Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Betty Harvey talks about the DC XML users group, the evolution of XML and where the industry is going

This is the first of an occasional series of interviews with local tech leaders.

Betty Harvey, founder and owner of Electronic Commerce Connection, Inc. , head of the DC XML Users Group talks about the industry.

How did you get interested in XML?

I was working as a civilian for the Navy at David Taylor Model Basin, aka David Taylor Research and Development Center, currently Naval Surface Warfare Center in the Scientific and Engineering Users Support Section. My office was part of the Mathematics Department. Another office was working on the "Paperless Navy" project. In 1992, I transferred to this project and was exposed to SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language).

SGML was part of larger DoD standard, CALS (Computer Aided Logistic Support).CALS was a very aggressive DoD standard. The cost for organizations to support SGML was astronomical. It was almost impossible for DoD vendors to support SGML for under a million dollars because of various technical and cultural reasons. There was lack of toolsets. The tools were inadequate and very expensive. I really didn't see where SGML was going to be successful in DoD - at that time government was the only environment I had a frame of reference for.

In 1992 I stumbled on the Cern project and something called HTML (really an application of SGML) and the Mosaic browser! It was 'love' at first sight. Here is a 'free browser' that supported an SGML vocabulary, albeit simple. It didn't take 20 million dollars to create.

David Taylor used the DBOF (Defense Business Operating Funding) which meant that we had to solicit funding from projects. Our office stood up one of the first WWW sites in the Navy (http://navycals.dt.navy.mil). This site was used to disseminate information about CALS standards within the Navy. (Luckily for me, the Technology Transfer Advocate at David Taylor got wind of what we doing and he sponsored me to attend the first WWW Conference in North America in Chicago in 1994.

That conference was the best conference I have attended before or after. The energy and innovation was intoxicating. At this conference they had a session called "SGML on the Web". Yuri Rubinsky was the chair of this conference and he had a vision of XML - although it hadn't been solidified at this point. Yuri was one of the founders of a company called SoftQuad, a small Canadian consulting and SGML software company. Softquad had bought a software library from a group of graduate students in Stockholm. They developed Panorama, a validating SGML browser. SoftQuad offered the Panorama as a free plugin to WWW browsers. It was a very successful browser and is still be used today in places like Bell South and the Pentagon.

When and why did you decide to launch your own company?

On a Friday afternoon before President's Day 1995 the Navy arbitrarily shut all websites off in the Navy. I was very frustrated because I thought we were providing a beneficial service to both the Navy and Navy suppliers (and ultimately the taxpayers).

On Monday I went to the bank and got a $20,000 loan. By April I had a server co-located on a T3 line. A year later I had my own T1 line, which I still maintain.

In June, Yuri offered me the opportunity to be a consultant for Softquad. In August I left government employment and started as an independent exclusive consultant for SoftQuad. In February 1996, tragically Yuri Rubinsky passed away and didn't get to see the success of XML.

Please tell readers a little about what Electronic Commerce Connection, Inc. does.

We are a consultancy that focuses on helping organizations to understand how to obtain, use, repackage and/or add value to their information. In most cases this is XML, but not always. Believe it or not we still have clients who interface with DoD and still are contractually required to provide their data in SGML.

We have worked with major publishers and government agencies in helping them to develop the business processes and infrastructure for data.

I have also worked with several standards organizations in developing XML standards for vertical industries, such as insurance, banking, etc.

I am also a member of several global consultancy organizations such as The XML Guild (http://www.xmlguild.org) and Document Engineering Services (http://www.documentengineeringservices.com/).

How did the DC XML Users Group get started?

It happened in 1995 in a Usenet Group called comp.text.sgml. John Czarnecki, asked if there was a SGML users group in Washington, DC (http://tinyurl.com/65fu8r). I piped in to say that I didn't know of one but I would 'help someone' if they wanted to start one. I became that person. We struggled for meeting places for several months. After leaving the Navy one of my first projects for SoftQuad was for the American Geophysical Union to develop a DTD for their journals. Jon Sears at AGU offered to host the meetings at AGU. We have been there for the last 13 years.

Many people have asked why this users group has been so successful over the years. I believe it is having a centrally located facility that is key (not to mention the cookies). It is a very nice spot to have meetings.

How, if any, has it changed over the years?

The technology has definitely changed over the years. It would be hard to describe the technology changes. XML touches every one of our lives every day. In 1995 I don't think we could have known how pervasive XML would become. I know it is cliche to say but it is 'way cool'!

How would you characterized the audiences?

The audiences change depending on the speakers. We have a few diehard members that come month after month but for the most part people come when there are topics of interest. Occasionally there will be topics of interest across both vertical and horizontal markets, i.e., content management, that will attract a lot of different disciplines.

There are approximately 500 people on the Washington, DC mailing list.

How are speakers selected?

They are many ways speakers are selected in many ways. Some speakers will contact me and ask to speak. Alot of our members will use the Users Group as a sounding block for conference talks they are slated to give.

Some members will ask for a presentation on a given topic and we will try to find an appropriate speaker.

What makes a good presentation? Are there presenters who particularly stand out?

I think the best talks are presentations where the presenter interacts with the audience. Our members tend to be a lively and really bright group and tend to like to ask a lot of pertinent questions. I have to admit that there have been a few (very few) presentations that the subject was a little bland.

Some of the presentations that stand out are presentations on emerging technologies. Our group is inquisitive and some very good information has been presented and exchanged at these meetings.

Tutorial sessions have also be very well received. Mulberry Technologies, Inc. have been very gracious in providing several tutorials through the years on emerging technologies, i.e., XSLT and Schematron.

Where do you see the XML industry going? What do you see as the
important trends?

I think the most fascinating trend in the industry is the amount of Open Source software available. The software industry seems to be rapidly changing their model. There are some interesting software products, especially in the XML space, that are Open Source. The model seems to be consulting around the Open Source software.

I am not sure if there really an XML industry any longer because of the nature of XML. XML is used in one way or another in almost every software and hardware product.

As far as XML standards I think some interesting standards that are on the cusp to explode are XForms and Schematron. Products are just now becoming mature in this space. The Orbeon XForms server is pretty slick. Schematron is being used for XML validation where business rules need to be validate in the data.

What are your working on now?

I am currently working with the National Archive Records Administration (NARA) on the technology evolution for the ERA project. The ERA project is a project designed to ingest electronic records of the government. The first phase of the project recently went live. XML is key for metadata and business object development. I am helping
them look at different XML technologies and standards, i.e., XForms for Business Objects and XML content management and repositories.

I also continue to support long term clients.

What is the recipe for your famous chocolate chip cookies?

This one is easy - it is the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe from the back of the chocolate chip bag, slightly modified, double the pecans and double the vanilla.


Shashi Bellamkonda said...

Hi Alice,

I know Betty from way back on 2000 when I used to go regularly to the DC XML group meeting. She really helps people get comfortable and familiar with the XMl group. And you are right she makes fantastic choc chip cookies.

Anonymous said...

cookie monster need chocolate!

Thanks for the good interview,
John Tucker, NOAA

Alice said...

Thanks for reading, Betty is a real leader in our community.

Sol Safran said...

I had the pleasure of working with Betty on a federal contract last year. She's extremely knowledgeable and an excellent communicator and -- actually does the work! She has a seemingly limitless set of XML/publishing practices that she brings to the table on an assignment.

Yeah -- those cookies are good!

B Stewart said...

It really is remarkable how far XML has come as it has evolved over the last 15 years. It's also interesting that you mention XForms and Schematron, as they seem to be picking up steam in certain standards organizations. In any case - great article and thanks for your contribution over the years!

Alice said...

Thank you for your kind words.