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Results of open source doc fixit at Write the Docs Australia 2019

This week saw the 2019 conference of Write the Docs Australia. I was delighted to be able to take part in this event. So many good discussions, interesting talks, and lovely people!

On the Thursday afternoon of the conference, I ran an open source doc fixit. A doc fixit is an event where people get together to fix problems in a set of documentation. In the space of just two hours, a group of Write the Docs attendees contributed polish and shine to the Kubeflow documentation. Two fellow tech writers from Google assisted at the event: Alec Glassford  and Riona MacNamara.

Fixit results

Together the fixit participants fixed 33 bugs and merged 31 pull requests (PRs). Thirty-three sets of textual and formatting improvements. That’s a really great contribution to the Kubeflow open source doc set.

The screenshot shows some of the PRs submitted on GitHub by the fixit participants. A pull request (PR) is a set of changes that a contributor is presenting for merging into the open source project:

What do the resulting docs look like? One of the pages that received tech writer love was the guide to authenticating Kubeflow to GCP:

The contributors

Approximately 20-25 people took part in the fixit. A few people paired up to work together, which resulted in 15 individuals submitting pull requests (PRs). Some people submitted two or three PRs, leading to a total of 31 PRs.

The participants were a diverse group. Most were technical writers, given that the fixit was part of a Write the Docs conference. A few people had prior experience of GitHub, but most were new to open source and GitHub.

Goals and tactics

My goal for this fixit was to ensure that the participants had an enjoyable experience as well as the opportunity to learn a bit about open source processes and GitHub technology. I knew that the participants would have no knowledge of the product that the docs cover (Kubeflow).

Another important goal was to contribute meaningful improvements to the Kubeflow docs. Kubeflow is working towards a v1.0 release in January 2020. In the open source world, v1.0 is an important milestone, bringing certain guarantees of stability and polish. The v1.0 docs need to be polished too.

With the above in mind, I decided on a few tactics:

  • Keep the fixes relatively simple: typos, list formatting, broken links, outdated content. I did sprinkle in a couple of more complex fixes, where people needed to trawl through other PRs or issues to gather information. Those were for the folks who were already comfortable on GitHub.
  • Describe the fixes in detail, so that people didn’t inadvertently change the meaning of a sentence when polishing the syntax.
  • Make sure that only one person would submit a PR for a given page. I wanted to avoid messy merge conflicts, which may be frustrating and may even be difficult to resolve in the course of a two-hour fixit. I created a spreadsheet with one row per page, listing all the fixes required on that page. The fixit participants would then put their names next to one or more rows, to claim the pages they would work on.
  • Have three of us (Riona, Alec, and myself) walking around the room and assisting with the tricky bits.
  • Have the three of us reviewing and approving PRs as they came in, so that the participants could see the results of their work published in the doc set as soon as possible.
  • Provide a detailed guide for participants, including the basics of how to work in GitHub and how to update the Kubeflow docs. I wrote the guide, then asked Alec to test it. It was a good thing that he did test the guide, because it turns out that the GitHub experience is quite different for someone who doesn’t have contributor rights to a repository (Alec didn’t yet have them when he tested the guide) as opposed to someone who does (I’m an administrator of the GitHub repo and a member of the Kubeflow organisation).
  • Direct participants to use the GitHub web interface rather than the git command line interface.
  • Attempt to review and approve the PRs during the course of the fixit, so that participants could see the results of their work in the repository and on the docs website. To make this happen, I granted Alec and Riona the necessary review and approval permissions on the GitHub repository where the docs reside. We’ll remove those permissions now that the fixit is over.

What happened at the fixit

At the start of the fixit, I presented a short talk introducing the concepts of open source software and documentation, and the goals of the Kubeflow project.

Then the participants chose a page to work on, based on the spreadsheet we had prepared, and started work.

  • Their first task was to create an issue in the GitHub repo where the docs reside, to track their work.
  • Their second task was to find the page that needed fixing, and open the page in edit mode.
  • After making the necessary updates, the participants submitted a PR for review.

Alec, Riona, and I moved around the room, answering questions and helping people do the initial signups and then submit their issues and PRs.

In between answering questions, we also reviewed the incoming PRs and approved each one when it was ready for merging into the docs repository on GitHub. The continuous merge/publish tools on the GitHub project merged the change and published the update in the docs.

Hiccups and learning

All in all, things went smoothly. I’m very happy with the results. Huge thanks to the participants and to Alec and Riona for their help both before and during the fixit.

Alec, Riona and I were pretty busy helping the participants with various signup processes, GitHub idiosyncrasies, and other tricky bits. We didn’t have much time for reviewing and approving PRs. Next time, more assistants!

A few participants were confused about the difference between an issue and a PR in the GitHub repository. This reminds me how easy it is to succumb to the curse of knowledge: the fixit guide explained why it’s a good idea to create an issue (thanks Alec for suggesting this addition!) but it didn’t go into detail about the difference between an issue and a PR. If both those things are new to you, the difference is not obvious, particularly since they look very similar on GitHub.

A number of participants commented that the initial process of starting to contribute was lengthy and a bit bumpy. People need to sign up to GitHub, sign the contributor licence agreement (CLA), open a page for editing, then follow the GitHub prompts to submit the change, then create a PR (twice, seemingly, as the UI is a little clumsy). People were delighted to know that much of the process is once-off, and their second PR went more smoothly.

On a side note: We were using the GitHub UI because it’s initially a simpler experience than the git command line. Personally, I much prefer the command line. It’s restful. When I sit down with my laptop and type git status, it’s as if I’m saying:

Hey git, it’s been a while. I got distracted by messier things, but I know you’ve been keeping track of the important stuff for me. Let’s get going.

Feedback from participants

Fixit participants said that they appreciated the opportunity to learn about open source and to have their first experience of working in GitHub.

During the general feedback at the close of the conference, people mentioned that they were pleased some parts of the conference involved active participation, instead of listening passively to talks for the full two days.

What else happened at the conference?

Write the Docs Australia 2019 was jam-packed with talks, workshops, lightning talks, and unconferences. Take a look at the full program.

Here’s the Twitter hashtag: #wtdau2019.

Thanks so much to all the organisers and attendees. Write the Docs AU 2019 was awesome. See you at Write the Docs AU 2020!

Join the Kubeflow doc fixit at Write the Docs AU conference

Are you coming to the Write the Docs Australia 2019 conference on 14-15 November in Sydney? You’re invited to join us in a two-hour doc fixit on Thursday afternoon, as part of the conference.

Become a contributor to an open source project, learn a bit about how open source works, and help improve the experience of Kubeflow users. All in just two hours!

During the fixit, you’ll add a touch of tech writer shine to the Kubeflow docs. Docs are a super important part of the user experience of any product. Typos and grammatical inconsistencies can spoil that UX. Yet typos and odd syntax creep into any doc set so easily, especially when the doc set is largely written by non tech writers. You can help us set things right.

Where and when

The doc fixit is part of the Write the Docs Australia 2019 conference.

Registration

You don’t need to register separately for the doc fixit. Just register for the conference, then come along to the fixit on Thursday.

Your friendly doc fixit helpers

The doc fixit hosts are:

What happens at the fixit

Here’s how the fixit will work:

  • Before the fixit, I’ll create a spreadsheet with a list of doc bugs that need fixing. They’ll mostly be small things: typos, consistency in page structure, capitalisation, and so on.
  • At the start of the fixit, I’ll give a very short talk introducing the product (Kubeflow) and open source.
  • Then the group will look at the list of bugs and each person will choose what they want to do.
  • My assistants and I will help people create GitHub IDs if necessary.
  • Each person will create an issue in the GitHub issue tracker, describing the bug they’re about to fix.
  • Each person will then update the relevant doc on GitHub and send a pull request (PR) for review.
  • My assistants and I will help people sign the contributor licence agreement if necessary. (A bot will prompt them to do this when they send their first PR.)
  • My assistants and I will review the pull requests and approve each one when it’s ready.
  • The continuous merge/publish tools on the GitHub project will merge the change and publish the update in the docs.
  • The contributor will see their update appear in the docs!

I’ll also prepare a guide to for fixit participants, with the basics on how to work in GitHub and how to update the Kubeflow docs. The guides, in combination with the three of us helping during the fixit, should make the fixit fun and a useful learning experience for everyone.

Prerequisites

Here’s how you can prepare for the Kubeflow doc fixit:

  • Bring a laptop with WiFi capabilities.
  • If you don’t already have a GitHub account, sign up for one. If you have time to do this before the start of the sprint, that’s great. If not, you can do it during the sprint.
  • Sign the Google Contributor License Agreement (CLA). If you have time to do this before the start of the sprint, that’s great. If not, you can do it during the sprint.
  • It’s not mandatory to do any prework, but it will help if you know some Markdown.

References

How to run an open source doc sprint

Last week I ran the Kubeflow Doc Sprint, an event which brought open source contributors together from all corners of the world to write docs and build samples. We worked in groups and individually, chatting over video conference and on Slack, collaborating via online reviews and comments. We tackled complex technology which for some of us was entirely new. We learned a lot and achieved a lot.

Planning a large doc sprint may seem like a daunting task. Actually, it’s a large set of not-too-daunting tasks. The daunting bits are (a) knowing what the necessary tasks are, and (b) getting organised to complete the tasks. If you’re considering running a doc sprint, I hope this blog post gives you some useful pointers.

A bit about the Kubeflow Doc Sprint

doc sprint is an event where people get together to write documentation. The time frame can be anything from a few hours to a few days. From past experience, I’ve found that three days is a good period to aim for. It gives people time to contribute a fairly sizable piece of work and to enjoy the experience of the sprint.

The Kubeflow Doc Sprint ran from 10-12 July. We had contributors working in groups in Kirkland, Sunnyvale, and Chicago, as well as individuals online all over the world. We produced around 35 pull requests. A pull request is a set of changes that related to a given goal. For example, one pull request may add a new document or update related content in a number of documents.

My post on the Kubeflow blog includes a list of the tutorials and samples we built during the doc sprint. The blog post also has some pictures of the people in the sprint.

Optional extra: Learning on the sprint

We decided to run some short, targeted presentations during the doc sprint, focusing on documentation best practices and UX. I’d had feedback from previous doc sprints that three days is a long time to be heads down writing docs. People need a bit of variety, and they like learning new patterns that are at least tangentially related to their day job.

These are the mini talks from our doc sprint:

The tasks involved in planning and running a doc sprint

Here’s a brain dump of the things that need doing. But every doc sprint is different. My top hint, before diving into the details, is this: Make a list. 🙂 Add all tasks to the list, big and small, as soon as they occur to you. Start with the tasks from this blog post – pick the ones that apply to your situation. Then add your own.

I used a spreadsheet to track the tasks for this doc sprint, but any tool will do, provided you can share the list with others, set priorities, and make comments on the tasks. And of course, you must be able to mark a task as complete. Ticking off a TODO is one of the best feelings in the world. Your task list from your first sprint will be useful for planning your next sprint.

Preparations two to three months before the event

Start planning early:

  • Get budget approval, and check that your manager and team are happy with the idea of devoting time to the sprint.
  • Set the dates. Make sure the dates don’t clash with other related events or with holiday seasons. Avoid any important product release dates, if you can.
  • Book a venue. First, you’ll need to estimate the number of attendees you can expect. Be generous – it’s far better to have room to spread out than to be cramped.
  • Decide whether your budget provides for swag (T-shirts!) and prizes. If it does, organise the vendor and any designs you need.
  • Invite people to the sprint. I used a Google Form, which handily put the registrations into a spreadsheet for me.
  • Generate enthusiasm and discussion. Make sure people know you are committed to the sprint. That will give them the confidence they need to go ahead with travel arrangements and setting aside time to work on the sprint.
  • Order refreshments and meals, if your budget extends that far.
  • Arrange additional power extensions and cables, so that people can charge their laptops.
  • Start preparing a wish list of docs to write and samples to build. I started the wish list in a spreadsheet, then moved it to the project’s issue tracker to form the sprint backlog. Discuss the wish list / backlog repeatedly with your team and the wider community. Encourage them to add to the wish list.
  • Prepare and share an agenda.

Style guide, templates, and sprinter’s guide

It often surprises me that people are so interested in style guides. As a technical writer, I know the value of style guides, but I have a sneaking feeling that other people find them tiresome. Not so! In a doc sprint in particular, people appreciate the guidance. It’s also useful for reviewers to have somewhere to point contributors at, rather than needing to repeat the same style corrections in every review.

For the Kubeflow Doc Sprint, I wrote a style guide (that task had been on my radar for a while) and created some very simple templates.

People also need to know how to work during the sprint: prerequisites and setup, where the docs are, where the doc source is, how to preview their changes, and so on. Here’s an example of a sprinter’s guide.

Online communication channels

Communication during the sprint is key, particularly when your sprinters are distributed around the globe.

  • Set up a video conference call at least twice each day on each day of the sprint, where people can talk about their progress, check whether their work may overlap with someone else’s work, and ask for help on blockers. Useful video conferencing apps include Google Hangouts, Zoom, and more.
  • Have an online chat room going. We used a Slack channel dedicated to the doc sprint, in the existing Kubeflow Slack workspace.
  • Use a collaborative online tool for reviewing contributions and for tracking work done. We used GitHub’s pull requests (a pull request is a collection of changes related to a particular goal) and issue tracker. Take a look at the Kubeflow documentation pull requests and issues in our GitHub repository.
  • Encourage people to add detailed comments to their pull requests, reviews, and issues.

At the venue

It’s often easy to forget the practical things, yet for the participants these are key to feeling welcome and safe:

  • Post signs showing people where to go. Cover all the important destinations: the room where the doc sprint is happening; the bathrooms; the exit; coffee.
  • If participants have to sign in to the building or if they may have trouble finding the room, have two or more helpers who can escort your guests to the room.
  • In your opening speech, tell people the essentials: where to find the bathrooms; whether food is catered or not; who to contact if they encounter difficulties; the agenda.

Sprint demos

It’s a good idea to arrange a demo session at the end of the sprint. Give the participants the opportunity to showcase their work and to let you know whether they plan to finish off their work in the days following the sprint.

A demo session can be quite simple. Provide a doc where people can add links to their work. Devote the last two hours of the sprint to the demo session. Display each person’s work in turn, and ask the person to give a three-minute overview, something like this:

  • Introduce yourself.
  • State the goal of your doc in one sentence.
  • Give a short overview of the content.
  • Describe any problems you encountered.

It doesn’t matter if only a few people are ready to present a demo by the end of the sprint. The demo session gives a focus and a sense of excitement to the event. In particular, it lends momentum to the last day which might otherwise fizzle out. You can take a look at the sprint demos for the Kubeflow Doc Sprint.

The aftermath

Docs, or it didn’t happen! Write a report and/or a blog post describing the results your doc sprint. Tweet about it. Let people know it was a success, so that they’ll be keen to participate next time. Be sure to list the achievements of the sprinters. They’ve devoted time and effort to the sprint. For many of them, the results you publish will be useful in their performance reports.

If you promised T-shirts or other swag, remember to send them out to the participants.

#protip: Overcommunicate

Don’t assume people know something, even though you’ve already told them via email and in chat and in person… During an event, people get overwhelmed with information and noise and meeting new people and trying to understand new things.

So, tell people the most important things again and again, in multiple channels.

One of those most important things to tell people is where to find all the information they need. For our doc sprint, the source of truth was the Kubeflow Doc Sprint wiki.

Earlier posts

I’ve written a few posts about doc sprints and doc fixits over the years. Skimming through the posts shows just how different each doc sprint is!

Do you have any hints you’d like to share?

Many people have run open source doc sprints. If you have any hints or links, please feel free to add them as comments on this post.

A lightning talk on doc sprints

At the upcoming Collaborations Workshop 2019, run by the Software Sustainability Institute UK, I’ll be presenting a lightning talk on doc sprints. One slide, three minutes. Wow, that’s a short time for a big topic. 🙂 So I decided to blog about my talking points as well as presenting a shorter version of them during the lightning talk.

Here goes: These are my talking points for a lightning talk about doc sprints.

What is a doc sprint?

A doc sprint is an event where people get together to write documentation and, often, code.
The sprinters work together for a given period of time, usually two to three days, on a specific set of documentation.

Why run a doc sprint?

A well-organized doc sprint produces excellent results. The sprinters create new tutorials based on the needs you’ve identified. They fix doc bugs based on the hot lists you’ve put together. They learn about your product and your community, and with any luck they’ll continue contributing to the project after the sprint is over.

Why do people take part?

People have various reasons for taking part in a doc sprint. They enjoy sharing their skills and helping other people. They appreciate the opportunity for contact with other members of the development team and the community. They like the recognition that comes with having their contributions accepted into your documentation site. They like fixing stuff.

How do you run a doc sprint?’

If I were doing a full presentation rather than a lightning talk, this would be the largest part of the presentation. In a nutshell:

  • Prepare well in advance: start two to three months before the date of the sprint.
  • Think carefully about who to invite.
  • Prepare a list of the docs you want written and the bugs you want fixed.

Praise and prizes

It’s important to recognize the work people have done, and the time they have spent contributing to your documentation. There are a few ways you can reward people. Write a blog post listing the work done and the authors’ names. Link to their favourite social media account, so that people know who they are.

Provide people with stickers or badges showing the name of the doc sprint. Provide a T-shirt if your budget allows that. People love swag.

More tips

Here are some more hints that I won’t have time to mention in a three-minute lightning talk:

  • Pick a time when most people are less busy than usual – for example, the start of a quarter, or the start of a year, before deadlines start kicking in. Avoid conferences and other eventts that you know your target community will be involved in.
  • Invite everyone – software engineers, support engineers, product managers, technical writers, UX designers, and more. They’ll all have something to contribute to the sprint, whether it be defining the list of documents that need writing, reviewing the docs, or developing the docs.
  • Be ready to do lots of reviews during the sprint. As the tech writer, you probably won’t have time to write any docs yourself. It’s best to get as many of the reviews done during the sprint as possible. When the sprint is over, everyone moves on to other things, and getting reviews finalised becomes more difficult.
  • Prepare hot lists of the things you want fixed, or a wish list of the docs you want written. Consult stakeholders before the sprint, to refine your hot lists.
  • Create a sprint guide. Keep it short and simple. Include the date of the sprint, the time of the sprint kickoff meeting, people involved, links to hot lists, where to send reviews.
  • Provide a guide to updating the docs.
  • Share the results via reports, both during the sprint and in a sprint wrapup. If there’s no report, it didn’t happen.

Here are some detailed guides I’ve created after running a few doc sprints:

Emoji tree trunk

Not related to doc sprints specifically, except that I hope your doc sprint will feature many smiling faces!

Doc bug fixits – a doc sprint to fix issues

If you’re a tech writer on a fairly typical large documentation suite, your docs probably contain some inaccuracies caused by error, misunderstanding, missing information, or pages going out of date. If you’re lucky, like me, you may have an eager group of developers, engineers, support team members, product managers, and more, who’d love to help fix those bugs. Enter the doc bug fixit, or doc fixit for short.

Friendly Purple Ant by Schade from openclipart.org

Over recent months I’ve run a number of doc fixits. It’s been a lot of fun,  we’ve fixed some good bugs, and we’ve learned a lot. These tips may be useful to people considering running a fixit themselves.

A doc fixit is an event where technical writers work with engineers and other team members to update the documentation. It’s a type of doc sprint, but one where the aim is to apply small to medium-sized updates rather than add new features. The updates may fix errors in the docs or add missing bits.

Image attribution:
Friendly Purple Ant, by Schade,
from openclipart.org.

Why run a doc fixit?

These are some of the good things that tech writers experience from running a doc fixit:

  • Fix bugs and improve the docs.
  • Foster feelings of ownership of, pride in and responsibility for the docs amongst the engineers and other team members.
  • Share your tech writing and information architecture knowledge with others, and see how appreciative they are of your skills.
  • Educate people about the process of updating the docs, so they can do it themselves when they discover a small error in future. The process includes sending the doc to the tech writers for review and approval.
  • Meet people in the engineering and product teams.
  • Help the engineers see first hand how their code comments end up in the public-facing documentation (that is, the code comments that are formatted for Javadoc or some other doc generation tool, and thus appear in the generated reference docs).

How long should the fixit be?

A fixit can last anything from a few hours to a few days. I’ve found two days to be a good time period. It’s rare for each participant to be able to spend more than half a day on the sprint, and people are often called away unexpectedly to do their “day job”. A period of two days gives everyone a chance to help out, and ensures you get a good number of fixes done.

In particular if you’re working with teams in different time zones, the sprint should extend over at least two days so that people in far-flung offices get the best opportunity to work together on updates.

Things to consider before running a doc fixit

Some strategy never goes amiss:

  • Consider whether your doc set will benefit from a fixit. Ideally, it should have a reasonably large number of bugs, and a fair number of engineers and other team members who can participate.
  • Contact the tech leads and managers to explain the purpose of the fixit. Make sure they’re happy for members of their team to participate, and ask them to promote the fixit within their team.
  • Select the participants based on their product knowledge. If people have already shown an interest in the docs, they’re an excellent choice. Send them personal invitations.

How can you encourage people to take part in the doc fixit?

Motivate the participants:

  • Set a goal, such as the number of bugs to close.
  • Suggest that people examine the docs and raise bugs beforehand, so they can fix them in the fixit. That’s a good way for them to get to know the docs, and a good way to put themselves in line for a prize.
  • If possible, be present yourself at the location where most of the participants will be. It’s amazing and rewarding to see how engineers appreciate having a tech writer on tap. 🙂
  • Make it competitive. For example, “that other team’s fixit closed 42 bugs – let’s beat that!”
  • Provide food: pizzas, muffins, whatever your budget allows.
  • Award prizes. It’s great to have a number of categories, such as the first bug fixed, the most bugs fixed, the most complex bug fixed, and so on. The prizes can be small – it’s the thought that counts. And the fun.
  • Make sure people feel that the fixit is a well-organised event that will give them good material to add to their resumés.

Create one or more hot lists

Create “hot lists” of bugs that you want fixed. A hot list is a selection of items, in this case bug reports, with a characteristic in common. 

For example, you could create the following hot lists:

  • Quick, easy fixes.
  • Complex bugs.
  • Bugs that require specific technical knowledge.
  • And so on.

Make sure the bugs in the hot lists are suitable for a fixit. For example:

  • Ideally, the fix should be immediately relevant, and not dependent on a software release. That means people can submit the change and experience the immediate satisfaction of seeing it published during the sprint.
  • The fix should not require too much tech writer input. So, structural doc changes, for example, are not suitable for a fixit.
  • Take advantage of the fact that your subject matter experts are suddenly uniquely interested in the documentation. Choose tasks that require intimate knowledge of the product – where you’d have to consult your subject matter experts before you could make the update: corner cases, unexpected behaviour, and so on. In a fixit, it’s often your subject matter experts taking part!
  • Prioritise small bugs that you’re not finding the time to tackle. An accumulation of small bugs can be as bad as a single huge one, for negatively affecting customer experience.

Supply a fixit guide

Keep it short and simple. Just one page is enough. Include:

  • The goal of the fixit.
  • Date and time.
  • Location of the kickoff meeting.
  • Links to the hot lists.
  • A guide on how to update the docs.
  • How to send the updates for review and approval.
  • Your contact details.

Hold a fixit kickoff meeting

Put it on everyone’s calendars. Entice people with food.

Say just a few words, telling people about:

  • The goal of the fixit.
  • Prizes.
  • How to participate.
  • A link to your fixit guide.
  • How to find you and other tech writers during the sprint.
  • Go!

Run the sprint

Keep ’em at it:

  • Issue daily progress reports: tell people the total number of bugs closed so far, the top runners for each prize, any other news items.
  • Keep the food coming.
  • Review the incoming doc updates promptly.

Wrap it up nicely

Remember, you’ll probably want to run another fixit. Wrap this one up well, so that you can refer to it in future.

Write a report and share it with everyone involved. Describe:

  • Results (number of bugs closed).
  • Participants and prize winners.
  • Interesting factoids, such as something unexpected that happened, or the first product manager to fix a doc bug ever, …

Thank everyone involved, and don’t forget to hand out the prizes.

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