Learnings from a doc sprint

A doc sprint is an event where technical writers work with engineers and other product team members to develop or update documentation. A well planned doc sprint is productive and rewarding for the documentation and the participants. This post shares some of the things I’ve learned from recent sprints.

A doc sprint can last anything from a few hours to a few days. I’ve found two days to be a useful period when the focus is fixing bugs. That may seem a little long, but it gives the disparate members of the team time to contribute to the sprint while keeping their primary roles ticking along too. When working with a distributed team across time zones, it’s particularly useful to have a flexible period that gives everyone the opportunity to take part.

Sometimes people use the term “doc fixit” when the sprint is focused on fixing bugs rather than developing documentation for a new product. Either way, a sprint or a fixit is a time box focused on the documentation.

Why run a doc sprint?

The primary goal is to fix documentation bugs and thus improve customers’ experience of the product. Sometimes it’s hard for a small team of technical writers to find the time to fix the small things. Yet, to our customers, those small doc bugs can mean death by a thousand cuts.

By inviting the developers and support or sales engineers to update the documentation, we make immediate and direct use of the expertise of our subject matter experts. By inviting product managers and programme managers to assess the documentation requests and help prioritise them before the sprint, we’re making use of their product and customer knowledge too.

Another goal is to foster a feeling of ownership of, pride in, and responsibility for the documentation amongst the engineers. It’s likely that they already know the value of the documentation, but they may not feel empowered to suggest and make updates. The hands-on experience of a doc sprint gives them that power. The feeling of power lasts long after the sprint has ended.

A doc sprint offers an opportunity for people to meet each other. Technical writers meet engineers and other members of the product team that we may not cross paths with often.

Some things I’ve learned from running doc sprints

These are a few things that have made an impression on me from recent sprints, and some hints that I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Engineers and other members of the product team appreciate the value of the documentation, and are keen to help improve it.
  • When deciding which tasks to allocate as suitable for the doc sprint, include some gnarly ones. It’s tempting, as a technical writer, to think that some tasks can be handled only by a technical writer. Well, that is true for some tasks🙂 but recently I’ve found it’s rewarding to err on the side of “let’s do it”. Big things happen in a doc sprint. Big bugs get squashed with surprisingly little fuss.
  • As the technical writer, be prepared to spend the entire period of the doc sprint reviewing changes, rather than making changes yourself. The main benefit of getting software engineers and support engineers to fix bugs is that you’re making direct use of their technical and business knowledge. They know the products and systems, and the ways the customers use them. On the other hand, the engineers don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of your documentation system. So, while the facts are probably right in the documentation created during the sprint, you’ll need to tweak the language and the adherence to other documentation standards like content re-use and page structure. It’s best to do that as part of the sprint, so the bugs can be closed off.
  • Create bug hot lists, to give people priority and focus. A hot list is a collection of bugs of a certain type. Since they’re fairly crucial to the success of a sprint, I’ve dedicated a separate section to hot lists below.
  • Hold a kickoff meeting at the start of the sprint, to give people information about what they’re doing and how to do it. Keep the kickoff short: 15 to 20 minutes is good. But allocate an hour, in case people have lots of questions.
  • Create a sprint guide that you can share with the sprint participants. The guide should be short and sweet, including information such as the date(s) of the sprint, the aims, the sprint organiser, the time of the kickoff meeting, the links to the bug hot lists, information on how to update the documentation, and where to send the reviews. Walk through the sprint guide at the kickoff meeting.
  • If you have the budget, provide food and prizes. For example, cakes at the kickoff, and prizes for most bugs fixed, most scary bug tackled, and so on.
  • Send out a report on how things are going at the end of the first day, as well as a wrapup after the sprint has ended. Include interesting bits of information such as who fixed the first bug, how many bugs have been fixed so far, and the scariest bug fixed.

More about hot lists

A hot list is a collection of bugs of a certain type. Many bug tracking systems offer a way of creating hot lists, naming them, and allocating bugs to them.

Hot lists are key to the success of a doc sprint where the focus is fixing bugs. When planning the sprint, I spend quite some time devising a set of hot lists that helps define the aims of the sprint, then filling the hot lists with issues. It’s worth it. When the day of the doc sprint dawns, people can get started immediately, even if I’m not there yet. (That last is particularly handy when my day starts five hours after many of the team members’ due to time zones.)

It’s fun to think up some attractive, appealing names for the hot lists. For example, being in Australia, we chose the name Mozzie (mosquito) for the hot list of small, easy fixes. For the big scary bugs, we chose Huntsman (a rather large, strangely beautiful, but admittedly scary, spider). In our most recent sprint, we created a hot list called Product Manager’s Choice (fix these bugs to win a PM’s mark of honour) and another called Technical Sales Engineer’s Choice (fix these bugs to win a TSE’s undying gratitude).

Note that a bug can appear in more than one hot list. For example, a big complex doc request could be a Huntsman as well as a Technical Sales Engineer’s Choice.

Have one master hot list for the sprint, which includes all bugs to be tackled during the sprint. This hot list will be invaluable in tallying up totals when the sprint is over. It’s also a good container for bugs that don’t fit into any of the other hot lists, but which you’d still like tackled during the sprint.

Having hot lists also makes it easier to award prizes based on the hot lists.

More about doc sprints

If you’d like to know more, try some earlier posts on planning and running a doc sprint. The sprints I’ve been involved in recently have focused on bug fixing. In earlier sprints we created entirely new documentation sets.

Bug husks

These are the husks of two cicadas that I spotted while walking in the bush. The bugs themselves have shed their skins and gone on to bigger, better things.

Cicada husks

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 17 January 2016, in technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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