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Aside – How I stay organised

Posted by Preston on 2009-02-21

(Or, information is like water – you can drink from it, you can swim in it, or you can drown in it. What do you want to do?)

IT people work in what I’d refer to as information rich domains. That is, there’s a huge amount of information out there that can be of use, and so the struggle is not necessarily a lack of information, but a challenge in finding the information you want.

(This, for what it’s worth, is why I think that certification exams as a whole are at best poorly representative of skills. Certifications for the most part seem to be about rote recall, which doesn’t reflect real life situations. That is, in real life when faced with a challenging technical problem, I don’t think many people lock themselves in a room devoid of any contact with anyone or anything else and attempts to solve the problem based on memory.)

Real life problem resolution is about not only having access to a plethora of information, but also being able to find the key bits of information. Yes, you need a certain base amount of knowledge in the area to get started, but after that the solution will come from your overall ability to problem solve, and your skill or capability to retrieve the right information.

There’s a few things I do that I think helps me to access information I need quickly. I’m not saying this suits everyone, but it works for me, so people of a similar ilk may find it useful.

First, when it comes to file storage, I’m incredibly anal retentive. (That means for instance, that it literally gives me the shudders if I look at someone’s desktop (Windows, Linux or Mac) and it’s full of files. To me that’s just like having a desk covered in papers and files 3 inches deep on every surface*.)

So I have lots of folders – lots, and lots, and lots of folders, nested, structured named in such a way that I can quickly access stored data. Yes, it may take a few clicks to navigate through folders, but I found this easier to do than searching through a few folders with hundreds or even thousands of files.

Being on a Mac, I make heavy use of Spotlight, the integrated search tool. To be quite frank, in Mac OS X 10.4 this feature sucked, performance-wise, and I regretted every time I tried to use it. In 10.5/Leopard however, it screams, and is fast enough that I even use it as an application launcher when I’m in a hurry.

Next, and what has helped me most in the last two years is a product called Yojimbo, from Bare Bones Software. This makes use of the SQLite component of Mac OS X to do information storage with full text search. I simply drop PDFs, text files, web locations, HTML pages, etc., into Yojimbo, (and also when I have the time add a few tags for additional identification).

The beauty of Yojimbo is that I don’t have to actually go to it in order to search it. One of its features is full Spotlight integration, so thus at any point that I’m looking for information I can just hit CMD+Space, type in the query in Spotlight, and get search results for both files still on disk, and content in Yojimbo’s database. Currently my Yojimbo database is about 1.5GB and continuing to grow as I bring more documentation into it**. (In fact, I don’t store documentation on my filesystem any more – unless I’m being lazy, I put everything into Yojimbo as I get it now.) If I need to send a document I find to a customer or colleague, I can export it and drop it in an email in a matter of seconds.

The final bit of organisation I do is archiving. I don’t like deleting information – in the past I’ve suffered the consequences of deleting something that I later found was no longer available. (E.g., needing to access a software compatibility guide from say, 1999 due to ancient versions of software in use.) At the same time though, I don’t want searches for current issues and problems to be cluttered with matching keywords from documents that are so old that all they’ll do is hinder, not help me. So I keep out of reach of my day to day searches older, historical information. Usually that’s stored on a separate fileserver – it’s there, it’s protected, it’s available if I want to access it, but it’s not getting in the way of what I need to do today.

So there’s a rough overview of how I stay organised. I know it won’t help everyone, but if you’re drowning in information, it may just be the start of a lifeline.


* I had a boss once who called such disorganisation a “discussion feature” for when he had customers in his office. You can imagine what I thought of that.

** Of course, it gets backed up! (I had to learn some AppleScript in order to properly quit Yojimbo at a strategically appropriate time of the day, copy the files for subsequent backup, and then restart it.)

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3 Responses to “Aside – How I stay organised”

  1. Daniel King said

    (This, for what it’s worth, is why I think that certification exams as a whole are at best poorly representative of skills. Certifications for the most part seem to be about rote recall, which doesn’t reflect real life situations. That is, in real life when faced with a challenging technical problem, I don’t think many people lock themselves in a room devoid of any contact with anyone or anything else and attempts to solve the problem based on memory.)

    I shall remember this next time I also remember the grief you gave me about my VCP. :P

    • Preston said

      Alas, as a manager subject to the ‘requests’ of seemingly homicidal service partners that demanded absolute obedience on a whim, I had no choice but to require certifications of employees – even if I did disagree with them. I hope though, pain aside, that being able to list the certification on your CV helped…

  2. Daniel King said

    Yes it did. It was a toungue in cheek remark and I don’t acctually hold a grudge about it. Worked out pretty well all things considered.

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