For those who are driven, documenting what you’ve done is not only a
waste of time but a task that robs you of the time to create new things
and improve existing ones. On top of that it seems so pointless. Anyone
who’s got even a modicum of technical ability should be able to follow
the code. The code is the best documentation — and it’s always up to
date. There’s no stale documentation if the documentation is the thing
that is being documented.

So let’s say you were just hired. The code you are meant to help
maintain and improve was written only a couple of years ago so not
greenfield but not truly legacy either. I would say it’s a pretty common
situation for a developer to find themselves in.

The company that hired you makes productivity software. You are on
the team that is working on their web application for taking, storing
and finding notes. Let’s call it “NoteTaker” to make this example a
little easier to follow.

As is the case for many developers entering into a new position,
their first task tends to be bug fixes to help acclimate them to the
environment, the process and the code base. Your task is to fix a
problem that has been reported recently. The task reads “Note category
is defaulting to empty even though global settings suggest that the
category should be set to

You get your environment setup with the help of one of the
developers. You find that the application is not monolithic. There is a
frontend codebase and service oriented architecture for the backend. You
get both setup and can see notes in your browser now that you have the
right services running locally as well as the delivery layer that is
serving up the web UI. The backend is written in Python and the frontend
is a ReactJS single page app.

One of two things typically strike developers at this point: either
the code base is over-engineered or not engineered enough to be
flexible. Your style and the style of the previous developers dictates
your reaction of course. This reaction to someone else’s work is
well-documented and not the subject of this article but is important to
recognize so you can push it aside to objectively look at the

In this case, you have a service that handles creation, modification,
deletion, listing of notes which seems reasonable. The endpoints are
typical CRUD REST endpoints. And it’s using Flask to handle routing and
SQLAlchemy as an ORM. Which means that there is a Note model, a Category
model, a User model etc. And they are associated with one another using
SQLAlchemy’s magic hiding the SQL behind it.

You find the route that is used for creating a new note. It looks
right at a glance. The category, if not given in the input, pulls the
default category ID from the user’s global settings model and uses that.
But, as the bug suggests, when you go to look at the newly created note,
the category shows up as empty. Also, it looks correct in the

So you know that something is happening somewhere that is making it
show up empty. Unbeknownst to you, the person who has been working on
this system for a little while has a piece of information that would be
helpful to you. You have a couple of choices here. The first is to keep
debugging and the second is to ask someone. Your personality and the
urgency dictates which will be chosen. One choice takes more of your
time but helps you better understand the system. The second takes less
of your time but more of someone else’s and you may or may not get a
better understanding of the system depending on the person who is
helping you.

But there’s a third option that, at this point, is not available to
anyone. What if the behavior that leads to this situation was
documented? What would be documented, though? To understand that, we
have to get that extra context to understand why this happening.

“NoteTaker” had a feature added about six months ago that allowed you
to share categories with other people. The person who shared the
category can remove that share at will but, in the meantime, the user
with whom the category was shared can add their notes to it.


The problem arises when access to the category is removed but the
category is still there. As expected, User 1 no longer has access to
notes assigned to that category and User 2 no longer has access to that
category. But the oversight happened in User Settings where users were
allowed to selected a shared category as their default category.

Now that we have this context, we know a couple of things:

  • Sharing of categories is the root of the problem
  • User settings wasn’t fully considered when the feature was

Since the topic of this article is documentation, clearly my belief
is that a modicum of well-placed documentation could have helped

To be clear, it is not expected that someone documented this exact
use case. Because if they had they would have not introduced this bug in
the first place (probably). So good documentation is not about detail,
it’s about context. Figuring out the right context to provide for future
you and other people is the tricky part.

A good way of knowing what to document is to set up some ground rules
about what a brand new person is expected to understand without any

Existing knowledge

  • You are familiar with note taking apps and what they’re for.
  • Your are familiar with CRUD operations
  • You are familiar with REST endpoints and best practices
  • You have experience with Python, SQLAlchemy, SQL, Javascript

Knowledge to be learned

  • Relationship between entities in the system
  • Business logic behind creation, deletion, updates
  • Permissions
  • Flow of data through the system

So the goal is not to solve specific problems but to create an
environment where problems are likely to be solved more quickly or not
have been introduced at all. Additionally, with good documentation, you
can get your organization out of the “hub and spoke” developer
dependency tree.


Dependencies like these make it difficult to scale your organization,
make estimation of stories less accurate and can lead to lower quality

In conclusion, documentation is not about documenting everything. In
fact, too much documentation is as bad as not having any at all if not
worse. Rather, focus your documentation on giving context for
application-specific relationships and business logic and not on the
information that is innately understood by most developers. It will make
the good stuff standout and give all developers (new and old) the tools
they need to be more successful.

By Karim Shehadeh on September 24, 2017.

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