Is it worth optimizing?

XKCD has this wonderful chart, showing how long you can spend on optimizing a process, depending on the time you save and how often you do it:

So if you save 1 minute of a daily process, and you spend less than a day on it, you’ll save time in less than 5 years. Glad to know my 1 day effort on automating a daily process was well below the limit (6 days)…!

Microsoft’s vision of how we will work and live in the future

Microsoft is working on its view of the future. This is a video of how Microsoft envisions Office in the (near?) future, and how it impacts our work and home live. Pay close attention to the recipe the girl selects at the end – it shows the ingredients being displayed on the kitchen counter. What it leaves out is something I’ve seen in another video, where the ingredients are put on the counter, matching the displayed ingredients – and it detects mismatches in the items.

Exciting to see this kind of vision, and I’m really curious how far away this is. We have face to face talk, interactive surfaces, touch screens, etc. Maybe 10 years from now, this will be the norm…

Google Docs introduces Pivot tables for Spreadsheets

Recently Google Docs added Pivot Tables to the Spreadsheets type of documents, adding a powerful and much-needed feature.

It has most of the functionality PivotTables in Excel has: you can select columns and rows to display, how the data in the table is displayed (Sum, Average, Count), and add filters to it. All this is done with drop-downs and dragging fields around.

One feature I missed during my short forage through the pivot tables is the Collapse All/Expand All: when you have multiple fields selected on either rows or columns, creating a hierarchy, the higher level fields get a little + or – sign next to them. It appears impossible to collapse or expand all on a certain level, forcing you to do it one by one.

A step by step tutorial to Pivot Tables is available here. For those who need a visual to make it all understandable, Google provides a training video:

Note: the step by step tutorial explains how to add a filter to a pivot table, but uses fields that were not available in my version of the sample spreadsheet. Just add a filter on Major, and select Physics as the only value.

Why work doesn’t happen at work

Jason Fried of 37Signals presented a talk at Ted this October, explaining why so little work is actually done at work:

A few Take-aways:

  • Cancel meetings – and see if work still gets done
  • Institute a No-Talk Thursday – nobody can talk to each other
  • Rely more on IM, email, and other non-interactive means to communicate to each other

This may be a good time to plug a 37Signals product called Campfire. It enables co-workers to be available for chat, but not miss anything when they’re not in the chat. It’s also a better solution than IM, since it allows easily for 3- or 4-way chats. Last but not least, you don’t need to install every IM client in the world to be available – all you need is a browser.

Google creates a “Teach Parents Tech” package

Just in time for the holidays, and getting close to the cut-off date for even electronic greeting cards to arrive in time for Christmas, Google present the “Teach Parents Tech” Care Package site.

This site allows anyone to create a greeting card with a number of instructional videos (provided by Google) on a range of different topics, from changing your background on Mac or PC to setting up video chat and sharing photos online. The resulting email is a little bland and not as exciting as the promo on the GMail login page shows, but I think it does the trick.

The only video that’s missing is how to check your email and play videos… I guess a little in-person help may be necessary for some parents.. 🙂

UPDATE: Here’s the link to the original Google Blog article. I guess I’m a little late to the party.

Google Wave gadgets get second chance in Shared Spaces

Google Wave is scheduled to be closed at the end of this month. Luckily, there is a place to go for all the gadgets that were written for Wave – and it’s not gadget hell, but Shared Spaces.

Shared Spaces is a Google Labs product, and instead of centering around the conversation like Google Wave, Shared Spaces is more centered around a particular gadget. You can create a space around a map to collaboratively plan a trip, or around a mind map gadget to brainstorm about an idea.

The slideshow below shows a little about Google’s idea of a shared space:

It looks like Shared Space uses Google Buzz in the background. I’m also not sure if it’s possible to make Shared Spaces invite-only, or that anyone who guesses the URL can participate. I’ll let you know more once I’ve played a little more with it.

Cubicle privacy

So, you’re a software developer, and you’re in a cubicle. You’re on a deadline and deeply engrossed in how the communication driver and the display driver interact with the main program. Then Bill Lumberg comes by to discuss last night’s football game. You just lost track of 5 variables and 2 subroutines, and now need another 30 minutes to get back on track. How do you prevent that?

I run into this problem almost daily (well, not with drivers, but the principal holds true just the same), and came across 3 solutions:

CubeGuard

The easiest solution, yet conveying the message without any doubt: CubeGuard. It is comparable to the crime scene tape, but is set up to be reusable. It fits openings up to 50″, and is available in a large number of standard patterns, and for a surcharge also completely customizable. If you want to send different messages (i.e. “Out to Lunch”, “Working from home” and “Please do not disturb”), you can use the CubeGuard mount and simply replace the message cartridge. One whole set including mounts costs $19.95, and a message cartridge goes for $14.95.

Quartet Workstation Privacy Screen

The Quartet Workstation Privacy Screen goes a step further than the CubeGuard: instead of simply having a message displayed across the entry to the cubicle, it shields the cubicle entrance with a translucent plastic screen. The screen effectively creates a barrier between your cubicle and the outside world, shielding you from people passing by. It comes with a nameplate and a small dry-erase board, that can be used to leave a message for anyone walking by, or provide visitors with a place to leave a message.

The Workstation Privacy Screen comes in a Lightweight version that is 36″ wide, and a Premium version that is 38″ wide. The Lightweight version is $184.25 and the Premium version is $233.11.

Get a door

The third option is the best, but also the most expensive option: get a door, and walls that reach all the way up to the ceiling.

Cubicles are not a good setup for a software development environment. The cubicle was set up in the 1960’s, to allow for easy information sharing. In today’s world the problem seems to be oversharing of information. And it doesn’t have to mean that everybody works with the door closed and nobody can see what others are doing. Joel Spolsky from Fog Creek Software describes how their new office combines everything a developer could ask for in the Bionic Office.

You may not have to go that far (although your developers will love you for it!!), but think about the environment they work in and how it can affect their productivity. Any investment will pay off quickly!

Sharpening the Tools

Through InfoQ I came across this awesome presentation by Dan North about how to progress from beginner to expert, and how that cycle continues (even after reaching expert level).

Just a couple of tools I’d never heard about:

  • Hudson – A continuous integration tool, for Java projects, that allows easy integration of changes into a project, and easy retrieval of a fresh build.
  • GROW Framework – A coaching/self-help tool. GROW stands for Goal, current Reality, Options, and Will. In a nutshell, it lets you evaluate what you want to do, how you want to do it, and apply yourself to doing it.
  • Six Thinking Hats – A thinking tool for group discussions and individual thinking.
  • Clojure – A strange mix between Java and Lisp..?
  • Open Spaces – A meeting/discussion technique to discuss various topics, in a sort-of ad-hoc conference way. Open Spaces last from half a day to about 2 days.
  • Ivy – The Agile Dependency Manager (and that’s all I have for now).
So it looks like I’ve got a nice list of things to learn about, on top of trying to learn more about HTML5, JavaScript, C#, Sharepoint, Visual Web Developer, and MS-SQL…

New search results in Google?

I just entered a search query for Notepad++ in Google Chrome, and the results page looked slightly different from what I’m used to:

Most notably, the left hand side is much cleaner. Clicking on the drop-down below “Everything” will show you the different categories (Images, Videos, etc.). The Search tools option lets you choose between “Any Time” and “Last 3 months”, and expanding it will show you a new list of options:

  • Limit to a time period
  • Social graph results
  • Visited or not
  • Display of results
  • Standard results
I’m still trying to get used to it, but it looks like the result page is in line with Google’s minimalistic philosophy.