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Season of Docs 2020: 5 Technical communication learnings as an open source contributor

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Open source contributions have always intrigued me as they are a good way for developing skills needed in the real world. When I stumbled upon Season of Docs (SoD) 2020, while watching Amruta Ranades technical writing videos, I was thrilled to find an opportunity that serves as a bridge between technical writers and different open source organizations. I was intrigued by how there is an open source software or tool addressing different industry needs (eg: HR, video editing, education, robotics, etc), and how the lack of good documentation moderates the user adoption.

Figure 1: Open source projects are resourceful for developing new skills and building new industry connections

This blog post summarizes my technical communication learnings while working as an open source contributor with CircuitVerse.

Documentation audit is key: To prepare my technical writer application, I audited available documentation of five organizations for the following factors:

  • What documentation is available?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Does it cover all the functionality?
  • Does it cover end-user needs?
  • Is the documentation any good?
Based on my findings, I further narrowed down my choice to two organizations. While preparing the SoD proposal for CircuitVerse(CV), I drafted a content proposal plan that included a mixed bag of video prototypes, tutorials and existing content improvement and remapping to illustrate my ability to understand real world problems and tech integration capabilities. You can find my final project proposal, which got me selected as a participant for Season of Docs 2020 with CircuitVerse here.*

*A special shout out to Audrey Tavares (a past-participator of SoD 2019, Oppia) for answering my queries and guiding me through the process.

Know your audience: When SoD concluded in December 2020, I had produced a series of video tutorials and rewritten the complete documentation for the CV simulator. You can find the complete project report here.

Audience analysis is key to the success of a documentation project. Do your research and ask enough questions to understand your audience and discover vital facts.

In my case, I concluded from my initial findings that the primary audience were students, but the mentors corrected me that the primary audience are educators. This provided a cue for the team that the message is not clear and we revised the content layout to cater to the primary audience.

Secondly, avoid assumptions, and be prepared with agreeing to disagree––conflicts can be healthy!

Write documentation for an evolving platform: Documentation empowers users to feel confident about the product and build trust. One of the key pain points of working on open source documentation is that the platform is continuously upgraded with new features and functionalities. So how do you strike a balance?

While the CV videos had some UI discrepancies, I focused on making sure that the user guide content (that is live) is detailed enough, and gives users clear instructions on how to accomplish a task. I learned that videos play a key role in demonstrating a workflow while the text documentation must be detailed and updated frequently.

Build up developer and documentation tools proficiency: Contributing to open source projects expands one’s familiarity with real world practices, including working with different tools like Adobe Camtasia, GitHub and Markdown. While my comfort level with GitHub grew, I learned better practices for working with Markdown for a large data set. I used the Docs to Markdown add-on for Google Docs to transpose the content in markdown before uploading it to GitHub.

Focus on fluid communication skills while working with subject matter experts: The SoD opportunity allowed me to experience working in a distributed, collaborative environment across borders and geographies––replicates the traditional corporate world.

While my mentors were receptive to my suggestions, I made an effort to keep them apprised about the progress and missing deadlines of the project. For instance, I improvised the documentation deliverable midway with their consent. I realized that it was important to have good, clear documentation available for the available popular topics before adding new content.

When my mentors and I were in doubt, we reached out to the CV Slack community for user feedback on different aspects.

Warming up as an Open Source Contributor
Although my project with CircuitVerse has been successfully completed, I look forward to my continued journey with CircuitVerse, and continued open source contributions with other organizations in 2021. If this is your first time applying for Season of Docs, refer the FAQ for technical writers to gather more insights into the program. You can also give a shout out to the extremely helpful program admins at season-of-docs-support@googlegroups.com or post your queries on the Season of Docs Slack channel.

Guest Post by Pragati Chaplot Jain – Season of Docs Participant

SoD and technical documentation in an open source organization

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Featured image


Documentation in open source organizations is a complicated job because there are so many new edits and issues occurring daily, that without a dedicated team, they become challenging to manage. Since open source organizations mostly rely on volunteers it is not unusual for a small task to take longer than if full-time team members were dedicated to it. Time is of the essence when improving documentation; since as contributors continue to add value to the organization, chances are there will be more work content to continuously work through. Season of Docs (SoD) aims to aid with documentation in an effective way.

SoD creates an environment where freelance technical writers can work with an open source organization for 3–5 months. The technical writers can get paid and the organizations get a dedicated individual to take care of their documentation —a win-win for everyone.

I had the opportunity to work with ESLint under SoD 2020, where I was able to learn quite a lot, with the aim to improve and organize the Configuration Documentation of ESLint. From understanding the work of ESLint and the structure of the existing documentation to managing a short-term project and collaborating with other volunteers, the project was filled with learning experiences. The best aspect was that I realized the worth of my contribution, but also felt appreciated all along. Often, technical documentation and communication are not given much attention but with SoD it was different.

The Positives

A different perspective

A freelance technical writer, in most cases, is a person who is not a part of the organization. An external perspective with the existing documentation can point out some issues which may otherwise go unnoticed. Additionally, since the freelance writer is entirely dedicated to the task they’re able to solely focus on that task.

Collaborative environment

One of the best things about open source organizations is the level of collaboration. While working in such an environment, where everyone is so willing to help and to give valuable input, a freelance contributor does not feel alienated at all. There is a lot of valuable feedback and the work of a technical writer is both respected and appreciated.

Some Challenges

As in any other project, documentation in an open source organization is not free of some hiccups.

Understanding the content

Freelance technical writers have limited time to get acquainted with the objectives and the content of the open source organization, making things a little hard if the writers have not previously interacted with (or heard of) the organizations they are working with. Reflecting on my own experience, I feel that this was a major concern for me since I had no previous experience with linting software.

Thanks to the 'community bonding period' however, which lasts for almost a month before the project officially begins, the freelance writers can get some understanding of the organization and the content.

Time

Since most of the contributors are working voluntarily, their engagements can prolong the process of review and feedback, which can make meeting the project deadline feel challenging at times

Overcoming the Challenges

It doesn't matter if you're working under the SoD umbrella, contributing to strengthen your portfolio, or trying to gain more practical experience, the following tips can be helpful.
  • Communication is key. It is important to convey your concerns regarding time, commitments, and other engagements so that the expectations are met.
  • Ask questions! You won’t know everything about the project.
  • Be flexible. Your project might change after you start working on it, and things don't always go as you planned.
  • Use the 'community bonding period' to interact with your mentor and other collaborators, indulge in small tasks, and get to know the people and the organization.
  • Value the work and feedback of others. Everyone who is a part of the community is trying to add some value to the organization.
SoD serves as an excellent platform in bringing technical writers and open source organizations closer.

Guest Post by Khawar Latif Khan – Season of Docs Participant

Basis Universal Textures - Khronos Ratification and <model-viewer> Support

Thursday, February 18, 2021

In 2019, Google partnered with Binomial to open source the Basis Universal texture codec with the goal to make high-quality textures more efficient for network transmission and graphics processing unit (GPU) memory usage. The Basis Universal texture format is 6-8 times smaller than JPEG on the GPU, yet has similar storage size as JPEG—making it a great alternative to current GPU compression methods that are inefficient and don’t operate cross platform. The format is intended for a variety of use cases: games, virtual and augmented reality, maps, photos, small videos, and more.

the Basis Universal texture codec
Over the past year, several exciting developments have been made to make Basis Universal more useful. A new high-quality mode was introduced, allowing the codec to use the highest quality formats modern GPUs support, finally bringing the web up to modern GPU texture standards—with cross platform support. Additionally, the Basis encoder now has an option to build a WebAssembly version, allowing for innovative web applications to take advantage of outputting to the super-compressed format. Lastly, the Khronos Group has announced and ratified the Basis Universal texture extension to glTF format, allowing for compressed assets that can be shipped and displayed everywhere in a KTX 2.0 container. This will have profound impacts on how models are distributed via the web and advance applications like eCommerce, making it easy to take advantage of 3D content on any platform.

In addition to these new features, developers worldwide have been making it easier to take advantage of Basis Universal. <model-viewer> has just added support for glTF files with universal textures, making it as easy as two lines of JavaScript to have beautiful, interactive 3D models on your page and in the coming months, the <model-viewer> editor will add support for encoding to universal textures. Additionally, 3D engines like Three.js, Babylon.js, Godot, Archilogic, and Playcanvas have added support for Basis Universal, with more engine support coming. Basis Universal is already in applications many use every day.

We look forward to seeing Basis Universal adoption soar as it has never been easier to distribute 3D assets. Check out the code and demo on GitHub, let us know what you think, and how you plan to use it!

By Stephanie Hurlburt, Binomial and Jamieson Brettle, Chrome Media
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