Web Development

XML training: Preparing for the future

With XML quickly becoming the most popular markup language, you need to ensure that employees at your company get the right training. Read on for a primer on XML training.

XML is one of the hottest skill sets in the IT industry. It’s no wonder, then, that the demand for XML training is overwhelming.

“Far more people are taking training right now than are doing [XML],” said Debbie Lapeyre, an XML trainer with Rockville, MD-based Mulberry Technologies. “There’s a greater demand for training out there than trainers can supply.”

That demand could put quite a burden on the IT training departments of large companies. In this article, we’ll offer:
  • ·        A definition of XML
  • ·        Implications for trainers
  • ·        Tips for training programmers
  • ·        Starting points

What is XML?
An alternative to HTML, eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is a language for creating markup languages that describe data. Unlike HTML—which describes document structure and visual presentation—XML describes data in a human readable format that is both database-neutral and device-neutral.

Experts say XML will someday eliminate the need for browser developers and middleware tools to add special HTML extensions, commonly known as tags. Because it is database-neutral, XML will play a role in connecting diverse databases. By using XML, data can be transferred from application to application and from machine to machine.

To create an XML "vocabulary,” a programmer supplies a specific Document Type Definition (DTD), which provides the rules that define the elements and structure of the vocabulary. When XML becomes a common language, users will need to learn how to create useful tag sets and how to live within the limitations of an application that requires valid tagging, say experts like Lapeyre. “The large companies—IBM, Sun, Microsoft—are trying to get all their people trained,” Lapeyre said. “More and more, they want all of their employees to have a basic understanding and their technical employees to know how to work within it—to know how to write documents and write DTDs.”

What does XML mean to trainers?
Large training firms such as Architag and Isogen offer XML training, usually through seminars around the country. Lapeyre said such courses are high-quality, but companies that need customized training are better off hiring a smaller firm like Mulberry Technologies. She said her firm will tailor courses for executives, managers, authors, and editors, as well as production and technical service personnel.

“We usually spend an hour with senior staff…[because] upper-level management really just needs one hour on what XML is and why it’s important. We spend about a half a day with the layer just below that. They need about a half a day on how it will affect their work processes, and what kinds of changes will be necessary. We also work with programmers—it’s a three-day course where we teach them how to do it.”

A good training course for programmers will teach XML from the ground up, as a transition from HTML or SGML, and document analysis. Lapeyre added that anything shorter than a three-day course for programmers is not enough. “In three days, we can go through all the concepts and have you writing fairly complex DTDs. If you leave out the one day of concepts, you can learn syntax in one-and-a-half to two days. We prefer the three-day course because they see it from the user perspective and they learn all the basics.”

Experts also advise that when it comes time for the IT trainer to ensure that employees are XML-proficient, it’s better to collaborate with an expert than to conduct training alone. “The few courses I’ve seen put together by IT trainers as opposed to XML experts were really bad,” Lapeyre said. “I think it’s because they don’t know the field. You need practitioners more than you need training expertise. I would advise the IT trainer to team with XML experts. Bring your knowledge of how to put a course together and how to write together with a practitioner who knows how XML is used.”

How do you train programmers?
It’s wise to have a project in mind for programmers before getting them XML training. Tim Landgrave, an IT consultant based in Louisville, KY, says if you don’t give a specific assignment, “you’ll just frustrate them.”

Landgrave added that in order to learn XML, programmers should first be well versed—although not necessarily experts—in HTML. “Then I would start them on the XML tutorial on the Microsoft Developer Network site,” he said.

To write XML, Landgrave said programmers “will need to understand the basics of an object model, how style sheets work, and some kind of server-side scripting language” such as JavaScript, VBScript, Perl, or Python. They should also understand how to use transaction monitors and message queues to improve performance.

While a background in HTML can, in some ways, pave the way to understanding XML, programmers will have to think outside of the HTML box to truly comprehend the new language. “They’ll understand the concept of tagging, so we don’t have to spend time on that,” Lapeyre said. “People who know HTML well tend to think of tags in relationship to how they want them to display; how they want it to look on the screen. They’re very oriented to tags as formatting. In the most useful XML, you don’t tag content, you tag structure.”

And once they learn it, XML specialists are still part of a minority in the IT industry. No certification or standards exist yet for XML.

“The field only goes back to 1996,” Lapeyre said. “There are not even codified best practices. This really is far more an art than a science.”

Where do I begin?
There are a number of starting points for XML training. If you’re a self-starter, check out these resources available from Fatbrain.com :
  • ·        The XML Black Book ($36.95, Coriolis Group Books). This is Landgrave’s current favorite and has been called the most comprehensive reference available on XML.
  • ·        The XML Companion ($31.95, Addison-Wesley). Lapeyre said this one provides an accessible, comprehensive description of each XML feature.
  • ·        The XML and SGML Cookbook: Recipes for Structured Information ($54.99, Prentice Hall). Another Lapeyre recommendation, this book demonstrates how to create DTDs for virtually every type of commonly used document, both simple and complex.

For formal instruction, contacting firms that offer XML training is the next step. Architag offers hands-on XML training with upcoming courses in Denver, Washington, and San Francisco. Likewise, Isogen presents vendor-neutral training scenarios at seminars around the country.
Are you teaching or planning to teach XML classes? To share your opinions and experiences, please post a comment below or send us a note to let us know what XML means to your business.
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