Discovery notes

on October 19, 2020. in Legacy, Development. A 3 minute read.

Starting to work on an existing application, on a code base that exists since the beginning of the times, can be daunting. Complicated and complex features, new terms, most likely non-existing documentation, or documentation that is out of date. All that can seem too much. One thing that has always helped me is keeping notes of what I discover over time working with a legacy codebase. “Discovery notes” if you will.

We can write down these discovery notes in a notebook, into a set of “scratch” files, a wiki…

Paper or file?

For me it’s faster to write notes on a paper, I can draw sketches and diagrams. Paper has this freedom of not necessarily needing to be written top-down left-to-right like in a file. The downsides of writing notes on a paper is my handwriting, it’s harder to organize paper notes, and it’s pretty much impossible to search them.

File notes are a bit slower to write, there’s always that decision making process of “where should I put this file, how should I call it” (even though files can be easily moved and renamed, but hey, naming things was always one the hardest things in working with computers). I also really miss the freedom of paper when writing notes in a file. Then again, we can neatly organize files, we can search them, we can link different documents together, create tables of contents automatically.

My current preference for keeping notes about a project are markdown files kept in a git repository, hosted on either Github or Gitlab, as they both render markdown files for a better reading experience. In rare occasions I mix paper and files, by drawing diagrams and sketches on a piece of paper, taking a picture of it with my phone and then inlining that picture in the file.

When it comes to the tools that I use for writing notes, I try to keep it as simple as possible. Few external dependencies, if any. The system of keeping notes has to be a no-brainer when we need to write them, and it has to be even simpler when we want to read them. If writing needs a special editor, that’s a bad sign. If generating a readable format of the notes needs a special build system in place, that’s a very bad sign.

Contents of notes

As for the contents of these notes, anything goes really. How does a method work, what’s the code path of a certain feature, why is something made the way it is. If I spend time figuring it out, I’ll write it down. If it’s not immediately obvious how it works, I’ll write it down. If I had to ask someone else about it, I’ll write it down.

I consider these discovery notes a separate thing from the project’s documentation. Over time I might rewrite some of these notes in a more “formal tone” and add them to the general docs.

Of course, these notes come at a slow pace in the beginning. It takes time to get to know a project. But, after some time, I take a look back at all the things I have written down and feel glad that I did, because these notes are the trail of the things I learned along the way.

Mark writes notes on paper and then retypes them to a digital format. Nebojsa writes markdown files and renders them with mkdocs. Andreas has a nice set up with a .notes folder. Jeroen also does markdown files, with specific ones like “glossary.md”, architecture decision records, and so on.

What’s your way of keeping notes? Let me know via email or on Twitter.

Happy hackin’!

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