Posts Tagged 'Documentation'

April 27, 2015

Good Documentation: A How-to Guide

As part of my job in Development Support, I write internal technical documentation for employee use only. My department is also the last line of support before a developer is called in for customer support issues, so we manage a lot of the troubleshooting documentation. Some of the documentation I write and use is designed for internal use for my position, but some of it is troubleshooting documents for other job positions within the company. I have a few guidelines that I use to improve the quality of my documentation. These are by no means definitive, but they’re some helpful tips that I’ve picked up over the years.


I’m sure everyone has met the frustration of reading a long-winded sentence that should have been three separate sentences. Keeping your sentences as short as possible helps ensure that your advice won’t go in one ear and out the other. If you can write things in a simpler way, you should do so. The goal of your documentation is to make your readers smarter.

Avoid phrasing things in a confusing way. A good example of this is how you employ parentheses. Sometimes it is necessary to use them to convey important beneficial tidbits to your readers. If you write something with parentheses in it, and you can’t read it out loud without it sounding confusing, try to re-word it, or run it by someone else.

Good: It should have "limited connectivity" (the computer icon with the exclamation point) or "active" status (the green checkmark) and NOT "retired" (the red X).
Bad: It should have the icon “limited connectivity” (basically the computer icon with the exclamation point that appears in the list) (you can see the “limited connectivity” text if you hover over it) or “active” (the green checkmark) status and NOT the red “retired” X icon.

Ideally, you should use the same formatting for all of your documentation. At the very least, you should make your formatting consistent within your document. All of our transaction troubleshooting documentation at SoftLayer uses a standardized error formatting that is consistent and easy to read. Sometimes it might be necessary to break the convention if readability is improved. For example: Collapsible menus make it hard to search the entire page using ctrl+F, but very often, it makes things more difficult.

And finally, if people continually have a slew of questions, it’s probably time to revise your documentation and make it clearer. If it’s too complex, break it down into simpler terms. Add more examples to help clarify things so that it makes sense to your end reader.


Use bullet points or numbered lists when listing things instead of a paragraph block. I mention this because good formatting saves man-hours. There’s a difference between one person having to search a document for five minutes, versus 100 people having to search a document for five minutes each. That’s over eight man-hours lost. Bullet points are much faster to skim through when you are looking for something specific in the middle of a page somewhere. Avoid the “TL;DR” effect and don’t send your readers a wall of text.

Avoid superfluous information. If you have extra information beyond what is necessary, it can have an adverse effect on your readers. Your document may be the first your readers have read on your topic, so don’t overload them with too much information.

Don’t create duplicate information. If your documentation source is electronic, keep your documentation from repeating information, and just link to it in a central location. If you have the same information in five different places, you’ll have to update it in five different places if something changes.

Break up longer documents into smaller, logical sections. Organize your information first. Figure out headings and main points. If your page seems too long, try to break it down into smaller sections. For example, you might want to separate a troubleshooting section from the product information section. If your troubleshooting section grows too large, consider moving it to its own page.


Don’t make assumptions about what the users already know. If it wasn’t covered in your basic training when you were hired, consider adding it to the documentation. This is especially important when you are documenting things for your own job position. Don’t leave out important details just because you can remember them offhand. You’re doing yourself a favor as well. Six months from now, you may need to use your documentation and you may not remember those details.

Bad:SSH to the image server and delete the offending RGX folder.
Good:SSH to the image server (imageserver.mycompany.local), and run ls -al /dev/rgx_files/ | grep blah to find the offending RGX folder and then use rm -rf /dev/rgx_files/<folder> to delete it.

Make sure your documentation covers as much ground as possible. Cover every error and every possible scenario that you can think of. Collaborate with other people to identify any areas you may have missed.

Account for errors. Error messages often give very helpful information. The error might be as straightforward as “Error: You have entered an unsupported character: ‘$.’” Make sure to document the cause and fix for it in detail. If there are unsupported characters, it might be a good idea to provide a list of unsupported characters.

If something is confusing, provide a good example. It’s usually pretty easy to identify the pain points—the things you struggle with are probably going to be difficult for your readers as well. Sometimes things can be explained better in an example than they can in a lengthy paragraph. If you were documenting a command, it might be worthwhile to provide a good example first and then break it down and explain it in detail. Images can also be very helpful in getting your point across. In documenting user interfaces, an image can be a much better choice than words. Draw red boxes or arrows to guide the reader on the procedure.


September 24, 2013

Four Rules for Better Code Documentation

Last month, Jeremy shared some valuable information regarding technical debt on SLDN. In his post, he discussed how omitting pertinent information when you're developing for a project can cause more work to build up in the future. One of the most common areas developers overlook when it comes to technical debt is documentation. This oversight comes in two forms: A complete omission of any documentation and inadequate information when documentation does exist. Simply documenting the functionality of your code is a great start, but the best way to close the information gap and avoid technical debt that stems from documentation (or lack thereof) is to follow four simple rules.

1. Know Your Audience

When we're talking about code, it's safe to say you'll have a fairly technical audience; however, it is important to note the level of understanding your audience has on the code itself. While they should be able to grasp common terms and development concepts, they may be unfamiliar with the functionality you are programming. Because of this, it's a good idea to provide a link to an internal, technical knowledgebase or wiki that will provide in-depth details on the functionality of the technology they'll be working with. We try to use a combination of internal and external references that we think will provide the most knowledge to developers who may be looking at our code. Here's an example of that from our Dns_Domain class:

 * @SLDNDocumentation Service Overview <<< EOT
 * SoftLayer customers have the option of hosting DNS domains on the SoftLayer
 * name servers. Individual domains hosted on the SoftLayer name servers are
 * handled through the SoftLayer_Dns_Domain service.
 * Domain changes are applied automatically by our nameservers, but changes may
 * not be received by the other name servers on the Internet for 72 hours after
 * your change. The SoftLayer_Dns_Domain service does not apply to customers who
 * run their own nameservers on servers purchased from SoftLayer.
 * SoftLayer provides secondary DNS hosting services if you wish to maintain DNS
 * records on your name server, but have records replicated on SoftLayer's name
 * servers. Use the [[SoftLayer_Dns_Secondary]] service to manage secondary DNS
 * zones and transfers.
 * EOT
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service External Link Domain Name System at Wikipedia
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service External Link RFC1035: Domain Names - Implementation and Specification at
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service See Also SoftLayer_Dns_Domain_ResourceRecord
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service See Also SoftLayer_Dns_Domain_Reverse
 * @SLDNDocumentation Service See Also SoftLayer_Dns_Secondary

Enabling the user to learn more about a topic, product, or even a specific call alleviates the need for users to ask multiple questions regarding the "what" or "why" and will also minimize the need for you to explain more basic concepts regarding the technology supported by your code.

2. Be Consistent - Terminology

There are two main areas developers should focus on when it comes to consistency: Formatting and terminology.

Luckily, formatting is pretty simple. Most languages have a set of standards attached to them that extend to the Docblock, which is where the documentation portion of the code normally takes place. Docblocks can be used to provide an overview of the class, identify authors or product owners and provide additional reference to those using the code. The example below uses PHP's standards for documentation tagging and allows users to quickly identify the parameters and return value for the createObject method in the Dns_Domain class:

     * @param string $objectType
     * @param object $templateObject
     * @return SoftLayer_Dns_Domain
   public static function createObject($objectType = __CLASS__, $templateObject)

Keeping consistent when it comes to terminology is a bit more difficult; especially if there have been no standards in place before. As an example, we can look to one of the most common elements of hosting: the server. Some people call this a "box," a "physical instance" or simply "hardware." The server may be a name server, a mail server, a database server or a web server.

If your company has adopted a term, use that term. If they haven't, decide on a term with your coworkers and stick to it. It's important to be as specific as possible in your documentation to avoid any confusion, and when you adopt specific terms in your documentation, you'll also find that this consistency will carry over into conversations and meetings. As a result, training new team members on your code will go more smoothly, and it will be easier for other people to assist in maintaining your code's documentation.

Bonus: It's much easier to search and replace when you only have to search for one term.

3. Forget What You Know About Your Code ... But Only Temporarily

Regardless of the industry, people who write their own documentation tend to omit pertinent information about the topic. When I train technical writers, I use the peanut butter and jelly example: How would you explain the process of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Many would-be instructors omit things that would result in a very poorly made sandwich ... if one could be made at all. If you don't tell the reader to get the jelly from the cupboard, how can they put jelly on the sandwich? It's important to ask yourself when writing, "Is there anything that I take for granted about this piece of code that other users might need or want to know?"

Think about a coding example where a method calls one or more methods automatically in order to do its job or a method acts like another method. In our API, the createObjects method uses the logic of the createObject method that we just discussed. While some developers may pick up on the connection based on the method's name, it is still important to reference the similarities so they can better understand exactly how the code works. We do this in two ways: First, we state that createObjects follows the logic of createObject in the overview. Second, we note that createObject is a related method. The code below shows exactly how we've implemented this:

     * @SLDNDocumentation Service Description Create multiple domains at once.
     * @SLDNDocumentation Method Overview <<< EOT
     * Create multiple domains on the SoftLayer name servers. Each domain record
     * passed to ''createObjects'' follows the logic in the SoftLayer_Dns_Domain
     * ''createObject'' method.
     * EOT
     * @SLDNDocumentation Method Associated Method SoftLayer_Dns_Domain::createObject

4. Peer Review

The last rule, and one that should not be skipped, is to always have a peer look over your documentation. There really isn't a lot of depth behind this one. In Development, we try to peer review documentation during the code review process. If new content is written during code changes or additions, developers can add content reviewers, who have the ability to add notes with revisions, suggestions and questions. Once all parties are satisfied with the outcome, we close out the review in the system and the content is updated in the next code release. With peer review of documentation, you'll catch typos, inconsistencies and gaps. It always helps to have a second set of eyes before your content hits its users.

Writing better documentation really is that easy: Know your audience, be consistent, don't take your knowledge for granted, and use the peer review process. I put these four rules into practice every day as a technical writer at SoftLayer, and they make my life so much easier. By following these rules, you'll have better documentation for your users and will hopefully eliminate some of that pesky technical debt.

Go, and create better documentation!


August 16, 2011

SLDN 2.0 - The Development Network Evolved

SoftLayer is in a constant state of change ... It's not that bad change we all fear; it's the type of change that allows you to stretch the boundaries of your normal experience and run like a penguin ... Because I got some strange looks when coworkers read "run like a penguin," I should explain that I recently visited Moody Gardens in Galveston and saw penguins get crazy excited when they were about to get fed, so that's the best visual I could come up with. Since I enjoy a challenge (and enjoy running around like a penguin), when I was asked to design the new version of SLDN, I was excited.

The goal was simple: Take our already amazing documentation software infrastructure and make it better. A large part of this was to collapse our multi-site approach down into a single unified user experience. Somewhere along the way, "When is the proposal going to be ready?" became "When is the site going to be ready?", at this point I realized that all of the hurdles I had been trampling over in my cerebral site building were now still there, standing, waiting for me on my second lap.

I recently had the honor to present our ideas, philosophy and share some insight into the technical details of the site at OSCON 2011, and KHazzy had the forethought to record it for all of you!

It's a difficult balance to provide details and not bore the audience with tech specs, so I tried to keep the presentation relatively light to encourage attendees (and now viewers) to ask questions about areas they want a little more information about. If you're looking at a similar project in the future, feel free to bounce ideas off me, and I'll steer you clear of a few land mines I happened upon.


March 14, 2008

From the Outside Looking In

Recently, as you know, SoftLayer released the new API version 3. We have all been working very hard on it, and we've been completely immersed in it for weeks (months, for some of us). This means that, for the developers, we've been living and breathing API code for quite some time now. The time came to release the API, and as many of you know, it was a smashing success. However, we were lacking in examples for its use. Sure, we all had examples coming out our ears since the customer portal itself uses the API, but those were written by the same developers that developed the API itself, and therefore were still written from an insider's perspective.

So a call went out for examples. Many people jumped on the list, offering to write examples in a variety of languages. I thought I would tackle writing an API usage example in Perl. Perl, for those of you unfamiliar, is an infamous programming language. Flexible, confusing, fantastic and horrifying, it is the very embodiment of both "quick and dirty" and "elegance." It is well loved and well loathed in equal measure by the programming community. Nevertheless, I have some experience with Perl, and I decided to give it a try.

I will attempt to describe my thought process as I developed the small applications (which you should be able to locate shortly in the SLDN documentation wiki) throughout the work day.

9am: "Wow, I really don't remember as much Perl as I thought. This may be difficult."
10am: "I need to install SOAP::Lite, that shouldn't be hard."
11am: "Where the heck are they hiding SOAP::Lite? There are articles about it everywhere, but I can't actually find it or get it installed!"
12pm: "Ok, got SOAP::Lite installed, and my first test application works perfectly! Things are going to be ok! Wait…what's all this about authentication headers?"
1pm: "What have I done to deserve this? Why can't I pass my user information through to the API?"
2pm: "Aha! Another developer just wandered by and pointed out that I've been misspelling 'authentication' for 2 hours! Back on track, baby!" (Side note: another "feature" of Perl is how it never complains when you use variables that don't exist, it just assumes you never meant to type that. Of course, you could tell it to complain, but I forgot about that feature because I haven't used Perl in 4 years.)
3pm: I finally get example #1 working. It queries the API and shows a list of the hardware on your account.
3:30pm: Example #2 working, this shows the details for a single server, including datacenter and operating system
4pm: Combining examples #1 and #2, the third example shows all hardware on your account, plus the installed OS and datacenter, in a handy grid right on the command line. Success! I put Perl away, hopefully for another 4 years.

The whole experience, though, really gave me an insight into how fantastically awesome the API is. I was looking at it from an outsider's perspective. I was confused as to how everything worked, I was working with an unfamiliar language, and I was browsing through the API looking for anything that looked "cool and/or useful." Getting a list of all my account's hardware to show up in a custom built application that I wrote as if I knew nothing about the API was a great feeling. It showed that not only was the API perfectly suited to the tasks we expected of it, but even a novice developer could, with a little effort, make an API application like mine. Expanding on it to show more and more information, and all the possibilities that it opened up in my mind made me realize how useful this API is that we made. It's not just something that a small percentage of our customers will be using. It's something that is truly revolutionary, and that all clients can take advantage of. I'm assuming, of course, that all clients have at least rudimentary skill in at least one programming language, but given the level of success everyone has had with our other offerings, I can assume that assumption is accurate.

If you have been thinking recently "look at all the noise they've been making about this 'API' nonsense," I highly recommend dusting off an old programming book and at least looking at it once. Think of all the possibilities, all the custom reports that you can make for yourself, all the data that we have provided right at your fingertips to assemble in any way you wish. We try our best to make the portal useful to every customer, but we know that you can't please all the people all the time. But with the API, we may do just that. If you're the kind of customer that is only interested in outbound bandwidth by domain, write an API script that displays just that! If you want to know the current number of connections and CPU temperature of your load balanced servers, get that data and show it! The possibilities are endless, and we're improving the API all the time.


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