Painless Documentation (What If You Won the Lottery?)

Abstract: Sometimes good things happen to good people. When something good takes away someone you depend on, will you be prepared to go on without them?  With a little low effort documentation and knowledge transfer, they can leave you without torpedoing the schedule.

People often ask, “What if you got hit by a truck?” to pose a hypothetical around losing you. But what an awful thought! And in the corporate world, highly unlikely. Some form of winning the lottery, however, is not only possible, but probable. What if a developer on your project…

  • goes on maternity/paternity leave?
  • has to move?
  • goes on extended vacation or sabbatical?
  • goes to grad school?
  • retires?
  • gets a new job?

Really, that last one (along with the errant bus) is the most dangerous and represents management’s true fear: someone leaves NOW. With no time to aid in a smooth transition. I should note that in the US, two weeks notice is a courtesy typically given by both employee and employer, but not a law.1 And many tech departments have  a policy of paying you for two weeks, but walking you to the door as soon as you declare your intent to quit.2

That, my friends, is what drives many project management policies, especially those regarding documentation. I think it’s so obvious to management that they never explain it to employees this way. “We’re afraid you’ll leave us.” If they said that, perhaps you’d start wondering if there was someplace better. But really, most employees would totally understand if you flipped it on them:

  • Do you want to go on vacation and not have to give us a ton of notice (or lie and call it sick time)?
  • When you leave, do you want your coworkers, who have to take over your work, to hate you for leaving such a mess?
  • Do you want to own that piece of code that nobody wants forever?

OK, the second one might be a loaded question, but odds are you don’t. If you don’t do continuous documentation, you have a ton of work to do in your last two weeks. You perform this duty with all the work ethic of a graduating senior who already got into college. Maybe you convince your boss to accept a code walk-through in lieu of written docs. They’ll think they understand everything, but when it breaks or needs modification, it takes them forever and they silently curse you. Wait, no they don’t! You’re not here! They bad mouth you to the boss directly. Hope you weren’t counting on either as a reference.

Of course, by “you” dear reader, I’m using the royal you. You would never do that. Why, you’ve had that done to you!

I get that nobody enjoys documentation. Most devs don’t enjoy anything that isn’t coding, or maybe designing. Heck, I’ve seen people get fussy about filling out a time card, and that takes what? 2 minutes a day? They know the effort is low, but something about the task generates psychological resistance. I think a big part of it is not seeing any direct benefit, or putting a low value on time delayed benefits. Hopefully the preceding alleviates some of that. Still, I’m going to make this as painless as possible. What follows are the simple guidelines to provide redundancy while maintaining productivity and code quality.

Bug/Issue Tracker
I would think this goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway. All new features, bugs, and improvements go in your issue tracker. Each entry should be considered a live document containing both the requirement (user story, etc.) and design.

Pro tip: keep it classy in the issue tracker. If they don’t have access already, the client eventually will and you don’t want to be caught badmouthing anyone. Not even the vendor, because someone picked them, and be it the client or your company, mud slinging won’t win you any friends. My general rule is to never leave a paper trail when blowing off steam.

Version Control System
Shoot, if I’m mentioning the issue tracker, better mention this. Not using version control is one step away from not saving your work, or taking backups.3 Make your commit messages meaningful. In multi-file commits, I list each file and a brief explanation of the change.

Most importantly, I integrate the code repository with the issue tracker. Most systems make this dead simple; you just type the issue ID and it’s connected automatically. In Eclipse,4 I use Mylyn and plugins for my issue tracker and code repo, combined with a commit template, to make this automatic (it all works out of the box). If you need to fix a bug for that feature later, you’ve got all the commits and files for it listed in the issue tracker and can usually click on the commit message to see the source diff between versions. Very handy for the new person taking over (which may be you if you haven’t touched the code in a few months).

Note: if you can’t integrate your VCS and issue tracker, you probably have a lousy issue tracker. Actually, I bet someone chose a general project management tool instead of a real bug tracker. I use JIRA (I also like FogBugz), but there are so many choices and they all do this. Heck, the super simple issue tracker that comes with Github does this. You can’t get a lower effort, higher value documentation practice than adding the bug ID to your commit message. Even when you forget, git lets you amend it pretty easily.

Design Reviews
Your design does not have to be exhaustive, but should provide a development road map for that feature and give you confidence in the estimate. Have at least one other person review it (and your estimate) for omissions and general sanity.

Code Reviews
Similar to the above, get another pair of eyes on the code. If it’s just one or two people instead of the whole team, make sure they do it solo and take notes. That’s the only true test for readability, which is the most important aspect of your code.5 If you walk them through it, you’ll never know if your code is clear enough for someone to take over when necessary.

Note: for both design notes and code comments, don’t forget to document surprises and gotchas. We’ve all had the experience of starting with a sane, obvious solution, only to discover some obscure, insane obstacle, usually in some system we can’t touch. Be a hero and document that in the issue and in the code. In fact, if you only documented gotchas, you’d still save everyone a number of headaches down the road.

Bonus: Group Training
While in Kyiv, I saw a great talk about code clarity by Venkat Subramaniam.6 In his presentation, he pointed out the difference between readability and familiarity. All languages have idioms, and if you code in them long enough, or read enough good books on them, you’ll pick them up.7 The thing with idioms, though, is that their intent is often unclear to the uninitiated, who are unfamiliar with the language constructs being employed. To a practitioner, however, it’s perfectly readable. We may seek to correct this by banning idioms, but the better choice is to make everyone a better language practitioner.

One way to do this is through code reviews, as mentioned. But another is through group training. If you’re making a platform switch, the best way to do this is to hire a language and/or framework expert to coach the team, because the point is to get everyone on the same page, writing code that is familiar to everyone. But it could be something as simple as a company sponsored study group, or even a short, daily discussion of a single idiom. Basically, you want to idiom-proof your team. (Sorry.)

What does your team do to foster knowledge sharing? Please, share your thoughts in the comments.

  1. Well, not a law in all states. See at-will employment. Even that has exceptions, especially during layoffs. Consult an attorney if you really need to know this stuff. []
  2. Presumably to prevent sabotage or industrial espionage, based on the assumption that you didn’t know this policy existed before you gave notice and didn’t implement anything nefarious before you gave notice. []
  3. I personally think of commits as off-site backups of my code. []
  4. Note: I’ve since switched to IntelliJ. []
  5. Well, other than correctness, but if it’s not readable there’s a good chance it’s incorrect, or soon will be. []
  6. I highly recommend attending one of his talks if you get a chance; he’s a very dynamic speaker. []
  7. A good example are the “Effective” books for C++, Perl, and Java. All have different authors, but all teach you the same thing: how to best your structure code, including patterns and idioms. []

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