of these capabilities, we should be able to create better products with more predictable (and shorter) schedules without either greatly expanding the development team or pushing the present staff to the point of burnout. There is a saying in Silicon Valley in California, only partly tongue-in-cheek:

It isn't a startup until somebody dies
Here's hoping that's one "tradition" that's not exported anywhere outside the Valley.

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