Programmers - staying organized at work?
July 30, 2013 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Developers (and other professionals with too much to learn) - how do you keep everything straight? How do you stay organized? How do you deal with really steep learning curves?

I'm just starting my career with 6 months on the job. It's fantastic but overwhelming too; I have multiple projects on the go, am learning the business, learning how to actually use the apps we work on, learning database tables with no ERD, working on our huge Oracle application as well as Java projects (switching back and forth between the two being a challenge in itself). Those two technologies have different processes for promotions and using the versioning system (also new to me). I am having to learn ADF, a new Java IDE, maintain tons of correspondance, learn about the care and feeding of BAs...I try to write things down when people explain things to me, but I feel like if I spent as much time on doing that as I really should, I would spend too much time in a day. Often I think I can rely on my memory, but discover later that I can't; I'll end up having to ask someone a second or third time. I feel like it's only a matter of time before my brain explodes and I make a massive, horrible mistake. And people will think - you've been here 6 months - how could you screw up so badly at this point? Please help.
posted by kitcat to Work & Money (26 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried using something like Evernote to track different problems you had and the solution you found/answer you were given?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:00 AM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Put all the deliverable work you have to do in your bug tracking system and assign it to yourself, even if it's documentation or whatever.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:08 AM on July 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I find that using a web based todo list and Evernote allow me to keep track of everything I should be doing and keeping track of.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:13 AM on July 30, 2013

1. Everyone feels overwhelmed like you do. They are all good at hiding it. Take a deep breath. It sounds like you are pushing hard to learn as much as you can and that's great!

2. It sounds like the kind of knowledge you are trying to manage would fit well on a wiki. When you learn how to do xyz, you can slap that on a wiki and then (a) reference it yourself and (b) refer other people to it! You don't have to document stuff like you would for an end user -- just jot enough notes to get by, and key information like URLs or credential names. Does your organization have a wiki? If not could you set one up? If not could you use a personal one like Tiddlywiki? Or even start taking notes in Google Drive?
posted by mindsound at 11:14 AM on July 30, 2013

Good ideas, but I wouldn't be allowed to do that with our bug tracking system, and as for Evernote I can't install unapproved software...
posted by kitcat at 11:14 AM on July 30, 2013

Use Evernote on your phone...?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:15 AM on July 30, 2013

If you want to try it, Tiddlywiki is just a flat .html file that you save and use locally. It's not "software", just a saved web page. Very handy if you want to fly under the radar.

Does your bug tracking system have any kind of documentation component? If not, do you think you would get any traction floating the idea that you are interested in an internal documentation solution?
posted by mindsound at 11:16 AM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I use Trello ... Web-based, no install, free and really easy to use.
posted by Jacob G at 11:28 AM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you're not allowed to install unapproved software and your office has strict rules about how to use the bugtracking system, your options are going to be a lot more limited, obviously. There's no shortage of web-based tools such as Basecamp, Trello, google docs and the like.

Personally I use your current method: a big notepad and a pencil. I rarely ever refer to anything in the notepad, but the act of writing things down seems to concretize them enough in my head. Once you've been around for a while you'll have less new stuff to remember and this will all get a lot simpler.
posted by ook at 11:32 AM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

You will never not be overwhelmed, that's just part of a successful adulthood. Instead of fighting the feelings of being overwhelmed, a battle you cannot win, learn to prioritize. Of course, you can always choose to check out, which is a valid choice, but it sounds like that's not what you want to do.

Specifically: make a plan that prioritizes people and tasks in the order that they have an impact on your current job and your overall career. This means pleasing the important people; gently directing others to route requests through your boss; keeping your boss generally aware of all the things on your list. Obtain your yearly review template from HR (or talk to your boss about his/her expectations, but preferably, obtain the actual review template) and prioritize everything according to what will end up on the yearly review.

Also to keep in mind: organizations tend to squeeze too much juice out of younger employees because they (the younger employees) tend to feel personally responsible (and guilty!) for things falling through the cracks when the real issue is that a project is understaffed (they always are!). Remember that you are getting paid as a junior employee so you can't be held to senior employee standards.

Enthusiastically seconding Jacob on Trello. It is a fantastic task tracking/memory dump tool, free and powerful and the easiest of about a dozen I've tried. My personal system: different colors (labels) for 1-minute, 1-hour, 2-hours plus, and longer tasks; different lists for Today, Tomorrow, This Week, and Some Day. At the start of each day, I re-arrange things. When I am too brain-dead to tackle things of importance, I do the 1-minute tasks.
posted by rada at 11:32 AM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Trello stores your data on their servers, so get management permission before using it (or google docs) to store work related stuff!

Setting up an internal wiki would be the best thing to do. It will also help other new hires to get up to speed in the future.
posted by monotreme at 11:41 AM on July 30, 2013

Evernote has a fully functional web client; you shouldn't have to install anything to use it.
posted by steinwald at 11:49 AM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does Evernote store data on their servers? I like the looks of Trello, but can't use it anyhow since we are running too old a version of IE.
posted by kitcat at 11:52 AM on July 30, 2013

This is what Basecamp is for.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:55 AM on July 30, 2013

Does Evernote store data on their servers?

posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:55 AM on July 30, 2013

Don't hesitate asking permission for the use of these tools. The worst they can say is "No"

Rarely is someone who comes to management saying that they want to do they job better and have a real plan for doing so looked at in a bad light.

Don't mention that you are dropping things on the ground or anything like that but instead push that you have many deadlines, many promises to keep and you want to make sure you can keep everything together.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:01 PM on July 30, 2013

I can't install unapproved software

Do you have a list of approved software?
posted by Dansaman at 12:03 PM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but I use OneNote (in our MS-centric office). Other colleagues of mine use their personal spaces on our Confluence instance; one very intrepid soul does the email-to-self thing with judicious use of Outlook categories.

... I feel like if I spent as much time on doing that as I really should, I would spend too much time in a day.

Do it anyway. Even if I log lots of hours doing administrivia, it brings me enormous peace of mind to know that my work brain is backed up and easily searchable.
posted by evoque at 1:46 PM on July 30, 2013

In addition to these app suggestions, could you also try to describe *how* (according to what categories, for instance) you track ALL THE THINGS!
posted by kitcat at 1:50 PM on July 30, 2013

Here's my advice: don't worry about how to organize it. Just *write it down*. Everything. Don't get hung up on "where do I save this" or "what tag do I use" or whatever. Just open a text file, type it out, and save it locally. Use one giant file, your many small ones, whatever. Nothing else matters unless you write it down. All the organization in the world is useless if you don't actually write stuff down first. Get it down, the rest is gravy. (I use markdown to format things, because it's prettier, but you don't need to.)

Now, you say you're a programmer? Great. I assume you're comfortable in the terminal. You can find and grep. Something like 'find /your/notes/directory -name '*.md' -exec grep -l 'ADF' {} \;' Boom -- all your files where you wrote something about ADF. Play with grep to make it useful, and you now have a poor man's wiki.

You can improve on this obviously - Evernote and the ilk are all awesome. But in the end, all that matters is you write it down, because when you need it, it's there *somewhere*. Finding it is way easier that trying to remember how exactly you did X last time, the one time it worked.
posted by cgg at 2:10 PM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I second the tip about just writing it down, no matter what format or tool (even simple text files). Another thing I would add is: write down things even if you think you won't need them again. You will end up writing stuff down that you will never look at again, but it's very hard to know in advance which bits you will need later and which you won't. So just write it all down.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 2:52 PM on July 30, 2013

cgg's system is very close to my own, and I've been doing it for years. Any time I type anything complex or hard-to-remember into the terminal, I paste it into a text file, and I add a bullet point for each major task. This turns grep into a magic tool. Four years of notes is incredibly powerful.

For ongoing tasks, I use a google spreadsheet with one line per task, mark them green when I'm done, yellow for code review, blue for "blocked on somebody else", and occasionally hide a block of finished rows. Anything in my inbox becomes a task. This way can lie madness if you don't like GTD, but it works great for me.

Bonus: no apps or special tools required.

I never remember anything. Always an email or a spreadsheet item.
posted by zvs at 9:02 PM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use a pen and legal pad to keep a log of what I'm up to, with time-stamped entries whenever I change focus. This may seem old-fashioned, but I enjoy the act of writing instead of typing, so that motivates me to write everything down; it's also fun to build up a physical artifact. I spend a few minutes at the start of every day getting organized and writing down micro-goals.

I've also used Tiddlywiki in the past, and it's pretty great too. I use Emacs org-mode to organize my personal life, and it's worth learning if you like Emacs.

Also, learn all the features of the task-tracking system in your IDE.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:25 PM on July 30, 2013

About the most important thing I've ever learned about task management is to take time out, once a week, to review all your tasks. It's surprisingly hard to justify the time to yourself, especially if you have a lot of 'real' work to do, but it's really worth doing.

It's just as simple as going through them, ticking off the stuff you have done, organising the stuff you still have to do, and noting down any new ideas that come up as you go. I find this high-level review often helps me see where I've been going wrong, and where I can work more efficiently. And you go back to work feeling like you are on top of things.

So bung everything down as you go, and review once a week. For the bunging, I have an A4 and A5 notepad, a note taking app, and a task manager. I like Whitelines squared notebooks, Drafts for iOS, and Things for iOS and Mac, but YMMV. I do like Drafts because you can easily send the text to other applications, but as a fellow programmer you will almost certainly have highly specific tastes of your own. Similarly, I like mind mapping (or spider diagrams, as we called them when I was a youth) for jotting things down and working them through, but it may not work for you.

This is definitely the time to try several different methods before you get old and set in your ways. You might get some recommendations from fellow employees, or there may be training courses available. Just remember to take that step back once in a while and organise things from the top.
posted by danteGideon at 4:05 AM on July 31, 2013

In addition to reviewing your tasks weekly, you might find it beneficial to review your notes on what you are learning, making notes of questions you have. I find that when I'm learning something new (like a new job), I have to learn everything (at least) twice -- the first time it is just random uncorrelated information and the second time, I have a clue about how it relates to other stuff, how important it is, etc...
posted by elmay at 8:03 AM on July 31, 2013

The feeling of being overwhelmed really does not go away, at least for me. Every new project has a big learning curve and I've learned to just accept the fact that I'm going to feel lost and overwhelmed for a while until I get caught up.... just in time for the project to end and to move on to the next one!

I've tried a number of systems but in the end I always come back to the simple text file. I just write everything in one big text file and that's it. At the bottom of it I keep a to do list and at the top is just a running log: date, project, what i did today and other notes. It's surprisingly easy to find things with a search. How did I fix that problem with the installer last May? I remember it had something to do with 64-bit Windows... Search "64", oh yeah, there it is!

I'm just now starting to think about separate files for separate projects.

In Outlook, I keep separate folders for each project and save all related email to those folders.
posted by callmejay at 11:52 AM on July 31, 2013

« Older Parlez-vous francais? No. Not for 13 years.   |   Gardeningfilter - Horsetail. Ugh. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.