This will endeavour to be a relatively compact overview of some of the paths I have followed and some of the things I have done. Just as all histories are selective, this one will try to flag those things that bear mostly upon my professional life, insofar as this can be meaningfully isolated from the larger picture.
I was born in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia on July 1st, which also happens to be Canada Day (making me the true "Joe Canadian"), and grew up as part of a tight knit military family that moved regularly between various locations in Canada, Germany and England. During my high school years, I managed to spend an unusually large amount of time on, of all places, rifle ranges, including those in Bisley, England.
My university years began at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, where for the first couple of years I could not decide between mathematics and literature, and for the last two years I could not decide amongst literature, philosophy & history. The net effect was that I studied a great many subjects.
These wilfully impractical studies were counter-balanced throughout by a rather intense involvement in the Canadian Armed Forces and specifically with the Royal Canadian Artillery. Initially a gunner, then a bombardier, I became a junior officer after graduating in 1985 from the Officer Training Program at the School of Artillery in the Armed Forces Combat Training Centre. In the course of several years, I gained experience as a gunner, a gun detachment commander, a gun tractor driver, a command post technician, a surveyor, an observation post radio operator, a range officer, a command post officer, a gun position officer, a forward observation officer, a headquarters staff officer and, most challenging and enjoyable of all, a course officer and chief instructor for combat leadership.
After graduating with a Baccalaureate from Queen’s, I continued my studies at the University of Oxford, from which I graduated in 1989 with a Masters of Philosophy. My habit of pursuing a variety of subjects in parallel continued, with my inquiries ranging amongst history, philosophy, and literature with a particular focus on England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Just to keep things interesting, I also spent time studying topics as unrelated as economics, computing, French, and even a smattering of physiology. Of these, it was literature that somehow provided the connective tissue that could be used to assemble disparate strands. Aside from becoming a tolerable punter who regularly ferried my wife and growing family along the Isis and Cherwell, I spent a huge amount of time in the Bodleian Library rummaging through history.
Returning to Canada in 1989, I put on a uniform once more but this time I would be entering National Defence Headquarters where, through a series of connections and referrals, I found myself as a project officer in the Directorate of Computer Systems Engineering and Maintenance. It goes without saying that I was something of a fish out of water in an environment where the vast majority of the staff wore either a blue Air Force uniform or a white lab coat. I will never forget being introduced at a summer barbeque by our Director. When he said, with evident delight in knowing it would provoke the crowd, that I was a “Gunner”, there was a discernable murmur of disapproval. But when he continued with, “and he has a Masters of Philosophy” there was an audible gasp of incomprehension. This community turned out to be much more welcoming than these early signs foretold. There was always a need for people who could communicate and, given some of the initiatives then underway, who could bring to the table some prior experience with content technologies which I had accidentally encountered during my studies.
In 1991, I decided that it was time to strike out on my own and to pursue the management and exploitation of content technologies as my chosen specialization. I canvassed my network of mentors and was pointed towards a particular government technology mega-project - “Everyone should be part of a major disaster,” I was told, “and as early in a career as possible as it will keep them grounded thereafter”. I took that advice. And true enough, the mega-project in question did turn into something of a debacle although due to the brilliant and indefatigable efforts of a senior project director and a dedicated team, it charted a course that minimized the damage and salvaged some important lessons.
As if the challenges associated with one mega-project were not enough, I became involved in a collection of parallel projects and began to assemble a network of like-minded colleagues under the name Euclid Consulting Group. Pursuing a variety of concurrent projects was one way of accumulating experience at an accelerated pace and this was particularly useful when the content technologies, in which I was specializing, were evolving so rapidly. By 1993, I was heavily embroiled in projects of all shapes and sizes that in one way or another were leveraging open standards, and specifically the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and what was then the fledgling Web.
In 1994, I transitioned my primary focus to a fascinating initiative within the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) that had been chartered to make materiel management paperless by 2002. This was the CALS initiative (Continuous Acquisition and Lifecycle Support) and it was in fact the third attempt to capitalize on this larger international movement by successfully applying open markup standards and leading-edge content technologies to the challenges associated with managing, exchanging, publishing and maintaining highly complex technical information. The involvement in this particular endeavour stretched over a ten year period and I have chronicled elements of this adventure on a number of occasions and still return to them, from time to time, to extract further lessons. Given that a large part of my role mixed concept evangelism with solution design, my colleagues within the department assigned me the mischievously unique title of CALS Philosopher and had official departmental business cards printed up.
Sticking with the historical pattern, I juggled a series of undertakings in conjunction with being immersed in the CALS initiative. One of the activities I undertook was to prepare, in 1996, an intensive week-long workshop that would introduce SGML, together with its syntax and associated technologies, and that would champion design and management strategies that were emerging as essential if these standards and technologies were to be deployed effectively. The resulting course, brashly entitled Understanding the Intelligence behind the Internet, was delivered on a number of occasions to sold-out venues and was very well received in part, I believe, because it mixed technical details with business considerations and real-world project case studies.
By 1996, momentum was building for a re-packaging of SGML, with this becoming the Extensible Markup Language (XML), and this effort promised to ignite a new and much more expansive wave of adoption for open markup standards. Once the XML recommendation was finalized by the W3C in early 1998, a small group of occasional collaborators agreed to launch a new business venture. The mission of this venture would be to help organizations capitalize upon the promise of XML, in part by leveraging the lessons provided by earlier SGML initiatives. So a company was formed in May of 1998 with a recursive name – XIA Information Architects. With this name it was hoped that a due focus would be shifted onto the design of the information structures that would ultimately find expression in markup and enable new types of business applications. A few years later, and reflecting the fact that XIA had evolved into a provider of integrated technology solutions, the company’s name was changed to XIA Systems Corporation.
Once again, the defining feature of the XIA adventure was a sobering array of projects in sectors as diverse as aerospace and education, healthcare and telecommunications, engineering and government. A stellar team of people and a network of enlightened, if sometimes demanding, customers ensured that once again experience was accumulated at an accelerated pace.
Among the more entertaining adjuncts to the XIA initiative was my involvement in the XML World series of conferences. After pinch-hitting for a number of no-show speakers at the 1998 event, I acted as the annual conference chair from 1999 to 2002. This included a sold-out gathering at the height of both the high tech and XML bubbles in 2000, when a number of firms literally blanketed Boston with billboards announcing the arrival of XML into the mainstream. This gathering was also memorable because Sir Tim Berners-Lee agreed to participate in the conference and to join me in conducting a town hall meeting on the topic of XML and the future of the semantic web. For each of the events, I was primarily responsible for sculpting an engaging program that was independent of commercial influence while remaining commercially interesting for attendees, speakers and exhibitors.
Another entertaining side story from my time with XIA Systems was provided by a protracted legal tussle with the Canadian Government over procurement practices. The events in question ran between 2002 and 2003 and it all started, innocently enough, with a standard procurement being conducted for the provision of technology development services. Given the close fit between what was being sought and what XIA specialized in, we were immediately a leading contender. As often happens, this particular procurement was in fact a ruse because the client department had already chosen and deployed a preferred vendor. Suspecting this to be the case, I made the XIA proposal unbeatably strong and this forced the government to invent a reason to reject our proposal. In the exchanges that immediately followed this decision, I provided them with one last chance to do the right thing. I even gave them "gentlemanly fair warning" that I was something of an expert in the formalities of federal government procurement policies and practices and that I was probably not the person they wanted to tangle with. But following the preferred practice of government, and especially once the lawyers and spin-doctors get involved, the government elected instead to circle the wagons and defend their position. When I received their final decision, I derived no small amount of pleasure in returning a simple written response: "wrong answer".
To make a long story short, I took the Government to the International Trade Tribunal and within this arena I traded volleys with an army of government lawyers. And in the end I was victorious and the judgement amounted to a fulsome castigation of the government's conduct. When the settlement was rolled into the equation, the outcome looked more like a merciless spanking of the legal team that had been arrayed against me. Now the very best part of this story came a little later when I ran into a cadre of these lawyers sent to a meeting where I would be raising concerns about another procurement. The exchange that followed is one that I have probably repeated a few too many times:
"Are you a lawyer?" One intrepid soul slowly asked.
"Worse" was my immediate response.
There was a pause while my inquisitor pondered the possible meaning of my response. Then his eyes opened as if he was recognizing the true nature of his enemy for the first time:
In 2004, and after it had progressed through a series of growth stages, a conscious effort was made to prepare XIA Systems for sale. This undertaking proved to be as educational as it was demanding. As anyone who has undergone a similar adventure will know, this type of effort is usually accompanied by a number of challenges. Among the challenges was the fact that with the growth of XIA came diversification and XIA had come to encompass a number of business units, each with their own circle of stakeholders. Naturally, different suitors were interested in different parts, although there was one large company whose designs were on the entire operation. The process continued until the acquisition of the core XML business unit of XIA was completed by Stilo International of the UK. This acquisition in fact worked well for all parties because it combined the proven technology of Stilo, and specifically the highly regarded OmniMark programming language and content processing platform, with the domain knowledge and solution experience of the XIA team.
Over several years at Stilo, I became embroiled in a new array of projects - this time with an emphasis on projects that called upon the highest standards of technical sophistication and design elegance in order to reach and sustain almost unimaginable levels of performance and reliability. At Stilo, I became part of a team that exemplified dedication to quality and customer service and hopefully a few extra measures of this rubbed off on me. The confluence of these project experiences with those that went before did reinforce in my mind that the most important steps that can be taken towards success in deploying content technologies are to be found in the earliest phases of every project - when goals are being set and requirements articulated. This recognition has led to the launch of a new initiative to assemble and deploy tools and techniques for assisting organizations in taking these critical early steps. And so came into being Gnostyx Research.
In many ways the stream of projects has continued unabated up to the present, with this meaning that it has now been over 30 years within which I have been accumulating experience at this accelerated pace. One observation that can be drawn, in surveying the litany of projects in retrospect, is that open markup standards enable a new type of business solution, one that can traverse organizational or technological boundaries and that can marshal not only data resources and business rules but also the knowledge assets that supply these solutions with a purpose and with the ability to adapt successfully over time. That the solutions enabled by open markup standards and intelligent content technologies find application in every field of human endeavour also ensures that I can continue to range widely across boundaries that might otherwise constitute barriers to inquiry and to growth.
On the subject of inquiry and growth, after years of tracking its existence, I finally got around to participating in the International Masters Program for Managers (IMPM.org). This program was interesting as it had been conceived, by leading management thinker Henry Mintzberg, as an alternative to the ubiquitous MBA and in particular an alternative that specialized in engaging experienced managers instead of fresh grads. So once I had effected the monumental task of moving to beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, I launched into this program. Of course, in the middle of this immersive experience COVID-19 came along and upended its model of conducting intensive modules at each of the five participating universities around the world. This disruption was, through hard work by everyone involved, turned into a positive as we collectively moved our learning online and pushed ahead. The character of the program was altered by this adjustment and while we all agreed that sacrifices had to be made, there were positives to be found as well. I concluded this experience by completing the requirements for the Masters degree at McGill University under the supervision of Henry Mintzberg. The focus of my research was somewhat reflexive as I studied our use of a virtual community platform as part of our move to a virtual posture on the IMPM program. And this line of inquiry continues....
One of the things that gets lost amid the fray of work is the fact that it is only part of a larger story. There are, of course, many sides to this larger story. One such side, which I struggle to imagine how I managed to juggle, was involvement in the many activities that my four children pursued. This included coaching soccer (football for my global friends) for children ranging in age between four and fifteen. It even included three successive years in which I participated in the notorious "Dad's Dance" that my daughters' dance studio undertook as some comic relief in their annual recitals. And over a ten year period, it also included being a certified hockey trainer and assistant coach for hockey, which as some of you will know is something of a religion in Canada. My status as an assistant coach was a little funny because, having spent enough years in Germany as a child, I had never played hockey growing up. It turned out though that while many fathers want to claim being a hockey coach on their resumes not many actually wanted to spend much quality time in the locker rooms or freezing to death on the bench. Invariably that job fell to the head coach and to me. As a certified hockey trainer, I did in fact have to deal with a bizarrely wide range of injuries and I did have to spend an unfathomable amount of time in rural hospitals with players needing attention. There is no escaping the fact that hockey is a rough sport. But the experience was absolutely positive perhaps because it calls for a lot of courage from the players as well as skill and perserverance. I still run into players, who are now young adults, who light up when they see me and shout out "Hey Coach!" or even better "Yo Mr. G!" This is definitely something to be proud of and something that I can look back fondly upon.