A glimpse into the future with the iText Research Team

Fri - 06/03/2022

We took some time to speak with Michaël Demey, Manager of the Research Department, and Research Engineer Matthias Valvekens to ask about their work with the PDF Association, various ISO committees, and more!

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The future doesn't just happen, it is made. And the people that create that future are the subject for today, as we chat with the Research Team at iText to pick their brains and find out what makes them tick.

We took some time to speak with Michaël Demey, Manager of the Research Department, and Research Engineer Matthias Valvekens to ask about their work with the PDF Association, various ISO committees, and more!  

Hello Michaël, and Matthias! Let’s kick off our questions by learning about your background and how you became a member of the iText family.  

What led you to pursue a career in Software Development?

Michaël: I've always had an interest in computers. When I was a young boy, my family was one of the first among my friends to have PCs at home, and one of the first to be connected to the internet. A considerable part of my teenage years was spent behind screens, be it playing video games, browsing the web, or just messing around with software. I got interested in it as a more serious hobby when I wanted to make my own tools that would assist me in my gaming. Realizing I could also earn money while coding was an epiphany as well as an added bonus.

Matthias: I’ve always liked tinkering with software and building stuff. Occasionally, I even build useful things!

How did you become an iText developer?

 Michaël: By signing the contract the company offered me!  

Matthias: While I hadn't worked with any iText software before I started working here, I already had quite a bit of PDF experience under my belt back when I was looking for work, so I figured I might as well do something with it!

Was the open-source nature of the iText PDF library an attraction?

Michaël: It was. Back when I joined iText in 2011, there were a lot of openings for developers in Belgium. Out of the companies I applied to, there was only one that had open-source products. I found that intriguing, and so I joined. Today it seems to be more commonplace for companies to explore the option of having their sources open and I have several friends from my graduation year that ended up in open-source companies. Which is a trend I'm loving.

Matthias: I would never even have considered applying otherwise. Given both the ubiquity and complex nature of PDF as a file format, it deserves to have its needs met by a solid open-source solution.

So, Michaël you were an iText user before becoming an iText developer?

Michaël: Yes. While studying I had an internship at a boarding school with one of my best friends. We had to implement a digital journaling solution to keep track of the day-to-day business of the kids. I'm still impressed by what we implemented and last I heard the school was still using the application. But as a sort of extra credit, we implemented an export to PDF function. We used iText for this and we were impressed by its functionality and documentation. We were creating PDFs before we knew it!

How long have you both been part of the iText family?

Michaël: I joined in 2011, so 11 years. It has been fascinating to see the company grow and change over the years. Even though iText is my first employer, it feels like I've worked for several companies. But what stuck with me the most over all those years are the people. I've met a lot of fun, cool people and I've even had the good fortune of calling a few of those very close friends. In that sense, iText is more than a company to me, it's a group of friends. And some of those people I will never forget. Ever.

Michaël Demey & Stan Kornacki in action on an iText booth
Michaël Demey & Stan Kornacki in action on an iText booth

Matthias: I’ve been part of the iText family since late 2020. It’s not been that long, but I have already accomplished a lot as part of the Research Team! For example, I developed Certomancer-as-a-Service, a PKI testing container with Java integration.

What is the most memorable memory you have from being part of the iText family?

Michaël: There are loads of memorable memories. Professional-wise, it has to be the presentation I gave with Benoit (shout out!) at Devoxx 2016. That was the first time both of us stood in front of such a big crowd and we were both so nervous. We nailed it and that kickstarted our world tour of that talk. Let's ignore that the world tour was only limited to two cities in Belgium, but instead remember that the enthusiasm was there!  

On a more personal level nothing will beat the company-wide team buildings we have. These are always very effective at getting to know everyone and seeing what everyone is up to as well as meeting up with the people you haven't seen in a year or so. We’ve had to put these on hold due to COVID, but we'll always have the previous events.

Matthias: Hard to say, really. I like having elaborate technical discussions with my colleagues, but I do that pretty much every day, so it's difficult to pin anything down as "the most memorable".

Michaël Demey & Matthias Valvekens at the iText Ghent office
Michaël Demey & Matthias Valvekens at the iText Ghent office

Which accomplishments in the PDF world made you proud?

Michaël: As mentioned I loved my talk at Devoxx 2016. And other talks as well, obviously. On a technological level, I'm proud of the prototypes I've made that do end up as products. The few prototypes I really love and will never hesitate to plug to anyone (not) willing to hear it, are unfortunately top secret ;) You'll just have to take my word for it that they are super cool, and crazy good!

Matthias: I took over the stewardship of one of the upcoming PDF extension standards (ISO/TS 32004) a few months into my tenure on the committee. That was a first for iText, and I'm still pretty proud of that.

What is your favorite part of working in the PDF technology space?

Michaël: The community surrounding this space. I like the people who are part of the ISO committees and the PDF Association, and I like seeing them and working with them on these specifications.

Matthias: The variety of expertise that all participants bring to the table. The "core" PDF specification is a 1000-page document, so obviously no single person groks all of it. On the other hand, for every corner of the spec, there's always at least one person with relevant experience.

As someone who likes both learning and sharing knowledge, I'm very fond of the collaborative atmosphere that we have: even though we all represent different interests, the drive to find common ground and advance the industry as a whole is something I consider very important.

Michaël, can you explain exactly what the ISO committee for PDF is?

Michaël: A little known fact is that PDF and most of its related standards are all owned and maintained by the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. This organization is basically a group of "volunteers" that tells everyone else how to do something. One of the more known ISO standards is the one on work quality, ISO-9001. What this means for PDF specifically (or ISO-32000) is that there is a group of experts that meet up at least once every year. Prior to this meeting we will have submitted notes, comments, changes, etc. to the specifications. These will then be discussed during the meetings and will be approved, changed, or declined. Over time this leads to a new version of the specification. These meetings typically last for a week and discuss multiple PDF standards. 

COVID-19 meant a ban on physical meetings for the entire ISO organization, so all meetings had to take place over conference call, which can be more taxing on your focus and mental state than a whole week of joining physical meetings.

In general, the committee overseeing the PDF standards is highly cooperative and we're all focused on making sure that PDF is moving forward in the right direction. 

ISO meeting at the PDF Days in 2014
ISO meeting at the PDF Days in 2014

Is every country represented in those ISO meetings?

Michaël: No. Simply because of how it works. National Standardization bodies will sign up for the Technical Committees responsible for the standards they want to join. In practice this means that the individual will ask their national organization to sign up for TC 171 (which is responsible for PDF). As a result, there are only a few countries represented in the TC responsible for PDF. All in all, there are about a dozen active countries actively working on PDF (without counting). 

Do you have contact with the members outside of the ISO meetings?

Michaël: Most members of the committee are also members of the PDF Association. The PDF Association hosts a range of Working Groups related to PDF standards and PDF related topics and they meet frequently. But I can't say that I see "ISO people" outside the context of PDF, unless they happen to be in the neighborhood, or they are an iText employee ;)

Matthias: The majority of ISO committee members are also part of the PDF association. The Association has a much denser meeting schedule, with many technical working group sessions per week.

Outside of that, we have frequent exchanges with committee members on specific projects.

Can you say anything about what the committee is currently discussing? (e.g., upcoming specification announcements)

Michaël: We are continuously working on either new standards or on updating/revising already published standards. Within the near future we will see a revision of PDF 2.0, cryptographic and security extensions to PDF 2.0, a new release of PDF/A, some XMP stuff is also on the way. On the (much) longer term we are working on PDF/UA-2. In addition to that, there are also side projects happening in the PDF Association. The world of PDF is an evolving one!

Matthias: There's a lot of work in the ISO pipeline: various cryptography-related extensions for PDF, relating both to digital signing and encryption (I'm heavily involved with those), the "PDF 2.0" successor to PDF/UA, work on the XMP metadata standards, etc. In addition to that, we also do "maintenance work" on our existing standards, both to fix mistakes and to clarify existing text.

What are your predictions for the future evolution of the PDF format?

Michaël: Accessibility is always a big work item. When talking about accessibility we talk about making sure that all people can access the content of a PDF file. This requires additional restrictions and provisions, which are laid out in PDF/UA (and WCAG for HTML). These enable e.g., users with poor sight to also consume documents through the use of assistive technology such as a screen reader or a braille display. This technology relies on tagged PDF, and as mentioned not every PDF is a tagged PDF. The biggest roadblock is in the difficulties of trying to convert a non-tagged PDF (or unstructured PDF) into a tagged PDF. Believe me when I say that this is a non-trivial task and something that a lot of R&D teams are looking into right now.

Matthias: There's quite a bit of room for further evolution in the cryptography department; that was the subject of my talk at PDF Days 2021, watch it here.

Over at the PDF Association, there's also some very interesting ongoing work on the future of forms in PDF. That hasn't reached ISO yet, but it's very promising. One of its main goals is to remove the format's dependency on JavaScript for the bulk of dynamic form workflows, and to replace it with a more bare-bones expression language specifically geared towards form usage.

Not only is that a good thing for security, but it also makes it easier for non-interactive PDF processors (e.g., server-side code) to work with dynamic forms, as it's no longer necessary to embed a JavaScript runtime. This will undoubtedly create options for iText as well.

In general, I think the most important thing is to keep talking to one another, keeping up the collaborative spirit, and making sure we keep PDF fit-for-purpose as the industry evolves. That's impossible to achieve as a single vendor; we need to work together to maintain that edge.

Anything else that you would like to add?

Michaël: Yes! We are still searching an extra member for my team, a Research Software Engineer. Please have a look & apply to join our amazing team

Thank you both for your time. Good luck with the ISO committees and the rest of your work!  


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