Andy Oram published his own short research/survey on why people write free documentation. It’s an interesting read, and I kind of wish I’d seen the survey ongoing when it was live, as I’m one of those people.
I started off doing it because it made my life easier. Back at MU (in the dark ages), I started in computing on the night shift the Help Desk (student computing support). At that point, we had a few handouts that we could toss to folks and say “read this” – nothing more than a glorified FAQ for the most common questions we received.
Since then, I’ve kept involved in some fashion or another. For a while, it was part of a teaching process. I just get a kick out of teaching, but it doesn’t pay worth a damn. So I do it on the side periodically. Or as a side-note in my current position. Most recently, it was simply to be a part of the community. I’ve kicked in some to the Django project – more than anything else because it was desperately needed (at least in some areas), and I didn’t really feel like I had the time to commit to doing development work on the framework. Too much to learn and keep track of with everything else I was involved with.
I guess that amounts to me doing it “for the community” – although to be honest that seems like a very vague bucket of reasons. I’ve done similar snippets for Grinder and Maven, although those results tended to be focused inward to a company instead of outward to the community at large. The truth of it all is that it’s actually rather difficult to get involved in the documentation side of a project and make it work. Although a lot of projects espouse wanting the help, figuring out how to submit and work docs into the project is pretty darn time consuming, and it usually ends up being easier just to post notes to the web (like in a blog…) and figure that Google will hook things up at some point. Shoot – it’s how I often find the most useful tidbits.
And I think the piece of “documentation” that slipped by Andy’s net is interaction in the mailing lists. Malcolm, for example, is the every-present answerer of questions for Django. I swear he answers damn near every otherwise-unanswered question on the mailing list. I’ve even taken his posts on the mailing list and converted them (roughly) into patches to the official Django docs.