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Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM

architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger


Today it’s a real great day! I interviewed one of my "Guru"!

I read his blog (ecmarchitect.com), his tutorials (Alfresco Developer Series) and finally his
book (Alfresco Developer Guide)... He participated (indirectly) to the creation of my blog and
presentation.

That's why readers, I'm proud to interview Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM architect at
Optaros, blogger and writer.

Hello Jeff!

First of all, as usual, many many thanks for the time you are spending to answer this
interview and to share your knowledge about ECM.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity, Jean Marie, I'm happy to do it.

So Jeff, where the "ECM Experience" has begun for you? How was your first date with
ECM?

Back in the early 1990's, I began going deep into Lotus Notes development. What I liked
about it was the unstructured nature of the content, the focus on people, how they worked
together, and how they could become more efficient, and the rapid application development
that the Notes platform provided. At the time, business people who needed to get a solution in
place were finding that they could go around their IT shops and implement their own systems
by using a platform like Notes so there was a lot of uptake in the market. From a techie point-
of-view, it wasn't just an end-user tool--you could really dig your hands in there and work on
some interesting technical problems.

Notes added a web server just when businesses started exploring the web. The server was
later branded as Lotus Domino and we were doing some really cool web apps on that platform
in the very early days of the commercial web.

Interest in WCM grew as interest in the web grew and before long I was working on custom
WCM solutions first on Domino and then using purpose-built packages like Interwoven and
Documentum. Interest in Notes began to fade so I shifted my focus to Documentum and
broadened the solutions to include broader document management--not just WCM. At the
same time I was exploring all kinds of open source software including dev tools, of course,
but also packages that were further up the stack like blogging tools, wikis, search engines, and
content management. That's when I found Alfresco and it wasn't long after that, I decided to
get behind open source full-time.

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com
Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM
architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger
Could you identify the ECM birth? Is it a new notion or an old idea?

The idea of "Enterprise Content Management" is really used in a couple of different ways.
When it is used as a term to describe software that really came about by folks like Gartner
AIIM, and big vendors like Documentum and IBM looking to be one-stop-shops for their
customers. They were acquiring or developing document management-related packages like
imaging, collaboration, and records management, and they really wanted to tell customers,
"Hey, you should let us solve your content management problem for ALL of the content in
your enterprise by buying our suite of software."

The second way it is used is to describe an approach or a strategy in how a company deals
with its rich content. You can look at books like Rockley's "Managing Enterprise Content" or
Boiko's "Content Management Bible" to get a feel for what I'm talking about there.

Either way, I think it is an old idea. The bottom line is that you have data that doesn't fit
neatly into rows and columns. It needs to be secure, discoverable, taggable, accessible,
reusable, etc. And there are many different types of content-centric applications that need to
deal with this rich content which includes the types of systems typically lumped under "ECM"
like WCM, imaging, records management, document management, digital asset management,
etc.

Is there a difference between Open Source ECM solution and Proprietary?

I think the difference is getting smaller all of the time in terms of functionality provided.
When I think back across the different systems I've implemented on commercial ECM
platforms, there are very few--almost none--that I couldn't do using an open source alternative
today. Now the disclaimer there is that most of the solutions I've implemented have been
either WCM or custom content-centric apps with a significant workflow component which are
both sweet spots for open source ECM. Open source ECM still has a ways to go in some of
the other ECM areas (like imaging and records management), which, just aren't that
interesting to me, to be honest.

Have you your personal ECM definition?

Sure. To me ECM is about how you leverage your rich content assets with the entire content
domain (which might actually go beyond the enterprise, BTW) in mind. It means at a
minimum providing "basic content services" like search, security, metadata, check-in/check-
out, and workflow--these are "table stakes" for any ECM repository. But it also requires that it
be drop-dead simple for both people and systems to get content into and out of the repository
in the right way (user interface, API, protocols) and the right format that is useful to them.
The "E" in ECM also implies something about scalability and performance--we're talking
about solutions that scale beyond departments to handle very large data and transaction
volumes.

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com
Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM
architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger
Let's back to you, Can you tell us more about your position? What's your role and what
are you doing day after day?

Well I'm the ECM Practice Lead at Optaros so I wear a lot of different hats which is
something I really like about my job. On any given day (and sometimes any given hour in a
day) I might be:
 Writing code for a client project or an Optaros product/solution
 Contributing to an open source project by writing code, documentation, or bug reports
 Providing architectural or technical support to an Optaros client or solution team
 Providing feedback to a partner about strategic product direction
 Following numerous news feeds on ECM, related technology, and open source
 Blogging internally, on optaros.com, or on ecmarchitect.com
 Presenting at a conference or a webinar
 Mentoring colleagues
 Pitching a client, building a demo, or scoping work as part of a pursuit team
 Learning about and trying out a new piece of ECM-related technology

All of these buckets of work can be summarized as:


 Grow Optaros,
 Grow the ECM Practice,
 Grow the Open Source Community.

Everything I do should fit in one of those three categories.

Could you present your company: Optaros?

Optaros is a global consulting firm focused on assembling Next Generation Internet (NGI)
solutions--more on those in a minute--from open source components. We're about 4 years old.
We're headquartered in Boston, which is one of four "development centers". The other three
are Austin, Geneva, and Bucharest. We have other offices in San Francisco, Dallas, New
York City, Zurich, Munich, and London.

We have an impressive list of well-known, happy clients from all industries.

I often read on your documentation the NGI term ? Is it an Optaros term? What's this
exactly ?

NGI stands for Next Generation Internet. It's about building web-based solutions with rich
interfaces, loosely-coupled, services-oriented architectures, and open source componentry.
We want to help clients think beyond just a single web site and think more about their overall
web presence. We do that a lot for Media & Publishing and eCommerce companies but really
it applies across all verticals.

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com
Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM
architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger
Why have you started ecmarchitect.com ? What is the goal? Is it possible to know some
anecdotes?

I started blogging in 2001 with a tool called Radio UserLand. When I started out it was
something I did for myself--a way to take notes on what I was working on and to have a bit of
a creative outlet. Those early posts were all over the place--music, general interest, personal
stories, travel logs. Then I started dialing it in a bit. I had seen how Michael Trafton and a
little outfit in Austin called BlueFish had not only provided a good resource for the
community of Documentum Developers but had also become a well-known name in
Documentum circles through their site called dmdeveloper.com. I figured I could do the same
thing with open source ECM. The worst case was that I'd document what I was learning about
open source ECM for myself, my colleagues, and others. The upside was that if it became
popular, I'd become more established in that market which would hopefully lead to better
projects for my practice and more compelling content for the blog.

So I decided to focus a bit more on it. I moved from UserLand to Wordpress on a hosted
server and bought a domain. I had tried to come up with something catchy but I thought,
"Why not just call it what I do?" which is how ECM Architect was born. To be honest, I'm not
crazy about the name but that ship has sailed.

The blog has not only been a creative outlet and a useful communication tool. I also credit it
with hooking me up with Optaros. Seth Gottlieb (contenthere.net) and I met through our
blogs. He was working at Optaros at the time. We later met face-to-face at a conference and
stayed in touch. When it was time to move into open source full-time, I already had a good
feel for the great culture at Optaros and the kind of work they were doing. And Optaros had a
good feel for my interests and experience from reading the blog.

The book also came about because of the blog. The publisher, Packt, approached me after
reading the Alfresco Developer Series. So that's another great opportunity that's come through
ecmarchitect.com. Every once in a while I'll get some credible leads directly from a blog
reader, but from a business development perspective, the benefit is mostly indirect.

I'm a young blogger and for me it's difficult to know where is the border between
personal and professional view. Do you have any clue to understand what's a good
professional blog?

That's a great question. People forget (or don't care) that what you write and post on the web
is indelible. It's all out there for colleagues, employers (current and future), and customers
(current and future) to see. I've seen some--ahem--interesting stuff when Googling job
applicants. If you want your blog to be an asset rather than a liability to your career, you have
to keep that in mind. At the same time, your blog needs a voice--your voice--so you don't
want to be so formal or correct (politically, grammatically) that that gets lost. I just try to be
myself. Or at least my "work self". I don't write anything I wouldn't say over lunch with
colleagues or a client. So I self-censor a bit, but not any more than I do when I'm in a business
meeting.

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com
Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM
architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger
I don't write as much personal or off-topic stuff as I used to. Some of my shorter off-topic
posts now go through Facebook or Twitter. When I do blog off-topic I don't feel too bad about
it. I figure if someone doesn't want to read about my sailing trips or the concert I saw last
night they can subscribe to just the stuff tagged as "Content Management" or whatever their
interest is. I feel like someone's blog ought to give you a good feel for the author as a person. I
do spend a lot of time thinking about and working on ECM-related problems. But if you and I
have a beer, that's not all we're going to talk about, so that's not the only thing I blog about.

Nice :o)

Alfresco community knows you for your Alfresco Developer Series and Alfresco
Developer Guide, can you tell us more about the origin and if possible to have some
statistics (number of download, geographic repartition...) ?

The Alfresco Developer Series is a set of tutorials I wrote over an extended period of time--it
was about a year. I had been doing some work with custom actions and had found the
documentation to be a little lacking. I figured I could write a tutorial on it that a lot of people
would find useful. I got a lot of good feedback on it so I made a list of the fundamentals I'd go
over with someone if they wanted to get ramped up on Alfresco in roughly the order that
would make sense. I worked on the Custom Content Types tutorial in my spare time and
posted it in June of 2007, six months after the first one. It immediately drew the most traffic I
had seen and continues to draw a decent amount. I realized there was pent up demand for
Alfresco how-to content. I also realized that one tutorial every six months wasn't going to cut
it so I stepped up my focus and posted three more--Behaviors, Web Scripts, and Workflows--
in September, October, and November. That work along with some other stuff I was doing in
the community got me recognized as Alfresco's Community Contributor of the Year in 2007
which I thought was pretty cool, especially in light of all of the other very active members of
that community.

By the time the Alfresco Developer Series was out I still had topics left to cover and began
toying with the idea of writing a book. Based on the popularity of the tutorials, I knew people
were really looking for that kind of content--the only question was should I do it as additional
tutorials as I was able or do something a little more cohesive. That's when Packt reached out
to me. I also got a lot of support and encouragement from my boss, Mavis Chin, as well as
several others at Optaros and from my family who knew that if I didn't do it, I'd regret it.

I used the tutorials as a starting point for the book and filled in the missing topics. I was
originally hoping reusing those would save me a lot of time but I ended up revising and
rewriting them fairly heavily to be consistent with the new material. I was also able to
leverage some work I had done on an internal Alfresco training curriculum so I didn't have to
write all of the example code from scratch.

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com
Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM
architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger
How and when did you met Alfresco ?

I started playing with Alfresco in late 2005. Having spent roughly three years leading up to
that in the Documentum world, their story intrigued me. I had also been doing some work
with Zope, Plone, Apache Cocoon, and a few other open source content management
technologies so I was pretty much an open source convert by that point. What was obvious
even then was that Alfresco had serious momentum in terms of both marketing hype and
actually delivering working code. Zope, Plone, and the others were/are great products but at
the time they weren't realistic alternatives to legacy solutions for most big enterprises.
Alfresco, on the other hand, was a direct shot across the bow--if it wasn't making the short list
for clients at that time I knew it wouldn't be long before they were based on their trajectory.

Can you tell us what are the strengths and weaknesses of this solution from your point of
view?

Alfresco's main strength is that of being a solid repository with lots of ways to get content into
and out of the system. If you want to use JCR, go for it. If you want to use RESTful or SOAP
web services, they are there for you. The other thing is that the presentation is completely de-
coupled from the repository which means you've got all sorts of choices for implementing the
front-end. You can use Alfresco's Surf framework or their out-of-the-box clients or you can
do your own thing.

In terms of weaknesses, I'd say horizontal scalability has been a challenge, although we're
starting to see live examples of people who have multi-node Alfresco clusters working. The
fact that the DM and AVM repository implementations haven't been merged (or at least made
functionally equivalent) is irritating. I'm not sure it is a weakness per se, but I wish Alfresco
was more purely open source. I'd like to see committers that aren't Alfresco employees, for
example.

What do you think about the recent announcement of the CMIS specification (Content
Management Interoperability Services)? Is it a real advance?

Yes, this is an important standard. We're already seeing ways we can leverage it by providing
solutions to our clients that could conceivably work for any CMIS compliant repository, not
just one in particular. Adding to the REST API and providing a SQL-like query language is
something Alfresco needed to do anyway so it's pretty serindipidous that the draft came out
when it did.

All of the right players are behind it. It'll be interesting to see how fast the legacy vendors can
add CMIS implementations of their own. Once that starts to happen, I think you're going to
see an explosion of "ECM add-on" tools because it suddenly becomes worth someone's while
if they can build a tool once that will work with multiple repositories. Plus there are things
you'll be able to do (like moving objects between repositories) that become a lot easier.

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com
Interview : Jeff Potts, Experienced ECM
architect at Optaros & ECMArchitect blogger
To conclude, I'm a junior consultant (as many other) and I'm just starting to walk on
the ECM Road, Have you an advice for me ?

If ECM is something you are interested in, try to get repetition within ECM but mix it up with
different aspects of ECM, if that makes any sense. For example, don't just dive deep into
Alfresco. Learn about other open source ECM and WCM offerings. That's one of the great
things about open source--it doesn't cost anything to learn. Just jump in. And don't necessarily
limit yourself to content repositories. Learn about XML, XML Schema, and XSLT. Learn
about Lucene, Solr, and Nutch. Read standards/specs like ATOM/ATOM Pub and CMIS.
Explore portal and presentation frameworks. Find out how workflow engines work. Basically,
if you are in to ECM you need to immerse yourself in all things unstructured and process-
oriented. There are so many related technologies. ECM solutions are rarely just about the
repository.

And as you learn and explore, by all means, share what you're finding out--it helps solidify
your understanding when you have to explain it to someone else, and we're all interested in
what you have to say.

Finally, can you recommend us weblinks or blogs about ECM or IT in general ?

Here's a subset of what's in my Google Reader:


 John Newton's blog
 Matt Asay's blog
 Big Men On Content
 CMS Report
 CMS Wire
 CMSWatch
 Column Two
 Drupal.org
 Enter Content Here
 Gilbane Report News
 The Rockley Blog
 451 CAOS Theory
 Tecosystems
 Andrew McAfee
 Enterprise Blend
 Open Parenthesis

What would you say to conclude this interview?

Thanks for the great questions and thanks to all of my ECM Architect readers.

Many thanks, Jeff, for this interview. We wish you a nice and exciting journey on Open
Source ECM Road!
To find out more about Optaros : http://www.optaros.com
and if you want to follow Jeff Potts : http://ecmarchitect.com

http://www.opensourceecm.fr
http://www.open-source-ecm.com