See "Why The World Is Ready For Dexy" and "Dexy and Literate Documentation" as well as the technical writing section section of the tychoish wiki for some background to this post.

The brief synopsis: dexy is a new tool for handling the process of the documentation work flow between writing and publication. It takes snippets of code, and bits of documentation and passes these atomic chunks through filters to generate technical articles, manuals, and other high quality resources. It's exciting because it may provide a way to write and manage the documentation process in a manner that is more effective than many other options and has the potential to produce better quality technical texts.

The reason, I think, is that dexy treats documentation like code. This is different, fundamentally, from systems that expect that developers write documentation. The former has interesting implications about the way technical writers work, and the later is nearly always a foolhardy proposition doomed to end in failure.

Documentation has a lot in common with code: documentation is written and revised in response to software versions, so the process of iterations has a lot in common. Documentation should typically be compiled, and the build process should produce a static product, between iterations. Documentation, like code, must also be maintained and fixed in response to new bugs and use-cases as they are found/developed.

If we accept this analogy, Dexy begins to look more like a tool like make which is used to manage compilation of code. make figures out what source files have changed, and what needs to be rebuilt in order to produce some sort of binary code. That doesn't sound like a very important tool, but it is. make makes it easy to automate tasks with dependencies, without writing a bunch of novel code to check to see what's been done and what has yet to be done, particularly when build processes need to be done in parallel. Furthermore, make is one of these typical "UNIX-like" utilities that does only one thing (but does it very well) and ties together functionality from a number of different kinds of programs (compilers, configuration tools, etc.)

Dexy is kind of like that. It manages a build process. It ties together a group of existing tools, thereby saving developer time and building something that can be more flexible and consistent.

This is, however, imperfect analogy: I think Dexy isn't "make for documentation," because it would be possible to use make to manage the build process for documentation as well as code. [1] Dexy manages text processing, make can work one level up--if needed--to build coherent texts from Dexy-processed documentation units. Dexy and make are glue that turns documentation and code into useful resources.

There are obviously some situations where this developer-like workflow may be overly complicated. For starters, Dexy, like make, really provides a framework for building documents. A portion of creating every project and text in this manner would necessarily go to developing build-related infrastructure. It's not a huge burden, but it's the kind of thing that requires a little bit of thought, and maybe some good "default" or base configuration for new projects and texts. Dexy is a great first step into a new way of thinking about and working with documentation, but there is much work yet to be done.

Onward and Upward!

[1]I should thank, or perhaps blame, a coworker for planting this idea in my mind.