Docs as Code: The Future of Seamless Documentation

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By Brant Wilkerson-New
June 19, 2024

 

A growing trend in technical writing and software development is changing how documentation is created and managed. It’s calledDocs as Code,and it’s revolutionizing how teams collaborate and streamline their workflows.

What is Docs as Code?

Docs as code is an approach that incorporates technical documentation into the development process and tools used for actually writing code. Instead of making documentation an afterthought, it is considered a key aspect of the software development lifecycle.

Often, documentation has been treated as a separate entity from the codebase, using standard word processing tools like Microsoft Word or Google Docs. That approach can lead to a number of challenges, like version control issues, less collaboration, and a disparity between code changes and documentation.

Instead, DaC treats the documentation as code, meaning the documentation files are written in plan text (like Markdown), stored in a repository alongside the code, and versioned with tools like Git. By involving documentation in the workflow, DaC allows for collaboration between the developers and technical writers, ensuring that the docs remain in sync with code changes, and allowing for automated document generation and deployment.

Benefits of Docs as Code

Adopting a DaC approach offers numerous benefits for writing teams:

    1. Version Control: By storing documentation in the same repository as code, teams can leverage systems like Git. This allows for tracking changes, collaborating on updates, and maintaining a complete history of documentation revisions.
    2. Collaboration: DaC enables seamless collaboration between writers and developers. Technical writers can work alongside developers, using the same tools and processes, fostering better communication and ensuring documentation stays in sync with code changes.
    3. Automation: With DaC, documentation can be automatically generated and deployed as part of the software build process. This eliminates manual steps and ensures that the latest documentation is always available to users.
    4. Consistency: By using plain text formats like Markdown, teams can enforce a consistent structure and style across all documentation, improving readability and simplifying the update process.
    5. Reusability: DaC allows for modular documentation, where content can be easily reused across multiple documents or projects, saving your team effort and keeping the message consistent.
    6. Searchability: Documentation stored as plain text files can be easily indexed and searched, making it faster for users to find the information they need.

By embracing DaC, technical writing teams can streamline their workflows, improve collaboration with developers, and deliver high-quality, up-to-date documentation to their users.

Potential Drawbacks

While DaC offers numerous benefits, it’s important to consider some potential drawbacks:

    1. Learning Curve: Adopting DaC requires writers to learn new tools and workflows, such as control systems and markup languages. This learning curve can initially slow down the documentation process and may require additional training.
    2. Tool Complexity: The various tools involved in DaC, such as documentation generators and CI/CD can be complicated to implement and keep updated. This complexity may require dedicated technical resources or collaboration with development teams.
    3. Limited Formatting Options: Markup languages like Markdown provide a simplified syntax for formatting, which may not be as flexible as traditional word processors. This can limit the ability to create complex layouts or designs without additional customization.
    4. Collaboration with Non-Technical Stakeholders: DaC relies heavily on tools and workflows familiar to developers, which may be challenging for non-technical stakeholders, such as product managers or subject matter experts, to adopt and contribute to the documentation process.
    5. Versioning Challenges: While versioning systems help manage documentation revisions, maintaining separate versions of documentation for different product releases or branches can become complex and require careful coordination.

Key Components and Tools

To successfully implement a DaC approach, there are several key components and tools that teams should consider:

    1. Markup Languages: DaC relies on using lightweight markup languages like Markdown or reStructuredText that simplify formatting documentation, making it easy for writers and developers to collaborate.
    2. Versioning Systems: Git is the most widely used system for DaC. It allows teams to track changes, collaborate on updates, and maintain a complete history of documentation revisions. Other control systems like Mercurial or Subversion can also be used.
    3. Documentation Generators: Tools like Sphinx, MkDocs, or GitBook can be used to generate professional-looking documentation from Markdown or reStructuredText files. These tools provide templates, themes, and plugins to customize the appearance and functionality of the generated documentation.
    4. Continuous Integration and Deployment (CI/CD): Integrating documentation into the CI/CD pipeline ensures that documentation is automatically built, tested, and deployed alongside the code. Tools like Jenkins, Travis CI, or GitLab CI can be used to automate the documentation build and deployment process.
    5. Collaboration Platforms: Collaboration platforms like GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket provide a centralized place for teams to store, review, and discuss documentation changes. These platforms offer features like pull requests, issue tracking, and code review, making it easier for teams to collaborate and ensure the quality of documentation.
    6. Static Site Hosting: Generated documentation can be hosted as a static website using services like GitHub Pages, GitLab Pages, or Netlify. These services provide easy deployment and hosting of documentation websites, making it accessible to users.
    7. Search Functionality: Incorporating search functionality into the documentation website is crucial for users to find the information they need quickly. Tools like Algolia or Elasticsearch can be integrated to provide powerful search capabilities.

By leveraging these components and tools, teams can effectively implement a DaC approach and streamline their documentation workflow.

Best Practices

When adopting a DaC approach, it’s essential to establish best practices for structuring and managing your documentation. Here are some key considerations:

    1. Folder Structure: Create a clear hierarchy of folders for your documentation files. Separate different types of documentation (e.g., user guides, API references, tutorials) into their own directories. Be intentional when aming files and folders, maintaining consistency for easy navigation.
    2. Modular Content: Break down your documentation into smaller, modular pieces. Each file should focus on a specific topic or concept, making it easier to update and maintain. Use cross-referencing and linking to connect related topics and create a cohesive documentation experience.
    3. Templating: Establish templates for different types of documentation pages (e.g., how-to guides, reference pages, release notes). Templates ensure consistency in structure and formatting across your documentation and make it easier for writers to create new content.
    4. Style Guide: Creat a style guide that defines tone, voice, and formatting conventions for your documentation. A style guide helps maintain consistency and readability across all documentation pages, regardless of the author.
    5. Branching Strategy: Define a branching strategy for your documentation repository. Use feature branches to work on new content or updates, and merge changes into the main branch once they are reviewed and approved. This allows for parallel development and helps maintain a stable version of the documentation.
    6. Review Process: Implement a review process for documentation changes. Use pull requests or merge requests to propose changes and gather feedback from team members. Assign reviewers who can provide technical and editorial feedback to maximize accuracy and quality of the documentation.
    7. Issue Tracking: Use issue tracking to manage documentation tasks, bugs, and improvements. Create issues for new documentation requests, updates, or errors found in existing content. Assign issues to team members and track their progress using labels and milestones.
    8. Versioning: Maintain separate versions of your documentation for different product releases or versions. Use tags or branches in your control system to mark specific versions of the documentation. This allows users to access documentation relevant to the product version they are using.
    9. Automated Testing: Implement automated tests for your documentation to catch errors and inconsistencies. Use tools like Vale or Markdown linters to check for style guide violations, broken links, or formatting issues. Integrate these tests into your CI/CD pipeline to ensure documentation quality.
    10. Continuous Improvement: Regularly review and update your documentation based on user feedback, product changes, and new requirements. Encourage users to provide feedback and report issues through channels like GitHub issue or feedback forms. Continuously iterate on your documentation to keep it accurate, up to date, and relevant to your users.

 

These best practices will help teams structure and manage their documentation using a DaC approach. It helps ensure consistency, maintainability, and collaboration throughout the documentation lifecycle.

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