You probably own at least a few O’Reilly books. You know, the ones with the animals on the cover? O’Reilly Media is well known to put out the highest quality technical books on the market.

Does Docker not only change DevOps, but could it change the way we fundamentally learn technology? What does the future of technical books look like? With the rise of eBooks, videos, interactive online learning, and guided courses, online education is changing rapidly and dramatically.

Background

Andrew Odewahn, CTO at O'Reilly Media

As CTO of O'Reilly Media, Andrew helps define and create new products, services, and business models that will help O'Reilly continue to make the transition to an increasingly digital future. He's written two books on database development, has experience as a software developer and consultant in a number of industries, including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and publishing.

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Show Notes

How are tech books changing in a digital world?

The thing that has not changed in the need for people to learn. This need is, and continues to be huge. The big change is the increased competition for people's attention, for learning. Khan Academy is just an amazing resource for learning all sorts of stuff. Code School, Codecademy… the list goes on and on. Blogs have information on anything you want to learn, obviously Stack Overflow is an amazing resource where pretty much any kind of question you have is right at the tips of your fingers.

What role do book publishers play with all this change?

There still is a need for book publishers to act as a guide to a big area. For example, if you look at something like Docker there is a lot of great resources, but having a way to walk-in and have guided experience is where publishers and books add a lot of value.

[07:06] Is reading, in general, up or down as a thing people do?

I think it is up. Just look at the mass quantities of words you consume on a daily basis... It's just not on a printed page, necessarily, any more. There is really a good role for text, it is a really good medium for transmitting information directly. Video is awesome for some things and text is great for other things. The distinction between "is this a book?" or "is this a video?"... those lines are going to really blur. This is where the next exciting innovation phase is for publishing and for information on the web, in general.

[07:58] Are eBooks a good enough next step for the evolution of paper books

They definitely have plusses and minuses. When the iPad and Kindle first came out there was huge interest, a huge surge in simply porting things over straight from the printed book into the new formats. The led to great portability, to great search, there's a great experience you can have from being able to carry a thousand books in your pocket. In areas where people want richer experiences the eBook doesn't really carry over that well. There is a lot further we can go if you think of the "book" in a digital-first manner.

[09:13] What does thinking of the "book" in a digital-first manner look like

That’s what we are trying to figure out. Restricting the answer to the types of books from O'Reilly (technical, etc.) in providing learning of complex concepts and systems; being more interactive, more responsive to what you do as a learner, such as testing to see if past context has been "learned" or internalized.

[10:40] How is Docker changing the way people learn technology?

You have to start with the fact that the package management system is really broken. As a newcomer to a system you are having to learn its particular build system, its package manager, and all these other unfamiliar things. How do you get started, installed, setup and running?

That seems like a pain, right?

There's such a hurdle before you've even decided whether you are interested in the new technology or not, to get to kick the tires. This is one of the first real places, if you are looking at Docker, where the experience is seamless and great. The consistency of Docker is one of its big strengths.

Can you give me one concrete example?

As an author, I hated the chapter one where you explained how to install the system. It was the worst, and then you become lifelong tech support for people that are still on Windows 95, or whatever. this is another big strength that Docker can bring to the learning environment.

[12:30] How is a company like O'Reilly thinking about incorporating Docker into the "books" metaphor for technical books?

First, you could think of Docker in augmenting the content, in a companion to the book. Being able to create and image that people could "Docker pull" and have a consistent view of all the technology, dependencies, and versions would be a great experience. This would allow the author to know what the reader's experience will be from the start.

[14:03] How does technology change the way that books work?

We experimented a lot with virtual machines and the experience as a reader of creating a virtual machine and pulling it down is a little bit alien. Having a Dockerfile and just getting up and going is so much better than trying to create Chef recipes or Ansible or other sorts of things.

[14:03] So Virtual Machines are hard for online tech education?

Virtual machines are great for specific stacks, but for a publisher like O'Reilly where we have a wide range of authors, with a wide range of experience it is difficult to deal with so many different approaches. Docker gives us the ability to be very consistent about what the file format is, that it is going to work in multiple things, and it is a pretty simple process for people to grasp.

[15:59] How is technology changing the way education works?

One of the most interesting things I am most excited about is thinking about the social nature of learning. Not necessarily "getting badges" for completing tasks, but rather being able to connect to other people, to form groups of like-minded people, and build into the content mechanisms to facilitate that.

Could you give me an example?

Sure, the ability to chat on each page of the "book", so you could chat with people that are on the same page as you are. Another aspect is the ability for teachers to connect with students in a variety of ways is an important aspect of learning and education. There are a number of people that are doing some really interesting work.

[18:13] How is self-publishing changing the way someone like O'Reilly thinks about books?

Self-publishing is interesting. There are a lot of topics that, because of the economics, O'Reilly would like to cover but can't. Self-publishing lets these sorts of topics be covered in an in-depth manner, it creates a marketplace, but its not something that a publisher at the scale of O'Reilly would necessarily do. I think its awesome that there are people out there creating content and publishing it and reaching an audience. Its not a threat at all and is a great way to expand the market, expand the pie for knowledge and for people to learn a lot of different things.

[19:27] One of the tools that O'Reilly provides its authors is "Atlas". This is an authoring system that maintains versioning, backed with git. Can you tell us a little about the Atlas system?

Atlas is an authoring environment that reflects the philosophy that O'Reilly has had about publishing for over 25 years. This philosophy has 3 parts:

  1. Version Control
  2. Semantic Markups -- support for ASCII, Markdown, HTML, DocBook, etc.
  3. Transformation of Content -- being able to take the semantic content from a repository and be able to transform it to a ePub or whatever device.

Can you tell us more?

For a long time, the system was a little bit of a pain. The idea behind Atlas was to see if they could create a beautiful experience, an easy to use experience, that embodies the 3 part philosophy. You start with a git repository and use the web interface (looks like working with MS Word). Many authors just clone the repo and write locally, using whatever editor they are comfortable with.

When they are ready they will commit and push the repo back to O'Reilly. There is a build process that takes the uploaded content and puts it through the same process that O'Reilly uses to send content to the printer. You can control this through the web interface or there is an API and control through the command line. There is also built-in support for some of the difficult areas of a publishing tool-chain, such as rendering math or styling things easily.

What about generating websites?

There is also an option for building a website, this is one of the things I am excited about. You can create your book, create a PDF, but also port it out to the web where you can add videos, have a branch that has interactive and live things. This is where O'Reilly is creating the platform to explore new ways to interact with new kinds of content.

[23:37] How would Docker fit into a tool like Atlas?

It is shockingly easy and great. You just check a Dockerfile into your project and instead of creating creating an ePub, PDF, or mobi the worker could take the Dockerfile, install all your dependencies and create the environment. Instead of thinking of your book as something other things go into, think of the place your book goes out to. As an author, you just hand in your Dockerfile with your requirements and Atlas will handle the rest.

[24:58] What made you want to write the Docker jumpstart for O'Reilly?

I used Atlas to generate the PDF, but Did you use Atlas to generate the Docker Jumpstart webpage is built using Harp, a static website generator. With Harp it is easy to stand up a site and style it... I was able to push that repository into Atlas and then drag my Markdown content files in and hit "build" and turn it into the PDF. We tried to build a tool that not only plays nicely with PDF and print, but with other existing systems. We want a tool that plays nicely with the rest of the web, rather than fighting it.

[26:36] What do you see as O'Reilly's future? How is O'Reilly changing as a result of these technology changes?

More software oriented, we need to think digital first. We have to think "what does the reader need?" and "what does the learner need?". Then we have to think "how can we package the knowledge that person has in a really compelling way so that it can teach most effectively?".

We have a vibrant conferences business and are seeing demand for smaller, more local events, and how can O'Reilly support this trend and how can content be created that is really good in that environment. We will be pushing the boundaries of how do we bring more people in, how do we scale learning, how do we scale the ability for people to self-organize into groups around these learning contexts that we create and that we make it easy for authors to build.

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