What Is Documentation as Code?
Documentation as Code is a concept that treats program documentation with the same respect as the code itself. It's a modern approach to documentation where you apply the same principles of versioning, testing, and collaboration that you use when writing your code. The essential idea is to maintain documentation within the same repository as your codebase, allowing it to evolve concurrently with your software.
This approach fosters a culture where documentation is continuously updated, ensuring it remains relevant. Instead of treating documentation as an afterthought, Documentation as Code brings it to the forefront of the development process. It's an approach that respects the dynamic nature of software and acknowledges that as the code changes, so too should the documentation.
With Documentation as Code, you write documentation using lightweight markup languages like Markdown or reStructuredText. Instead of using specialized documentation tools, you use the same tools for writing, testing, reviewing, and deploying your documentation as your code. This approach makes it easier to keep your documentation up-to-date, accurate, and synchronized with your code.
The Benefits of Documentation as Code
One of the significant benefits of Documentation as Code is consistency. By treating your documentation like code, you ensure it's written, reviewed, and updated as part of your regular development process. It's no longer a last-minute scramble to update the docs before a release. Instead, it's a seamless part of your workflow.
When your documentation lives alongside your code, it's easier to ensure it accurately reflects your codebase. As you make changes to the code, you can simultaneously update the documentation. This approach greatly reduces the risk of discrepancies between your code and its documentation.
Consistency also extends to the style and formatting of your documentation. When everyone uses the same tools and follows the same guidelines, your documentation will have a consistent look and feel. This makes it easier for users to understand and navigate your documentation.
Documentation as Code also fosters better collaboration. When you treat documentation like code, it becomes a team responsibility. Everyone contributes to the documentation, not just a designated writer. This collaborative approach ensures that all perspectives are captured in the documentation, making it more comprehensive and accurate.
This approach also allows for code reviews of documentation. Just like code, your documentation can be reviewed, commented on, and improved by your peers. This collaborative process ensures that your documentation is of high quality and free of errors.
Another benefit of Documentation as Code is the ability to automate the publishing process. By using Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) tools, you can automatically generate and deploy your documentation whenever you make changes to the code or the docs.
This automation ensures that your documentation is always up-to-date with the latest changes. You no longer have to manually generate and upload the docs every time you make a change. Instead, the process is automated, saving you time and reducing the risk of human error.
Automated publishing also enables you to have different versions of your documentation for different versions of your software. This can be extremely useful for users who are using older versions of your software and need access to the corresponding documentation.
Formatting and Templating
Documentation as Code also simplifies formatting and templating. When you write your documentation in a lightweight markup language, you can easily convert it to a variety of formats like HTML, PDF, or EPUB.
This flexibility allows you to provide your documentation in the format that best suits your users' needs. Whether they prefer to read the docs online, download them as a PDF, or read them on an e-reader, you can accommodate their preferences.
Moreover, you can use templates to ensure a consistent look and feel across your documentation. Templates make it easier to write documentation by providing a predefined structure. They also ensure that your documentation is consistently formatted, making it easier for users to navigate and understand.
Getting Started with Documentation as Code
Choosing a Platform or Tool
The first step to get started with Documentation as Code is to choose a platform or tool. There are many options available, from simple text editors to sophisticated documentation generators. The right choice depends on your needs and the complexity of your project.
If you're just getting started, a simple text editor might be sufficient. You can write your documentation in a lightweight markup language like Markdown, which is easy to learn and use. As your needs grow, you might consider a more sophisticated tool like Sphinx or Jekyll, which can generate beautifully formatted documentation from your markup files.
When choosing a tool, consider its capabilities, ease of use, and community support. A tool with a large user community can be a great asset, as you'll have access to a wealth of knowledge and resources.
Writing Modular and Reusable Documentation
One of the key principles of Documentation as Code is to write modular and reusable documentation. Just like you write modular code that can be reused in different parts of your program, you should write modular documentation that can be reused in different parts of your docs.
To write modular documentation, break down your docs into small, self-contained units. Each unit should cover a single topic or concept. These units can then be combined in different ways to create comprehensive documentation.
Writing modular documentation has several benefits. It makes your documentation easier to write, review, and update. It also makes your documentation easier to navigate, as users can quickly find the information they need.
Version control is another essential aspect of Documentation as Code. By storing your documentation in a version control system, you can track changes to the docs, revert to previous versions, and collaborate with your team.
Version control also allows you to have different versions of your documentation for different versions of your software. This can be extremely useful for users who are using older versions of your software and need access to the corresponding documentation.
There are many version control systems available, but Git is one of the most popular. It's widely used, powerful, and has a large user community.
Automating the Build Process
Automation is a key principle of Documentation as Code. By automating the build process, you can ensure that your documentation is always up-to-date and accurately reflects your codebase.
Automation involves integrating your documentation with the Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipeline. Whenever you make changes to the code or the docs, you can commit them to source control and the pipeline automatically builds your project, together with the updated documentation.
Reviewing and Updating
Just like code, documentation should be regularly reviewed and updated. Regular reviews ensure that your documentation is accurate, comprehensive, and free of errors.
Reviews should be a collaborative process. All team members should participate in the review process, providing their feedback and suggestions for improvement. This collaborative approach ensures that all perspectives are captured in the documentation, making it more comprehensive and accurate.
Updating your documentation should be a seamless part of your development process. Whenever you make changes to the code, update the corresponding documentation. This ensures that your documentation always accurately reflects your codebase.
Once your documentation is written, reviewed, and updated, it's time to publish it. Publishing involves generating the final documentation from your markup files and making it available to your users.
With Documentation as Code, you can automate the publishing process. By using a CI/CD tool, you can automatically generate and deploy your documentation whenever you make changes to the code or the docs.
There are many options for hosting your documentation. You might choose to host it on your own website or use a platform like Read the Docs or GitHub Pages. The right choice depends on your needs and the needs of your users.
Monitoring and Feedback
The final step in the Documentation as Code process is monitoring and feedback. Monitoring involves keeping an eye on your documentation to ensure it's serving your users' needs. Feedback involves gathering input from your users to understand how you can improve your documentation.
Monitoring can involve a variety of techniques, from analytics to user surveys. The goal is to understand how your users are using your documentation, what problems they're encountering, and how you can improve.
Feedback is an essential part of the process. Encourage your users to provide feedback on your documentation. This can be as simple as providing a feedback form on your documentation pages. Use this feedback to continuously improve your documentation, making it more useful and user-friendly.
In conclusion, Documentation as Code is a powerful approach that can transform your documentation process. By treating documentation with the same respect as code, you can ensure it's always up-to-date, accurate, and comprehensive. It's not always easy to get started, but the benefits are well worth the effort.