Experiment – Can I work in the ‘cloud’ for a week?

The talk about Chomebooks (and even the Chromebox) has got me thinking. It’s a nice theory, but is it really possible to work entirely in the cloud? What apps would I really miss?

Day Zero

I’ve installed Ubuntu 10.12 on an old Toshiba Satellite. I know Ubuntu isn’t ChromeOS but it’s the closest thing I can get easily, and not being a Linux guru by any stretch I don’t have a list of apps to install on it. I know it ships with LibreOffice, but I’m going to try and restrict myself to the browser only.

Okay, I did cheat a bit and download 1 app: Google Chrome.

My working week entails project management, sales, client meetings, and general running-a-business tasks. I know first up that MYOB (our accounting software) is going to be a problem, but there’s a high likelihood we’ll be using Xero from July 1 so for the sake of the exercise we’ll assume that firing up Windows somewhere to open MYOB doesn’t count.

That’s the main thing I can think of at the moment. We use Google Apps for email etc and I usually use the browser for that; no problem.

Asana for tasks. Check. Toggl for time tracking. Check. I think I’ll be okay. We shall see…

Online mockups coming soon

Very excited/pleased to read this post from Balsamiq relating to their online mockups web app.

I’ve been a desktop Balsamiq user for some time now and am finding it more and more indispensable with each project. It’s been replacing project specification docs to the point where I don’t really have to write any other instructions. By linking pages together and viewing it in fullscreen mode, we can see how the home page, section pages, contact pages, and even modal popup windows and AJAX behaviours should work.

I can “knock together” a basic site in a few minutes – and an intranet in a few hours. In each case, the result is much clearer and easier that written briefs or specification docs. Clients can understand them just as easy as programmers and designers!

And when the client approves the mockups, we can refer back to them if there are any additional requests. “That wasn’t in the mockups you approved. We can do it, but it will cost an additional $x…”

The webapp will make collaboration that much easier. Really looking forward to its release!

Better Project Management via a Better Definition

This last year has seen a number of changes to the way our business is managed. We have tried just about every project management tool under the sun, from the popular Basecamp and open-source web-based alternatives, thought to the bloated Microsoft Project – all without much success.

And it turns out that my struggle to get this part of my business right has been based on a bad definition. (Or probably, more accurately, no definition.)

So in order to find the right tool – the question must be asked: “What is project management?”

And the answer is best summed up in explaining what it’s not.

Earlier this year I purchased Sitepoint’s The Principles of Project Management – and on page 8 the obvious truth stood out:

Firstly, project management is not personal productivity. This is an easy mistake to make, however. Most folks’ early experience with project management is on smaller projects on which they’re doing most of the work themselves. It’s easy to start treating the project schedule as your diary, the task list as your to-do list. But as soon as you add anyone else to the project, be it a client who wants to understand the time line or a colleague helping out with some of the work, this approach starts to cause problems.

If you make your project management tools double as personal productivity tools, you’ll almost certainly be including far too much detail. Keep a clean line between what you need for yourself personally, and what the project needs. This way, when you have slightly larger projects with more people involved, your tools will scale.

If you think about it, many of the project management tools pitched at web design businesses are very much focussed on tasks. Way too much detail – and the whole project management things just gets way too hard.

So I have found a solution that is surprisingly low-tech:

A whiteboard.

Yep – that’s it. It happens to be a magnetic whiteboard though. So here’s what I do.

  1. The whiteboard is divided up into columns – with each column representing a milestone. “Received Content”… “Design Approved”…  I have about 7 stages I think from memory (I’m writing this from home) but there’s no magic number. Divide your workflow into milestones you can tick off.
  2. Each project is represented by a little piece of paper with some essential details. And it’s held to the whiteboard with an amazing piece of technology called a magnet. When you have received the content, move it into the next column!

This overcame a couple of problems:

  1. Software wants you to enter due dates for everything, whereas in reality a lot of when something gets finished depends on the client. So due dates regularly got missed, and planning went out the window. The whiteboard has no dates.
  2. It’s quite easy to stand back and see any bottlenecks on your process. Got a lot of projects sitting in stage x? Why? Then do something about moving some of those along.

That’s about it. Check the whiteboard once or twice a week with your team and get progress on where everything is at, and what projects can be moved to the next column.

This does not address the question of the detail though. What actually needs to be done during each stage of development? And how do you know when it’s done?

Ah, well that’s a topic for another post…

Don’t Let Email Sit in Your Inbox Unpunished

If you’re anything like me, you receive a lot of email. Some days I feel like the only thing I’ve done all day is deal with email! Given the amount of other things that must be done in business, it’s easy to just put it in the “too hard basket” – but that can also be very dangerous.

I read this article on email and customer service about 6 months ago but while I was looking at some goals for 2008 I thought it was worth revisiting. So how do you stack up in those figures? If I’m not careful I tend to find myself amongst the 70% who fail to respond within 24 hours. Definately something I’ll be fixing for 2008. A good tactic is mentioned in Mike’s first point:

Automatically respond to all emails received: People will be more willing to wait for a reply if their initial communication has been acknowledged. Include a commitment to act on the issue and when you will respond fully.

I think people will generally understand if you can’t address the issue immediately – but it’s important to acknowledge the email and set an expectation of when you will be able to do so. It also ties in to something I wrote back in 2004 about controlling your email (instead of the other way around!) – it’s as relevant now as then. So, my top tips:

  1. Choose when to check your email – don’t let your computer decide for you
  2. As you’re going through your messages, fire up your diary (or whatever time management tool you use) and mark a time to actually attend to the task or issue
  3. Respond to each email as soon as you read it (even if it’s only a brief response) – and at that point you can let the other person know when you’ll attend to is as well

Of course, if it’s an emergency you may need to deal with it straight away and all the above advice is null and void, but we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?

Originally posted at almostanything.com.au