User Productivity Tools We Use
This episode I explain our decisions to choose different user productivity tools.
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Hello and welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Dave Albert. In this show, I talk about technology, building a company as a CTO and co-founder, and have guests to discuss their roles in technology and entrepreneurship.
Hello, friends, and welcome to the third episode of CTO and Co-Founder Talk with Dave Albert. This episode, I’m going to talk about the tools we use and the decisions that we made, and the reasoning. In the last episode, episode 2, I talked about why we chose DigitalOcean over AWS, so I won’t be covering much of that. You can review that episode if you’re interested.
First up, I guess I could talk about our email provider, so we use Google apps. It’s very affordable, it costs about 3.33 Euro per month per user which is, I think three or four times cheaper than Office365. Also, the ability to edit applications simultaneously, so that’s with Google Docs and Google Sheets, and the PowerPoint tool from Google, the ability to edit those at the same time is vastly superior to trying to use OneDrive and saving different versions, and all the hassle that comes with static files like that. There’s possibly an alternative with Microsoft but I haven’t seen it myself. The service from Google for email has been great, you get the excellent search capabilities that Gmail has, the same interface, and of course, you can use any tools you like to connect to the Google Mail system from a phone or from your desktop computer or laptop, or whatever. I haven’t found very much wrong with it. The only thing that had us looking at Office365 was that we were in the process of potentially purchasing Office for a number of users, but not 100% of users because there’s only a few things that don’t work straight away with Google apps, so mostly, it’s PowerPoint, the Slide program in Google, the extract process, does not create 100% compatible slideshows, and when you’re sending those to clients, you need it to be as seamless as possible for them. So that’s why we chose Google apps. It’s also extremely easy to administer - actually, I find it easier to deal with than the Office365 which we did end up getting, but not for Outlook, so just for the Office suite for a couple of our users.
Our next quite important tool would be Trello. That’s our task management system. It is basically a Kanban style tool where you have cards that go through different lists which are like work streams, so for instance, your backlog, your work in progress, you’re blocked items, ready for review, completed, and then you can archive the cards after that. It’s a really useful tool and solves, I would say, 90% of our issues. I’ve investigated thoroughly using JIRA. I’ve used JIRA before in a large corporate setting - [clearing throat] excuse me - but it’s somewhat of a bloated system and it seems to be more suited for scrum type work and for lean Kanban style work. The only issue I have with Trello which is a pretty big one is that there’s no intuitive simple way to link cards. So you can do it manually but if you, for instance, want a product board that has the feature sets that you want to track as a business, and then each of those feature sets will need to be broken down into actual workable tasks on a separate board for the actual development work, there’s no good way to tell how far along the development of that feature set is based on your product board, and that’s extremely disappointing and that was one of the reasons that we nearly switched to JIRA and I’m still not 100% sure that we may not switch to JIRA some point for some of the teams. Just the inability to get a view of where everything is when you’ve got a product that has multiple development cycles and marketing campaigns in process and being planned, and the timings and needed for those, and additional research for elements to be used within the tool that you’re creating, it’s very lacking, though I’m sure many of you are aware that Atlassian has purchased Trello and that could be either great or terrible. I’m hoping that it’s great and they add in the few features at JIRA does really well that Trello is missing out on, but don’t turn it into some bastardized version of JIRA or roll in Trello to JIRA like they did with, I think it was Grasshopper and that’s what the JIRA Agile component is. So if they could just add in basically the linking of cards and being able to track dependencies throughout, that would be amazing and there would be hardly any reason to consider JIRA in my opinion. Oh, and one additional feature set that I have issue with is the search function. It works okay but it’s really hard when you’ve got a bunch of boards to figure out how many open tickets you have across all the boards. It’s pretty difficult to know if there is anything that you’ve missed replying to. The notifications are okay but if you’ve got a bunch of changes, so say, you get through and reconfigure or reset all the due dates, because that’s a pretty decent way if you look at My Cards and you have them by due date, then you can pretty much see what you should be working on next, regardless of what board it’s on, but if you get off track, then you’ve got to change everything and it’s a knock-on effect, so you have to change each ticket that’s past due and each ticket that hasn’t been worked on yet, so it’s pretty difficult to manage that without sending a bunch of noise to anyone who’s watching the boards or the tickets. So what I’ve looked into doing is creating a small custom tool to search through their API. Actually, it’s not through the API. I don’t think - the front end API. Anyway, that’s just a small job script application that you use [9:55] through the front end, and then you have access, but you have to write everything, but I don’t want anything too feature-heavy. I just want a few different options. So what are all the tickets that have changed with a comment? What are all the things that don’t have anyone assigned to them so that we can see if we are missing something? Search in the application itself seems to only look at the title and possibly the description but not the comments, so if you’re trying to find something that was mentioned in a comment, it seems to not work as well as I would hope, so that’s another small bit, and it probably would take less than a day. I just haven’t had enough time to focus on that, and it hasn’t become a big enough problem. As we’re still pretty small and still in the growing phase, that may change once we’ve got quite a number of people depending on us to guide them in the right direction. So that is the only additional thing I can think of at the moment. I guess, reporting. There’s no real good reporting which I’ve pretty much put with the searching, so again, I may spend a little time on creating a small search function that suits my needs and potentially, a reporting function that may give us a little bit more information and insight into where we are with each of our tickets across all the work streams. So if I make any progress on that, I’ll put it up on GitHub and talk about it here, or Bitbucket, probably.
Yeah, so I had used Bitbucket much more than I use GitHub. Bitbucket, you can have as many private repositories as you want. You can share them with up to five developers before you have to start paying. I’ve used as a GitHub professional or paid version, and it works but when you’re first starting out, every bit that you can save that doesn’t cost you an inordinate amount of time is worth it, and I’ve got dozens of a Bitbucket private repositories and we’ll be happy to pay for the surface once we get to that tipping point where it makes sense which Bitbucket is another Atlassian product, which we are actually paying for Confluence, and I’ll touch on that in just a few minutes, but yeah, Bitbucket as your source control repository works really well. You have the private repositories and it’s free until you need to share with more than, I think it’s five developers. You can also host things publicly and those can, just like GitHub, you can have as many developers working on that as you want with forking and all the things that come with a typical public open source project.
And as I said, we use another Atlassian product, Confluence. So Confluence is a great Wiki, which even though we’ve got Workplace by Facebook, it just doesn’t quite fill all the needs of a fully functioning Wiki, and the price tag for less than - for up to 10 users is $10 a month, so there is no infrastructure administration effort involved there, so you’re having a really nice tool hosted somewhere else. Of course, that brings with it security concerns but unless you’ve got a full security team, then chances are, they’re putting a bit more effort into it than you’d have the ability to yourself. One of the really good uses of Confluence that I’ve found in the past is an onboarding checklist that you can create for each new hire and basically just copy from the last user, and let that grow organically, and so anytime someone’s being on-boarded and doesn’t know where to find something or if they need something, you add that to the list and when the next hire comes on, it’s already in your list, you can probably do that with a template. I haven’t used template too much but if we get to where we’ve got dozens of new hires at a time, then for sure, I’ll look into that. When you only got one to two new hires, it’s not that big a deal to just manage that manually. So yeah, the Workplace does posts great but the markdown just isn’t quite there and the search isn’t quite there, and the linking of documents isn’t quite there the way that it is with Confluence. So another example would be our development branching strategy. That’s a Confluence document and it’s done pretty well with images and code samples, and links to other resources. Doing that in Facebook Workplace is way more complicated than it’s worth. I also looked at trying to do a Google Drive type of setup but then you’re manually managing the index file and that’s just a great breakpoint for your information flow in your company. There’s no way that that’s sustainable. So the tenner a month when we get over 10 people, and then I think up to like, 200, it’s basically like $1 a person a month. To be able to disseminate all the information throughout your company in a nice easy fashion, you can’t beat that. Now, I have to say though, Confluence is really irritating. Its WYSIWYG editor is just curious and does odd things, and copy-paste does weird stuff, and undo will undo some things that you didn’t even do. Now, some of my experience has been with an older installation and not with their hosted cloud version, so I’ll keep you up-to-date as we continue using the hosted version, the cloud version, and if I see a difference there, then I’ll let you know if that’s working better, which I would guess it is but it’s harder to edit than Media Wiki, but you don’t have to manage a Media Wiki server. So depending on your human resources versus your financial resources, versus the ability for non-technical people to be able to update your Wiki, it’s hard to say no, at least for us at this point.
So the next tool would be Facebook Workplace. So we used Slack for a good while and it worked well. The only issue I have with Slack is that once you get multiple people in the same chat rooms, you end up sometimes with multiple conversations going on and you lose track of what you’re supposed to be paying attention to, and the cognitive load of that is such that it’s more effort trying to keep track of what discussions you’re having than it’s worth using a tool like Slack. Now, it can be great in certain situations but we found - or at least so far, we found Facebook Workplace to be amazing. It’s just like Facebook except it’s about work. It’s just your colleagues. There’s none of the garbage that comes with Facebook because of it being a public tool with people with different agendas and interests, and just the political and drama nonsense. Obviously, you could still have that in the workplace but it is way less prominent because everyone within Facebook workplace is basically trying to work in the same company as opposed to just people that you know from your childhood or from school, or from places you used to work at, or just random people you’ve met somewhere else. So you can make posts, then within those posts, you can have complete discussions that are fully focused on that particular post. There is also a chat tool, so Workplace chat, which is just like Messenger. So that replaces a large part of what Slack was doing for us because you can have multiple teams, and I’m pretty sure we haven’t had a need for this yet, that you can have the same teams having multiple conversations which a lot of it is positive because I’ve got the same people in multiple groups, multiple group chats, and they’re all in separate - or not separate but diverse teams, so you’ve got your development team, and then say a data team which can include some data people, some marketing people, and some development people. So I believe you could probably have multiple chats within, say your development team, so front end, back end, or whatever without having to split out into a front end group, back end group. It’s still a growing tool so some of the markdown to create posts isn’t 100% perfect yet, but having conversations around specific topics without having to search back through your history like you do in Slack, it makes it so much easier to make sure that you’re talking about the right thing.
That pretty much covers all of our user-based tools. At some point, I’ll go deeper into our development and systems administration tools, but I think that’s pretty much the most compelling bits that we’ve got going on at the moment. What tools are you using? What can’t you live without? What do you wish existed? I’d love to hear what you have to say. And hit me up on Twitter, email, or Instagram.
Until next time, remember, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.