Set up a test environment

Walking through all the steps in documentation yourself is critical to producing good documentation. But the more complex setup you have, the more difficult it can be to test all of the steps. Still, if you want to move beyond merely editing and publishing engineer-written documentation, you’ll need to build sample apps or set up the systems necessary to test the API docs. These tests should mirror what actual users will do as closely as possible.

The first step to testing your instructions is to set up a test environment. Without this test environment, it will be difficult to make any progress in testing your instructions.

Local builds

Many times, developers work on local instances of the system, meaning they build the system on their local machines and run through test code there. In order to build an application locally, you may need to install some special utilities or frameworks, become familiar with various command line operations to build the code, and more. But if you can get the local builds running on your own machine, do it. It will serve you in the long run and empower you to document content ahead of time, long before the release.

Many times developers don’t expect that a technical writer will be doing anything more than just transcribing and relaying the information given to them. With this mindset, a developer might not immediately think that you need or want a sample app to test out the calls or other code. You might need to ask them for it. (Also, check the company wiki for instructions on how to set up local builds — engineers do often write internal documentation for other engineers.)

If a developer or QA person can’t give you access to any such test server or sample code, be suspicious. How can a development and QA team create and test their code without a sample system where they expect it to be implemented? And if there’s a sample system, why can’t you also have access so you can write good documentation on how to use it?

Most of the time, developers respect technical writers tenfold when the technical writers write doc from test systems, trying things out for themselves. Engineers also appreciate any feedback you may have as you run through the system. Technical writers are usually the first users.

Testing everything
Photo from Flickr ( City water testing laboratory, 1948

If it’s really complicated to set up a local environment or to access a test server, ask an engineer to install the local system on your machine. Tell him or her that, in order to write good documentation — documentation that is accurate, complete, and doesn’t assume anything — you need access to these test systems.

Sometimes developers like to just sit down at your computer and take over the task of installing and setting up a system. They can work quickly on the command terminal and troubleshoot systems or quickly proceed through installation commands that would otherwise be tedious to walk you through. Some developers also like to show off their technical acumen. (One programmer seemed to try to type commands as quickly and loudly as possible on the command line, as if he were on speed, though it could have just been my impression.)

At one company, to gain access to the test system, we had to jump over a series of security hurdles. For example, connections to Amazon Web Services from internal systems required developers to go through an intermediary server. So to connect to the AWS test instance, you had to SSL to the intermediary server, and then connect from the intermediary to AWS. (This wasn’t something users would need to do, just internal engineers.)

The first time I attempted this, I asked a developer to help me set this up. I carefully observed the commands and steps. I later documented it for future knowledge purposes, and other engineers used my doc to set up the same access.

Many times, developers aren’t too motivated to set up your system, so they may give you a quick explanation about installing this and that tool. But never let a developer say “Oh, you just do a, b, and c.” Then you go back to your station and nothing works, or it’s much more complicated than he or she let on. It can take persistence to get everything set up and working the first time.

If a developer is knee-deep in sprint tasks and heavily backlogged, he or she may not have time to help you properly get set up. In this case, there are other methods that may be more practical, such as accessing the system from a test server.

Test servers

Instead of working with local builds, you can request that developers or QA deploy the code on a test server that you can access. Interacting with test systems is probably easier than building an application locally because the server will likely have the code and frameworks you need already installed. Depending on the product, you might be able you to run all the code from the cloud and execute calls there.

For example, developers often push a test build to a server that QA runs tests against. If this is the case, it’s often preferable to test on these alpha or beta web server environments because the code tends to be more stable than local builds.

Further, if you can hook into a set of test cases QA teams use to run tests, you can often get a jump start on the tasks you’re documenting. Good test cases usually list the steps required to produce a result, and the scripts can inform the documentation you write.

Ask your QA team where they keep their test cases — they’re not always readily visible. Testrail is a common tool used to manage test cases — if your QA team uses it, become familiar with it. (The system isn’t all that intuitive.)

With the test system, you’ll need to get the appropriate URLs, login IDs, roles, etc., from your dev or QA team. Ask them if there’s anything you shouldn’t alter or delete because sometimes the same testing environment is shared among groups.

You may also need to construct certain files necessary to configure a server with the settings you want to test. Understanding exactly how to create the files, the directories to upload them to, the services to stop and restart, and so on can require a lot of asking around for help.

Exactly what you have to do depends on your product, the environment, the company, and security restrictions, etc. No two companies are alike. Sometimes it’s a pain to set up your test system, and other times it’s a breeze.

Can you see how just getting the test system set up and ready can be challenging? Still, if you want to write good documentation, this is essential. Good developers know and recognize this need, and so they’re usually accommodating (to an extent) in helping set up a test environment to get you started.

Sample apps

Depending on the product, you might also have a sample app in your code deliverables. You often include a sample app (or multiple apps in various programming languages) with a product to demonstrate how to integrate and call the API. If you have a test app that integrates the API, you’ll probably need to install some programs or frameworks on your own machine to get the sample app working.

For example, you might have to build a sample Java app to interact with the system. Or you may need to download Android Studio and connect it to an actual device. If the app is in PHP, you may need to install PHP.

There’s usually fewer instructions about how to run a sample app because developers assume users will already have these environments set up on their machines. (It wouldn’t make sense for a developer to choose the Java app if they didn’t already have a Java environment, for example.)

The sample app is among the most helpful pieces of documentation. As you set up the sample app and get it working, look for opportunities to add documentation in the code comments. At the very least, get the sample app working on your own computer and include the setup steps in your documentation.

Hardware products

If you’re documenting a hardware product, you’ll want to secure a device that has the right build (e.g., a development build) installed on it. Big companies often have prototype devices available. At Amazon, there are kiosks where you can “flash” (quickly install) a specific build number on the device.

With some hardware products, it may be difficult to get a test instance of the product to play with. I once worked at a government facility documenting a million-dollar storage array. The only time I ever got to see the storage array was by signing into a special data server room environment, accompanied by an engineer, who wouldn’t dream of letting me actually touch the thing, much less swap out a storage disk, run commands in the terminal, replace a RAID, or do some other task (for which I was supposedly writing instructions).

(I learned early on to steer my career towards jobs where I could actually get my hands on and play around with.) If you’re documenting hardware, you need access to the hardware to provide reliable documentation on how to use it. You’ll need to understand how to run apps on the device or otherwise interface with it.

Next steps

It might take one or more days to get your test environment set up. Be persistent. After you get the test environment set up, it’s time to test your instructions.

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