The Advantages of Keeping an Analog Work Journal
Today's Guest article, by Dave Terry, got published in the forums. It's now been promoted to where it should belong, on the front page. So now, with a proper DIY welcome and introduction... here's Dave!
Dave has spent 25 years in the computer field programming, planning, and designing small and large systems. He grew up in California, then moved to New York City where he learned computer programming. He started his own computer consulting company in Hawaii while raising his family. He holds several patents connected to his short stint at a pre-IPO California company writing VOIP software. He now works as an Enterprise Software Architect in some big Enterprise.
He balances all this electronic stuff with his hand written journals and sketches.
I've tried keeping all kinds of electronic journals. I’ve kept journals on minicomputers, microcomputers, portable keyboards and every version of the Palm. In the end, the pen is mightier than the computer.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. I used all kinds of electronic methods and formats. I used colors to help me identify key categories like: meetings, dates, bugs, ideas, and techniques. I once kept a color coded Microsoft Word document on my hard drive and then moved it to a USB drive for portability. When we started developing in UNIX (Sun Solaris) I switched to simple text files and used VI tags for highlighting. When the Palm came out I sync’d all my notes into it. Cool to read, not so cool to write even with the folding keyboard I bought.
Of course, over the years I’ve learned, who knows, maybe seven different software editors. But maintaining the integrity of my files while moving them between various file formats (EBCDIC and ASCII) and file systems (DOS, all versions of Windows, and UXIX) was problematic at best. But my journals are more than words. They also contain sketches and drawings.
Because of the nature of my work I’m always sketching diagrams. I draw them on the white boards, the back of napkins and envelopes, scraps of paper, and even windows -- whatever flat surface is within easy reach. (You can always identify the software architect in the room. They are the ones that can’t talk without a whiteboard.)
Eventually though I moved to a book-type work journal for several reasons:
- I have more immediate access to the contents in meetings.
- I can draw diagrams, system flows (pictures) AND write text on the same page.
- I can write or draw in any direction on the page.
- My drawings are easier to share with others on the team.
- I never have to recharge it.
- I can quickly scan weeks and months at a time, just by the flick of the wrist.
- Analog is a memory aid. Drawing help me remember even if I never look at them again.
- I can draw big diagrams in any meeting using the full spread of the open book. (17 x 11).
I’ve always thought that an 8.5 x 11 slatebook with WIFI and bluetooth for Internet and keyboard/printer would be the ultimate architect’s tool. But I’d still have problems with #5, #6, #8 above.
Over the years I've perfected how to find stuff in the journal even though there is no electronic searching ability. (Of course you could always take digital photos and tag them on import but that is far too much work.) Before I tell you the methods I use for indexing let me explain the reason I moved to keeping a hard copy journal at work.
I was working in a startup located on First street in San Jose. (Now that I think about it, how appropriate, it was First Street. Did I mention it was a start up?)
We rented half of the building from the Hondai Company. We would receive various visits from some of the lawyers of the investors to instruct us about copyright and patent laws. The lawyers said that in order to back a patent in a court of law, the idea needed to be recorded. He strongly urged us to purchase a lab book with pre-numbered pages. I found a Record Book by National Brand (56-231) with 300 pages. These pre-numbered books and their acid-free paper cost about $30 each; but last about two years. (To make this hold up in a court of law you need dates and signatures. But that’s not what I use my work journal for today.)
What’s on the Page
- I stamp today’s date using a date stamp from an office supply store.
- I write in the day of week and the starting time.
- I write the Todos for the day with a checkbox to the left of each one.
- At each meeting I write: the starting meeting time and key attendee names. Sometimes I write the names around a draw square representing the table. I put an X where I’m sitting. I generally use this method when I’m visiting a vendor’s site and don’t know all the players.
- I draw sketches related to the meeting and I write down my action items. I copy into the book any sketches on the whiteboard. Sometimes people send me the meeting minutes afterward and I just paste that into my book. The book is for drawings mostly with notes providing some details.
- Add an index entry at the back.
The real power is the index I create in the back. It's simply a list of major meetings, events, diagrams, and conclusions and their corresponding page numbers. I use key phrases so that if the subject comes up again I place a coma after the page of the first entry and add the additional page number. This is my "quick search" feature for the analog journal.
I’ve included some snapshots of my actual journals but here’s what the index might look like:
Adaptive hardware infrastructure 2,4,35
Federated Login and SSO 4,12,102
SAP visit 13
OrgCharting assessments 14,15
I start the index at the back page and work toward the front of the book. This way I can add as I go without the worry of running out of space.
When do I make these index entries? I make them monthly or often the same day. It really doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get the main issues, ideas, solutions, or whatever into the index itself.
I also keep a few other lists in the end sheets of the book. I keep track of my taken vacation days and key contact vendor information.
Sometimes it makes good sense to link the journal entries, when the index fails. Mostly the index works fine. But if I need to link two entries in the book pages I simply put the forwarding page number on the earlier entry and the back-link page number on the last entry. A circle around the number and an orange highlight helps it stick out. (See description of the color codes I use below.)
There is one more thing that helps me a great deal. I highlight key categories in different colors. Similar to the way I used color in my VI file I mentioned before, I use a highlighter to mark categories of information. Here are the color codes I use:
- Green – Meetings & the start of each day’s date stamp and written day of the week.
- Purple – A great idea, solution to a problem.
- Yellow – General key information such that I might highlight in a manual or book.
- Orange – Don’t forget this!
- Blue – Follow up or Todos.
Your colors may vary but these are colors I’ve stuck with for years and they work for me. They are easy colors to get in a six-pack at your local office supply store.
I use a simple self-inking date stamp for each day’s date. I could write the date by hand but the stamp makes the page look more official. I hand write the following information after the stamp: day of the week right, begin and end times. I add begin and end times for the day out of habit from my contracting days.
Although I’ve always purchased the 300 page Record books with pre-printed page numbers, this year I bought an 8.5 x 11 art book for my Work Journal. I went to this method because:
- Far less expensive, $7 vs. $33.
- An 8.5 x 11 size allows me to glue standard size paper into the journal.
I really like the 8.5 x 11 size. Sometimes I get an email that relates to a key diagram that would be helpful to add in that page. Often I Visio a hand drawn diagram from my journal and now want to glue it where the hand written one used to be.
Since the art book doesn’t come with pre-numbered pages I went out and bought a self-inking, auto-incrementing number stamp. (The numbers are useful for the index in the back.) Now that I have the auto-number machine, I use it for all my journals, including my Moleskine private and sketch journals.
That’s it. It’s a simple process. I never put stuff in the journal that I’d be afraid to share with anyone in the Enterprise. I do keep a personal journal and have toyed with merging the two. But they are very different and I keep them for very different purposes. I keep the Work Journal at work and my Personal Journal at home.
I've got about eight years worth of Work Journals now. I rarely reference one older than two years. It is amazing how, paging through the diagrams, I remember so much of the circumstances and events of the time. That’s one of the great reasons I like to keep analog journals either for work or private. In preparation for this article I scanned some of my old journals and even remembered details from the pre-IPO days. You can read about it here called: The Team.
The Record Book 56-231 Account book. The one I’ve used for years.
There was an interesting discussion on keeping a Work and Personal Journal at Slacker Manager.