Professional Geek
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  • Useful Productivity Website: Trello

    I’m really enjoying Trello.com at the moment.

    The story behind the site is that the people at FogCreek built a tool so the people in their teams can see at a glance what everyone is working on. They then decided it would be a good idea to make it available to everyone else!

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    The basic idea is the system is made up of three things.

    Boards – a collection of lists – a board can be an abstraction of a specific project. A project folder if you were doing this without a computer.

    Lists – a collection of cards – imagine a stage in a process (e.g To-Do, In Progress, Complete) -  Think of it as a piece of paper if you were doing this without a computer.

    Cards – an activity of work – a specific something that needs to be done – an entry on your piece of paper if you were doing this without a computer. What’s really good about cards is they start as just a title but if you drill down you can add as many or as little details as needed (comments, work complete, embed pictures and videos)

    Sounds simple enough? Hope that makes sense!

    You create a series of lists – add some cards and then you can shift those cards between lists as work gets done.

    So here’s a simple example of how I’ve been using it.

    I’ve got a board called WORK

    On this board I’ve got three lists.

    To Do   -   Doing   – Done

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    I add things I need to do into the “To-Do” list. If i need to add extra details I can but generally the title is enough.

    imageInitial card creation.

     

    imageCard in more detail. You can add pictures, video, text. Assign team members or categorise with colour labels.

     

     

     

     

    As I start to work on a specific item I drag it into the “Doing” list. I update the list if needed if it’s a work in process and I’m not completing it straight away. Obviously once the task is complete it’s dragged into the “Done” list.

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    Dragging to the Doing list.

     

     

     

     

    Nice and simple. It’s just me using these but I can see it getting really powerful when a group of people get involved. Especially when assigning a task to someone is as simple as dragging their avatar onto the card.

    So how’s this different to other collaboration applications?

    Everything is so easy. Data entry consists of typing and pressing enter. You can fire off a series of new entries really quickly. There is no constant clicking ok / save every time you do anything. You can enter a little or as much detail as you feel like. Very importantly – it just works.

    Finally you can use it on just about any device you like. I’ve been using it on my TouchPad in the office instead of keeping lots of paper lists hanging around my desk. Also because it’s web based if I think of something I need to do it only takes a second to get onto the site and add something new. It’s then available everywhere I’ve got a web browser.

    Sign up is really easy too. You can either create an account on the site or sign in with an existing Google account.

    The Trello homepage gives some really good usage examples.

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    It’s honestly worth spending ten minutes taking a look – it’s free!

  • Book Review–Roo’d

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    Look a book review!

    This is the review I’d started when I was hit with what I originally said was writers block and eventually attributed to being burnt out.

    I’ve avoided coming back to this but I really do need to get it out of the way so here it is.

    After the previous book I’d read I was pleased to say I really enjoyed this one! This was despite reading the description and being a little bit wary.

    The story is set in a near future where body modification is the norm and having your jawline reshaped is a common as having your ears pierced!

    The main character is Fed, whose defining physical characteristic is that he has prosthetic legs – despite living in a world where getting a new set of legs would be trivial.

    Fed is a bit of a loner, highly intelligent and a near genius with computers. His life is at a bit of a crossroads when he meets up with his estranged brother who convinces him to get involved in a what sounds like an impossible “get rich” ranbaxy generic ativan scheme. Fed agrees to get involved and drops out of school which is where the fun starts.

    Fed’s skill with computers a key part of the plan so this part of the plot was obviously of interest to me.

    The story is very much about how Fed grows as a person and tries to figure out who he is as he comes across a wide variety of weird and wonderful characters and they soon realise they are way in over their head.

    What I really loved about this book was the imagery it created of the world it was set it. I honestly think it would make an amazing film!

    The title of the book sounds a bit random but once you realise what the phrase Roo’d means it makes perfect sense.

    It all gets a little bit crazy towards the end but it doesn’t take anything away from home much I enjoyed this.

    As with a lot of the books I’ve read so far this year it’s available on a creative commons license so grab it and check it out!

    Highly recommended.

  • The Long Overdue HP TouchPad (and tablet!) Post

    It’s overdue as I’ve been in possession of a HP TouchPad for almost a month now but also I’ve wanted to write about tablets/slates/whatever for a while but I had so many different things to talk about the post jumped all over the place and I scrapped just about everything I’d written! So here’s my final attempt.

    I’ve wanted a handheld, touch based, computing device for what feels like most of my life!

    Growing up and seeing things like this on my TV screen fuelled that geeky desire.

    Kindle anyone?Picard!A stylus?

    and going back a bit further this:

     

    Anyone remember this?

     

    It’s not a massive surprise there was such fuss about Microsoft’s rumoured Courier project!

     

     

     

    So the years went by and we had laptops that were called tablets with “touch” screens that needed a stylus to work with and it was no different to carrying a heavy laptop around with you (and a wallet that was as empty as the tablet was heavy!)

    Until finally Apple released a massive iPod/iPhone and called it the iPad and redefined what we call a tablet.

    Unfortunately, the iPad isn’t for me and I’ve been waiting for a viable alternative ever since. (I do have a unfair personal bias towards Apple products, buy cytotec online no prescription required, but that’s for another time – or shared over a pint if you’re buying!)

    But for my mind there hasn’t been a viable alternative. Lots of different manufacturers tried to get in on the act but they aren’t quite there.

    So when HP announced they were going to acquire Palm in 2010 this got my attention. An operating system that was showing some promise with the giant that is HP behind it – what could go wrong?

    Quite a lot actually. Before we get on to the device itself, when it was released as soon as I saw the price my heart sank.

    Approx. £399 for the 16Gb model and £479 for the 32Gb model.

    HP aren’t the only ones guilty of this. The manufacturers seem to think that because people are willing to pay a premium for the iPad they should price their devices to get near that price. image

    The thing is one of the reasons I wasn’t interested in an iPad was the price. As I write this you can pick up the wi-fi only, 16Gb iPad 2 from the Apple store for £399.

    If you’re looking for a tablet if you’re going to match the iPad for price surely you need something software/hardware wise that makes you stand out. The TouchPad and lots of other doesn’t specifically have anything that makes it standout from the iPad (an exception to this would be the Asus Transformer for example)

    One of my concerns is that while it’s certainly a clever piece of kit and runs tons of useful apps one thing that it isn’t is a computer. As a result if I got one would it fit in with my lifestyle (personally and professionally) or would I be throwing at least £400 on something I’d end up not using as I’d find myself reaching for my laptop or my netbook?

    I wouldn’t really know until I had one but I wasn’t willing to spend that sort of money to find out.

    I also didn’t really know exactly what I wanted one for. Yes, the touch screen is nice, as is the portability but I have a netbook that while it’s a little underpowered it does everything that I need to do when out and about.

    So back to the TouchPad.

    You’re probably aware HP decided they didn’t want to be in the tablet market any longer and to get rid of the existing stock they slashed the prices in big way. First in America, and finally over here. Take-up was massive and various retailers saw their online stores fall over as they struggled to cope with the demand which also left a lot of disappointed people who either couldn’t get onto the websites to actually place an order or battled through to place an order only to be told later the order couldn’t be fulfilled. I was one of the lucky few (with a massive thank you to @SpritesBites for helping me out).

    I’m still trying to decide whether this proves HP got the original pricing wrong for the Touchpad or will people buy anything when it’s so drastically reduced in price as it’s a bargain.

    Nearly a month on I’m not regretting the purchase and I can report I do use it everyday. I’m certainly glad I didn’t pay the original price for it though.

    At home it’s been really useful as an instant-on device for browsing, checking email, twitter, Facebook and playing music while doing bits and pieces around the house.

    At work it’s become my third screen. I push all my social media onto it which has actually helped increase my productivity as moving away from my keyboard and mouse is more of an explicit action than switching to another tab in the browser on my desktop. It’s also where I keep various to-do lists and notes which is helping me get a bit more organised.

    webOS is actually pretty neat. Treating applications like cards is an interesting abstraction and the upward swiping gesture to close a card is nice. The application notifications are certainly not intrusive and having the home button flicker when you receive a notification while the device is in standby is a very nice touch. The look and feel is on the whole pretty attractive and some applications such as Guardian Zeitgeist, Sky News, iGizmo and rad.io are a joy to use.

    The built-in applications are pretty decent. Contacts, calendar and email are simple enough to use and Exchange integration is obviously massively important.

    The app catalogue is nice to use as well. I really appreciate the fact it recognises when you have an app already installed and instead of a “download” option you get a “launch” option. Featured applications are displayed in a magazine style which is a joy to browse through when you have a spare five minutes.

    It’s not without it’s faults though.

    When I first started using it the whole experience was very sluggish. I’d certainly recommend reading this great piece by Gareth Halfacree which has various different tweaks that can help improve your experience. I’ve switched logging level to a minimum which has made a massive difference. (it appears to have broken Angry Birds though!) I haven’t quite been brave enough to install PreWare yet though but it’s something I’ll be doing soon.

    Flash in the browser is both a help and a hindrance. It’s been great that sites such as YouTube just work but there have been some sites which have been a pain. When browsing the BBC news site if a page has an embedded video I’ve had the page constantly refresh. I’ve actually switched to the mobile version of that site just to make it usable.

    When it’s the hardware is getting a little bit stressed you don’t always receive feedback. It’s very frustrating when you’re using an app and your on-screen touches suddenly stop doing anything. After jabbing the same spot two or three times it comes back to life and those extra screen presses are then processed causing mayhem in your current app.

    Finally you have to accept that going forward the future is uncertain for webOS. HP still haven’t fully indicated what their plans are and other than the homebrew community you can’t see many developers wanting to put together apps for the platform.

    In summary, I’m glad I was lucky enough to get one at the price I did. With more usage I can see it being a gateway to me being more open about spending a bit more next time around.

    So what exactly will next time be?

    At the moment it’ll probably be a straight fight between the iPad 3 and Windows 8.

    The rumoured Amazon device may have an impact but at the moment there is no concrete information to go on.

    I’m not entirely sure what to make of Windows 8 yet. Is it a desktop operating system or is a tablet operating system? The Metro interface does look very nice but how practical is it going to be on a traditional system (i.e with a keyboard and mouse).

    The move to an ARM version is on the face of it interesting but since it looks like existing  x86 applications will need to be re-written for the ARM version why are Microsoft bothering? We’ll effectively end up with two different operating systems and they’ll be confusion over which applications will run on which device. Wouldn’t the Windows Phone operating system have been a better fit?

    All just thoughts at the moment – Windows 8 has a long way to go until release and Apple are being their usual tight lipped selves on any plans they may have for the next iPad Smile

    You’re notice I’ve not said an awful lot about Android. I’ve not seen many devices that seem to for for me from a price/hardware spec perspective and the multitude of different operating system versions and whether the next one would be available for your chosen device was frustrating. It is something I’ll revisit though.

    As I suspected I’ve jumped around a bit here and this post is long enough so it’s a good place to stop.

    Just like every other area of IT everyone has their own reasons as to why their chosen bit of kit is better than the others so please leave a comment – I’d love to hear what you think!

  • When did you last have a real break?

    This is a personal post – if you’re looking for something technical feel free to move along Winking smile

    I wrote a post recently complaining of writers block. I wrote the post as a way of giving me a kick. It didn’t have the desired effect in the way I hoped it would but it did get me thinking in more general terms.

    I mentioned in the post that it wasn’t just blog writing that was suffering, but writing in general. I realised that there was actually more to it than that.

    My productivity has also been through the floor. Tasks that I should be getting through easily (personally and professionally) were dragging on and I’d been putting off anything that required extra effort. After a day at work I’d get home and my normal routine is to do something. It doesn’t matter what it was and could be reading, buy zyloprim online, gaming, spending time with Bryony, whatever – the point is it’s doing something with my time at home. Instead my routine was replaced with collapsing on the sofa and channel hopping for the whole evening which is something I rarely do as I usually only watch TV when there is something specifically I want to see (Dr Who being a current example!)

    It was only on the run up to some time off work I realised I was burnt out.

    I had two weeks off work organised for the start of August and I realised it was the only time I’d taken off all year. I then realised that babies and knee operations aside since the business started the most I’d ever had away from work was a week.

    I’m dreadful at booking time off work and if my good wife didn’t give me the occasional reminder I probably wouldn’t have any! It’s not an intentional thing. I’ve usually got so much going on elsewhere I don’t think far enough ahead to next break.  

    You do need to switch off some point though and I think I’d gotten to the point where I had nothing left and was “running on empty”.

    One thing people talk about is work/life balance and while I know mine needs some improvement I thought I was doing ok.

    A typical work day for me looks like this:

    Get up between 6am-7am  (depending on how I’ve slept! A topic for another time.)

    Arrive at the office between 7am-8am – getting to the office early generally means I get lots done while no-one is around.

    Lunch – no fixed time. 99% of the time involves sandwiches at my desk

    Leave work between 6pm-6.30pm

    This is an average day. For example, If I have a BNI meeting I’m up around 5.30am and on AMITPRO nights I’m not home until much much later.  

    That’s actually quite a long day when you write it down, especially since lunch usually means eating sandwiches at my desk. When I think about it there have been particularly busy days where I’ve not moved from my desk at all!

    So that’s work – where is the life balance?

    On an average day I make sure I’m home to put the children to bed as a minimum. We chat about their day while getting changed, brushing teeth, etc and always read bedtime stories together.

    I rarely ever bring work home of an evening and ActiveSync (push email) is actually off on my phone by default. I don’t need it on when I’m in the office so I specifically turn it on during work hours when I’m doing something away from the office. This means I should the evenings to do whatever I want.

    Again, just an average. There are some occasions where I do work at home but I do keep it to a minimum.

    Weekends are also work free. This is family/personal time. Email rarely gets checked and it’s common for me to leave the office on a Friday and not check it again until Monday morning.

    I thought I’d got a reasonable balance. I thought I’d got enough time away from work of an evening and weekend to keep me fresh and make sure I was splitting my time time between the business and my family.

    I was wrong

    We don’t really switch off properly during those evenings and weekends. Modern working life blurs the lines between where work starts and stops and while I may not be checking email of an evening and weekend that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about stuff I’ve got to do the following day, ideas to flesh out or solutions to problems. In the same way while I’m in the office I’ll be thinking about that dripping tap in the downstairs toilet when I’m supposed to do doing a quote or how much new school uniform is going to cost while I’m looking at a PC that won’t boot.

    Both areas of our lives are fighting for attention and you need to make an effort to stop and have some time where you’re not thinking about your work or your home life.

    As I mentioned earlier I had two weeks away from work arranged so made sure I used that time as well as I could on relaxing, spending real quality time with my family and taking a proper break.

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    A week in Center Parcs followed by a couple of days in Wales was just what I needed.

    It was great seeing so much of the girls and Bryony for an extended period of time and I came back refreshed.

    I am a realist though. My phone wasn’t off the entire two weeks. For a start I’m a geek. I can’t do without my Internet connection – in my work life and my personal life but email stayed off and everyone in the office were told I was only contactable as a totally last resort. Everything else would have to wait.

     

     

    However, I made one small adjustment that had the biggest impact.

    I turned my “out of office” auto-reply on.

    I’ve never turned it on before. Normally if an email comes in when I’ve been on holiday I’d either reply to it or delegate it to someone in the office.

    This isn’t really switching off from work is it!

    One of the main reasons I never use out of office is that I feel uneasy with email automatically responding for me. Susanne wrote a very good piece about it recently, she said

    Having led a life in sales, I have always loved receiving out of office messages – they are typically a wealth of information such as mobile and landline numbers, job titles, and correct spellings of names that I can access should I be looking for ways to get a foot in the door to your business. You tell me that Janice Jones is in charge in your absence and hey presto, I have another contact to add into my CRM system… very useful if I’m being told I have to have at least 2-3 contacts per company on file.

    And if I’m a spammer, well, all I need is your out of office to kick in and I know you’re there. Which suits me fine since I can sell on my data to someone else knowing that your email address is live. Maybe in this instance it would have been better to have not activated your out of office in the first place?

    People always look me like I’m a lunatic when I say I consider out of office messages a security risk. What Susanne said feeds into that for me and have a look at some of the results of this search. I’ve always been sufficiently paranoid to leave them off.

    However, I bit the bullet and made use of the out of office feature and it worked exactly as it should. I received several emails that didn’t need my specific attention. The auto responder let that person know I was away and they got their problem sorted by someone else in my absence.

    I’ve been back in the office a couple of weeks now and I can report I’m feeling much better about things. Writing has come back to me (if you’re still here after the length of this it won’t be a surprise!) and the inclination to plonk myself in front of garbage TV has gone. I’ve gotten into some bad habits during my “rut” but I’ll get those kicked into touch soon enough.

    I hadn’t placed enough value on taking a real break.

    I was at a Comptia meeting recently and we were all invited to suggest a idea for “best practice”. Something we’ve done to improve our business.

    Jat Mann from PC Pal simply said “take a holiday” – he told me afterwards he was joking as he couldn’t think of a suggestion but it’s no surprise that after the voting his suggestion came second!

    Rob Franklln from JPT Solutions also wrote a post called “Downtime is good” which is about taking a break. Rob talks about making use of his network so that he can have that downtime.

    It’s not just me then!

    So after all that waffling my message in short is.

    You can get more done by stopping once in a while.

    Whether that’s taking two weeks off or getting away from your desk and having a proper lunch break it’s worth doing.