Careers: Interviews
XML Expert: Ron Schmelzer

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with, Ron Schmelzer, an internationally renowned expert in XML and XML-based standards and initiatives. Ron is the lead author for SAMS XML and Web Services Unleashed.


Discussion:
Q: Ron, thank you for being here with us today. We thank you for sharing your years of experience and incredible knowledge with us.
A: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak more about a subject that I am both interested in and enjoy speaking about.


Q: What does your family have to say about your international reputation as a noted author, speaker, consultant, and XML guru?
A: I am sure they are thrilled to see me pursue a topic with such interest and devotion.


Q: What led you to study computer science and electrical engineering at MIT? What led to your interest in computers?
A: Basically I have always been fascinated and interested in science and technology in general, and computing and electronics in specific. Part of the fascination is the joy of watching something you’ve created be realized and implemented by a hunk of silicon, metal, and plastic. That interest in computing is really a by-product of my general interest in technology. It’s amazing how much we can improve the lives of ordinary people through the use of technology. Of course, technology is also equally capable of being improperly applied – which directly led to the founding of ZapThink – an analyst group focused on open, non-proprietary, loosely coupled technologies for computing, especially XML and Web Services.

Of course, the more time you spend in your formative years on these things the more you are attracted to one of the leading institutions that are helping to shape the future of technology – MIT.


Q: Can you share a story from the time you were named “Geek of the Week” in Internet Magazine?
A: Well, not really much of a story here. The article came at the time of increasing hype and glorification of the Internet. I am glad to say that I was part of those early years. Internet Magazine used to have a column called Geek of the Week in their monthly (now defunct) publication. As founder of VirtuMall (which became VirtuFlex and then ChannelWave), I was featured as one of the early leaders. I should also toot my own horn and say I was soon after named one of Boston’s Top 40 Internet “movers and shakers”.


Q: You were a founder of Dynamic Data Services and ChannelWave. Can you share lessons you learned from these experiences and times?
A: I am quite dedicated to the spirit of entrepreneurship. In fact, I would say that I am a “serial entrepreneur”. Both Dynamic Data and the string of businesses that would become ChannelWave (VirtuMall and VirtuFlex) are evidence of that devotion. All of these experiences have helped to make me a better entrepreneur – something I am still working on perfecting.


Q: Any more stories from your time at US Robotics working on advanced Internet applications?
A: I was at US Robotics very much in both my early career as well as the history of US Robotics in the Internet. I was there in the summer of 1994 – before the Internet became what it was. I think we both learned that the Internet was something that would greatly change the world and an opportunity for us both. In fact, I can credit US Robotics for helping me start my first Internet endeavor – VirtuMall. US Robotics themselves had quite a ride, being acquired by 3Com, and then spun off after 3Com found themselves floundering in the “new” economy.


Q: You are a founder of ZapThink, an XML-focused industry analyst group. How do you plan to shape ZapThink in the near and long term?
A: ZapThink is an analyst group focused on XML and Web Services. As XML and Web Services develops and increases the way in which it helps businesses become more agile and responsive, so too will ZapThink. We are focused on giving the industry insight, analysis, and research on a topic which is still widely misunderstood and misapplied. We are a “boutique” analyst firm and thus give our clients an unrivaled service that is focused, objective, high-value, timely, and comprehensive.


Q: What has been the feedback about XML from the audiences at your many speaking engagements such as XML One, COMDEX, and Internet World? What are the most common questions and your responses?
A: Since I’ve been speaking since almost the inception of XML and Web Services, the opinions of XML and Web Services clearly have matured over all these years. Nowadays, there is more “sobriety” in the way people are looking at technology – how will it impact me NOW? What are the realistic benefits I can see from implementing these technologies? What are the real costs, challenges, and alternatives? Right now, people are in it for the short-term. As these short-term concerns are either overcome or validated, the industry will mature – or flounder. Of course, the questions and responses all have to do with these major issues. It would be difficult to go into detail in this short interview, but I would say that ZapThink covers this in depth in its research. I highly encourage the readers of this article who are also unclear of the benefits XML and Web Services can bring their organizations to go to www.zapthink.com and read some of our published research.


Q: What [very] specific aspects of XML should we be watching for in the near term, say one year and in the two years? Which parts get you really excited?
A: Over the near term, Web Services will dominate both the media as well as implementations of XML. It is both an interesting and exciting trend towards simplifying and standardizing the literally hundreds of internal and external interfaces corporations have. Through 2002 and 2003, ZapThink expects that Web Services will have to face and surmount a list of critical roadblocks and challenges to implementation of Web Services in the enterprise including security, reliability, transaction handling, management, and many aspects of B2B integration. If these issues are not handled, then Web Services faces a limited scope of applicability.


Q: How about three to five years? Where do you see XML evolving in the next five years?
A: XML will increasingly become part of the everyday aspect of technology. In fact, it will soon become invisible. Just as TCP/IP and HTTP have become part of most of the applications we use these days, so too will XML and Web Services. Right now, they are top of mind as we resolve some of the lingering issues that prevent widespread use. However, once these issues are resolved, we can expect XML and Web Services to survive and become part of the every day framework of our lives.


Q: Which areas XML do you feel are the most controversial and what are your ideas on these areas?
A: We are still very much in the early days of developing and implementing XML and Web Services. One of the biggest challenges will be surmounting the “politics” that inevitably occur as vendors jockey for position as early leaders and capturers of market share. ZapThink goes above this politics by examining the reality of the market situation, the vendors and their offerings and positioning, and our predictions for how the market will shake out. We believe our honesty and forward-thinking leadership sets us apart from other analyst groups who have coverage of this space.


Q: If you have total control over its continuing evolution, where would you like to see XML in five years?
A: Well, experience has taught me that no one has control over the direction of any technology – regardless of possession of monopoly or patents. It is customers that always end up choosing what best suits them and determining the direction they want a technology such as XML to head. I would like to see end-users take XML as far as they wish it to go – or throw it by the wayside if it doesn’t meet their needs.


Q: What do you see as the biggest misconceptions about XML and web services?
A: ZapThink covers this in extreme detail in two of our most popular (and let me add free) reports: the Pros and Cons of XML and Pros and Cons of Web Services. Rather than trying to summarize those ideas, I encourage readers of this article to check out those documents and send us their feedback.


Q: Your recent book on XML and Web Services from SAMS is a masterful work on the topic. What led you to write this book?
A: Thank you for your praise on the book. The book was a collaborative effort with a number of really good, thought-leading authors including Jason Bloomberg (a ZapThink colleague), Maddhu Siddalingaiah, Dianne Kennedy, and others.

I am pleased to be part of such a great collaborative effort and hope people enjoy the book. I encourage those that haven’t read this authoritative and exhaustive reference on XML and Web Services to pick up a copy today!


Q: Please share with us, ten or more leading tips from the book?
A: The book is a great reference that we hope stays on the desks and shelves of XML developers and other interested parties for a long time. As such, it is chock full of key solutions to critical XML problems such as DTDs and Schema, the JAX pack, Web Services fundamentals, implementing .NET, major vertical and e-business standards, content management, and other critical XML topics.


Q: What future books can we expect from you?
A: I continue to be a major book contributor and am just wrapping up work on a title from Addison-Wesley called “Business Process Integration with Service-Oriented Architectures”. A bit longwinded, but we hope it will be the industry’s seminal book on the whos, whys, whats, and hows of integrating systems with Web Services and other Service-oriented techniques. I encourage readers who are interested in this topic to get this book when it’s out! I am also working on a number of proposals for other books – and I am sure you will find out when they’re available.


Q: What are the greatest drawbacks about XML?
A: There are plenty of drawbacks to implementing XML – if it even should be implemented – in certain scenarios. Many of these drawbacks are covered in ZapThink’s Pros and Cons of XML report, which I encourage readers to view at the ZapThink web site at http://www.zapthink.com.


Q: What are your recommendations for the ten top resources about XML, Web Services and related technologies?
A: Now that XML is becoming increasingly more prevalent in the enterprise and in the minds of developers, there are really a few great ways people can learn more about XML and Web Services:
• Books, of course, such as XML and Web Services Unleashed
• Conferences such as XML and Web Services One
• Training and focused seminars offered in the dozens (or even hundreds)
• Journals and trade magazines
• Key websites such as XML.com
• Through colleagues and organizations

XML should be part of an overall technology strategy, so users interested in using this technology should approach it as another, but critical, tool in their IT belt.


Q: Do you have any comments about specific industry players and their development/use of XML?
A: This is one of the key areas that ZapThink tracks. We have had over 200 conversations, or briefings, with critical XML and Web Services vendors and industry players. Our research, analysis, and insight covers precisely what these vendors are doing and how the markets for XML and Web Services products and solutions are developing. Readers interested in that should definitely check out the research available from ZapThink.


Q: Can you describe some of the projects that you have worked on and what tips you can pass on? Lessons learned and things you would have done differently…
A: ZapThink is focused on giving our customers a comprehensive, relevant, and timely understanding of XML and Web Services. Each user scenario is different, but our clients benefit from our industry-wide approach and insight on XML. In general, we encourage readers of this article to understand their business issues and how XML can solve those.


Q: Can you share your leading career tips for those thinking of getting into the computing field?
A: XML and Web Services present great opportunities for developers looking to expand their skills and marketability, if they are looking for jobs. Those who have a clear understanding of not only the technological and implementation details of XML and Web Services, but also the right contexts in which those technologies can be used will have a bright future ahead of them – even in these perilous economic times.


Q: What are the hottest topics that all IT professionals must know to be successful in the short term and long term?
A: IT professionals must face the new climate we are now in – budgets are tight, ROI timelines are short, and the technology landscape is rapidly changing. In order to survive this “new, new economy”, developers need to become highly proficient, agile, and customer-focused. Learning XML and Web Services can surely get these developers on the right track both in the short-term and long-term.


Q: If you were doing this interview, what four questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: So, want me to help you do your job, eh ;) Just kidding. Well, I would ask me one big thing: why is what I do important? I believe that ZapThink, as an extension of the key technology concerns I am interested in, will help people make the right use of the right technologies. We see XML and Web Services as being the “right technologies” as they evolve, and what we are helping people understand is their correct application. In as much as we can help businesses and individual developers understand the direction these technologies are heading, the role they can play, and the benefits of applying this technology, and in the process establish a successful analyst business, I can consider ZapThink a success. Until then, I will continue to work hard to meet those goals.


Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to enterprise corporations and organizations?
A: Focus, focus, focus. The time for waste, excess, and unfocused business plans are over. Businesses need to understand the new dynamics of the current marketplace and understand the role that XML and Web Services plays in this new landscape. There is little time to be learning critical business issues the hard way over a long period of time. ZapThink as well as other key leaders are aiming to shorten this time of understanding technology and thus be a benefit to our customers. So, basically – get started now on the path understanding is the key message to enterprises and developers alike.


Q: Thank you for sharing your valuable insights with us today and we look forward to hearing you speak at conferences, reading your books, and articles.
A: Thank you very much for your time and interest. If any readers have questions or other issues they’d like to address with me, I encourage them to contact me at rschmelzer@zapthink.com, or check the ZapThink web site at http://www.zapthink.com. We’re always glad to be of help.


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