Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The role of the wiki in the dev team...

When I arrived on my current project one of the first statements that was made is that we need a wiki. I hadn't used one in the past so was a little intrigued by the concept and what it would mean. I felt they were the flavour of the week and felt they would add value a wiki was setup.

It quickly became apparent that a wiki is an essential part of the efficient operation of any software dev team and I think for a number of reasons.

The wiki plays an important role in the collection, storage, categorisation and dissemination of information (mostly technical) related to the project. For any software team to run efficiently information is required that can be shared by the team, and a wiki is probably the most efficient mechanism to do this.

I'm not sure exactly how the word wiki is defined or what makes a wiki a wiki, and not being online right now, I cannot look it up. So I'll give my take on the essential elements of a wiki.

A wiki is an application which serves information efficiently, allows information to be related and structured and allows for easy editing of the information in the same context as it is viewed. Typically they run in a web architecture though it is not fundamentally necessary.

The question then is how has the wiki added value to team and how to you optimise that value.

I think the simple way to show the value of the wiki to a dev team is to look at what would happen if the wiki was removed.

When I compare a previous large project that I was on, which did not have a wiki, with the current project that does, the previous project would not have the problem that they do not have adequate documentation. The documentation they do have is either out of date, fragmented, duplicated in a number of places or irrelevant. The wiki would have removed all those weaknesses. It would have...

  • Provided a centralised location for all documentation

  • Provided a tool to categorise and relate various pieces of information together

  • Allowed for the quick and easy updating of information, keeping it relevant.

Furthermore, in the past, people would often say “Where should I put that information?” - the default answer now is “on the wiki”. It is surprising how often this word comes up in every day conversation.

Once you have been using a wiki for a few months it becomes indispensable.

However, there are number of challenges...

  • Keeping things relevant – at the beginning of the project a lot of information is placed on the wiki. The rate of discovery of new information is high so the wiki grows quickly. This information has relevance for that time, and because the rate of change in modern IT projects is quite high, information can quickly become dated. Because that information is no longer relevant the motivation to maintain it is low. Take our project for example, there is now a lot of information on the wiki which is irrelevant!

  • Wiki structure – this is arguably the biggest challenge and I think potentially the most difficult, especially when things change – but getting it right can add a lot of value. The reason I say this is that if the information is appropriately structured, then it can be found more easily, and if it can be found more easily, then people are more willing to use the wiki and thus information is better disseminated.

But I think one of the key issues to remember is that there is no silver bullet to improving quality. A wiki is one of the tools at the developer's disposal. It can't make people record pertinent, nor can is make people read pertinent information. One of the problems with information is that in order for information to be useful it has to be read. It is no use if the only person who benefits from the wiki is the person who originally wrote the information. Having said that, at least the information is now in two places (the developer's head and on the wiki), so the risk involved with that information is reduced.

All the wiki and other development tools can do is make things easier for the developer. They can improve quality if used appropriately and the wiki is an important, I would even say essential tool for improving quality and efficiency in a dev team.

What is interesting is that I do feel that the large corporates have largely missed the boat as far as the software for wiki's is concerned. I do feel that although the quality and maturity of wiki is high, I do think there is still some space for improvement in that space – it's going to interesting to see what kind of innovations materialise.

Trumpi raised the issue on his blog: How does one make wikis work?

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