Developer Productivity Tools and Anti-Patterns

Ewan Dennis
Jul. 29, 2016 by Ewan Dennis

Clipboard Briefcase Clock image Developer Productivity Tools

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Staying productive in a modern software firm can be a challenge. You might be physically remote, in a different timezone or maybe you just have an excitingly active user community. Whatever your situation, we each have productivity tools, techniques and coping mechanisms for maintaining momentum in the modern world.  I often learn from others on this topic so here is very quick overview of my own thinking.

Slack

Slack is one of the most useful developer productivity tools available to me today. Slack’s modern grown-up take on IRC makes traditional corporate IM completely obsolete. I could not function without live group comms with all my colleagues and our user community. Our founder and CTO George Schlossnagle says this and more here.

I also can’t imagine, due to Slack, how many fewer hours of meetings, memos, dry papers and otherwise slow-boat conversations we now have, but it’s alot.

an alot developer productivity tools blog Image c/o: an alot

My home within SparkPost is the Developer Relations group. We’re spread over 8 time zone hours and some of us move around quite a bit. Slack’s backscroll, the body of messages sent while I was away, lets me catch up when travelling, eating, asleep or whatever else. There is no substitute for backscroll to stay connected and in sync with the team.

So much of the work we do is visible in backscroll and it’s searchable too! I sound a little like an advert but Slack is an unprecedented new capability for me. I can now answer a great many of my own questions with Slack search – thats huge win for group productivity. I’ll touch on that a little more in the anti-patterns section later.

Of course Slack is not a replacement for deliberate documentation but it certainly raises the knowledge floor, does it not?

Calendar

Ok, yes of course we all have calendars. We use Google Apps at SparkPost and Google Calendar helps my productivity in a few specific ways. I like to put solo tasks in my calendar. This lets me block out my days and remind “future me” (read: confused and lazy me) to do things on time. For example, I have a calendar entry entitled “Draft blog post” for writing this article with a couple of hours allocated. I leave the calendar notification on screen while I work (I use Chrome) so I can see it right beside my clock.

calendar reminder to draft blog post developer productivity tools

I reschedule tasks as needed but I try to work as dictated by my calendar. “Past me” had a plan to make progress on multiple fronts and keep things rolling along.  I can also reduce my cognitive load by separating the planning from the doing. In an convenient twist, Google Calendar’s “find a time” feature also meshes my tasks with actual meetings.

Anti-Patterns

Alright. So far, so obvious. I have also identified a few productivity anti-patterns (behaviors that negatively affect my performance) which I try to avoid or at least manage. Here they are now.

Slack (again)

I know. I just advertised Slack like I was getting paid for it but I also feel it’s possible to be too connected. In larger teams, Slack lets you watch the whole organization function in real-time. That can feel a little like staring directly up the Niagara Falls and it’s as alluring as it is unproductive.

In response, I have learned to limit my channel membership, to make liberal use of channel muting and to re-think things when I’m reading backscroll for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Twitch Culture

Have you ever heard: “Can you just quickly do X for me? It’ll only take a moment.”?

Our lives are made up of moments and they’re all precious. Technology can also exert unwanted pressure to be ever available and responsive throughout the working day. For tasks in engineering, education, research and writing, this “twitch culture” impacts our performance because interruptions affect our flow. They can be jarring and difficult to recover from.

As a coping mechanism, I tend to just be less available during intensive task periods (like now). It takes a little getting used to but it works. I also try to answer my own questions (Slack search, lmgtfy, …) before interrupting others. It’s a balance so I’m sure everyone’s is different.

We live in a time of explosive growth in information availability. With a little awareness and more of these excellent developer productivity tools, I hope we can all continue to have rich, productive, interesting and happy lives.

Productivity is an extremely important, ever changing and yet very personal topic. We’ve been writing about it throughout July and frankly we’re exhausted. Leave us a comment or tweet about your own developer productivity tools, tips and techniques.

– Ewan

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