I was privileged enough to be able to attend linux.conf.au in Wellington in January. While there, I caught Bob Edwards’ and Andrew Tridgell’s talk on “Teaching FOSS at Universities” (video of which can be found here). It intrigued me.
Open source software development is very different to developing software in a more traditional, closed source environment. The aim of the course is to teach students how to go about working within the open source community. It covers the practical aspects of checking out code from a repository, submitting patches, and undergoing code approvals and reviews. It also looks at some of the less tangible aspects, like what’s accepted and expected within the community, the motivation behind project development, and governance. The course also goes into some detail about documentation.
Documentation for open source projects is not quite the known quantity that it can be in many proprietary software environments. I once had a developer I was working with describe it as “we live in the Wild West out here”, and – at least to an extent – he makes a good point. While writing for an open source project may not be as wild and exciting as that sentence makes it sound, it can sometimes be unpredictable and, at times, incredibly frustrating. Frequently, a book has been written and reviewed in preparation for a release, only to find at the last minute that a feature has been pulled from the version, a component has suddenly been renamed, or the graphical interface has had some kind of redesign. All of these things happen to open source writers on a regular basis, and frequently the only solution is to pull an all-nighter, get the changes in, and have the document released on schedule. And that’s only if you were lucky enough to find out about the change with enough time to spare before release!
So how does a writer plan for and write a documentation suite when there’s so much unknown in a project? The answer is – perhaps ironically – to plan ahead. You can’t plan for every contingency, nor should you. But if you have a plan of any description, you’re going to be better off when things start to go wrong. Pin down the details as best you can as far ahead as possible. But don’t leave it there, continue to review and adapt your plan. Keep your ear to the ground, and constantly tweak your schedule and your book to suit. If something comes up in a mailing list about a feature you’ve never heard of, don’t be afraid to ask the question – “Does this need to be documented? Will it be in the next version? Where can I get more source information?”. Another trick is to make sure you build in ‘wiggle room’ to your schedule, in case you suddenly discover a new chapter that needs adding, or a whole section that needs to be changed. If you’re consistently a few days or a week ahead of schedule, then even a substantial change should not throw you too far off balance.
Just like a ballet dancer, technical writers need to be disciplined, structured, and organised. But you also need to have grace, poise, tact, and – most importantly – flexibility.
Thanks to Bob and Tridge, I’ll be lecturing the 2010 FOSS course students at the Australian National University later this week. I’ll also be contributing the textbook that is being developed for the course. True to form, it is being built by and for the open source community, using open source tools (including Publican which has been developed in-house by some of my esteemed colleagues). Watch this space for more information.