Public Specifications FTW

Please note that this post is by no means endorsed by my employer, it is a personal reflection on a strategic move I have participated in, in my line of work as a professional software developer.

The above paragraph, which I felt I a need to write as a part of this blog post, is very aligned with the actual post topic in itself, please read on.

The place where I work have for a long time published specifications on some of the offered services. Either this was done using our CMS or using PDF artefacts from a Wordprocessor.

Both processes where tedious and held several issues:

  • Content in CMS
    1. Hard to edit longer documents with figures and cross references
    2. Version control was not obvious
    3. Drafts compared to published documents was not used
  • Wordprocesser artefacts
    1. Version control practically non-existing or external
    2. Document control based on files shares, folders and naming conventions
    3. Manual publication proces

There was probably several other issues I have happily forgotten, like PDF meta-data removal etc.

After having done a lot of open source work in Markdown and on Github and in conjunction with releases of some open source demo clients for our services, I proposed that we published the accompanying public specifications on Github.

This proved to be a very clever move.

It did require some consideration on our side and it was quite a new move to us. Yes we had published specifications for public availability for long a time, but putting these in a public repository was still a new move for us. But the concerns hastily evaporated and the proces became natural and incredibly productive compared to the old processes.

At the time of writing we have 6 open sourced specifications and 3 clients accompanying these and a repository with XSD files supplementing one of the specifications.

Not all of the specifications are finished, but they are out there, so if somebody wants to see what is going on, they are most welcome. We have only received a single pull-request and that is completely okay. We do not want somebody to write our specifications, that is our job, but corrections to sample code, clarifications and of course spelling corrections are most welcome.

Here are some of the pros I have observed:

  • Using Git and Markdown
    1. Version control is built-in
    2. Markdown is quite powerful and easy to edit
    3. Syntax highlighting of code samples (bash, XML, JSON, text etc.)
    4. The flow resembles a development flow and the toolchain is somewhat the same
    5. Tagging of versions and complete history is available
    6. An engaging proces supporting pull-requests (oh well)
    7. Branching for new editions and proposals for change requests

Currently one of the specification has 4 branches, when evaluation and review is finalized, will be merged onto the master, which can be tagged as the authoritative specification – and this proces is so easy to grasp and complete since it is same proces we use for source code.

One last benefit I really enjoy, one which I think is a bit underestimated is – the contract.

When we publish a public specification, we aim at to be informative, useful, correct, exact, educational, clear and to the point.

This works quite well and since often I find that we refer to the public specifications when discussing topics related to our services and since the quality of these sometime outshine our internal specifications, I often find myself thinking that we should publish much more, much much more.

So revisiting the opening paragraf – ever so often we are afraid and publishing API’s become a side-project. Do not be afraid to publish your specifications and documentation, do not be afraid to use an existing platform and toolchain, the pros outweigh the cons and you will quickly forget all about the old way of doing things and you will find yourself more productive and in the end getting your specifications published will be easier than ever.

Whether you are publishing a website or a PDF document, the information is public, the proces is actually the most important aspects and Github and Markdown REALLY leverage this.

The discussion on how far you can go and how much you can publish is a huge topic and should perhaps be another blog post.

Public Specifications FTW

Documentation

Having been a long term Perl developer I have used, read, liked, written and learned from a lot of technical documentation as the one found on CPAN. Back in 2011 Chromatic wrote a good piece entitled: “Victims of the Success of CPAN Documentation”, this piece hit the nail on the head and addresses one of my long time concerns and issues with technical documentation.

“It is not always user-friendly”

I have played around with the idea of extending my documentation boilerplate/template with a section named: “Features”. The idea of the “Features” section would simply be to add information on some basic use-cases, recommended uses and core functionality (what does it do).

Often technical documentation only lay out the bricks and building blocks, letting it be up to the user to assemble the pieces, much like Ikea furniture. Ikea furniture however does have one clear advantage over software components, it does have a clearly stated goal: “You can eat|sit|sleep|contain|relax with X”, meaning Ikea sells an idea to the end-user before the fact of assembly-process comes to mind of the customer.

Software components are not Ikea furniture, it is more like LEGO bricks. but also LEGO sells the idea of a working concept, instead of just a box of bricks – you get the bricks, but you also get the blueprint. Yes you can build constructions of your own design and yes you can combine with other LEGO sets.

My youngest son builds a lot of LEGO, yes he can follow the assembly guide, and yes he an build stuff of his own design, but in a place where he truly excels is in the remix of LEGO sets. He loves taking apart standard models or models I have built, but instead of breaking them into atoms, he breaks them down to smaller LEGO models and then he combines them to alternative models – a lot of this is retrofitting guns and cannons, but that is not important for this blog post.

So when we want somebody to use our open source software, we need to sell the concept. Yes there are plenty of ways to “sell” the software, demo videos, blog posts etc. – but users think in use-cases and with the amount of open source software available, it can be hard to decide on which solution to pick – you evaluate on a lot of different parameters (this could be a blog post by itself), and one of them is sometimes documentation.

So documentation should be considered a factor to make somebody choose your software instead of some other implementation. This means you have to describe some key parameters in order to sell the concept.

  • What does it do
  • If you use it like this, it is: fast/reliable/intuitive/interactive/customisable/beautiful
  • And in addition you can: produce/calculate/render/secure/build/execute/integrate

Describe features and key concepts and core functionality as an elevator pitch and you might hook the reader.

I have grown very fond of a plugin for Sublime Text, it is a pretty basic plugin, which creates a Table of Contents on a Markdown document.

I use it all of the time.

I looked at the documentation and I got it to work, as I said it is pretty basic and the documentation was sufficient, but not impressive. I sent a pull-request for a bug fix and I sent a pull-request for some documentation spelling corrections – all was accepted.

The author is really a cool guy and I love his software product. So I thought to myself. I am not a Python programmer (my first PR was the deletion of a line), perhaps I can contribute in another way – this piece of software is really marvellous and I want everybody else to see it, try it, use it and love it – just like me.

So I wrote him and asked – What do you think about a complete rewrite of the documentation?

And he said go ahead

So today I have sent him a pull-request with a complete re-write of the documentation going from a format focused on parameters in the software to a feature centered approach.

All of the pieces where there, all the examples, all the data – I simply shuffled it around and added some prose and rephrasing to make it more human-readable.

I do not know if my theory on this holds water, but I actually like the outcome of my work and I hope this new format will be more appealing to the potential users and existing users, who read the documentation to become wiser, or get the information on how to tweak the use of the software to their needs, because the software actually had a lot to offer, but it was not immediately clear, when skimming the documentation.

I know this might not apply to all types of documentation and yet again it might.

Give it a shot.

 

Documentation