Developer! Get a grip on your Information Information!

Good luck to anyone who can conjure up a TED lecture out of telling people that it’s impossible to keep up with all the changes these days. You and I knew that already, didn’t we?

Agile methods help organisations adapt to change. If successfully applied they increase the rate of change. There was an interesting podcast about Agile on .NET Rocks recently called The Economics, Psychology and Science of Agile. The very intelligent guest (listening at double speed was a wild ride) helps corporations improve their agility.

Individuals and teams act and react in a complicated way, so managing change and the information associated with it is hard for organisations. As a developer you are responsible for moving your knowledge forward in tandem. It’s a simpler task but not easy because you can’t call on other people to do it for you.

Information about Information
I’m defining “information”, to include hyperlinks, scripts, macros, utilities and any snippet which could be useful now or later. Information about that information is the way it’s arranged to help you find it when you need it.

The organisation you belong to may offer good reference material (for your normal work at least). You’re still likely to go to other sources (and all the more so if you’re an application developer). Have you been able to gain and maintain a wide knowledge of what’s going on in your field? Do you manage individual pieces of information well?

Symptoms of a Problem?
A lot of scrappy notes all over your desk with hyperlinks written on them, or a long list of bookmarks in your browser that you mean to sort out when you get time, may show you’re overloaded with information – or maybe not. Some people can be very effective with a style of working that looks like chaos.

The acid test might be what happens when you find important items that don’t relate to the task you’re working on. You don’t have time to investigate them. Can you put them to one side knowing that you’ll be generally be able to find them later?

Was that an honest answer? Well, if you can honestly say yes, congratulations! and I hope you’ll have a look one of my other posts some time. Goodbye.

The Struggle Continues
You’re still here I see. I’m also struggling with this issue, and I expect to continue struggling. Every one of us has had a need to manage information, at work or at home, since our schooldays. The need doesn’t change, but the world does. I believe that for the moment I’m keeping up though. This didn’t involve buying a book, taking a training course, or implementing a ten-step plan. It was just a few tricks I’ve picked up from others, and some that I’ve figured out for myself.

I made an oblique reference to one of them above – when I’m working I sometimes play a podcast in the background. Since I can’t give it my full attention I’m not going to pick up all the detail. Playing it at double speed gives me two passes for the price of one, and what I miss first time round I’ll often get on the second. This works best when I don’t need intense concentration on the main job, and where I only need a broad understanding of the podcast topic. Keeping up with “what’s new” would be one example.

Another technique is “read-only networking”: for each field you cover, do you know who publishes authoritative information? You need to. There isn’t time to evaluate every article you read. Knowing you can take something on trust saves you time. Anyone that person trusts is also likely to be worth listening to. You find stepping-stones from one person to the next in the bibliography or credits of a book, the guest list on a regular podcast, and just by noting outside sources mentioned in the content.

Is there any better feeling than having to repeat a difficult process that you haven’t done for a year, and getting it right because you wrote it up last time? Of course there is, but it’s still a good feeling. Blogging (to yourself, your company, or the web) is good documentation. Whether it’s a good idea for you to blog needs thinking about. There isn’t space to cover it here, but I may deal with it in a future post.

Investment of Time
Don’t make one: well, don’t make a big up-front investment anyway. What you need to get started is somewhere you can file away hyperlinks under suitable categories – quickly. You don’t want to interrupt your work. The “static pages” on this blog serve that purpose for me. An ounce of persistence is worth a pound of analysis. Just get started and keep going.

Keeping Things Tidy
The way you categorise the information is important, but you don’t need to think ahead. The best time to set up a category is when you’ve got something that doesn’t fit your existing ones. A good time to re-organise is when you’re looking for something and it isn’t where you think it will be. When you do find it, move it to the place where you were instinctively expecting it to be.

Tips and tricks are personal; they won’t work for everyone. It seems to me that the main thing is to keep information management as a permanent background task, chipping away at the problem and making improvements as they come to mind. If this post turns out to be popular I’ll return to to the subject at a later date…

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