Documenting your work

Programming books
Your documentation does not need to look like this.

Early in my career I spent a lot of time as the only technical person on project, and therefore believed that I didn’t need to document my work carefully since I was the only person who had to understand it later. It turned out that if a project was back burnered for a few months the details were pushed out of my mind by the details of eight other projects.

Any project that takes more than a couple hours to complete involves too many details for most people to remember for more than a few days. We often think about project documentation as something for other people – and it is – but that other person may be you in six months.

I learned to start keeping notes that I could go back to, those notes would turn into documentation that I could share with other people as the need developed. My solutions were typically ad-hoc: freeform word documents or wiki pages. For a while I had a boss who wanted every piece of documentation created by IT to fit a very predictable format and to be in a very specific system. It took two years for him to settle on the system, process, and format to use. By then I had a mountain of information in wiki pages that documented the organization’s online tools in detail, and no one else is IT had anything substantial. It was two more years before the documentation of other team members got to be as good as my ad-hoc wiki.

That’s not to say a rogue solution is best, but the solution that I used was better than his proposed setup for at least three years. That experience got me to think about what makes documentation useful.

Rules of thumb for good project documentation:

  • Write up the notes you’d want from others when coming into a project: think of this as the Golden Rule of documentation. Think about what you’d want to have if you were coming into the project six months from now. You’d want an outline of the purpose of the project and the solution used, and places they deviated from any standards your team normally uses. You’ve probably read documents that are explaining something technical to an expert that are hard for anyone else to understand – if I’m reading the documentation I want to become an expert, but I’m probably not one already.
  • Keep it easy to create and edit while working: if you have to stop what you’re doing and write your notes in a totally different environment that your day-to-day work you will not do it. Wikis, markdown files, and other similar informal solutions are more likely to actually get written and updated than any formal setup that you can’t update while doing your main work.
  • Document as you go: we all plan to go back and write documentation later and almost none of us do. When we do get back to it, we’ve forgotten half the details we need to make the notes useful to others. So admit you’re not going to get back to it and don’t plan to: write as you go and edit as you need.
  • Make sure you can come in in the middle: People skim project documentation, technical specifications, and any other large block of text. Make sure if someone has skipped the previous three sections they can either pick up where they left off, or give them directions to the parts the need to understand before continuing.
  • Track all contributions: Use a system that automatically tracks changes so you you can see contributions from others and fix mistakes. Tools like MediaWiki, WordPress, and Drupal do this internally. Markdown or text files in a code repository also have this trait. Avoid solutions like MS Word’s track changes that are meant for editing a final document not tracking revisions over time.
  • Be boldDon’t fear editing: follow the Wikipedia community’s encouragement to Be Bold. You should not fear making changes to the team’s documentation. You will be wrong in some of what you write, and you should fix any mistake you find – yours or someone else’s. Don’t get mad if someone makes a change that’s not quite right, revert the change or make a new edit and more forward.
  • There is always an audience: even if you are the only person on the project you have an audience of at least your future-self. Even if it feels like a waste in the moment having documentation will help down the road.

Remember even if you are working alone you’re on a team that includes at least yourself today and yourself in the future. That future version of you probably won’t remember everything you know right now, and will get very annoyed at you if you don’t record what they need to know. And if the rest of your team members aren’t just versions of yourself they may expressed their frustration more directly.

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