The Documentation IS The Code

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I’m a senior (aka old, been in the game for > 30 years) software developer moving from the Java ecosystem to the Javascript / Typescript ecosystem.

There have been frustrations and bumps along the road, but in general coding in Typescript has been pure joy, and I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of working with it.

Recently, when I’ve reached for something in the Javascript / Typescript ecosystem it’s there (that wasn’t always the case years ago…I remember the dark times…). The hard part now is making a choice between one of the several wonderful options to choose from (good problems to have).

Unfortunately, I have now hit my first major road-block :(

There is currently no documentation language / generator that I like in the Javascript / Typescript ecosystem.

That isn’t to say that other language ecosystems have this solved. And that IMHO is part of the problem. There is no decent general solution for producing documentation from source code that I am aware of.

Java has had Javadoc for a generation, and has not really moved much beyond that.

C/C++ has Doxygen

And there are a plethora of documentation generators for various languages.

ApiDoc along with JSDoc and language specific extensions like TSDoc are the closest common language for documentation I’m aware of (all of course stemming from Javadoc).

OpenAPI (swagger) is the dominant machine-readable intermediate form for documentation.

Here a are a few documentation generators for Javascript / Typescript I’ve looked into:

START OPINIONATED RANT

All of these generators have problems that make me not want to use them. These problems stem from one cause:

None of the generators want to share a common intermediate form, and so are, to varying degrees, doomed monoliths, wanting to solve all the problems instead of solving tractable single small problems.

My one lesson from decades of experience: Composition is KING.

As a software developer I don’t want to spend my precious time investing in a single entire vertical soup-to-nuts ‘solution’ to a problem. Those ‘solutions’ eventually become stale, or worse become a sort of prison, limiting my ability to create, and my time is wasted.

Consumers look for ‘entire’ solutions.

As a developer I’m looking for the small pieces that I can put together to create a solution. I’m a chief who takes ingrediants to produce a meal, or an artist that uses paints to produce a painting.

I’m a creator not a consumer, and tools that want me to use them should focus on that fact, and vie to be as small and composable as possible.

END RANT

How documentation should work

An emerging solution from the content side

Unified is a content focused ecosystem that appears poised to tackle this problem from the ‘opposite’ (document/content creation) side. MDX is a tentative step towards recognition of the idea that ‘there is only source’, without the distinction between ‘content’ and ‘code’.

MDX and Unified is getting close to the solution, but isn’t there yet. The focus is too much on unstructured content (for my purposes), and not enough on generating content from structured text like ‘source code’. I’m excited and think this project is going in a good direction (and parts are already there), but it is going to take time for this to unfold.

I can’t wait

I’m working on a project that is currently being held up due to this ‘documentation’ problem.

To that end I’ve started yet another project to solve my ‘documentation problem’, before I can get back to solving my other problems (I am an infinite generator of problems for myself :) ).

Wish me luck, and I’d be curious to know of how others solve the ‘documentation problem’ for themselves. Perhaps I’ve missed something obvious, or there are other resources I can use to help solve this problem.

Originally published at https://github.com.

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