Docs-as-Code: Automated Software Documentation
What is Docs-as-Code?
Docs-as-code is an approach to creating and managing software documentation in which the documentation is treated like source code. Instead of traditional documentation tools, code-based tools and versioning systems are used. This enables agile and collaborative creation, updating and management of documentation – developers and technical writers can work together on the documentation. This promotes collaboration and integration of the documentation into the entire development cycle.
The approach is primarily used in software documentation, but also offers several advantages for technical documentation.
Typical Markup Languages
Instead of creating the technical documentation with a classic authoring system, a lightweight markup language can also be used to define the structure and format of the documentation. Some of the typical markup languages briefly explained:
Markdown is an easy-to-understand and widely used markup language. It enables simple formatting of text and supports the addition of links, images and lists. The syntax is minimal and intuitive, making Markdown a popular choice for many developers.
AsciiDoc is a more powerful markup language with advanced features compared to Markdown. It enables complex structures, tables and the use of macros. AsciiDoc is particularly suitable for extensive documentation with demanding requirements.
reStructuredText is a markup language that was developed specifically for Python documentation. It is easy to read and write and enables the integration of code examples. This language is often used in combination with the Sphinx tool for creating documentation projects.
YAML is often used for the configuration of docs-as-code workflows. YAML is a data format language that is easy to write and read. YAML is used to define metadata, configurations and structures in the documentation.
The choice of a suitable markup language is crucial. These languages enable the structured markup of texts to ensure a clear presentation and consistency in the documentation. Various tools are required to ensure collaborative work between developers and editors and to generate an automated documentation process.
The key components are:
- Version control: A version control system such as Git is crucial for tracking changes to documentation, facilitating collaboration and managing different versions.
- Text editor or IDE: A text editor or integrated development environment (IDE) allows you to write docs-as-code. Some editors offer features such as preview and syntax highlighting to make work easier.
- Build tools: Tools such as Jekyll, Hugo or Sphinx help to create the documentation website from the source code. These build tools enable the conversion of markup files into various output formats, such as HTML or PDF.
- Documentation generator: A documentation generator, such as MkDocs or Docusaurus, provides a structure for organizing documentation content and facilitates the creation of a user-friendly website.
- Continuous Integration (CI): The integration of docs-as-code into the CI/CD process enables automated builds and testing of documentation with every change in the source code. This ensures reliable and consistent delivery.
- Collaboration platform: A collaboration platform, such as GitHub or GitLab, allows teams to work together on the documentation, provide feedback and make changes.
By implementing these elements, Docs-as-Code can be effectively integrated into the technical communication process to create agile, collaborative and well-managed documentation.
That sounds like a lot of effort, doesn't it?
The changeover to Docs-as-Code initially requires more work – for adapting existing documentation and the learning process. Team members need to be retrained and there may be costs for new tools and programs. Complex workflows and pipelines may be required for large projects. Docs-as-code can also simply be oversized if the information to be documented is rather simple in nature. It is therefore also important to consider potential disadvantages. In the long term, however, integrating documentation into the development process can increase efficiency and collaboration.
Benefits for technical communication
Docs-as-code is undoubtedly an exciting development. Choosing the right tools and carefully designing workflows are crucial to the success of this method. Despite some challenges, Docs-as-Code offers a promising approach to technical communication. Here is an overview of all the advantages:
- Agile documentation: Docs-as-Code adapts seamlessly to the dynamic requirements of agile environments. Technical writers can react to development changes in real time, as documentation is considered an integral part of the development process.
- Collaborative creation: Docs-as-Code promotes collaboration between developers and technical writers. The joint use of markup languages and development tools creates a bridge between the two disciplines. This collaboration results in clear and concise documentation that is better aligned with the needs of end users.
- Automated workflows: The automation of workflows and processes is a key benefit of Docs-as-Code. By integrating CI/CD pipelines, spell-checks, format checks and other quality checks can be performed automatically before the documentation is published.
- Versioning: The integration of Docs-as-Code into version control systems enables comprehensive versioning and traceability. This is particularly important for technical writing as changes to documentation can be tracked and there are clear mechanisms for collaboration on content creation.
- Scalability and reusability: Docs-as-Code enables effective scalability and reusability of content. By using markup languages, certain documentation elements can be easily reused and implemented in different parts of the project. This leads to a consistent and efficient use of resources.
- Multi-channel output: Technical editorial teams are often faced with the challenge of providing content for different channels and platforms. Docs-as-Code enables easy customization of documentation for different output formats, be it for online platforms, printed manuals or other formats.
Overall, Docs-as-Code in technical writing offers a modern and effective method to meet the ever-changing requirements and dynamics of software development. By integrating documentation into the code development process, technical writing teams can create high-quality, up-to-date and collaborative documentation that provides added value for developers and end users alike.
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Combining different data sources in a knowledge database and the semantic representation of the information contained therein can make technical communication much easier. Building a knowledge base using semantic knowledge graphs offers numerous advantages, including the important possibility of continuously expanding the knowledge graph. One method of expanding knowledge is the use of knowledge graph embeddings.
Prof. Dr. Martin Ley
Partner and Senior Consultant