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Processes for managing SDK releases

So far we’ve talked about processes for managing developer documentation projects and small doc requests. When you’re working in a developer portal, you might also be responsible for managing and distributing SDKs and other sample code.

Even if someone else distributes the SDKs, they might look to you for guidance and input on the Readme, the distribution process, and other aspects. The process here describes a few callouts that you should look for before publishing SDKs and other code artifacts.

Definition of an SDK

A software developer kit might include a language-specific library for your API (for example, a Java JAR library file or an Android AAR file that developers would integrate into their projects) along with a sample app, debugging tools, and other tools necessary for building software. I explored SDKs (software developer kits) in depth earlier in SDKs (software development kits) but covered the topic from a documentation perspective — what do you need to document when it comes to SDKs, what level of instruction is required, etc. The section here covers details about distributing and publishing the SDK.

Sample scenario with tech writers and SDK distribution

Let’s assume that you’ve written the documentation for the SDK, and now the developers are ready to publish it. They’ve got binary assets, such as a JAR file, AAR file, or C++ libraries, along with sample apps and other code that they need to push out to users.

Since you’re controlling the distribution mechanisms on the developer portal, they might send you the SDK zip file to publish along with other documentation assets you’re already publishing. Or they might ask you to review or sign off on the SDK, including the release notes, readme, implementation instructions, license, and other details.

Your role with the SDK’s release and distribution will differ by company, for sure, as well as how you’re distributing it (S3 bucket, JCenter, Maven, GitHub, or other online repository). How do you review these code artifacts to make sure they’re publish-ready?

The intake process

First, as with other requests, consider pointing developers to a specialized intake form for their SDK request. This request can require developers to provide information that will let you know if the SDK is ready to be published. The SDK intake ticket might have fields like this:

SDK release request

  • Name of the SDK:
  • Legal signoff: y/n | name
  • Security signoff: y/n | name
  • QA signoff: y/n | name
  • Javadoc or Doxygen Reference Docs: y/n
  • How-to documentation: y/n | link:
  • Version information: y/n
  • Release notes: y/n | link:
  • Contents description: y/n | link:
  • README file: y/n

Does the README contain the following:

  • Overview of the SDK’s functionality, at least several sentences long: y/n
  • Link back to documentation on the developer portal: y/n
  • Links to tutorials for implementing the SDK and any other important tasks: y/n
  • Information about where to find support: y/n
  • Details about the version: y/n
  • Release notes or link to release notes: y/n

Is your binary available on JCenter or Maven? y/n

Requirements

Let’s go into more detail about each of these requirements. Each of the following sections will expand on the points listed in the intake form.

In cases where your company has a Legal team, the Legal team’s approval should be required to release any SDK, sample app, and any other code artifact. The Legal team can ensure that you are using the correct licenses for the software and that each page appropriately displays the license information and other details. They will assess whether the SDK includes any third-party libraries, including open-source libraries, and whether you have the rights to publish and distribute the SDK with these other libraries.

Legal might also look at trademark usage and names. For example, the sample code shouldn’t reference other companies or trademarked names (e.g., Mickey Mouse) in examples or text, and your product’s name should align with your company’s branding guidelines and not conflict with other company product names. Legal might also check to ensure that you’re not using any prohibited words, image assets, or copyrighted material (such as sample videos or thumbnails).

Security signoff

The SDK should also receive approval from security before it can be distributed. Security review can ensure that the SDK doesn’t create any vulnerabilities, that it doesn’t expose risks that can be exploited, and so on.

For example, your security group might have restrictions about using implicit grant authorizations or some other method for authorizing requests. They might review how the code handles usernames, passwords, and API keys. They might ensure that manifest files request the correct permissions from users before functions can be called in apps. They might look at how you’re managing and storing customer information, and so on.

Security isn’t an area you need to be familiar with yourself beyond a high-level — rather, the requirement here is to get signoff from a security expert before distributing an engineering team’s SDK.

QA Signoff

The SDK should be tested through a formal QA process. Usually, before you receive a request to release an SDK, it’s assumed that QA has signed off on the code. However, this isn’t always the case, and if you’re managing incoming assets for many different teams, inside and outside your immediate business unit, you might be working with different development teams with different standards. Asking to confirm QA signoff shouldn’t pose any challenges to the request unless they don’t have a QA process.

It’s still a good idea to ensure QA signs off, though. Think about how many version updates SDKs often have in which the update addresses some bug or issue with the SDK. By asking for QA signoff, you can better identify QA groups and their processes.

If you want to take an extra step here, you can ask the QA team for a list of their validation tests (which they probably store in a QA test system like Rally), and then review the documentation against the test cases. Does the documentation cover the main features and tasks that QA is testing against? By reviewing the requirements against the documentation, you can assess whether the documentation is complete.

Javadoc or Doxygen Reference Docs

SDKs should include reference documentation in the form of a Javadoc, Doxygen, or other auto-generated reference documentation appropriate to the library. The reference documentation can be included in the download and can also be made available online as a link in the documentation. Delivering this is a standard and is usually added inside of a folder called “docs.” Check to make sure that the reference documentation is correctly generated.

If you want to go a step further, you could verify that the annotations and tags in the source are correct. I covered Javadoc tags in the Java section of the course. You might look over the Javadoc and Doxygen files to evaluate whether all the elements have descriptions and other details.

How-to Documentation

Reference documentation alone is insufficient. The SDK should also have sufficient how-to documentation or other tutorials so that developers can implement the SDK or other code. In particular, the documentation should include the following:

  • Implementation guidelines that explain how to incorporate the SDK into a project
  • Explanations about how to perform common tasks that involve the SDK

Presumably, the main documentation covers this in detail. However, suppose you’re playing a publisher role for a team and not working specifically with their documentation. Check the documentation to make sure you can identify the implementation tutorial. See if other tutorials address some of the classes/functions in the reference documentation. If the reference file has a lot of classes and other details not mentioned at all in the documentation, investigate whether the documentation is sufficient.

Readme file

The SDK needs to include a README file (typically named README.md) that provides the following:

  • Overview of the SDK’s functionality
  • Link back to SDK’s documentation on your developer portal (unless the documentation is entirely included with the SDK itself)
  • Links to important SDK tutorials (such as implementation or configuration)
  • Information about where to find support
  • Version details
  • Release notes link

There’s a lot more one could say about Readme files. For example, browse this curated list of Readme files in the Awesome Readme repo. Also see Write the Readable README by Daniel Beck at the WTD 2016 conference.

In general, some Readme files might compress a lot of documentation into the Readme. The Readme might provide brief summaries and descriptions but mostly link to the main documentation for this information (e.g, installation, implementation, configuration, etc.).

Preparing this Readme might actually be the main request from the engineering team to technical writers.

Most developers expect the Readme to have detailed information, and it might make sense to pack your Readme with condensed versions of information that is also available in your docs, especially so that the repository has the right keywords for searches and other visibility on whatever site/platform you’re distributing your code.

But to avoid duplicating information in multiple places online (between the Readme and your main documentation), as long as you provide summaries plus links of the expected information, this should satisfy developer needs. Keeping the bulk of your information in your main documentation (rather than duplicating it in the Readme) also makes it easier to update your docs (since presumably you can update your documentation pages dynamically but might require engineering involvement to update the Readme).

Version Information

The SDK should include the version number for the release. This version number lets users know whether their existing file is outdated, and lets you establish guidelines about compatibility based on different versions. The version number might be indicated both in the Readme file and code.

Version numbering should follow a consistent pattern for the organization (or at least for the project). As a general rule, minor releases are indicated by a dot version (e.g., 2.1); major releases by a whole number (e.g., 3.0). Sometimes teams will have internal releases that increment the version, so the actual released versions might skip a few versions. If so, you can note that the skipped versions were internal releases.

Release Notes

The release of any SDK should include release notes indicating what has changed. Release notes can indicate whether the release is backwards compatible or the extent of support/compatibility for intended devices for each version. For example, if the latest version creates breaking changes with previous versions, this needs to be called out in the release notes. If the latest version is compatible with all previous versions (a best practice), you might note this as well.

What exactly does backwards compatibility mean? Suppose version 2.1 of an SDK has a class called ACME that developers have implemented in their projects. Version 3 presumably wouldn’t change ACME in a way that would break the code that developers implemented with version 2.1. If Version 3 does break previous implementations, this is sometimes called a “breaking change.” Breaking changes should be called out prominently in release notes. The release notes should indicate how to handle the upgrade (for example, maybe you’ll need to flush the cache of existing implementations).

Release notes usually indicate both a version number and a date. Exactly how version numbers and dates are highlighted in release notes varies from product to product. Follow a consistent and readable pattern. For example, consider putting the release version as a heading 2 tag with the date as a subtitle below the heading.

Contents description

The documentation for the SDK should provide a description of contents in the SDK. For example, if the SDK includes a library, sample app, debugging tools, and other files, these should be itemized and described in the documentation so that users know what is included in this kit of software development tools. This practice is similar to purchasing any product that you assemble — the first page of documentation usually has a list of parts included in the product.

If you’re receiving the SDK from an engineering team and not actively working on their documentation, review their documentation to identify where they itemize the contents of the SDK.

Hosting Java and Android on JCenter, Maven Central

Now that we’ve covered requirements about the SDK content itself, the next question concerns hosting. Where do you host your SDK files so that developers can download them?

Your organization might already have a file storage and distribution in place (such as storing the files on S3 or some other web server). However, SDKs tend to have some common distribution sites that you should be aware of.

For Java, the SDK will usually include a JAR file; for Android, the SDK often includes an AAR file. C++ might include a DLL. These are binaries that developers will download and incorporate into their projects. Rather than manually downloading the files, developers can automatically pull from online repositories to dynamically include the files when they build their projects.

Two common distribution sites for Java-related projects are JCenter and Maven Central. JCenter is an online repository for Java and Android libraries. JCenter has everything that Maven Central has and more.

Code for other libraries will have different online repositories. For example, with Jekyll, the jekyll gem is distributed through RubyGems, a gem hosting service.

When developers build their projects, they usually have a build tool that retrieves needed resources from online repositories and pulls them directly into the project. Android uses Gradle to manage dependencies. For example, with Android, to declare a dependency on an Android library in JCenter, you list jcenter() in your list of project dependencies, and then include the package name and version you want to pull. Now Gradle will handle getting that dependency automatically into your project, without requiring developers to download it. You can read more here: Dependency management in Gradle.

Jekyll projects use Bundler (a package and dependency manager) to automatically retrieve the right gem versions as declared by the projects. When you run bundle install on a Jekyll project, Bundle ensures that your project has the gems listed in your project’s Gemfile.

GitHub

Many SDKs have a sample app that demonstrates integration with the SDK and the provided functionality, even if the sample app is just bare-bones simple and only includes some basic buttons in the UI to initiate events. Many times, sample apps are included with the SDK. If the sample app is more extensive and stands alone, consider distributing the sample app through GitHub as open-source project instead.

Releasing your project on GitHub doesn’t require the code to be open source, but the project source must be viewable. (You can’t just upload a compiled binary onto GitHub.) You probably can’t freely create a new GitHub repo on your own in your organization, but you can instruct engineering teams to do so following any outlined corporate processes. Many times engineering groups have organizations and teams already set up in GitHub and standard processes for pushing out code.

Keep in mind that distributing code on GitHub entails some support for the code. For example, if users log issues about bugs, who will respond? Will it be important to track the number of stars and follows for the repo? Who will be the one who actually pushes the code into the repo? You want engineering teams to own this process not because it’s technically difficult to push code to GitHub, but because you want them to feel a sense of ownership and commitment for the code there. If the tech writers handle all aspects of the GitHub repo, tech writers end up playing support roles in responding to issues and handling other administrative details. The flip side of managing the GitHub repo, though, is that engineering teams are less likely to push out changes without going through you.

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