Word Documents vs. Wiki

It was this typical clash of cultures when a real IT guy, scientist, mathematician or engineer joined a company and suddenly an office package had to be used. It could have been any of them, think LibreOffice or MS-Office, but there were some others, that have meanwhile lost relevance. We liked to use text files or HTML or LaTeX or even Literate Programming, part of which has conceptionally made it into our time as JavaDoc and similar concepts for most modern languages. The idea is to keep source code and documentation together and in sync, to work with a similar technology stack for software and documentation and to be able to use typical Linux/Unix-tools like grep, Perl, Python or Ruby on the document files to search, to create them, to transform them, to parse them etc. Do not use awk and sed for these purpose any more, they have been superseded by scripting languages.

So now all tools for automatizing things and for working efficiently or at least comfortably where gone, maybe the office even forced us to use such a non-developer-system as MS-Windows for developing software that should eventually run on Linux– or Unix-Servers. Working together on the same file was a nightmare, in spite of the existence of some software that claims to support this. And yes, I know that these office packages contain scripting languages, like VBA or LibreOffice Basic that might not be our favorite, but could eventually be powerful if we took the effort and learned them. But actually the people who learned this were mostly on the „business side“ and sometimes they were faster getting a functionality up and running than we professionals. Up and running as long as their C:-drive was up and running…

So now after the anger is gone or hopefully at least a bit reduced, it is good to actually take a look. The „classical“ office suite contained a word processor, a spread sheet and a presentation program, other components like a database have become optional and I see them rarely in use.

I think that there is no serious doubt about wanting to have a spread sheet. And a presentation program is mostly useful as well, even though there are serious alternatives to be seen like doing presentations in modern HTML. The arguments against the word processor of typical office suites have proven to somewhat survive through all the years. While the word processor is useful for exchanging documents with people who are heavily working with them and cannot easily be taught otherwise, it has pretty much disappeared from our daily work. Since around 2008 the main documentation tool in the overwhelming majority of projects that I have seen was a private Wiki, like MediaWiki or Confluence or Redmine, for example.

This allowed for easier collaboration, it was a web application that worked with any modern browser and any OS and it was a bit more natural to use and somewhat easier to read and write and search. The Wikis do have a text format, that can be processed in situations where we want to generate documentation from code or code from documentation. And it could be more easily controlled than Word-documents, that were mailed around and changed.

Document management systems or enterprise content management systems allow us to do a lot of stuff even with „classical“ office files. I know that the more advanced systems are very powerful. But I have rarely seen it in the context of software development and architecture projects. So I am not going to write too much about them, but leave this area to the experts of this field.

Generally I find it much more pleasant to work with Wikis than it was before with Office-Documents, so I would consider this a positive development.

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