Thinking about Documentation

My friend Tycho Garen recently wrote a post  about appreciating technical documentation. As he rightly points out technical documentation is very important and also very hard to get right. For someone who writes code I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having my documentation spread out in at least 2 places.

A large part of my documentation is right in my code in form of comments and docstrings. I call this programmer-facing documentation. It is documentation that will probably only be seen by other programmers (including myself). However, even though it might only be seen by programmers who are using (or changing) the code doesn’t mean that it should just be in the code. More often than not, it’s advisable to be able to have this documentation exported to some easier-to-read format (generally hyperlinked HTML or PDF). Of course I don’t want everyone who wants to use my software to go digging through the source code to figure out how things work. A user manual is generally a good idea for your software no matter how simple or complex it might be. At the very least there should be a webpage describing how to get up and running.

One of the major issues of documentation is that it’s either non-existent or hopelessly out of date. A large part of the solution is simply effort and discipline. Writing good comments and later writing a howto are habits that you can cultivate over time. That being said, I’d like to think that we can use technology to our benefit to make our job easier (and make writing and updating documentation easier).

Personally I would love to see programming languages grow better support for in-source comments. Documentation tools like Javadoc and Epydoc certainly help in generating documentation and give you a consistent, easy-to-understand format, but the language itself has no idea about what the comments say. They are essentially completely separate from the code even though they exist side by side in the same file. I would love it if languages could work together with the documentation, say by autogenerating parts of it, or doing analyses to detect inconsistencies.

As for documentation that lives outside of the code, I’m glad to see that there is a good deal of really good work being done in this area. Github recently updated their wiki system so that each wiki is essentially a git repo of human-readable text files that are automatically rendered to HTML. Github’s support for Git commit notes and their excellent (and recently revised) pull requests systems provide really good systems for maintaining a conversation around your code. The folks over at Github understand that code doesn’t exist by itself and often requires a support structure of both documentation and discussion surrounding it to produce a good product.

So what’s my personal take on the issues? As I’ve said before I’m starting work on my own programming language and I intend to make documentation an equal partner to the code. I plan on making use of Github Pages to host the documentation in readable from right next to my source code. At the same time, I’m going to giving some thought into making documentation a first class construct in the language. That means that the documentation you write is actually part of the code instead of being an inert block of text that needs to be processed externally. The Scribble documentation system built on top of Scheme has some really interesting ideas that I would love to look into and perhaps adapt. Documentation has always been recognized as an important companion to coding. I’m hoping that we’re getting to the stage where we actually pay attention to that nugget of common wisdom.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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