Documentation is a necessity, not a luxury

“Documentation? We don’t need no stinkin’ documentation!”

That seems to be the approach of many IT departments to keeping a record of how things work. It’s an unfortunate attitude, really. Sure, not taking the time to create documentation may save a few minutes today, but a year from now when you’re trying to recall what setting you had to change to get some piece of software to work as desired, or when you’re trying to figure out which cable end in the rat’s nest in your network closet provides connectivity to the vice president’s office, you just might find yourself wishing you had written something down.

With that in mind, I propose the following: documentation isn’t just something that’s nice to have. It’s a necessity. Skip it—or get into a job where it’s not available—and you will be pulling your hair out.

Documentation vs. no documentation

In my previous gig, we created how-to guides on how to install specialized accounting software. I worked up an “if I get hit by a bus” document explaining each of the little processes and duties I had to handle on a regular basis. We even had a map of the building with each set of network ports labeled, and on the network switches in the server room? Each of those ports was numbered to identify how it matched up with the labels on the map.

When I started my current job, however, I was in for a bit of culture shock. Documentation consisted of a couple of OneNote files, a few user manuals that had for the most part not been updated for the current versions of the various pieces of software used by the company, and a lot of, “Go ask _____, he might know how that works.”

That approach might work for a while if you’re running a one-man shop, or if your company has exceptionally low turnover, but someday someone—maybe even you—may need to know how to do something again. Why make life more difficult for your successor—or yourself—by not creating some documentation?

Thankfully, things have improved some where I work. There’s always room for further growth, of course, but the tech support group at least has a Wiki now, and I’ve been adding things to it no matter how mundane or commonplace they seem. It may not be something I need tomorrow, but a year from now, or when someone new starts, I would much rather have spent five minutes writing a how-to than have to figure it all out from scratch. And as the new guy, I would have loved to have had that kind of resource available to me.

What you can do

Chances are that you too have run into a lack of documentation. That’s not something that can be fixed overnight, especially if it has been neglected for a long time, but you can start fixing the problem now. Here are a couple of suggestions to make life easier for future you and those who follow:

  1. If your employer has an internal knowledge base of some sort, ask if you can add material. Even if it hasn’t been updated in the last five years, start squirreling away information. Post existing manuals that aren’t already there. Ask your colleagues for suggestions of things to add; even if they’re not willing to do any writing themselves, maybe they’ll at least give you some ideas of things that would be useful.
  2. Create your own knowledge base, especially when you discover things that aren’t specific to a particular workplace. That could be a blog like this one, or a Wiki, or even a bunch of Word documents stored in a folder on your computer. The exact structure is less important than making sure that information is stored somewhere that you can find it. Oh, and make sure you back it up, too. All the documentation in the world will do you no good if your hard drive goes belly up.

Creating documentation may seem like a waste of time, but I speak from experience when I say it’s worth it. Do it. Your future self will thank you, and anyone who follows in your footsteps will thank you as well.