Step-by-step tutorials and manuals are priceless

Writing documentation in and outside of code annoys most developers. I am no different but after several years in the software development business I have come to value one type of documentation a lot: step-by-step tutorials and manuals. Surprisingly, they are often missing. I want to depict some common use cases where such documents have proven valueable many times:

when learning new tools and frameworks

Most people I know learn best by example. A tutorial with step-by-step explanation of how to setup the tool and then some good examples brings you up to speed quickly. The Lift framework has such a thing and gets you a webapp running in minutes. But when you dive deeper you may find much documentation and how-tos are missing. Books may help but most of the time it is faster and easier to look for examples on the web and in project wikis.

Also beware, that bad examples may cause a lot of frustration (typos are poison for newbies) and teach bad style or obsolete techniques. Keep the tutorials up-to-date (I know, thats one problem of documentation….) and as accurate as possible and many people will have a better time working with the tools and frameworks.

The same is true for developers in your team: Many will look for examples in the existing code base and learn from them be they good or bad. So keep the code clean and full of good examples. Let your seniors spread them in the teams. Do not forget to provide good examples and best practices in your wiki or other documentation system.

when performing manual tasks

We often have to manage and deploy production systems for our customers. Even though many tasks are automated by scripts and other tools you sometimes need to perform manual tasks. Especially in an stress situation at customer site or when otherwise dealing with production systems it is extremely helpful to have a simple and precise guide for the task at hand. There are enough unknowns and problems that may need brain power so the basic tasks and procedures should be well documented. That way you have one less thing to worry about and are ready to face potential upcoming problems. A good guide gives you much needed confidence.

when trying to work on an open source project

We regularily (see our OSLDs) dive into some open source project to improve it. Nothing is more frustrating than spending more than half a day with setting up the development environment. Overboarding dependencies, works-on-my-machine-style build scripts and missing documentation and tutorials prevent a productive experience. That hurts the themselves projects by driving away potential contributors. We had several such experiences but also many positive ones like Hudson plugin development or EGit where you can get up to work in minutes and perform your first monkey see – monkey do experiments.

Conclusion

Much documentation generated or written nowadays is not worth 2 cents. API-Docs which list the classes, methods and fields and no additional info and descriptions provide no use and just waste the time of people trying to find information there. Highlevel blabla or theoretical dissertations are all nice but do not help much getting the job done (at least not in the beginning). But small guides and tutorials written to the point really do make a difference regardless if they are written for inhouse work and development or for openly available projects. Choose the kind of documentation you write wisely.

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