From driftwood to PDFMaker, and finally Strategic Technology Analysis - Is there any stopping Jim Cole?

The second in our series of experts focuses on Jim Cole of Cole Sofware Consulting. Jim wrote the long-forgotten MS-DOS version of Acrobat Reader 1.0. This required him to write a GUI manager and a memory manager from scratch, modify mouse and video drivers, and integrate Adobe Type Manager and the rasterizer from Adobe Illustrator. He suggests it was kind of like building a house out of driftwood (MS-DOS); it's probably possible, but why would you want to when you could use two-by-fours (e.g., Windows) instead? Jim also created the PDFMaker add-on for Acrobat 3 and 4. Read on to see what Jim is doing now...

Q.1 Jim, I understand that you're working in the area of Strategic Technology Analysis, can you give us a breakdown of STA?

Strategic Technology Analysis is a way for me to help my clients achieve their strategic goals more quickly and with less wasted effort. It combines my 15 years of software development and management experience with the business and economic analysis skills I've developed during that time. It also benefits from the skills and knowledge I learned while while earning a Master's degree in Economics and writing a thesis on the economics of intellectual property and pricing on the Internet. I've been doing this strategic consulting for about a year, and as I finish up the software projects I'm working on for various clients, I'm increasing the amount of time I spend on it. By focusing on helping clients with strategic initiatives, I can have a much bigger positive impact on their business than if I were simply writing software for them.

Q.2 How is this different from the kind of analysis that a company like Dataquest does?

Unlike broadly-targeted technology research provided by large firms such as Forrester Research and Dataquest, I provide hands-on, in-depth analysis of technologies relevant to my clients' specific strategic goals. I can understand and help refine the short-term and long-term strategic goals for a new product or technology-based service, and develop a model to map these goals onto available and upcoming third-party technology. As an experienced developer of system software, application software, and Internet software, I can actually put the technology to use to determine how well it really works, and how well it achieves the relevant strategic goals.

With my combination of strategic and technical skills, I help my clients figure out not only what to do, but exactly how to do it. This can save them a considerable amount of development effort by getting their project started on a technological foundation that works and will enable them to achieve their goals.

Q.3 Are you focusing exclusively on product and service development projects?

No, I'm also doing an in-depth competitive analysis for one client. The services I offer would also be useful for performing technological due diligence when considering an acquisition or partnership. That's an area where the right analysis can save a company literally tens of millions of dollars by preventing an acquisition that doesn't have as much technological synergy as it might appear to have on the surface.

Q.4 Ok, so you are able to use your considerable low level experience (operational) to assist with the more strategic business level planning. That sounds like the sort of experience that many companies could benefit from. Can you give us an example of the sorts of clients that you work with?

My clients are typically well-known software, internet, and hardware companies, such as Intuit and 3Com's Palm Computing Division. Because I've worked on a number of high-volume products and web sites over the years, we speak the same language in terms of customer focus, quality, and the overall development process.

Q.5 Can you tell us about the process involved in doing Strategic Technology Analysis?

A project I did for Intuit is a good example of the process. It involved evaluating dozens of vendors of electronic commerce software to try and find technology that could help Intuit achieve some very specific strategic goals. I used a four-step process. First, I met with engineers and marketers at Intuit to make sure I understood the project and their goals. Second, I developed a graphical model of the technology required to achieve these goals. This model proved very useful in sparking discussions during a series of meetings at Intuit. It helped refine the consensus of what the strategic goals for this project were, and how to prioritize them.

Third, I developed a fairly detailed spreadsheet-based model that I used for analyzing vendors' technology. This let me very quickly determine whether a particular vendor had technology that was strong in the areas that were important to Intuit, and whether their technology was missing any of the functionality we'd decided was absolutely required. People from Intuit would frequently call me with nothing more than the name of a company they had heard about, and I was usually able to tell them within a half-hour whether or not we should do a more in-depth evaluation of that company's technology.

The fourth step was to meet with the couple of vendors who seemed to have appropriate technology, and really grill them. This went as far as getting one vendor's server-based software running on my server, and developing some sample applications with it. With this type of in-depth, hands-on technology analysis, I was able to give Intuit very specific answers about the strengths and weaknesses of the various vendors' software. In one case, I found that a key feature Intuit would have depended on didn't actually work; the vendor finally admitted to me that since no one had ever used it, they'd never really bothered to finish it. But if you just read their documentation, the feature sounded great.

Q.6 Lastly Jim, any comments on the new Acrobat 4.0?

I think Adobe has done a great job of focusing on information workflow, which is an area where Acrobat is very strong. A lot of companies are buying into Adobe's idea of PDF-based information workflow because their information is in so many different formats, and it's just too hard to convert it all to HTML.

Acrobat 4.0 has a lot of features that will extend its use as a platform for building workflow solutions. Some of these new pieces are big and obvious, and some are more subtle. For instance, one of the pieces of Acrobat 4.0 that I worked on, PDFMaker, utilizes Distiller's new COM/ActiveX interface. This interface enables PDFMaker to have much more control over the distillation process, and also provide a lot more user feedback during distilling. I'm sure that third-party software will start to take advantage of these new features to provide more PDF workflow tools.

Stay tuned for more interviews with experts to find out more from the people who created PDF technology
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