The spectrum of note taking options for software developers

All software developers should take notes. That’s a given. There’s far too much information we come across daily that it’s impossible to remember everything without taking notes.

Ok, so what approach should you take for your note taking? As software developers, building your own note taking app would be an interesting side project for learning a new language or framework. Before you jump to that extreme though, consider some of the simpler alternatives first.

Going from simpler to more complex, here’s some options:

  • A notebook
  • Index cards
  • Notes on loose sheets of paper, grouped by topic and filed in a folder, binder, or filing cabinet
  • Online note taking app: OneNote, EverNote
  • Note taking on a PDA (remember those?)
  • Hosted blog online (e.g. WordPress, Ghost)
  • Hosting your own blog online
  • Building your own blogging app

Why every developer should write a blog

It’s unavoidable at some point, if not on a regular basis, that as a developer you will need to produce some type of content in written form to share with your team or others. Since clear and concise technical writing takes practice, it makes sense that you should make a proactive effort to practice your writing. Writing a blog is a perfect (and easy, low or no cost) opportunity to get some practice.

There’s plenty more reasons however why blogging is beneficial and useful for all developers. In no particular order, here’s a list of reasons why you should be blogging:

Note Taking

Technology in software development changes and evolves fast. Chances are you came across at least one thing new over the past couple of days, and if it’s not going to be something you’re going to use on a regular basis, it helps to keep notes that you can refer back to at some point in the future. I can remember that I came across something similar a few months back even if I can’t remember the exact details, so creating a short one pager with some notes to refer back to later is incredibly useful.

Sometimes I also keep notes on the approach I took to solve a problem if it was something that took several steps. If I come across the same problem again several months from now, I’d rather refer back to my notes than working it out from scratch again. If the problem or the steps to solve it were interesting or I think may be interesting to others, I usually capture these steps as a blog post and share on my blog.

Collecting Snippets of useful code

Depending on what the information is, I vary how I capture the information. If it’s something that would be useful to capture as step by step in instructions with additional explanations and details, I usually capture these as a blog entry. If it’s something I don’t want to publicaly share, I sometimes create private posts that are not shared, or keep them separate in a notebook in Evernote.

If it’s a snippet of useful code, for simple, short lines of code I collect snippets using Github’s Gist (here’s a link to my public Gists as example of what I keep there), or for longer worked examples I create a project on GitHub and commit a code example there (the majority of my projects on GitHub are code examples where I was looking at something new and put together a worked example as part of learning whatever that new thing was – you can can take a look at the type of thing I keep on GitHub here).

Sharing Lessons Learnt with Others

The majority of time when I search for info on how to use a new library or framework, the most useful content that I find is usually an article written by a developer who worked through the steps on how to use something.

That content would not be there online unless that other developer took time to create the content and share. The great thing about the internet for software development is that content is easy to find if you Google, but that content would not be there unless those people took the time to write and share in the first place. If you have something to share, even if you think it’s obscure or might not be useful, there’s always someone else who is working on something similar, and they might be struggling to work something out – help out your fellow developers and share your knowledge.

Every developer has something they’ve worked on that would be useful to another developer trying to learn and get up to speed on that same thing. Even if you’re a new developer with a few months experience, you still have lessons you’ve learnt from your own experiences that would be useful to another developer with less (or even more) experience following their own skills development path.

Does use of Twitter discourage exploring ideas in greater depth?

Twitter makes it incredibly easy to share random thoughts and links to topics of interest. For me personally, this is the main attraction of using Twitter, but the drawback of the brevity is that it discourages exploring and expanding a thought beyond 280 characters (how did we ever survive with only 140 characters?!)

After posting a short sentence about something I’m thinking about or have recently read elsewhere, I usually think “I could write a whole article on this single topic”. For example:

I could have easily taken this idea of open office spaces having the opposite intended effect on worker productivity and explored this in more depth in a longer article, but instead captured this thought as a single paragraph and left it at that.

In this sense I think Twitter makes us lazy. It makes it easy to quickly share a quick thought, but in doing so we throw out these nuggets of info and then leave them there, unexplored.

I don’t make New Years Resolutions, but if there’s one thing I plan to do more of this year, it’s to spend more time writing more articles, and less time sharing quick, throwaway thoughts.