Looking Back and Looking Forward with Raf Hens
As iText CTO, Raf Hens brings his years of experience in software development and software engineering into his work each day. One of the longest-tenured members of the iText team, his perspective is broad and deep. Raf joined iText while the company was at its inception, and he carries with him the “start-up and scale-up” mindset. He has witnessed all the growth and innovation through the company’s history and retains his enthusiasm for what’s next, setting the strategy and direction for the organization.
Recently we sat down with Raf to talk about his time at iText, his vision for the company and its technology.
As one of the early iText employees, what has your journey been like within the company?
I’ll never forget my first day in May 2012. It was a bit of a strange day to start a new job because it was a Friday. The whole team consisted of only about five people at the time. It was just a couple of engineers and a couple of sales people all working at this new thing. I joined as a senior software engineer. I’ve always been on the technical side of the business, even as my role grew and changed.
I’ve written code and done product management (a department that was originally just me) and served in a team lead position, and ultimately management and the CTO role I now hold.
Can you tell us more about iText’s roots?
At the beginning, what eventually became iText was an open source project living on the internet...it wasn't even a company. It was born out of a need our founder saw. It really was a way to solve a technical problem. Several developers who were similarly interested in finding a solution joined the effort. It grew as an open source thing, eventually to a point where it could become a company. No funding, just engineers trying to fill a need that was there in the PDF market.
One important point is that iText wasn’t a “solution in search of a problem”. It was very much the other way around. And I think that contributed to the initial traction of the technology. People reacted in a very positive way, realizing, “This is something that I can use.” So iText came into being very naturally, without a business plan or strategy at first, just the desire to solve this challenge.
PDF was still a “front-end” technology, used in an interactive desktop environment. iText brought the technology to the back-end to create PDF in a programmatic and automated way. Our team had a real leadership role in the shift that was created. Today, it’s a well established market space - but at the time it was a bit revolutionary.
The developer community has always been important to iText, can you speak to the important role that group plays for us?
Software developers are our prime audience. The products of iText exist to make their lives easier. Those are our roots and where we started. We were solving problems for ourselves as developers. That’s why we often say iText is “by developers for developers.”
We think of the community very much as a two-way street. Our team gets a great deal of valuable input from developers who use our technology in the real world. Third party content, like tutorials - are really valuable. They offer code contributions and bug fixes and feature suggestions that all add a lot of value on top of the things we do.
We even take the time to recognize their contributions. When we could gather at live events we noted their presence and the importance of what they offer. That group is crucial to us, so even though we don't always get to interact individually with them, we know they’re out there and like to send small tokens of appreciation to them. Even though we’re all at a distance right now, we want them to know that the community remains strong and vital.
As our CTO, you set the vision and the roadmap to enable that vision. Where are we headed? What can users expect from iText in the future?
In the short term we want to keep investing in our core products. Delivering best-in-class PDF technology is the goal; so we intend to keep updating the core product quarterly. We’ll add new features aimed at giving that developer community the tools they need to keep solving their PDF challenges. Maintaining quality and enhancing features there is always a goal. We will always have a solid technical PDF foundation and look to add convenience for users.
We also aim to extend the product line. We’re introducing pdfOptimizer, a tool to improve existing PDF files. If you have a bloated file, pdfOptimizer can compress it, and remove unneeded elements like duplicate images and fonts. We also just launched iText DITO 2.0. This update, along with the template design and document generation engine that were already in the product, is adding a template management feature on top of all that. iText DITO 2.0 is all about using the power of templates, combined with data sources to easily populate and manage those templates. From there you can easily create things like unique invoices or personalized documents.
At iText we have always occupied the niche between the document and data world. Looking toward the future, I still see us playing a strong role there. Turning data into documents will always be at our core, but we are increasingly focused much more in the opposite direction - turning docs into data.
There’s a great deal of hype around “big data” and “dark data” and unlocking the potential there for making better business decisions. iText will play an important role there. We have the document expertise to make information available for analysis. It’s just another way to fill that area between the document and data worlds. That’s been true of the evolution of documents in general. It used to be just “digital paper” - a representation of a physical object. That’s where PDF started, the reliable display of documents. The paradigm of what a document is has changed. It’s not as important that a document looks exactly the same on every device as it is that the content and the data are consistent and usable. The key is the reliable representation of data using a variety of tools and methods like natural language processing (NLP) and semantic analysis - deriving structural information when we are starting with unstructured content. At iText we can use our experience and history to ensure a smooth transition between documents and data. Where in the past there was a strict distinction between a database and a document, now the two are blending. The relationship between those two worlds is where we can add value.
iText has millions of users. What is it that makes developers choose iText?
Developers choose iText for a lot of reasons, but one of the important ones is that we offer benefits in multiple dimensions. We have an extensive toolbox that gives developers what they need to solve problems. But we also offer a blend of convenience and power. They can use iText’s high-level API very simply and be shielded from a lot of the technical complexity around PDF; but they can also dive into the details and control many aspects of the workflow, data, document and display. It’s about flexibility.
The high-volume, high-performance document creation from data sources is one of the most important things developers are looking for from us. Enterprise quality, reliability and speed have to be a given for those users.
I should also mention digital signing capabilities. That’s a well-used part of our feature set. Some users integrate signing technology right into their applications. But we also supply back-end technology for several well-known digital signing providers. In those cases, iText is not always visible, but we provide a crucial piece of the puzzle there doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
Of the entire iText offering, what is the functionality you are most passionate about?
I love many of our features, but anything that adds accessibility to a document is a favorite. Start adding semantic tagging and accessibility provisions to a flat document - then it starts to get some real dimension. That’s interesting from a technical point of view, and it’s not a problem that can be solved completely in an automated way, but I am also proud of iText’s role in solving a part of that puzzle. Being part of preparing documents for accessibility for people with visual or other impairments, that’s very important to me.
One thing that’s interesting to note is that PDF’s specification is an ISO international standard. It’s been under their auspices since 2008. They have standards of various types - documentation, archiving and accessibility are examples, and iText is involved in the committees that govern all those processes. Being part of the future of PDF, stretching its uses and applications, is central to iText’s mission.
Backwards compatibility is important for archiving and accessibility but we always need to look forward. Things like enabling PDFs to be viewable on a mobile screen are crucial.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time at iText?
One thing that always occurs to me when I think about my history with the company is how eye-opening my first software development conference was. It was in 2012 in Germany and I saw first-hand that the personal engagement of the developers with iText and its products was amazing.
They came to the booth just to say hello or thank you because we had solved a problem and made their lives easier. The community feel was so impressive and something you could never get from download statistics. We offer the tools and support they need to solve real problems. I could tell that iText held an important place in the industry, and that motivated me then and still does to this day. I’m really looking forward to seeing them in person again.
What about iText keeps you excited?
I’ve been here a long time, so it’s clear something keeps me engaged and motivated. I’ve talked a lot about technology, so perhaps I’ll address this in a different way. In my time at iText it’s as though I’ve worked for several different companies. It has evolved from a small group with a tech startup feel and has evolved into the company we are today. It certainly doesn't seem like I’ve been doing the same thing for the same organization for nine years. That constant change has kept it fresh and motivates me to put in the hard work and overcome the hurdles along the way. The drive of the iText team is great. Not being complacent with where we are as a company and the product we make keeps it interesting.
Right now we are on the verge of taking another big step as we move more into IDP and that world of data. If we talk again in a couple of years I will feel like I’m working for a new company yet again.
We are looking forward to seeing what that new iText will look like, but in the meantime there is plenty of work to do!
Everyone on the team is looking forward to seeing what that new iText will look like. This look back at the company’s journey thus far fills us with pride and energy for what’s to come!