OK, so we don’t actually make cheese sandwiches here at p&p. Well, as far as I know we don’t (but if we did, they’d probably be the best cheese sandwiches in the world…). When I’m over in Redmond I have to stroll across the bridge to Building 4 and buy one from the canteen, though it’s worth the effort because you get four different kinds of cheese in it – as well as some salad stuff. Only in the USA could someone decide that you need four different cheeses in a sandwich. Here in England a cheese sandwich is basically a chunk of Cheddar slapped between two slices of bread. Take it or leave it. Maybe it’s because there is always so much choice over there, and people can’t make up their mind which cheese to have.
And why is it so hard to order stuff in the States? I usually find it takes ten minutes just to order a coffee in Starbucks ‘cos I have to answer endless questions. Do you want 2% milk sir? No, fill it up to the top please. Any syrup in it? No thanks, I want coffee not a cocktail. What about topping? Some froth would be nice. Am I going to “go” with it? No, I’ll just leave it behind on the counter. In fact, when we go out for a meal I like to play the “No Questions” game. Basically, this involves waiting till last to place your order, and specifying all the details of your required repast in one go so the waiter doesn’t have any questions left to ask. I’ve only ever won once, and that was in a pizza takeaway. I think they dream up extra imaginary questions just to make sure they get the last word.
Anyway, as usual, I’m wandering off-topic. We really need to get back to the cheese sandwiches. So, as a developer, how would you go about making a cheese sandwich? My guess would be something like this:
- Requirements analysis. Survey all the sandwichees to discover what kind of bread they want (rye, brown, granary, white, toasted?), what cheese they like (Wensleydale, Stilton, Gruyere, Jack?), whether they want butter or margarine spread, etc.
- Resource and materials review. How thin can you slice the cheese to get optimum taste while maximizing efficient usage. How thick should you slice the bread to get good sandwich stability with maximum return on loaf investment.
- Project planning. Decide on tests that will check for a correct result, and choose a suitable development environment such as a machine that can slice both bread and cheese. Formulate an iterative milepost-based plan for manufacture.
- Agile test-driven development. Pair one bread/cheese slicing operative with one bread spreader, and pass the resulting components to an assembler who merges one slice of cheese with two slices of bread.
- Test phase. Eat one.
Looks like a good plan. So how would we do the same in the documentation department? How about:
- Buy some cheese. Slice it up into random thicknesses and sizes and mark each slice with a number using a thick black marker pen so you know what order they fit together afterwards.
- Order a loaf from The Variable Baker Inc. Discover it’s a different size from the cheese slices, so trim each one to fit.
- As nobody really knows what the sandwichees will actually want at this stage, spread the bread with real butter as that seems like the obvious option.
- Carefully organize the numbered slices of cheese, index them, create a table of sandwich contents, wash the numbers off each slice of cheese, and assemble the sandwiches neatly on a plate. Stick a little cocktail-stick flag in each one to identify it.
- As each sandwichee arrives, ask them what kind of cheese and what kind of spread they want. Tip all the sandwiches off the plate, reorganize and modify the contents, then reassemble the plate of sandwiches with different little cocktail-stick flags.
- Repeat step 5 until everyone is fed up with cheese sandwiches.
Yep, it seems to be a completely stupid approach. But that’s pretty much what we have to do to get documentation out of the door in the multitude of required formats. HTML and HxS files for MSDN, CHM files for HTML Help, merge modules for DocExplorer, and PDF for printing and direct publication. Oh, and occasionally Word documents, videos, and PowerPoint slide decks as well. Maybe you haven’t noticed how complicated the doc sets in Visual Studio’s DocExplorer tool and HTML Help actually are? There’s fancy formatting, collapsible sections, selectable code languages (and it remembers your preference), multiple nesting of topics, inter-topic and intra-topic links, a table of contents, an index, and search capabilities. It even opens on the appropriate topic when you hit F1 on a keyword in the VS editor, click a link in a sample application, or click a Start menu or desktop shortcut. Yet it all starts off as a set of separate Word documents based on the special p&p DocTools template.
Yes, we have tools. We have a tool that converts multiple Word docs into a set of HTML files, one that generates a CHM file, and one that generates an HxS. But they don’t do indexes, which have to be created by hand and then the CHM and HxS files recompiled to include the index. Then it needs a Visual Studio project to compile the HxS into a DocExplorer merge module, and another to create a setup routine to test the merge module. But if you suddenly decide you need to include topic keywords for help links, you have to edit the original Word documents, generate and then post-process the individual HTML files, and start over with assembly and compilation.
We have a tool (Sandcastle) that can create an API reference doc set as HTML files from compiled assemblies. But you need to modify all of them (often several hundred) if you want them indexed. But we have another (home-made and somewhat dodgy) custom tool for that. And then you have to recompile it all again. And then rebuild the merge module and the setup routine.
What about PDF? The starting point is the set of multiple Word docs that contain special custom content controls to define the links between topics, and there appears to be no suitable tool to assemble these. So you run the tool that converts them to a set of HTML files, then another dodgy home-built custom tool to process the HTML files and strip out all the gunk PDF can’t cope with. Then you build a CHM file and compile in a table of contents and a much-tweaked style sheet. Finally, run it all through another tool that turns the CHM into a PDF document.
Need to make a minor change to the content because you added a late feature addition to the software? Found a formatting error (that word really should be in bold font)? Got a broken link because someone moved a page on their Web site? Found a rude word in the code comments that Sandcastle helpfully copied into the API reference section? For consistency, the change has to be made in the original Word document or the source code. So you start again from scratch. And it seems that there are only two people in the world who know how to do all this stuff!
Well, at least we’ve got a process that copes with changing demands and the unpredictability of software development. But it sure would be nice to have it all in a single IDE like Visual Studio. Even really good sandwiches with four different cheeses don’t fully soothe the pain. Mind you, I hear from RoAnn that they have cheese sandwiches on flatbread in the fancy new building 37 cafeteria that they toast in a Panini grill. Being foreign (English), I’m not sure what “flatbread” actually is – surely if they used any other shape the cheese would fall out? Reminds me of the old story about the motorist who turns up at a repair shop and is told that the problem is a flat battery. “Well”, says the customer, “What shape should it be?”…