Team Building2024-07-03

Building a Strong Documentation Culture Within Your Engineering Team

Struggling with onboarding new engineers? Tired of losing tribal knowledge? A strong documentation culture can solve these problems and more! This blog will show you how to build it within your engineering team.
How to Build a Strong Documentation in Your Engineering Team

Engineering leaders and managers often grapple with onboarding new team members, making revisions in project transitions, and ensuring smooth code reviews.

Unsurprisingly, software developers also find themselves in a similar spot, working with unfamiliar code – while starting a new job, moving between projects, or during code reviews. Getting into new code is a challenging task. Yet, developers often face new code without any help. This almost feels like throwing shots in the dark and working with something that sticks.

A potential solution would be - Internal Code Documentation. However many engineering teams treat documentation as a secondary task without adding much value to all the stakeholders.

If at all you come across documentation, it is almost always outdated and never found when needed. 

In our experience with speaking to multiple engineering leaders and managers, we may have zeroed in on a culprit. We have concluded that it is not the “documentation” itself that is the culprit but rather the documentation culture which is not thriving and strong enough to drive everyone towards the same ethos within their engineering team. 

Astrong documentation culture is pivotal for the long-term success of any engineering team. It streamlines processes, fast-tracks onboarding, and ensures knowledge is preserved and accessible at any given time.

Therefore, in this blog, we talk about how you can foster a strong and efficient documentation culture within your engineering team, and at large, your entire organization.

But first, it's essential to understand why documentation of any form is crucial.

Reinventing the Wheel Constantly? It Might Be a Documentation Issue

Ever feel like your engineering team is stuck in a cycle of reinventing the wheel? Maybe your experienced developers are constantly occupied with heavy KT sessions over and over, or they’re involved in doing something that is already done.

When essential knowledge isn’t properly recorded, it can lead to these frustrating situations. Imagine the frustration of repeatedly explaining the same concepts or starting from scratch on the tasks that were previously handled. This not only wastes valuable time but also drags down developer productivity. Good documentation can break this cycle and be your engineering team’s single source of truth, helping your team avoid miscommunication and repeated mistakes. 

Think of it as a detailed roadmap for your project, capturing everything from brainstorming sessions to final plans. This way, everyone has a clear reference point, no matter if they're a seasoned engineer or a novice; an old folk in the team or a new hire.

Documentation breaks down knowledge silos where crucial information gets trapped in people's heads. If these living and breathing libraries leave, it creates delays and risks. Capturing this tribal knowledge ensures everyone has access to the same information.

Consider the shakeup if a critical bug appears, but the only person who understands the code is out of the office. All of this stress can be avoided with clear documentation, and naturally, anyone on the team can jump in and fix it, keeping the project moving forward.

Therefore, documentation is a very essential part of a healthy engineering team. 

This leads us to the next part of our blog, which identifies if documentation processes are even aligned and effective within your engineering team. 

Is Your Documentation Process Truly Optimized?

Sure, some teams might have documentation for setups, tech stacks, and the like. But documentation for documentation's sake isn't enough. Collaboration and interdependencies are the lifeblood of engineering teams, and that naturally leads to some level of documentation.

But just having documentation doesn't guarantee that the process is optimized or even effective.

So the key question you must ask yourself as an engineering leader or a manager is: Are you getting the most value out of your documentation process?

Here are some key considerations to help you evaluate the current status of your documentation process:

Comprehensive Coverage

Are all elements, from initial setups and tech stacks to detailed tech specs, system architecture, and even minor components thoroughly documented? Incomplete documentation can lead to knowledge gaps and misunderstandings.

Moreover, are edge cases and exceptions documented?

Beyond the standard procedures, you need to make sure uncommon scenarios, potential pitfalls, and exceptions are covered. This helps in handling unexpected issues without reinventing solutions.

Up-to-Date Information

Is your documentation a living document that's regularly reviewed and updated? Additionally, do you use version control to track changes, ensuring everyone has access to the latest information?

Outdated documentation can be more harmful than no documentation at all.

Here, you can implement a peer review process for documentation to ensure that the information is correct and reliable. Accurate documentation builds trust and reliance among team members.

Easy Access

Is your documentation readily available to your team? Do you have a central repository with a search function for easy navigation?

Moreover, Is it well-organized with clear headings and a table of contents?

Accessibility is key to ensuring that the documentation is used effectively. Using a centralized and searchable repository where documentation can be easily found by all team members can turn out to be very effective when the need arises. 

Clear Communication

Does your team have a standardized system for keeping everyone up-to-date on project statuses? 

Effective communication is crucial for any engineering team, and tools like the RAG Status System (RAG = Red, Amber, Green) can visually communicate progress and potential roadblocks. 

Continuous Improvement

Do you regularly assess the effectiveness of your documentation? 

Moreover, is there an established routine for updating documentation alongside code changes to keep it relevant, useful, and evergreen? Continuous maintenance prevents the accumulation of outdated information.


Is feedback regularly solicited from team members on the usability, clarity, and completeness of the documentation? 

On a similar note, are there mechanisms in place for team members to suggest improvements? Is there an open channel for suggestions and improvements, encouraging everyone to contribute to better documentation? 

Constructive feedback with a collaborative approach can uncover blind spots and enhance overall quality.

Even if you have some documentation, answering "no" to more than two of these feedback questions suggests a missed opportunity. It might exist, but it's not the dynamic resource it could be– it's barely scratching the surface. Imagine having clear, up-to-date docs that make everyone's life easier – that's the power of a strong documentation culture.

So, how do you build a culture that values clear, comprehensive, and strong documentation? 

Keep reading, and we'll break down the key steps to creating a documentation culture that benefits your entire engineering team and at large, the whole organization.

How to Build a Strong Documentation Culture Within Your Engineering Team?

For many engineering teams, documentation often feels like a chore – something to rush through at the end of a sprint or project. However, this mindset means missing out on capturing valuable knowledge and insights that could benefit the team in the long run.

Skipping proper documentation leads to the loss of key lessons learned along the way. Instead, documentation should be an active, integral part of your workflow, and engineering culture - preserving crucial information for the future.

Building a strong documentation culture can prevent numerous issues down the line. But the question is, where do you begin?

Here are some practical aspects to keep in mind:

Setting the Right Example

Strong leadership plays a critical role in establishing a documentation culture. 

As an engineering leader or a manager, your actions speak volumes. When you consistently vocalize the importance of good documentation practices, prioritize documentation tasks, and actively advocate for its benefits, you set the standard for your engineering team.

You can take it a step further by integrating documentation reviews into regular team meetings. This doesn't just reinforce its importance, it also creates opportunities for constructive feedback and continuous improvement. By keeping documentation on the agenda, you remind your team of its value and encourage them to maintain high standards. These discussions can also be used to share best practices and refine your approach to documentation as a team.

Integrating Documentation into Workflows

For documentation to become a natural part of your team's workflow, it must be integrated into everyday processes. Encourage your engineering team to document as they go, instead of saving it for later (which often means never!), and motivate them to jot down notes as they work. 

This could be in a shared workspace like Confluence or Notion, or even simple text files stored alongside their code in a familiar tool like Git.

Facilitate Knowledge Sharing 

Great documentation is key to knowledge sharing, but it's not just about writing things down. It's about creating an environment where information flows freely and everyone feels comfortable sharing and learning. Here's how to encourage knowledge sharing in your engineering team:

Emphasize Clean Code

Encourage writing clean, self-explanatory code. Well-written code is easier to understand and maintain, reducing the need for excessive documentation.

Document the “Why”

Even with clean code, it’s important to document the reasons behind certain decisions. Explain the business logic, design choices, and why specific solutions were chosen. This context helps others understand the code beyond what it does.

Host Regular Knowledge-Sharing Sessions

Organize regular sessions where team members can share insights, new technologies, and best practices. These sessions can be formal presentations or informal discussions and should be recorded and documented for future reference.

Encourage Pair Programming

Pair programming not only improves code quality but also facilitates the transfer of knowledge between developers. It’s an excellent way for less experienced developers to learn from their peers.

Overall, writing clean code and holding knowledge-sharing sessions are great practices, but unfortunately, they're not enough. Developers need to see the forest, not just the trees. They need to understand how different parts of the code work together, not just focus on individual lines or functions.

This can be tricky. While collaborative knowledge sharing is valuable, it has limitations. Unrecorded talks disappear, offering no reference point later. Even recorded sessions can become outdated quickly if they focus on specifics. Often, lectures cover the system's main components and architecture, but miss the crucial details that developers need.

All of these steps have a clear shortcoming: they lack continuity and comprehensive detail. There needs to be a better way to address these gaps and seal all of these other steps in. 

This better way exists, and it is called Continuous Documentation. We discuss this next!

Implementing Continuous Documentation

Additions to a codebase are made all the time, and this can quickly become a labyrinth for new developers. The goal is to break the dreaded cycle of documentation after any major or minor updates.

So, what’s the solution? Keeping documents up to date continuously!

Come to think of it, even most experienced developers might scratch their heads at the "why" behind certain code and struggle to grasp the rationale behind the modifications. 

Here, continuous documentation comes to the rescue! 

This approach involves constantly updating and refining documentation as your development progresses. This ensures your documentation stays fresh and accurately reflects the latest changes in your codebase.

But how can you make it work within your engineering team? Well, you can encourage your team to update documentation whenever they commit code or roll out a new feature. Version control systems are your friend here – use them to track changes and maintain a history of your documentation updates. This not only keeps your documentation relevant but also avoids the dreaded task of massive updates at project deadlines.

You can take it a step further and integrate documentation updates into your CI/CD pipeline. 

This automates parts of the process, ensuring your documentation evolves alongside your codebase. This smooth integration fosters a habit of regular updates, making documentation an inherent part of your development This practice fosters a habit of regular updates, making documentation an inherent part of your development workflow.

Closing Thoughts

Creating a strong documentation culture within your engineering team isn't just a bonus—it's a strategy for long-term success. When you prioritize good documentation, you preserve valuable knowledge, and take collaboration up a notch, while also making onboarding new team members much smoother.

Think of documentation as a living, evolving resource that grows with your codebase (and your team!). The aim is to make it a natural and active part of your team's daily routine. Done right, it saves time, reduces frustration, and empowers your team to work more efficiently and collaboratively.

If you haven't already, do take a moment to evaluate your current practices, spot areas for improvement, and commit to building a documentation culture that benefits everyone.

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Table of Contents
  • Reinventing the Wheel Constantly? It Might Be a Documentation Issue
  • Is Your Documentation Process Truly Optimized?
  • Comprehensive Coverage
  • Up-to-Date Information
  • Easy Access
  • Clear Communication
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Feedback
  • How to Build a Strong Documentation Culture Within Your Engineering Team?
  • Setting the Right Example
  • Integrating Documentation into Workflows
  • Facilitate Knowledge Sharing 
  • Implementing Continuous Documentation
  • Closing Thoughts

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