Why you Don't Want Programers to Write Your Documentation

So the documentation sucks. Hire someone to make the documentation suck less.

Simple enough, right?


Just don't hire a programmer to write documentation, even though this seems to be a pretty common impulse. There are a lot of reasons, but here are some of the most important from my perspective:

  • Programmers focus on the code they write, or might write, to be able to describe and document entire projects. It's really hard to get programmers to approach documentation from the biggest possible frame.
  • Programmers have a hard time organizing larger scale documentation resources, because they approach it as a database problem rather than a cognitive/use problem.
  • Programmers solve problems by writing code, not by documenting it. You can push programmers to write notes and you can push the best programmers who can write to work on documentation; but unless you dedicate an engineer to writing documentation full time (which is a peculiar management decision) documentation will always come second.
  • I'd wager that every organization large enough to have documentation that sucks is probably large enough to have enough documentation for a full time technical writer.
  • Engineers, particularly those who are familiar with a piece of technology, do this really interesting thing where they explain phenomena from the most basic assumptions prompted to describe something, but regularly skip crucial steps in processes and parts explanations if they think they're obvious.

Interesting cognitive phenomena do not make for good documentation.

What am I missing?

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