Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

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In Defense of Documentation

Anyone who has spent a modicum of time working with software developers learns that developers hate creating designs, use cases, “readmes”, code samples and similar technical documentation. Agile proponents point to the “working software over comprehensive documentation” principle and Lean proponents claim documentation is “waste” since it does not directly contribute to the finished product or customer value.

They have a point. Writing clear, understandable documents is hard and it takes time away from coding. Keeping them up-to-date when inevitable changes occur is similarly time-consuming, particularly large changes or redesigns. Consequently, many stop asking for documentation, exacerbating poor or absent documentation. Many developers argue “code is documentation”. It is always up to date and developers had to work to understand it. Why shouldn’t everyone else?

However, saying “code is the only documentation” is a fallacy. Well written and designed code and indicative automated tests can be good documentation but every project includes code the developers are not proud of. Software developers often think of themselves coding like athletes lining up for a race at the Olympics. They have spent years training and are lining up to compete under perfect conditions. However, frequently code is written when developers are tired, stressed or unfamiliar with the problem or tools and this produces less correct and readable code.

Also, and arguably more important, developers are not the only audience for technical documentation. QA (testers), localization, management and documentation writers (those that write the manuals and non-technical documentation) all need technical information about the product and usually cannot read code, at least not well enough to get the information they need time efficiently. Developers new to the product also need a starting point.

Part of the problem is that documentation, particularly in larger organizations, consists of word processed documents or E-mail. E-mail in particular is a poor choice since it is only available to the recipients and often gets lost. An internal Wiki is a better choice, since most maintain a change history, have centralized storage making the latest version easier to find, support access control, provide auditing and can notify users of changes. Wikis are not perfect, however, since their storage formats are often proprietary and they often lack features of modern word pressing tools.

Wikis also encourage splitting documentation from large, monolithic documents into smaller sections. Care must be taken to ensure consistency and information is easy to find but most Wikis support free text searches. This fits better into the Agile and Lean methodologies, where smaller documents are delivered when needed rather than complete documentation delivered up front.

Writing documentation forces developers to identify and empathize with their customers or other developers, encouraging them to simplify the product’s design, user interface, installation and/or configuration. Some techniques, such as Documentation Drive Development and Readme Driven Development, encourage starting from the documentation for this reason.

It seems that literacy has become a skill in the software development industry. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that developers are only productive if they are writing code and poor documentation is acceptable. As Albert Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Writing documentation forces developers out of their warm, cosy technical silos and back into the user world, reaquainting themselves with the problems the software is trying to solve.

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