Thursday, April 30, 2020

CPython Documentation: The Next 5 Years - Python Language Summit 2020

"Documentation is the way we communicate with each other," said Willing. "Historically, we've done a great job with documentation." But the environment is changing: Python's BDFL has retired, and Python's user base is expanding, becoming more global, and moving away (to some degree) from lower-level programming to higher-level applications. These changes impose new documentation burdens on the small core team. Willing said, "We don't scale well."

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Willing and Ned Batchelder proposed a new Python Steering Council workgroup called the "Documentation Editorial Board". Its members would include core developers and community members; they would write style guides, manage translations into non-English languages, and create a landing page that guides different kinds of users to the documentation that suits them. (Daniele Procida had shared earlier a guide to writing docs for a variety of users' needs.) The core team need not write all the docs themselves—they should be owned and written by the community, along with the core team, overseen by the new Editorial Board.

In the Editorial Board's first year it would focus on governance, translations, the new landing page, and tutorials. Willing was inspired by the core team's overhaul of the asyncio docs; they added tutorials and split the high-level information from the low-level. The rest of the standard library would serve users better with more tutorials like asyncio's. Style guides would ensure consistency and best practices. As Ned Batchelder pointed out, Python has two PEPs for code style (one for C and one for Python), but none for documentation.

In its second year, the Board would measure its effectiveness so far, and begin running documentation sprints. Willing recommends the Board begin annual editorial reviews, seeking patterns of user confusion: "When users ask questions on mailing lists and the bug tracker, it means something's not clear to them." Updating the documentation to fix common misunderstandings would save time in the long run for users and the core team.

Batchelder observed that "twenty-five years ago, our main audience seemed to be refugees from C," but most readers of the Python docs today are not career software developers at all; they need different docs.

Raymond Hettinger asked, "Any thoughts on why no one stepped up to write any docs for the walrus operator? I'm not seeing people volunteering for major documentation efforts. Mostly the contributions are minor, micro edits." Willing replied that the walrus operator specifically was a "hot potato" that deterred volunteers. In general, the Python core team doesn't encourage others to lead big documentation projects; community members don't have a sense of ownership over the docs, nor the authority to merge their changes, so skilled writers take their efforts elsewhere. The proposed new Editorial Board would help to change that.

Sumana Harihareswara asked how documentation work would be funded, and whether professional technical writers might be involved. Willing replied that the PSF will fund some work, but she emphasized recruiting volunteers from the community. Several in the audience asked about making a "core documenter" role analogous to "core developer"; Batchelder replied that fine-grained roles and permissions in open source projects are counterproductive. People who write excellent documentation should simply be promoted to core developers.