What is continuous integration?

Continuous integration (CI) is a software engineering practice where software changes are regularly integrated and tested to ensure new code doesn't introduce bugs or regressions. In a CI workflow, developers regularly push their code changes to a shared repository where automated build and test processes run to ensure the changes can be safely integrated into the main codebase. This practice helps teams avoid the "integration hell" that can result from infrequent and large-scale code integrations.

The continuous integration process begins with developers interacting and collaborating on a shared repo, usually in Git, with individuals pushing their code changes at regular intervals. After code has been committed to a repo, developers can continuously build and test the code to ensure the commit doesn’t introduce errors through automated actions.

Automated actions may include security checks, static code analysis, integration testing, and updating old docs with continuous integration documentation.

This is part of a series of articles about code documentation.

7 reasons you need continuous integration documentation

Implementing continuous integration into your team’s documentation process will have a snowball effect on developer productivity and happiness and improve customer experience. Benefits expand into departments outside of software development, creating exponential benefits for the entire organization that continue to multiply as time goes on. And with the help of the proper tools and processes, you can ensure your documentation is up to date without lifting a finger.

When your code and docs are in sync, you will quickly see benefits such as:

  1. Streamlining developer onboarding
  2. Creating a collaborative culture of communication
  3. Prioritizing and valuing accurate documentation
  4. Increasing visibility and knowledge sharing
  5. Enhancing team efficiency, agility, and productivity
  6. Optimizing a self-sufficient user experience
  7. Minimizing support inquiries

Using continuous integration documentation can help ensure that documentation stays up to date and accurate. When changes are made to an organization’s codebase, the documentation can be automatically updated to reflect those changes. This helps prevent out-of-date or incorrect docs, which can be confusing and misleading for users.

Additionally, continuous integration documentation can help automate the process of generating and publishing documentation, making it easier for teams to keep their documentation up to date without additional effort.

How continuous integration documentation works

Continuous integration documentation typically involves using tools that can automatically generate documentation directly from your team’s source code. These tools parse the source code and extract relevant information, such as code comments, function signatures, and variable names to generate the documentation.

This data collection process is typically automated and triggered by code changes, ensuring the documentation is automatically updated whenever code changes are merged into the main project.

The automatically generated documentation can then be published to a website or other documentation platform where it can be easily accessed by users. In some cases, teams may also use a continuous integration tool to automatically deploy the documentation to a web server or other hosting platform.

Continuous Documentation as part of the SDLC

An important aspect of the CI documentation process is ensuring it becomes a standard part of the developer workflow. The four main principles for Continuous Documentation include documentation that is always up to date, created when best, covers what’s important, and is consumed when it’s needed.

Code-coupled documentation refers to docs that explicitly reference parts of the code, such as code snippets, file paths, names of variables or functions, etc. This type of documentation is intended to provide a first-hand account of the person who originally wrote the code. Not only does this strategy help ensure docs are updated, but it also makes the information easier to find when someone needs to reference it.

The timing of when documentation is updated is crucial when implementing continuous integration techniques. Docs shouldn’t be created as an aftermath but as quickly as possible after large changes are made to the project. Tools like Swimm can help teams optimize the process of updating documentation, including when updates should be made.

How CI documentation works with Swimm

Swimm checks code snippets, smart tokens, and smart paths against the latest version of your code. When it detects an issue of any kind, Swimm will identify what can be Auto-synced to update related documentation. Swimm’s patented Auto-sync feature handles scenarios that determine whether the code snippet can be automatically synced when your code changes.

If Swimm’s Auto-sync algorithm determines that a change in the code is impactful enough that it warrants getting more information, Swimm’s verification check fails, and users are updated that the documentation is likely out of date and needs review.

Continuous integration documentation best practices

To ensure success when using CI documentation, all project contributors need to understand the importance of and agree to follow steps that ensure all intended tests are running and documentation is being updated accordingly.

There are a number of best practices for establishing your team’s continuous integration documentation processes:

  1. Use a version control system, such as Git, to manage your code and documentation, and enable automatic triggering of the CI process whenever changes are made.
  2. Use a documentation generation tool that can extract information from your source code and generate accurate and up-to-date documentation.
  3. Use a continuous integration tool, such as GitHub Actions, CircleCI, Jenkins, GitLab, Husky, Bitbucket, Azure DevOps, etc., that can automatically run the documentation generation process and publish the generated documentation to a website or other platform.
  4. Configure your CI process to run regularly so your documentation stays up to date and accurate.
  5. Collaborate with your team to ensure everyone is following the same CI process for documentation and that the process is working effectively for your team.

    a. Hold developers personally accountable for their code changes.b. Include documentation in your team’s Definition of Done.
  6. Monitor and maintain your CI process to ensure everything is running smoothly and effectively.

When you’re getting started with CI documentation, you should start by evaluating your current documentation process. Who is responsible for maintaining your docs? Is it even a focus, or is it something that has largely been avoided for an extended period of time?

Depending on your answer, your organization is likely in one of two common scenarios: you have very little usable documentation, or you have docs that don’t sync with your codebase.

Regardless of where your team is at when you’re getting started, Swimm can help you implement continuous integration into your documentation.

Using Swimm for continuous integration documentation

With the various challenges modern software development organizations face, updating documentation shouldn’t be something that keeps you up at night. Maintaining current documentation has long been an administrative feat for software teams, taking up valuable developer time.

For software teams, saving developer time leads to cost savings and higher production, and keeping documentation up-to-date leads to higher customer satisfaction and fewer calls to your support team. The value of keeping updated documentation cannot be overstated.

Implementing continuous integration into your documentation processes will allow your team to automatically achieve current docs without the administrative overhead of manual updating.

Let Swimm do the work of continuous integration documentation and free up your developers for actually writing code. Getting started is easy—and free. Sign up to create a Swimm account and create a happy marriage between your code and documentation.