|Wednesday, 29 April 2009 17:57|
Peter Tuffin worked for Korbitec for nineteen years on various document assembly products and was also well known as the "Father of GhostConvey". He retired from Korbitec shortly before his sixtieth birthday, however it didn't take Peter long to get back in the saddle though, and the result is a powerful and user friendly document assembly system. We speak to Peter about his new "baby".
Malcolm Pearson (MP): Why yet another document assembly system?
Peter Tuffin (PT): There's a bit of history to it: At the end of 2007 I had started out on my own after 19 years with an employer, and needed to get my hand back into programming. I knew I had to get my head around .NET as well as XML, databases, you name it. I'm not one of those people who just program for the fun of it: I need to have something real and at least potentially useful to work on. I had heard that MSWord can be made to save its documents in XML, so I decided to see how I could work with that, merging data from databases in Word XML documents.
MP: I heard that you left your previous job to go on early retirement - wasn't learning .NET and XML, etc., a bit of a tall order for an (excuse the phrase) old guy like you to take on?
PT: I had actually wondered about that myself (so you're forgiven). But when I look back on my career, I have worked with about 10 different programming languages - a new one every 3 years. Another one was actually quite fun.
MP: And so my first question: why document assembly? It seems to be a complex subject and a complicated kind of system to develop - how did you get such a feature-rich system in only 18 months?
PT: Well, in only 12 months, but let's not argue about that. You're right on all counts: firstly, document assembly is not a simple matter to program, and the systems that are already out there (and there are quite a few) have taken a lot of development hours to get there; and secondly, as to the time scale for XpressDox, I'm also quite surprised at how the system got to where it is in a relatively short space of time.
There are at least two reasons that I can give for the speed of delivery: firstly, I was using up to date software technology. The other reason probably has to do with my personal history, in that I've really been involved almost full time in document assembly since my first try at it in 1983/1984. That's when I did what I think is the first document assembly system in South Africa when we took bond instructions from a magnetic tape (produced by the United Building Society) and printed out the mortgage bond documentation. Mind you, we printed on pre-printed bond forms, using a daisy wheel printer. That was a few months before the HP Laserjet was released and changed the document assembly landscape forever (although there was no landscape yet, maybe we should say the Laserjet created the document assembly landscape).
After that I worked with the creators of GhostWriter which was the best document assembler in its time in South Africa, and did document assembly systems for conveyancing, debt collecting, patents, trademarks, etc. After that there was GhostConvey which of course still has a large document assembly component.
So I guess I had all these years of working with documents and document automation which built up a kind of pressure in me. The result was that when the time and the right tools came along it all just poured out of me into XpressDox.
MP: So you started off trying to learn C# and ended up with XpressDox. When did the transition happen?
PT: Well, I started working with the O2Smart group in March 2008, and Johan Venter (the CEO) saw my system (it wasn't called anything, it was just "Peter's document assembly system") and saw an opportunity to commercialise it. At that stage there was no integration with MS Word - it was still conceived as a system to merge data from databases with Word XML documents. With the backing of Johan and the O2Smart group, I was able to take my "engine" and package it inside Word so that a normal Word user (i.e. most of the legal secretaries in South Africa if not the world) could have easy access to it. It also moved from taking its data from databases to being able to have the user type in the data directly. These days XpressDox handles data from any number of different sources: manually captured, text files, Excel spreadsheets, SQL Server, MySQL, etc. - just about anything can provide data for XpressDox templates.
After a while we needed a name for this system, and SmartDocs seemed the obvious one. But then Microsoft has a feature with that name, and a Google search revealed others. Johan thought of XpressDox - it implies speed and also the ability to "express" yourself. (Someone has said we should call it AAA XpressDox to get it to the top of the alphabet!) Anyway, we succeeded in registering the xpressdox.com domain - which is something akin to registering a trademark these days.
MP: What does XpressDox do that other DA systems don't?
PT: I wish I knew! I have tended to focus my efforts on what the users actually want and haven't looked around at competitors too much. But I do have some feel for how XpressDox compares with the products I've worked on myself. For one, I didn't want the getting up and running process to involve a cumbersome configuration process. And yet, if document assembly is going to really add benefit, it needs to be able to cater for very sophisticated solutions. That means that for the real "Xpress" part of it, configuration is necessary. My aim then was to have a really rich feature set for the advanced user as well as a very swift entry into using the system.
MP: Have you succeeded in those aims?
PT: I think I've succeeded with both aims - using the Getting Started document, it should take less than minute to have your first template crafted and working. Try it on a freshly installed system, you'll see.
As to the sophisticated part, XpressDox is very useful in that for every template that is run, the data used in that template are saved. That's where the configuration comes in, because the template author can group templates into logical groupings (that's actually not configuration, it's a question of plunking them into the same folder in the Windows file system), and then indicate how the data for those templates are to be stored. Typically, you would save all the data for one "matter" (in the legal office) in the same place, so that this data set can be re-used on subsequent templates (and added to as new templates requiring new information are run).
If you look at the "hard-core" systems that attorneys buy these days, such as those that do conveyancing or debt collecting or estate management, you would find that about 70%-80% of the feature set involves firstly data storage and reuse, and then, of course, document assembly. XpressDox caters for that 70%-80% easily.
MP: Are you saying that the well-known conveyancing and debt collection systems out there (some of which you've developed yourself) are obsoleted by XpressDox?
PT: Definitely not. But what I am saying is that from a price point of view, if an XpressDox solution will perform 80% of the required functionality at something like 10% of the price, then maybe an attorney would be willing to use XpressDox and find another way to handle the left-over 20% that the hard-core solution gave them. And there are solutions for that 20%, such as Microsoft Outlook for reminders and email, even SMSing. Maybe not the ultimate solution, but in terms of cost effectiveness, maybe just the right fit for the task at hand.
MP: So XpressDox doesn't have a reminder system. And what about reports?
PT: Well, yes. But now you're entering an area where I know that competitors don't venture. And, don't tempt me, I have those features (reminders and reports) on the back-burner.
MP: You just let slip that you do in fact know something about the competition! Are you still saying you don't really know how XpressDox compares with others?
PT: You're right, I do know something of what competing products do. (Smiles). Well - I've read their web-sites. I think that XpressDox does do some things nicely where perhaps other systems struggle a bit here, for example: dynamic data capture (the template defines the data and how it's captured), the ability to save data for every template (and/or matter) for later re-use, "care free" handling of repeated data, a nice set of help features (to help the template user, I mean).
But there's a danger in reeling off lists of features. In the end XpressDox and competing products have hundreds of features in their lists. What it boils down to in the end is a "best fit" between the application itself and the users in their specific environments: some applications just appeal more to certain personalities even though another application will do the job. My hope is that because I've been around in the South African legal IT environment for a while, that XpressDox will be that "best fit" among a good proportion of our South African legal offices.
MP: When will XpressDox be finished?
PT: I don't think a good piece of software is ever finished. If something works well for people there always seems to be a wish list of more things that users would like it do (like the reminders and reporting that we touched on earlier). At the moment I am dealing with that wish list on a daily basis. Having said that, the product is ready to go to market right now.
We have not held back on the release, if we had waited until every single want was included, we would never get the product to market. As I often say to Johan, "We have to leave something for version 2".
MP: Thank you Peter. If anybody would like more information on XpressDox, please visit their product information site - or contact their sales office on 0861 265 376 .