Documentation-first culture

Principles and reasons for building a documentation-first work culture.

July 3, 2023


June 17, 2024

Documentation that is easy to find, search, update, and use is crucial not just for users, but also to the development team and to an organization’s members. Whether it is for onboarding, general support, or other questions related to doing our work, there needs to be documentation on how to do that. Often that “documentation” is communicated through a team or organization verbally and through its culture. This has a lot of consequences though, for instance, if a team member who has more knowledge about a process or code leaves, that knowledge is lost. Likewise, onboarding new team members is more difficult if it needs to be done verbally or informally learned on the job.

Many of these issues can be solved with having a “documentation-first” culture. There are a few role models for this type of work culture, but GitLab is a company that shows some of the best examples of how useful this type of culture is. We use them as inspiration for describing this philosophy.

Benefits to a “doc-first” culture

  • Retain and spread knowledge: Having our processes, workflows, and decisions written down makes it easier to record knowledge and skills we’ve gained and learned as well as to share it with others.
  • Reduce need to ask for help: If it is documented in an easy to search location, it means less time is spent asking another team member a question.
  • Easier onboarding experience: Being a new member means having lots of questions and learning to do about the team culture and how to do things. If it is documented somewhere, new members can learn by reviewing those documents.
  • Reduce need for meetings: Meetings are often used to answer questions from the team. If it is documented, there is less need for meetings.

Basic principles we aim to follow

  • Documentation is always evolving and is never finished.
  • Something documented is better than nothing documented.
  • Something incompletely and/or imperfectly documented now is better than something fully completed and/or perfectly done later.
  • Search the documentation first, ask a team member if it’s not in the documentation.
  • If it isn’t in the documentation, add it.
  • Empowering action is better than asking for permission, so the less barriers to making contribution, the better.
  • Any are welcome to contribute, though we will always discuss and potentially modify that contribution to fit our style and content.
  • Public documentation is prioritized over private documentation.

Add documentation as soon as it is needed

If there is a new topic or if documentation doesn’t exist on something, the best time to create it is now! Creating documentation will always take priority over other tasks, and deadlines will always try to reflect that priority. If more time is needed for a task because documentation needs to be created first? Perfect, deadlines can almost always be extended.

If you are thinking of sending an email or writing a longer form message about a question or topic, re-think that and instead take the time to create new file in the repository and start written down your question and the answers you’ve found for it. The content doesn’t have to be much, a paragraph or two is fine! Then submit a Pull Request in the GitHub repository. If you feel the question is something we should discuss as a team, then instead create an Issue so we can discuss it there.

All documentation is found on GitHub

All our documentation on Seedcase, whether it is processes, workflows, culture, or technical, are found on our seedcase-project GitHub organization account.

Reviewing our contributing guidelines

To add or modify documentation, check out the guidelines section of the contributing documentation.