A majority of open source projects have a paucity of documentation. However, they still have value as a working system. I argue that improving the documentation of a codebase intended for general use is one of the highest value activities that a developer can do. Although documentation may not be directly contributing to the codebase, the writer provides a valuable service by understanding the code and imparting that knowledge to others.
I would go so far as to say that there should be open source technical writers. They look for interesting projects to write basic documentation for. While there are a smattering of tutorials for certain frameworks, they are not condensed, are not authoritative, and are often misleading because of changes to the framework or convoluted examples. When the core developers move at the speed of the forum or even IRC, it’s tough for a new person to have anywhere near that amount of knowledge. A centralized wiki with pertinent and up-to-date examples is quite useful.
If you are not yet a badass developer, this kind of project aids you in three ways. First, you gain experience looking at unfamiliar code bases and reasoning about them. This is especially helpful if you maintain code, and also assists you in writing more maintainable code. Second, you get some street cred for being closely involved with the developers on the project and working with them. You’re likely to learn something from the alpha geeks and advance your skills. Third, your writing skills improve, which helps you out in many areas over the long run.
In a nutshell, the kind of people who are building their own system or framework are generally not obsessed with documenting for average people. This could be due to time constraints or general personality traits. But the value that they create is wasted if people are not comfortable interacting with it.
There is an interesting thread on the Clojure discussion group about making examples readable and general ways to help developers who are new to the language and want to code idiomatically. One post mentioned the Clojure page on concurrency. If you can read through the example code there and want to tackle concurrency (which is supposed to be a strength of Clojure), then I applaud you. This isn’t a knock against Clojure, it’s just so new that most everyone who’s interested has been playing around with it and trying to understand it better.
One of the most important points in the post is that to get a community rallied around a language or framework, it’s necessary to have good documentation so people aren’t put off by it. The Clojure folks are getting there, as there are a couple of wikis around that people dump stuff into.
The qooxdoo framework illustrates one of my favorite examples of excellent open source documentation. When I first started looking at it, I was impressed by the amount of examples, pictures, screenshots that were included. The manual is rife with examples and code snippets.
They have a huge demo area that shows how simple effects can be created using at it. Looking at these demos, I started visualizing about how exciting it would be to work with this framework. As another great demo, it has an API documentation viewer, which itself is written with qooxdoo. It must have taken time to generate all of this…
On the other hand, one could argue that with a nascent open-source product, having too many people involved early is problematic for direction and quality density. Also, the people who create code which uses the product will constantly have to change their code because the underlying architecture or best practices change. It’s the bleeding part of the bleeding edge.
I’m not saying that I’m committing to doing any of this… :) Just thought that this was an interesting line of thinking.