I’ve been slowly working through 10 Days to a Better Blog and for Day 3 the exercise was to write out some thoughts on the optimal writing environment. I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to reflect on a couple of changes I’ve experienced in my time in London. They are both major factors in my writing environment, but neither I feel has moved me closer to optimal. The first is a deliberate experiment I’ve tried with my digital space, that I’ve recently ended. The second is the change in physical space that has been somewhat thrust upon me, but I’ll cover that in a separate entry.
While moving to London was a big change in life, from a work perspective the bigger change was something else entirely: I stopped using laptop for work. This may not sound like much, but I’ve worked primarily off a laptop for most of my career, and that has been the norm for most engineers I know. On joining TIM Group I discovered that the development machines were all desktops. That made me stop and consider this option: What would it be like to work from a desktop? To not be able to move it to a conference room? To not be able to bring it home??
It was actually this last idea that tipped the balance for me. At the time of our move I thought we might be in London for only a couple of years. If that’s was going to be the case, I didn’t really want to be bringing a lot of work home with me. So I went for the desktop option, actually passing off the laptop that had been purchased for me in Boston — I worked out of the Boston off for three weeks, and from California for a month before we moved to London — to another engineer who could use it on his train journey.
Coincident with this desktop experiment was my iPad experiment. Could I use the iPad to fill the gap when mobility was required? I had used the iPad a bit in my previous job, but because of job requirements I typically had a laptop as well. I was curious how far I could take the iPad as a work machine. I also thought the iPad’s relative lack of multitasking might actually be an asset, helping to keep me focused on what I was doing. Critically, I was thinking of the iPad a content creation device, not just a consuming device. But would it work?
The results of both of these experiments is that I took delivery of my new 13″ MacBook Pro last week to become my primary work machine.
For the most part I feel the setup worked remarkably well. When at my desk in the office I’d use my desktop, then I would take my iPad everywhere else. I’d use it in conference rooms, on the train, at home, in airplanes, at conferences. Really it is a great device, and it is by far the most reliable communications device I’ve ever owned. I’ve used it for email, Skype, FaceTime, Mumble, Yammer, Hangouts, Slack, IRC, GoToMeeting and more. And I’ve had fewer problems doing so, fewer glitches and obstacles than on the various laptops and desktops I’ve used in the same time period. I also really enjoyed the iPad for creating. I’ve written long documents (performance reviews) and found typing on the glass screen to be adequate. And for creating slides I found Keynote on the iPad to be by far the best tool I’ve ever used. So for most of my time I’ve had no complaints. But recently some changes at TIM Group have caused me to experience a lot of frustration, and oddly it was of my own doing. The problem came from using Google Docs with tables in them. The iPad app doesn’t support editing the content of tables. And because two important management processes — performance reviews and OKRs — have been implemented using Google Docs for collaborative editing and the content in tables, the iPad has become useless for two of my very regular tasks.
But there was one other element of this experiment that I ended up finding limiting, and that was the division between my personal laptop and my work machine. Mostly this was a benefit. I almost never checked non-work email when at work, and I was much less likely to check work email when working on a project at home. But sometimes I want a bit more crossover, especially if I was interested in coding. And because I wasn’t using my home laptop very often, the iPad being very very good for most things, it was easy for me to put off doing things where I still had a laptop-centric workflow (working on CITCON being the most common).
Looking back I’m really impressed by how much I could get done on my iPad. I never felt quite as fluent for some work where multiple tabs and multiple documents were required, but those were less common than I expected. Once I’d moved out of a daily coding job I probably could have gotten by on just an iPad indefinitely. But for my personal projects such as CITCON, blogging, and wanting to play more with code all make me happy to be back in the comfort zone of a single go everywhere, do everything laptop. And my hope is that having one unified digital environment for home an work will make me more productive in both.
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