Made of Bugs

Lab Notebooking for the Software Engineer

A few weeks ago, I wrote that software engineers should keep lab notebooks as they work, in addition to just documenting things after the fact. Today, I'm going to share the techniques that I've found useful to try to get in the habit of lab-notebooking my work, even though I still feel like I could be better at writing things down.

Here's my advice for keeping a lab notebook as a computer scientist:

Use a text file

There’s no need to use anything fancier. And if you’re writing code all day, you can just keep your log file open in your editor of choice, so that you don’t need to leave your hacking environment to make a note of something. I’m an emacs junkie and use org-mode to keep all my notes, but use whatever you’re comfortable with.

You could use a physical notebook, but unless you expect to want documentation of what you were working on for some legal reason, I don’t see the point. And most programmers I know hate writing things out by hand.

Treat your file as append-only
One of the downsides of just using a text file is that you need to enforce some discipline on yourself. It’s tempting to go back and fix up things that have changed, or to keep editing a desgin description as it evolved. But creating a perfect finished piece of documentation is a different task. The point here is to have a log of everything you do, not a single finished document. You can work on one side-by-side with the (dated or even timestampped) append-only log.
Keep automatic backups.
Do this any way you want. I keep my log files in git, and have a cron job that commits and pushes to a server every five minutes. This provides at least two benefits. First, it applies an automatic timestamp (to within five minutes) on anything I type, and second, it serves to make sure that a recent version is available on my server, in case I switch machines and want to keep working on a project.
Train yourself to make regular entries.

Keeping this nice text file, regularly backed up, is useless if you don’t record relevant things into it. Getting yourself into the habit of writing enough down is tricky. One strategy I’ve found helpful is to write down a list of “triggers” for situations that you promise to always record. With an explict list of these that you’ve decided to always record, you can get good at making a note whenever you perform one of these tasks, which gets you into the habit of writing things down. Here’s a partial list of some of the sorts of things I make a point of writing down:

  • Whenever I take a measurement. That is, any time I run time, or look at top to figure out how much memory a program under development is using, or similar, I’ll write down the number and the circumstances under which it was recorded. I’ve found that I almost always would like to have a better record of such things later.
  • Whenever I do a non-trivial search and find a result. This can be anything from googling for a solution to some problem where it takes me several tries to find the right keywords, or grepping a large codebase searching for the function that performs some task, or tracking down some API function in documentation. If I wanted it once, I’ll often want it later, and if it was hard to find, I’ll feel stupid if I didn’t write it down.
  • Whenever I make an explicit design decision. If I’m thinking about how to design some function, system, process, or whatever, I’ll stop and take a moment to write down the options I was considering, and why I made the choice I did. This ensures I can go back and remember why I built a system the way it is.
  • Whenever I wish I had written something down last time. This should be obvious, but if you find yourself thinking “I know I did this before; Why didn’t I take notes?”, you should always make a point of writing it down this time, no matter what excuse you come up with for why you really won’t need that information a third time.

These categories are deliberately broad, but at the same time well-defined. It’s fairly easy to train yourself to notice whenever any of these points triggers, and remember to stop and write something down. And that’s the first step to getting in the habit of writing down everything that you’ll later wish you had written down.