Lightweight Project Management Tools in the Real World

My life got extra complicated in the last few months. I gave birth to my first child in January, and in between the stress of a new baby, unexpected hospital visits, and the worst winter in 35 years, it was a trying time. While I was able to step back from many commitments during my 8 week maternity leave, I didn’t want to be completely out the loop, and since I would come back to three conferences back to back, I needed to be able to jump back in and monitor collaborative projects from wherever. All of us have times in our lives that are this hectic or even more so, but even in the regular busy thrum of our professional lives it’s too easy to let ongoing commitments like committee work completely disappear from our mental landscapes other than the nagging feeling that you are missing something.

There are various methods and tools to enhance productivity, which we’ve looked at before. Some basic collaboration tools such as Google Docs are always good to have any time you are working on a group project that builds into something like a presentation or report. But for committee work or every day work in a department, something more specialized can be even better. I want to look at some real-life examples of using lightweight project management tools to keep projects that you work on with others going strong—or not so strong, depending on how they are used. Over the past 4-5 months I’ve gotten experience using Trello for committee work and Asana for work projects. Both of them have some great features, but as always the implementation doesn’t depend entirely on the software’s functionality. Beyond my experience with these two implementations I’ll address a few other tools and my experience with effective usage of them.

Asana

I have the great fortune of having an entire wall of my office painted with white board paint, Asana Screenshotand use it to sketch out ideas and projects. For that to be useful, I need to be physically be in the office. So before I went on maternity leave, I knew I needed to get all my projects at work organized in a way that I could give tasks I would normally do to others, as well as monitor what was happening on large on-going projects. I had used Asana before in another context, so I decided to give it a try for this purpose. Asana has projects, tasks, and due dates that anyone in a workspace can follow and assign. It’s a pretty flexible system–the screenshot shows one potential way of setting it up, but we use different models for different projects, and there are many ideas out there. My favorite feature is project templates, which I use in another workspace that I share with my graduate assistant. This allows you to create a new project based on a standard series of steps, which means that she could create new projects while I was away based on the normal workflow we follow and I could work on them when I returned. All of this requires a very strict attention to keeping projects organized, however, and if you don’t have an agreed upon system for naming and organizing tasks they can get out of hand very quickly.

We also use Asana as part of our help request system. We wanted to set up a system to track requests from all the library staff not only for my maternity leave but in general. I looked at many different systems, but they were almost all too heavy-duty for what we needed. I made our own very lightweight system using the Webform module in Drupal on our intranet. Staff submits requests through that form, which sends an email using a departmental email address to our Issue Tracking queue in Asana. Once the task is completed we explain the problem in an Asana comment (or just mark completed if it’s a normal request such as new user account), and then send a reply to the requestor through the intranet. They can see all the requests they’ve made plus the replies through that system. The nice thing about doing it this way is that everything is in one place–trouble tickets become projects with tasks very easily.

Trello

Trello screenshotTrello is designed to mimic the experience of using index cards or sticky notes on a wall to track ideas and figure out what is going on at a glance. This is particularly useful for ongoing work where you have multiple projects in a set of pipelines divvied up among various people. You can easily see how many ideas you have in the inception stage and how many are closer to completion, which can be a good motivator to move items along. Another use is to store detailed project ideas and notes and then sort them into lists once you figure out a structure.

Trello starts with a virtual board, which is divided into lists of cards. Trello cards can be assigned to specific people, and anyone can follow a card to get notifications. Clicking on a card brings up a whole set of additional options, including who is working on the project, attachments, due dates, color coding, and anything else you might want. The screenshot shows how the LITA Education Committee uses Trello to plan educational offerings. The white areas with small boxes indicate cards (we use one card per program/potential idea) that are active and assigned, the gray areas indicate cards which haven’t been touched in a while and so probably need followup. Not surprisingly, there are many more cards, many of which are inactive, at the beginning of the pipeline than at the end with programs already set up. This is a good visual reminder that we need to keep things moving along.

In this case I didn’t set up Trello, and I am not always the best user of it. Using this for committee work has been useful, but there are a few items to keep in mind for it to actually work to keep projects going. First, and this goes for everything, including analog cards or sticky notes, all the people working on the project need to check into it on a regular basis and use it consistently. One thing that I found was important to do to get it into a regular workflow was turn on email notifications. While it would be nice to stay out of email more, most of us are used to finding work show up there, and if you have a sane relationship to your inbox (i.e. you don’t use it to store work in progress), it can be helpful to know to log in to work on something. I haven’t used the mobile app yet, but that is another option for notifications.

Other Tools

While I have started using Asana and Trello more heavily recently, there are a number of other tools out there that you may need to use in your job or professional life. Here are a few:

Box

Many institutions have some sort of “cloud” file system now such as Box or Google Drive. My work uses Box, and I find it very useful for parts of projects where I need many people (but a slightly different set each time) to collaborate on completing a single task. I upload a spreadsheet that I need everyone to look at, use the information to do something, and then add additional information to the spreadsheet. This is a very common scenario that organizations often use a shared drive to accomplish, but there are a number of problems with that approach. If you’ve ever been confronted with the filename “Spring2014_report-Copy-Copy-DRAFT.xlsx” or not been able to open a file because someone else left it open on her desktop and went to lunch, you know what I mean. Instead of that, I upload the file to Box, and assign a task to the usernames of all the people I need to look at the document. They can use a tool called Box Edit to open the file in Excel and any changes they make are immediately saved back to the shared document, just as a Google Doc would do. They can then mark the task complete, and the system only sends email reminders to people who haven’t yet finished the task.

ALA Connect

This section is only relevant to people working on projects with an American Library Association group, whether a committee or interest group. Since this happens to most people working in academic libraries at some point, I think it’s worth considering. But if not,  skip to the conclusion. ALA Connect is the central repository for institutional memory and documents for work around ALA, including committees and interest groups. It can also be a good place to work on project collaboratively, but it takes some setup. As a committee chair, I freely admit that I need to organize my own ALA Connect page much better. My normal approach was to use an online document (so something editable by everyone) for each project and file each document under a subcommittee heading, but in practice I find it way too hard to find the right document to see what each subcommittee is working on. I am going to experiment with a new approach. I will create “groups” for each project, and use the Group Headings sidebar to organize these. If you’re on a committee and not the chair, you don’t have access to reorganize the sidebar or posts, but suggest this approach to your chair if you can’t find anything in “General News & Discussions”. Also, try to document the approach you’ve taken so future chairs will know what you did, and let other chairs know what works for your committee.

You also need to make a firm commitment as a chair to hold certain types of discussions on your committee mailing list, and certain discussions on ALA Connect, and then to document any pertinent mailing list discussions on ALA Connect. That way you won’t be unable to figure out where you are on the project because half your work is in email and half on ALA Connect. (This obviously goes for any other tool other than email as well).

 Conclusion

With all the tools above, you really have no excuse to be running projects through email, which is not very effective unless everyone you are working with is very strict with their email filing and reply times. (Hint: they aren’t—see above about a sane relationship with your inbox.) But any tool requires a good plan to understand how its strengths mesh with work you have to accomplish. If your project is to complete a document by a certain date, a combination of Google Docs or Box (or ALA Connect for ALA work) and automated reminders might be best. If you want to throw a lot of ideas around and then organize them, Trello or Asana might work. Since these are all free to try, explore a few tools before starting a big project to see what works for you and your collaborators. Once you pick one, dedicate a bit of time on a weekly or monthly basis to keeping your virtual workspace organized. If you find it’s no longer working, figure out why. Did the scope of your project change over time, and a different tool is now more effective? This can happen when you are planning to implement something and switch over from the implementation to ongoing work using the new system. Or maybe people have gotten complacent about checking in on work to do. Explore different types of notifications or mobile apps to reinvigorate your team.

I would love to hear about your own approach to lightweight project management with these tools or others in the comments.

 


The Setup: What We Use at ACRL TechConnect

Inspired by “The Setup” a few of us at Tech Connect have decided to share some of our favorite tools and techniques with you. What software, equipment, or time/stress management tools do you love? Leave us a note in the comments.

Eric – Homebrew package manager for OS X

I love Macs. I love their hardware, their operating system, even some of their apps like Garage Band. But there are certain headaches that Mac OS X comes with. While OS X exposes its inner workings via UNIX command line, it doesn’t provide a package manager like the apt of many Linux distros to install and update software.
Enter Homebrew, a lifesaver that’s helped me to up my game on the command line without much ancillary pain. Homebrew helps you find (“brew search php“), install (“brew install phantomjs“), and update (“brew upgrade git“) software from a central repository. I currently have 36 packages installed, among them utilities that Apple neglected to include like wget, programming tools like Node.js, and brilliant timesavers like z, a bookmarking system for the command line. Installing a lot of these tools can be tougher than using them, requiring permissions tweaks and enigmatic incantations. Homebrew makes installation easy and checking thirty-six separate websites for available updates becomes unnecessary.
As a bonus, some Homebrew commands now produce unicode beer mugs.

Updated Homebrew from bad98b12 to 150b5f96.
==> Updated Formulae
autojump berkeley-db gtk+ imagemagick libxml2
==> Upgrading 1 outdated package, with result:
libxml2 2.9.0
==> Upgrading libxml2
==> Downloading ftp://xmlsoft.org/libxml2/libxml2-2.9.0.tar.gz
####################################### 100.0%
==> Patching
patching file threads.c
patching file xpath.c
==> ./configure --prefix=/usr/local/Cellar/libxml2/2.9.0 --without-python
==> make
==> make install
==> Caveats
This formula is keg-only: so it was not symlinked into /usr/local.
==> Summary
beer mug usr/local/Cellar/libxml2/2.9.0: 273 files, 11M, built in 94 seconds

[Note: simulation, not verbatim output]

Magic! And a shameless plug: Homebrew has a Kickstarter currently to help them with some automated tests, so if you use Homebrew consider a donation.

Margaret – Pomodoro Technique/using time wisely

Everyone works differently and has more effective times of day to complete certain types of work. Some people have to start writing first thing in the mornings, others can’t do much of anything that early. For me personally I find late afternoon the most effective time to work on code or technical work—but late afternoon is a time very prone to being distractible. So many funny things have been posted on the internet, and my RSS reader is all full up again. The Pomodoro technique (as well as similar systems) is a promise to yourself that if you just work hard on something for a relatively short amount of time that you will finish it, and then can have a guilt-free break.

Read the website for the full description of how to use this technique and some tools, but here’s the basic idea. You list the tasks you need to do, and then pick a task to work on for 25 minutes. Then you set a timer and start work. After the timer goes off, you get a 5 minute break to do whatever you want, and then after a few Pomodoros you take a longer break. The timer ideally should have a visual component so that you know how much time you have left and remember to stay on task. My personal favorite is focus booster. This is what mine looks like right now:

Pomodoro status bar

Note that the line changes color as I get closer to the end. It will become blue and count down my break when that starts. Another one I like a lot, especially when I am not at my own computer is e.ggtimer.com. This is a simple display, and you can bookmark http://e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro to get a Pomodoro started.

I can’t do Pomodoros all day—as a librarian, I need to be available to work with others at certain times—that’s not an interruption, that’s my job. Other times I really need to focus and can’t. This is the best technique to get started—and sometimes once I am started I get so focused on the project that I don’t even notice I am supposed to be on a break.

Jim – Tomcat Server with Jersey servlet: a customizable middleware/API system

The Tomcat/Jersey stack is the backbone of the library’s technology prototyping initiative. With this tool, our staff of research programmers and student programmers can take any webpage/database source and turn it into an API that could then feed into a mobile app, a data feed in a website, or a widget in some other emerging technology. While using and leveraging the Tomcat/Jersey stack does require some Java background, it can be learned in a couple weeks by anyone who has some scripting and server experience. The hardest thing to this whole pipeline is finding enough time to keep cranking out the library APIs — one that I got running over the winter holiday is a feed of group rooms that are available to be checked out/scheduled within the next hour at the library.

The data feed sends back a JSON array of available rooms, like this (abbreviated):

[{"roomName":"Collaboration Room 02 - Undergraduate Library",

"startTime":"10:00 AM",

"endTime":"11:00 AM",

"date":"1/27/2013"}, …
Bohyun – Get into the mood for concentration and focus

I am one of those people who are easily excited by new happenings around me. I am also one of those people who often would do anything but the thing that I must be doing. That is, I am prone to distraction and procrastination. My work often requires focus and concentration but I have an extremely hard time getting into the right mood.
there are no limits to what you can accomplish when you are supposed to be doing something else
The two tools that I found help me quite a bit are (a) Scribblet and (b) Rainy Mood. Scribblet (http://scribblet.org/) is a simple Javascript bookmarklet that lets you literally scribble on your web browser. If you tend to read more efficiently while annotating, this simple tool will help you a great deal with online reading. Rainy Mood (http://www.rainymood.com/) is a website that displays the window of any rainy day with even the sound of thunder sprinkled in. I tend to get much calmer on a rainy day which can do wonders for my writing and other projects that require a calm and focused state of mind. This tool instantly makes me have a rainy day regardless of the weather.
rainy mood websitescribblet website

Meghan – Evernote

Evernote is not a terribly technical tool, but it is one I love and constantly use.  It provides the ability for you to take notes, clip items from the web, attach files to notes, organize into notebooks, share notebooks (or keep them private) and search existing notes.  It is available to download for desktops but I use the web version primarily, along with the web clipper and the Android app on my phone.  Everything syncs together, so it is easy to locate notes from any location.  Here are three examples of how it fits into my daily life:

An enormous pile of classified bookmarks: I am currently trying to get up to speed on Drupal development as well as looking at examples of online image collections and brainstorming for my next TechConnect blog entry.  The web clipper allows me to save things into specific piles by using notebooks and then add tags for classification and easier searching.  For example, I can classify an issue description or resolution in the my web development reference notebook, but tag it with the name for our site which is affected by the issue. This is especially useful when I know I have to change tasks and am likely to navigate away from my tabs in the browser.  When I return to the task in a day or so, I can search for the helpful pages I saved.  Classifying in notebooks is also good to build a list of sources that I consult every time I do a certain task, like building a server.

Evernote library

Course and conference notes: Using the web or phone version, I can type notes during a lecture or conference session.  I can also attach a pdf of the slides from a presentation for reference later.  Frequently, I create a notebook for a particular conference that I can opt to share with others.

Conference notes in Evernote

Personal uses:  I am learning to cook, and this tool has been really useful.  Say I find a great recipe that I decide I want to (try and) make for dinner tonight.  Clip the recipe using the web clipper, save it to my recipes notebook and then pull it up on my phone while I’m cooking to follow along (which also explains all the flour on my phone).  In a few months if I want to use it again, I’ll probably have to search for it, because all I will remember is that it had chickpeas in it.  But, that’s all I have to remember.

recipe in Evernote
There are lots of other add-ins for this application, but I love and use the base service the most often.


Present Your Slides without Access to the Internet with Free IPad Apps

Librarians often use presentation slides to teach a class, run a workshop, or give a talk. Ideally you should be able to access the Internet easily at those places. But more often than not, you may find only spotty Internet signals. If you had planned on using your presentation slides stored in the cloud, no access to the Internet would mean no slides for your presentation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this post, we will show you how to locally save your presentation slides on your iPad, so that you will be fully prepared to present without Internet access. You will only need a few tools, and the best of all, those tools are all freely available.

1. Haiku Deck – Make slides on the iPad

If your presentation slides do not require a lot of text, Haiku Deck is a nice iPad app for creating a complete set of slides without a computer. The Haiku Deck app allows you to create colorful presentation slides quickly by searching and browsing a number of CC-licensed images and photographs in Flickr and to add a few words to each slide. Once you select the images, Haiku Deck does the rest of work, inserting the references to each Flickr image you chose and creating a nice set of presentation slides.

You can play and present these slides directly from your iPad. Since Haiku Deck stores these slides locally, you need access to the Internet only while you are creating the slides using the images in Flickr through Haiku Deck. For presenting already-made slides, you do not need to be connected to the Internet. If you would like, you can also export the result as a PowerPoint file from Haiku Deck. This is useful if you want to make further changes to the slides using other software on your computer. But bear in mind that once exported as a PowerPoint file, the texts you placed using Haiku Deck are no longer editable. Below is an example that shows you how the slides made with Haiku Deck look like.

Note. Click the image itself in order to see the bigger version.

So next time when you get a last-minute instruction request from a teaching faculty member, consider spending 10-15 minutes to create a colorful and eye-catching set of slides with minimal text to have it accompany your classroom instruction or a short presentation all on your iPad.

2. SlideShark – Display slides on the iPad

SlideShark is a tool not so much for creating slides as for displaying the slides properly on the iPad (and also for the iPhone).  In order to use SlideShark, you need to install the SlideShark app on your iPad first and then create an account. Once this is done, you can go to the SlideShark website (https://www.slideshark.com/) and log in. Here you can upload your presentation files in the MS PowerPoint format.

Once the file is uploaded to the SlideShark website, open the SlideShark app on your iPad and sync your app with the website by pressing the sync icon on top. This will display all the presentation files that have been uploaded to your SlideShark website account. Here, you can download and save a local copy of your presentation on your iPad. You will need the live Internet connection for this task. But once your presentation file is downloaded onto your SlideShark iPad app, you no longer need to be online in order to display and project those slides. While you are using your iPad to display your slides, you can also place your finger on the iPad screen which will be displayed on the projector as a laser pointer mark.

SlideShark also recently added the integration option with a user’s Dropbox or Box account and the support for playing the embedded video in a PowerPoint file.

3. Adapter

Last but not least, when you pack your iPad and run to your classroom or presentation room, don’t forget to take your adapter. In order to connect your iPad to a projector, you usually need a iPad-VGA adapter because most projectors have a VGA port. But different adapters are used for different ports on display devices. So find out in advance if the projector you will be using has a VGA, DVI, or a HDMI port.  (Also remember that if you have an adapter that connects your Macbook with a projector, that adapter will not work for your iPad. That is a mini DVI-VGA adapter and won’t work with your iPad.)

4. Non-free option: Keynote

Haiku Deck and SlideShark are both free. But if you are willing to invest about ten dollars for convenience, another great presentation app is Keynote (currently $9.99 in Apple Store). While Haiku Deck is most useful for creating simple slides with a little bit of text, Keynote allows you to create more complicated slides on your iPad. If you use Keynote, you also don’t have to go through SlideShark for the off-line display of your presentation slides.

Creating presentations on the Keynote iPad app is simple and uses the same conventions and user-interface as the familiar Keynote application for OS X. Both versions of Keynote can share the same presentation files, although care should be taken to use 1024 x 768 screen resolution and standard Apple fonts and slide templates. iCloud may be used to sync presentations between iPads and other computers and users can download presentations to the iPad and present without Internet access.

The iPad version of Keynote has many features that make Keynote loved by its users. You can add media, tables, charts, and shapes into your presentation. Using Keynote, you can also display your slides to the audience on the attached projector while you view the same slides with a timer and notes on your iPad. (See the screenshots below.) For those with an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Keynote Remote app allows presenters to remotely control their slideshows without the need to stand at the podium or physically touch the iPad to advance their slides.

Do you have any useful tips for creating slides and presenting with an iPad? Share your ideas in the comments!