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Grokkin' the Docs

grok: to understand profoundly and intuitively

Definition courtesy of Merriam Webster online dictionary

Intro - Observations of a new SIG Docs contributor

I began contributing to the SIG Docs community in August 2019. Sometimes I feel like I am a stranger in a strange land adapting to a new community: investigating community organization, understanding contributor society, learning new lessons, and incorporating new jargon. I'm an observer as well as a contributor.

Observation 01: Read the Contribute pages!

I contributed code and documentation to OpenStack, OPNFV, and Acumos, so I thought contributing to the Kubernetes documentation would be the same. I was wrong. I should have thoroughly read the Contribute to Kubernetes docs pages instead of skimming them.

I am very familiar with the git/gerrit workflow. With those tools, a contributor clones the master repo and then creates a local branch. Kubernetes uses a different approach, called Fork and Pull. Each contributor forks the master repo, and then the contributor pushes work to their fork before creating a pull request. I created a simple pull request (PR), following the instructions in the Start contributing page's Submit a pull request section. This section describes how to make a documentation change using the GitHub UI. I learned that this method is fine for a change that requires a single commit to fix. However, this method becomes complicated when you have to make additional updates to your PR. GitHub creates a new commit for each change made using the GitHub UI. The Kubernetes GitHub org requires squashing commits. The Start contributing page didn't mention squashing commits, so I looked at the GitHub and git documentation. I could not squash my commits using the GitHub UI. I had to git fetch and git checkout my pull request locally, squash the commits using the command line, and then push my changes. If the Start contributing had mentioned squashing commits, I would have worked from a local clone instead of using the GitHub UI.

Observation 02: Reach out and ping someone

While working on my first PRs, I had questions about working from a local clone and about keeping my fork updated from upstream master. I turned to searching the internet instead of asking on the Kubernetes Slack #sig-docs channel. I used the wrong process to update my fork, so I had to git rebase my PRs, which did not go well at all. As a result, I closed those PRs and submitted new ones. When I asked for help on the #sig-docs channel, contributors posted useful links, what my local git config file should look like, and the exact set of git commands to run. The process used by contributors was different than the one defined in the Intermediate contributing page. I would have saved myself so much time if I had asked what GitHub workflow to use. The more community knowledge that is documented, the easier it is for new contributors to be productive quickly.

Observation 03: Don't let conflicting information ruin your day

The Kubernetes community has a contributor guide for code and another one for documentation. The guides contain conflicting information on the same topic. For example, the SIG Docs GitHub process recommends creating a local branch based on upstream/master. The Kubernetes Community Contributor Guide advocates updating your fork from upstream and then creating a local branch based on your fork. Which process should a new contributor follow? Are the two processes interchangeable? The best place to ask questions about conflicting information is the #sig-docs or #sig-contribex channels. I asked for clarification about the GitHub workflows in the #sig-contribex channel. @cblecker provided an extremely detailed response, which I used to update the Intermediate contributing page.

Observation 04: Information may be scattered

It's common for large open source projects to have information scattered around various repos or duplicated between repos. Sometimes groups work in silos, and information is not shared. Other times, a person leaves to work on a different project without passing on specialized knowledge. Documentation gaps exist and may never be rectified because of higher priority items. So new contributors may have difficulty finding basic information, such as meeting details.

Attending SIG Docs meetings is a great way to become involved. However, people have had a hard time locating the meeting URL. Most new contributors ask in the #sig-docs channel, but I decided to locate the meeting information in the docs. This required several clicks over multiple pages. How many new contributors miss meetings because they can't locate the meeting details?

Observation 05: Patience is a virtue

A contributor may wait days for feedback on a larger PR. The process from submission to final approval may take weeks instead of days. There are two reasons for this: 1) most reviewers work part-time on SIG Docs; and 2) reviewers want to provide meaningful reviews. "Drive-by reviewing" doesn't happen in SIG Docs! Reviewers check for the following:

  • Do the commit message and PR description adequately describe the change?

  • Does the PR follow the guidelines in the style and content guides?

    • Overall, is the grammar and punctuation correct?
    • Is the content clear, concise, and appropriate for non-native speakers?
    • Does the content stylistically fit in with the rest of the documentation?
    • Does the flow of the content make sense?
    • Can anything be changed to make the content better, such as using a Hugo shortcode?
    • Does the content render correctly?
  • Is the content technically correct?

Sometimes the review process made me feel defensive, annoyed, and frustrated. I'm sure other contributors have felt the same way. Contributors need to be patient! Writing excellent documentation is an iterative process. Reviewers scrutinize PRs because they want to maintain a high level of quality in the documentation, not because they want to annoy contributors!

Observation 06: Make every word count

Non-native English speakers read and contribute to the Kubernetes documentation. When you are writing content, use simple, direct language in clear, concise sentences. Every sentence you write may be translated into another language, so remove words that don't add substance. I admit that implementing these guidelines is challenging at times.

Issues and pull requests aren't translated into other languages. However, you should still follow the aforementioned guidelines when you write the description for an issue or pull request. You should add details and background information to an issue so the person doing triage doesn't have to apply the triage/needs-information label. Likewise, when you create a pull request, you should add enough information about the content change that reviewers don't have to figure out the reason for the pull request. Providing details in clear, concise language speeds up the process.

Observation 07: Triaging issues is more difficult than it should be

In SIG Docs, triaging issues requires the ability to distinguish between support, bug, and feature requests not only for the documentation but also for Kubernetes code projects. How to route, label, and prioritize issues has become easier week by week. I'm still not 100% clear on which SIG and/or project is responsible for which parts of the documentation. The SIGs and Working Groups page helps, but it is not enough. At a page level in the documentation, it's not always obvious which SIG or project has domain expertise. The page's front matter sometimes list reviewers but never lists a SIG or project. Each page should indicate who is responsible for content, so that SIG Docs triagers know where to route issues.

Observation 08: SIG Docs is understaffed

Documentation is the number one driver of software adoption1.

Many contributors devote a small amount of time to SIG Docs but only a handful are trained technical writers. Few companies have hired tech writers to work on Kubernetes docs at least half-time. That's very disheartening for online documentation that has had over 53 million unique page views from readers in 229 countries year to date in 2019.

SIG Docs faces challenges due to lack of technical writers:

  • Maintaining a high quality in the Kubernetes documentation: There are over 750 pages of documentation. That's 750 pages to check for stale content on a regular basis. This involves more than running a link checker against the kubernetes/website repo. This involves people having a technical understanding of Kubernetes, knowing which code release changes impact documentation, and knowing where content is located in the documentation so that all impacted pages and example code files are updated in a timely fashion. Other SIGs help with this, but based on the number of issues created by readers, enough people aren't working on keeping the content fresh.
  • Reducing the time to review and merge a PR: The larger the size of the PR, the longer it takes to get the lgtm label and eventual approval. My size/M and larger PRs took from five to thirty days to approve. Sometimes I politely poked reviewers to review again after I had pushed updates. Other times I asked on the #sig-docs channel for any approver to take a look and approve. People are busy. People go on vacation. People also move on to new roles that don't involve SIG Docs and forget to remove themselves from the reviewer and approver assignment file. A large part of the time-to-merge problem is not having enough reviewers and approvers. The other part is the high barrier to becoming a reviewer or approver, much higher than what I've seen on other open source projects. Experienced open source tech writers who want to contribute to SIG Docs aren't fast-tracked into approver and reviewer roles. On one hand, that high barrier ensures that those roles are filled by folks with a minimum level of Kubernetes documentation knowledge; on the other hand, it might deter experienced tech writers from contributing at all, or from a company allocating a tech writer to SIG Docs. Maybe SIG Docs should consider deviating from the Kubernetes community requirements by lowering the barrier to becoming a reviewer or approver, on a case-by-case basis, of course.
  • Ensuring consistent naming across all pages: Terms should be identical to what is used in the Standardized Glossary. Being consistent reduces confusion. Tracking down and fixing these occurrences is time-consuming but worthwhile for readers.
  • Working with the Steering Committee to create project documentation guidelines: The Kubernetes Repository Guidelines don't mention documentation at all. Between a project's GitHub docs and the Kubernetes docs, some projects have almost duplicate content, whereas others have conflicting content. Create clear guidelines so projects know to put roadmaps, milestones, and comprehensive feature details in the kubernetes/<project> repo and to put installation, configuration, usage details, and tutorials in the Kubernetes docs.
  • Removing duplicate content: Kubernetes users install Docker, so a good example of duplicate content is Docker installation instructions. Rather than repeat what's in the Docker docs, state which version of Docker works with which version of Kubernetes and link to the Docker docs for installation. Then detail any Kubernetes-specific configuration. That idea is the same for the container runtimes that Kubernetes supports.
  • Removing third-party vendor content: This is tightly coupled to removing duplicate content. Some third-party content consists of lists or tables detailing external products. Other third-party content is found in the Tasks and Tutorials sections. SIG Docs should not be responsible for verifying that third-party products work with the latest version of Kubernetes. Nor should SIG Docs be responsible for maintaining lists of training courses or cloud providers. Additionally, the Kubernetes documentation isn't the place to pitch vendor products. If SIG Docs is forced to reverse its policy on not allowing third-party content, there could be a tidal wave of vendor-or-commercially-oriented pull requests. Maintaining that content places an undue burden on SIG Docs.
  • Indicating which version of Kubernetes works with each task and tutorial: This means reviewing each task and tutorial for every release. Readers assume if a task or tutorial is in the latest version of the docs, it works with the latest version of Kubernetes.
  • Addressing issues: There are 470 open issues in the kubernetes/website repo. It's hard to keep up with all the issues that are created. We encourage those creating simpler issues to submit PRs: some do; most do not.
  • Creating more detailed content: Readers indicated they would like to see more detailed content across all sections of the documentation, including tutorials.

Kubernetes has seen unparalleled growth since its first release in 2015. Like any fast-growing project, it has growing pains. Providing consistently high-quality documentation is one of those pains, and one incredibly important to an open source project. SIG Docs needs a larger core team of tech writers who are allocated at least 50%. SIG Docs can then better achieve goals, move forward with new content, update existing content, and address open issues in a timely fashion.

Observation 09: Contributing to technical documentation projects requires, on average, more skills than developing software

When I said that to my former colleagues, the response was a healthy dose of skepticism and lots of laughter. It seems that many developers, as well as managers, don't fully know what tech writers contributing to open source projects actually do. Having done both development and technical writing for the better part of 22 years, I've noticed that tech writers are valued far less than software developers of comparative standing.

SIG Docs core team members do far more than write content based on requirements:

  • We use some of the same processes and tools as developers, such as the terminal, git workflow, GitHub, and IDEs like Atom, Golang, and Visual Studio Code; we also use documentation-specific plugins and tools.
  • We possess a good eye for detail as well as design and organization: the big picture and the little picture.
  • We provide documentation which has a logical flow; it is not merely content on a page but the way pages fit into sections and sections fit into the overall structure.
  • We write content that is comprehensive and uses language that readers not fluent in English can understand.
  • We have a firm grasp of English composition using various markup languages.
  • We are technical, sometimes to the level of a Kubernetes admin.
  • We read, understand, and occasionally write code.
  • We are project managers, able to plan new work as well as assign issues to releases.
  • We are educators and diplomats with every review we do and with every comment we leave on an issue.
  • We use site analytics to plan work based on which pages readers access most often as well as which pages readers say are unhelpful.
  • We are surveyors, soliciting feedback from the community on a regular basis.
  • We analyze the documentation as a whole, deciding what content should stay and what content should be removed based on available resources and reader needs.
  • We have a working knowledge of Hugo and other frameworks used for online documentation; we know how to create, use, and debug Hugo shortcodes that enable content to be more robust than pure Markdown.
  • We troubleshoot performance issues not only with Hugo but with Netlify.
  • We grapple with the complex problem of API documentation.
  • We are dedicated to providing the highest quality documentation that we can.

If you have any doubts about the complexity of the Kubernetes documentation project, watch presentations given by SIG Docs Chair Zach Corleissen:

Additionally, Docs as Code: The Missing Manual (Jennifer Rondeau, Margaret Eker; 2016) is an excellent presentation on the complexity of documentation projects in general.

The Write the Docs website and YouTube channel are fantastic places to delve into the good, the bad, and the ugly of technical writing.

Think what an open source project would be without talented, dedicated tech writers!

Observation 10: Community is everything

The SIG Docs community, and the larger Kubernetes community, is dedicated, intelligent, friendly, talented, fun, helpful, and a whole bunch of other positive adjectives! People welcomed me with open arms, and not only because SIG Docs needs more technical writers. I have never felt that my ideas and contributions were dismissed because I was the newbie. Humility and respect go a long way. Community members have a wealth of knowledge to share. Attend meetings, ask questions, propose improvements, thank people, and contribute in every way that you can!

Big shout out to those who helped me, and put up with me (LOL), during my break-in period: @zacharaysarah, @sftim, @kbhawkey, @jaypipes, @jrondeau, @jmangel, @bradtopol, @cody_clark, @thecrudge, @jaredb, @tengqm, @steveperry-53, @mrbobbytables, @cblecker, and @kbarnard10.


Do I grok SIG Docs? Not quite yet, but I do understand that SIG Docs needs more dedicated resources to continue to be successful.


1 @linuxfoundation. "Megan Byrd-Sanicki, Open Source Strategist, Google @megansanicki - documentation is the #1 driver of software adoption. #ossummit." Twitter, Oct 29, 2019, 3:54 a.m.,