3 reasons to host a docathon for your open source project

A marathon for documentation is a great way to produce or improve the docs for your open source project.
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Your open source project's documentation is essential to your customers. Your target audience must understand the purpose of your project and how to use it, and documentation is what bridges that gap. A project is rarely ever truly done, so it's equally important for resources to be maintained and updated with your project's continuous improvement.

But what happens when you have lots of documentation to maintain but lack the resources to keep it current? The answer is pretty simple: Host a docathon!

What is a docathon?

A docathon is like a hackathon. A hackathon is an event where engineers and community leaders gather to improve or add new features to an existing application. In a docathon, the same kind of collaboration focuses on improving documentation.

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A docathon can fill gaps within content, restructure large documentation sets, fix broken links, or just correct typos. The intent behind hosting a docathon is to improve a large amount of documentation in a relatively brief timeframe.

Some examples of product documentation include:

  • Training manuals
  • User manuals
  • Installation guides
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • Quickstart guides
  • API documentation
  • Tutorials

At my organization, our documentation team hosted a docathon and successfully revamped a 102-page installation guide. The docathon enabled us to focus on the project's scope, which was reorganizing for simplicity, removing duplicate content, and following the customer journey. Hosting a docathon left a lasting impression on my team and improved customer success.

[ Read Write documentation that actually works for your community ]

3 things you can achieve with a docathon

Here are my top three reasons to host a docathon:

1. No more backlog

Most documentation must evolve along with the product it supports. As the product changes or updates, so must the documentation. In some cases, documentation teams release new versions of their documentation alongside the engineering team's release cycle. As priorities within a team change and GA releases continue, documentation teams face the challenge of keeping up with new features, bug fixes, and tasks to complete. The changes that get left behind become part of a backlog—an accumulation of work that needs to be completed at a later time.

Docathon tip: During a docathon, participants can triage backlog items and complete them as they progress through the list. Non-technical participants can work on fixes related to typos, broken links, and other text-related issues.

2. Revamp large-scale guides

By the time your documentation team realizes it's time to revamp a guide, it's probably several chapters in and hundreds of pages deep. Once the content plan has been developed, the complexity of restructuring begins. Restructuring a large amount of documentation is not for the faint of heart.

Docathon tip: Assemble a team to lead the docathon and provide incentives for organization-wide participation from different teams or departments. Depending on the scope of work and time constraints, your team can successfully restructure an entire guide in less time than you probably expect.

3. Collaboration between cross-functional teams

It is common for different groups within an organization to work in isolation. Engineering, product, customer support, marketing, and documentation teams may not collaborate on projects as often as they should.

Imagine hosting an event where each team member can use their expertise to improve product documentation. Docathons foster subject matter expert (SME) diversity, real-time collaboration, and communication. They also allow for an inclusive environment where individuals residing in different geographical locations can participate in person or remotely. Your documentation receives the undivided attention of experts with different viewpoints and specializations, minimizing isolated siloes, unconscious bias, and burnout.

Docathon tip: Enable cross-functional teams to come together for a common cause.

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Documentation marathon

The next time your team has a seemingly insurmountable backlog or is tasked with restructuring a huge documentation project, consider hosting a docathon. It's easy, and its productivity may surprise you. For more information on hosting an event like this, read Tiffany Long's excellent 10-step guide to hosting a hackathon.

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Lydie Mode-Malivert
Lydie Modé-Malivert is a Senior Technical Writer at Red Hat. She has 12+ years of technical communication experience in both the public and private sector. In her spare time, Lydie enjoys baking and learning about new technologies.

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