Operations: Still Standing

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By: Jim Rosenberg

If a healthy start and moderation thereafter contribute to longevity, then Software Consulting Services LLC probably can trace its own long life — in an industry littered with long-dead systems providers — to its decision to helping newspapers make newspapers rather than helping them produce content. Instead of creating the first or best editorial or classified front-end system, it automated an important and unique challenge for daily newspapers.

More than 30 years later, with more than 300 newspapers using its systems, SCS says Layout-8000 is responsible for dummying about half of U.S. daily newspaper copies and accounts for a quarter of its revenue. So it’s no surprise that the company hews to publishers’ principal business activities — advertising and production. It replaced its own editorial system years ago, first selling Tera’s GN3 and for most of the past decade the system from Sweden’s Scoop Publishware, with image-handling software from Norway’s FotoWare and wire-capture from Canada’s QuickWire Labs.

Richard Cichelli’s contributions to production may not go back to electronic typesetting, but without automated layout, computerizing newsrooms and classified-ad departments would have been only an incremental improvement on typewriters — because pagination wouldn’t be nearly as helpful without a digital dummy. And without pagination, of course, there would be no platesetting. For prepress, photoengraving’s analog tail would still be wagging the digital dog.

Throughout all the changes in the publishing systems business, SCS is still owned and led by its founders, still characterized by big ideas and a small staff, and still located in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Fewer than a handful of other U.S. systems suppliers remain under original ownership, and only one comes close to the longevity of SCS, which relies neither on big debt nor outside investors.

A large figure running a lean company, former chess champion Cichelli keeps his hand in teaching computer science at Lehigh University and hires from eastern-Pennsylvania colleges known for engineering programs. SCS has 28 employees, including Cichelli and is wife, Martha, who founded the company in 1975. Down 10 from a few years ago, the staff includes 11 degreed computer scientists, a sales team and support personnel. It’s also had as many as seven interns from five countries but has none this summer for budgetary reasons.

Though Cichelli — who early on worked in architecture and banking — says FotoWare products sold to non-newspaper customers account for “maybe 15 to 20%” of his business, and he’s considered exploring other businesses’ problems, publishers remain the “people I know, like and trust.”

Having turned down at least one prospective buyer in recent years, Cichelli maintains he never sought to follow a breakout product with a company build-out followed by his own cash-out. “My sandbox wasn’t Florida, it was the newspaper business,” he says.

Cichelli characterizes Martha and himself as “conservative and dedicated” owners. Among systems vendors these days, “a lot of us have trouble making money on installations,” he acknowledges. “We built the company around support” — income from which keeps SCS afloat. “We’re willing to ride out the bad times and keep the company going.” In some sense, that also applies to support customers, for whom SCS keeps computing platform costs low and upgrades free.

“I do computer science for newspapers,” he continues. “Newspapers have some of the most unbelievably fascinating problems to solve.” Work on those problems led to things like progressive repagination of classified sections to achieve the best effect, faceted search to automatically recognize and assign attributes of an ad’s order and its content, and, most recently, ColorAdBoss to determine for a given ad layout the optimum imposition on anything short of an all-color-tower press.

Interacting with Layout-8000, the AdBoss suite consists of a half-dozen modules, with another five in the pipeline and some bundled for free trial with the just-released version 12 of Layout-8000. ColorAdBoss eliminates the conversation between the ad department and the pressroom, according to support staffer Brian McCasland. A logic-based module using data compiled from a comprehensive survey of a site’s presses, it does not rely on templates or a library of layouts and impositions. When an operator selects a press, the system shows pages, color locations, spreads, section fronts and information about the ads. Ads dragged onto the pages change press set-up accordingly. Initial settings default to simple set-ups — for example, no angle bars in use.

Because an operator can do “a layout preliminary run anytime,” says Cichelli, it can be tried early and often enough to sell more color ads, avoiding calls to the pressroom near deadline. It also quickly addresses problems caused by large, late-arriving ads and printing units that go out of service. The alternative, he suggests, is keeping a 70-year-old pressroom foreman alive and employed for all the plate impositions and possible web leads stored in his head — or investing in all-color presses.

ColorAdBoss works for both the revenue and cost sides. Upstream, for sales, it generates reports clearly showing what’s been sold on what page, with or without color, and what space is left (also with or without color). Downstream, the module doesn’t ignore the impact on the pressroom, as it shows, among other considerations, the comparative complexity of any press layout, the manning differences between layouts, newsprint roll sizes needed and angle bars to be used.

Cichelli isn’t shy about calling his products proprietary, even as they rely on common hardware platforms, open-source software and recognized standards, and can interface with other systems. “There is nothing that happens in our systems that we don’t have the source [code] for,” he says. Consequently, SCS’ work is not held hostage to other developers’ problems, because its offerings are not layered solutions depending on others’ work. SCS, he adds, fixes its own problems, keeping costs down.

Suspicious of marketing, Cichelli aims to apply underlying technologies where they make the most sense. SCS avails itself of any new technology compatible with its aims, sometimes making it an early adopter (the small-terminal thin client a number of years ago), sometimes not. Cichelli’s fine with SOA for external connectivity, as in SCS Community Advertising Services modules, but sees drawbacks when used for internal functions.

In some ways it resembles what he calls expensive, Windows-only Citrix software, with servers, separate from the application server, on both ends. SOA needs speed and full agreement on one interface space, he says, because systems developers need “a clear universal way of requesting service [and] way of responding.” More generally, he asks why others’ classified systems can’t hand his pagination system the information it needs rather than having to go back to the other system’s database. To enable users to chose and use various vendors’ software, Cichelli says, “all of us who serve newspapers should be working together.”

So where SOA fell short in his view, Cichelli sought a Linux-based system with no per-user license. He found that and more at Rome-based NoMachine, which has offices in Cincinnati. NoMachine’s NX technology provides remote access to newspaper-industry programs on Linux servers in customers’ data centers. Compression, session resilience and other characteristics that enable it to run any graphical application on any operating system across any network connection, according to the company.

“Here’s the part that made me fall out of the chair,” Cichelli says: Broadband is unnecessary to access the graphical interface screen on the server owing to NoMachine’s compression. “They’ve kept up with the latest stuff” and tested it on all platforms, he says. A site already running Linux can just download NoMachine clients and servers. If NoMachine NX couldn’t do what SOA aims to do, Cichelli insists, then it wouldn’t have been able to substitute for three generations of X Servers at SCS.

Delaware’s Dover Post Co. is among SCS customers using NX, with just one license. “They can’t even tell that they’re not in the building,” Cichelli says of the single-server, multi-site arrangement.

NoMachine offers two free concurrent connections. So for SCS sales, “the free version everyone gets,” says Cichelli. “We don’t want you paying anyone else a significant amount of dollars if you buy from us.”

That’s part of the SCS strategy: If its systems cost as much as others, the platform, costs only one-fifth as much, says Cichelli. So if his remarks about proprietary products hearken back to earlier days of “front-end systems” of heavily supported soup-to-nuts software and (sometimes specialized) hardware, his practice of making money on his software and saving customers money on the operating platform definitely runs against the original model.

So does his approach to maintenance, developing software that allows superusers to perform that function without relying on shrinking IT staffs. The aim is to put customers in “control of the situation, and us as the back-up,” says Cichelli. “We’re happy to make an IT department more effective by taking the drudgery out of their day,” and giving them more time “to try our stuff.”

This moves SCS support functions and costs away from help-desk activity (though Cichelli says customers can reach a person at any hour), and toward self-installing upgrades. Calling support contracts reasonable and price hikes few over the years, he’s fine with fewer support calls coming in, pointing out that even drivers who have had no accidents usually still want to be insured.

Only one company ever discontinued support while using SCS software. It later re-signed. “You can’t buy our talent and understanding for an hourly rate. It wouldn’t work,” Cichelli says. Support isn’t simply for software as a product but as an implementation in which there may be a dozen interfaces for Layout-8000 and ClassPag.

Not surprisingly, the company that automates customers’ processes has automated and streamlined its own, relying on technology and technique. Perhaps chief among the former, its own domain-specific language supports generative programming using a software toolkit — for writing software. A work in progress for more than 20 years, the Spice language is especially suited to creating and deploying interactive database-oriented publishing applications, according to Cichelli. Instead of creating old and new contexts, the automation creates a higher-level context in which to write instructions for how and when to use/reuse coding with tagged locations.

The formula language is compiled into a code executed by the Spice virtual machine. Built to run on a number of common computing platforms, the virtual machine functions as a sort of executive intermediary that obviates porting each application to each desired OS. An application written in the formula language will run on whatever platform the virtual machine runs on. So instead of spending time on low-level programming, developers can focus on things like business logic, the user interface and database design, according to Cichelli.

SCS began moving Layout-8000 from its C code to Spice over four years ago. Cichelli uses the dummying system’s Page Graphic Layout module to illustrate the advantage. PGL provides greater functionality than its predecessor module, but with only 4% of the total coding.

A major assist came from adoption of Bassett Frames. Whereas the cut-and-paste of letter-writing employs learned rules that enable almost automatic typing, Bassett Frames record the rules for code writing “in all the ways it might be modified to suit a particular situation,” explains Cichelli, who likens it to the ultimate form-letter generator. “It allows us to build software faster, better, cheaper,” he says. Frames are templates with a certain Bassett-defined structure, with markers where code can be inserted, deleted, and/or changed.

Bassett Frames and the Spice DSL, for example, enabled SCS to create a more flexible program for The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J., far faster than were the same work outsourced to India, according to Cichelli.

Productivity is achieved not by some virtual code-writing machine taking over programmers’ jobs, but instead by giving those programmers more sophisticated development tools — rather like replacing a cabinetmaker’s hand tools with easily programmable power tools.

As for technique, SCS adopted agile development using scrum project management, along with continual software development and distribution. Scrum creates a framework for organizing a self-managing team and its work, says Chris Wolfe, SCS’ “scrum evangelist” who heads the Layout-8000 upgrade team. The process, according to Cichelli, sidesteps the frustration of a manager lacking team members’ knowledge and knowledgeable team members unauthorized to manage.

Tasks are prioritized according to the importance assigned them by newspapers. “It allows us to get more work done” — beginning with what the customer most values, says Wolfe, noting it is adaptable to changing needs. All requests go into a “backlog” that the customer may reprioritize every two weeks. Each two–week period is guided by a “sprint” list of tasks from which members select their work.

The Easton (Pa.) Express-Times was the first paper to participate in scrum at SCS — the development of Layout-8000’s version 11. Every week SCS made the latest iteration of the upgrade available via the Web as a complete release for five-minute installation by a power user (and a five-minute reversion to the earlier release were there a problem), according to Cichelli and Wolfe.

The process allows users to “provide very early feedback,” says Wolfe, keeping a project on course, finding and fixing problems as they arise rather than going back into a “finished” product, and delivering constant additions over short periods of time rather than waiting for project completion and customer testing.

“It used to take us two-and-a-half years to get everybody on the latest release of Layout — by which time it was not the latest release,” says Cichelli. Now, he adds, a team may squeeze out two updates in a week, as happened with ClassPag.

But for all that, says Cichelli, “I don’t talk about scrum to publishers.”

Instead, he basically asks a prospective customer what he prefers: a methodical project created in manageable steps that can be built and refined in usable or testable increments over time, or a finished full system delivered by a certain date, but which may not be quite what the publisher had in mind.

It’s characteristic of Cichelli, who happily supplies as much technical literature as product literature. Much of the newspaper industry’s software, he argues, is “just an implementation of legacy procedures” while he would rather change the paradigm. But to do that, he says, “you have to explain it.”

“It’s sort of the distinguishing difference,” Cichelli says of the  SCS approach. “Martha and I both believe that the management of newspapers can have choices if they understand technology.”

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SIDEBAR:

Starting and Staying in the Lehigh Valley

Martha Cichelli founded Software Consulting Services in 1975, working mostly with hospitals. Her husband, Richard, joined to develop and sell Layout-80, which he helped create while working for the American Newspaper Publishers Association’s Research Institute in Easton, Pa.

While what is now the Newspaper Association of America absorbed RI into its Virginia operations (and later ended all technical operations), the Cichellis stayed behind, setting up shop in Bethlehem when Layout was still a baby, then moving to neighboring Nazareth, where the still-developing application was joined by many others.

Decades later, Cichelli is again working with the newspaper where former owner Larry Stackhouse urged RI’s creation. At Advance Publications’ Easton Express-Times, Publisher Martin Till recalls that his father, a Washington Post Co. executive, once worked at RI on pagination, and that partnering with SCS feels like a continuation of those earlier efforts.

While the Express-Times is something of an SCS beta site, the partnership runs deeper. “They can play in the real world with our data,” says Till, who shares with SCS the paper’s business information from his 13 years there. “The history makes a difference [in] understanding what we want to do,” he says.

“We love technology,” Till says. “We understand the potential headaches that come with that. Our folks are open to it.” Discussing the paper’s objectives provides insight for SCS, while collaboration on smaller projects gets technology to the paper faster and at lower cost, he adds.

After a couple of months test-driving PaperCheckAdBoss, the Express-Times took it live in May, reducing to minutes a staffer’s hours of daily ad auditing, showing missing ads and error-coding any problems.

Till and several staffers met with SCS in late June to discuss further work. Aided by the paper’s data, SCS incorporated customer analysis into Layout-8000 to further automate ad dummying. What SCS calls MetaAdBoss might, for example, derive rules for positioning ads from the history of a paper’s relationship with advertisers. “I think that’ll be our next project,” Till predicted later the same week, adding that, as before, it would likely be only “a matter of weeks” from testing to go-live.

A developer’s proximity may not matter when selecting a “global solution,” but it helps in developing useful pieces of technology, says Till, citing better focus and communication in face-to-face meetings. “Being a guinea pig, it does help,” he says. If there’s a problem, “they can be here in 10 minutes.” It also means Till and Cichelli can meet for lunch monthly, looking for new efficiencies.

Till aims to steer clear of massive systems, sees the industry moving away from them, and thinks SCS understands that trend. Not only can all-encompassing systems be out of date by go-live, he says, citing time for planning, specifying and implementing, but also “a lot of times when people bring in new technologies, it overwhelms companies.” Big, complex systems can be hard to use, he continues, comparing them to a consumer-electronics device’s dizzying array of features that confuses most users, who need only a few. Smaller pieces of technology, he adds, make projects manageable, affordable and short, each adding to overall improvement.”  — Jim Rosenberg

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