Document control image

Lock it or Lose it.

Engineering makes a lot of paperwork. Unshockable Engineering is OQM certified, which means we have documented procedures for handling paperwork, whether electronic or “dead-tree”. We have policies for document creation, document retention, document destruction, and everything in between. That’s great for legally handling all your engineering paperwork, but what about the things you do in the middle of your project?

Should you have removed that component? Added that breaker? Maybe.

You make changes. You make mistakes. You’ll want to rewind.

You have to use some kind of source control. Real life doesn’t have a rewind button, but when you’re using source control, you can get one for your work. Amazing, right?

There are free solutions available through SourceForge. They’ll work with source code, documents, and other files. When they were first available 15+ years ago, they could only handle a few select types and were clunky. Now they’re tied right into your Windows interface.  OpenKM integrates into platforms like OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, and AutoCAD.  They’re as easy to use as right-clicking your document.

Add-on programs like WinMerge easily detect mistakes, typos, changes, and anything else that’s different between the two files. (Although as far as I know, there are no programs that detect the difference between 3D models.) While writing code, I’ve mistakenly removed a bracket, and in ten seconds WinMerge showed why the code wasn’t compiling.

I’ve always said that if you’re not using source control, you don’t have any code, you just have a pile of files. It’s one of the things that separates the gifted amateurs from the professionals.

Having a document history can also help with funding applications. Programs like SR&ED credits want to know how you got to where you are.  If you have a complete history of ever revision of every piece of code, you can prove your entire development cycle from start to finish.

Importantly, document and source control will help you when you’re working with other people. One person can work on part of the project, another person can work on another part, and when they check out the files, they will both be able to save, commit, and collaborate. Some programs will auto-merge files when there is no change. Sometimes you’ll have to do the work manually… but that’s why they pay you the big bucks. This is how one company handled their document control with multiple people:

This is not how you should control your documents.
This is not how you should control your documents.

Installing and configuring a document management system is the best way to keep your computer organized. It basically hires a robot to work for you, watching your files, keeping track of what you’ve done, and keeping a record of it. It’s frankly wonderful.

If you’re not doing it, you’re running on borrowed time. You will make a mistake, you will delete something, and you won’t be able to fix it. Do your work professionally. Do it like an engineer.

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Magnus is a Professional Electrical Engineer from Victoria, BC. He's worked on projects ranging from new code for embedded radios to inspecting [redacted] government systems. He'll relax and unwind by teaching yoga or Cyclefit, or going out for a dive in the cold ocean.

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