We’ve all been there. You’re building a new educational platform, one that delivers cutting edge content in a beautiful, seamless interface. You’ve thought through the user experience, you have the latest tech stack, and you’ve architected for performance and scalability. Someone on the team mocked up some sample content to develop against and the engineers are coding furiously. Now it’s time to populate this product with the real content. Except–in the flurry of the software development lifecycle, you forgot about a scalable content development lifecycle. Now you’re stuck waiting around for a year while you figure out how to put content into your amazing platform.
The Discipline of Content Engineering
Ok, maybe we haven’t all been there. But it’s a common problem in educational software development: how does content get into a format and location in such a way that it supports an engaging online experience?
Answering that question, and the questions that stem from it, can become a full time job.
- Should questions be stored in JSON or XML?
- How should the format differ as the content moves from the store of record to the runtime store?
- What tools are needed to write or digitize content?
- Can we develop against sample content while those tools are built? What should the samples look like?
- How should we test the content to make sure it’s accurate?
- How should we make sure the questions score correctly once they are loaded to the platform?
For building digital products in which content and code must interact seamlessly, someone needs to be accountable for raising and seeking solutions to these questions; and for many software teams, content can feel like a black box. As it happens, there is a specific discipline dedicated to opening up that black box: content engineering.
As the phrase “content is king” has become ubiquitous, content engineering has emerged as a discipline within software engineering. Cruce Saunders of [A] has defined it as “the discipline of organizing and shaping the structure and application of content, especially digital media, within technical environments.” Although he works mostly within a marketing context, the definition holds its own in digital publishing as well.
Just as software engineering is the discipline of ensuring that all the components of a software system function together correctly, content engineering is the discipline of ensuring that the content delivered through a software system functions correctly. And in the education and technology space, this means ensuring that the lifecycle of content from the author to the browser is defined and documented.
The Content Pipeline
At Cengage, we usually refer to the content lifecycle as the “content pipeline.” This chain of systems, humans, transforms, and handoffs (really just your classic inputs, outputs, and triggers) is where we content engineers live. And just like software engineers, our work reaches its apex when we design a system that can scale.
As an example, think about the problem of digital-first content authoring: how do we write high quality content that truly leverages the digital medium? The first question the content engineer asks, of course is: what tools and formats do we use to write the content? But that question quickly spawns others.
- Will the authoring environment handle multiple authors simultaneously?
- Can the storage systems handle many different versions of the same content?
- How will we update content?
- Is it possible to push content updates out to thousands of users simultaneously?
- Is that even a good idea?
Asking and answering these questions ensures that we can not only create our content once, but maintain and augment it efficiently. In other words, we can scale the content pipeline.
Ok, you ask, what makes a good content engineer? (You ask good questions. Maybe you should be a content engineer!) Since the content pipeline almost always spans many different teams, specializations, and systems, content engineering is equal parts process improvement, technical acumen, and communication savvy. A good content engineer can register shift between technical and non-technical discourse as necessary, while maintaining an awareness of how each piece of the content pipeline fits into the whole.
Think about this commonly used interview question: “do you consider yourself a details person or a big picture thinker?” For digital product builds, content engineering provides a rare and thorough blend of both styles. It’s easy to see how that mix of skills can provide a lot of value to a development team. When content engineers are fully integrated with development teams and have the right amount of organizational support, you can feel much better about the success of any content-heavy project.