Keeping Track of Everything

I’m a database guy.

This means when I have to build something with software, the first thing I’m going to think is, “How is a database going to help me here?” I’d argue there are two other application cults in this realm, there are the spreadsheet guys (sales/marketing/management) and language guys (engineering).

My database biases began as part of my first real gig testing the first version of Paradox for Windows at Borland. This was back when Borland had teeth and user-friendly relational databases were all the rage because Microsoft didn’t have one. DOS-based Products like dBase, FoxPro, and Paradox were earning scads of cash as small and large businesses were buying PCs and learning they didn’t need a mainframe to have a database.

At the time, there were two major Borland products making the transition to Windows: Paradox and, our spreadsheet program, Quattro Pro. For being in the same engineering organization, these groups had very little to do with each other because, at their very core, they knew that anything you could do in THE OTHER TEAM’S PRODUCT, you could do better IN YOUR PRODUCT.

The pinnacle of this useless competitive insanity was when both teams decided to see who could build a better version of Tetris in their respective business application. Yes, Tetris in a database program and a spreadsheet program. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that Microsoft kick the shit out of us… we were spending time arguing about the programming structures necessary to perform ANIMATION IN BUSINESS APPLICATIONS.

The obvious and simple fact is that, yes, there is quite a bit of functional overlap between spreadsheets and databases. They both, basically, are representations of tables of data and most folks want to perform interesting operations against those tables. Databases are more structured, spreadsheets appear more flexible and easier to use.

It’s important to note that Borland did have a language group created stellar products during this chaos. They mostly just sat back, pointed their fingers, and giggled at us. Those same language guys are mostly still at Borland and have contributed much to their recent success.

I’m a database guy.

Fast forward to the past year. As I’ve rambled about in the past, my professional life revolves around my to-do list. I’ve tried a few professional tools to track this list and found each to be distinctly unacceptable. They either force functionality or language on me which I find irritating, so I toss them in the trash.

When I find myself without an acceptable tool, I usually go home grown. Given my database background, one would think I’d start data modeling and designing forms, but a funny thing happened on my way to middle management. Desktop databases essentially vanished. Paradox was sold into obscurity. I haven’t heard the word dBase or FoxPro in a decade. Microsoft Access is still part the Office Professional Suite, but I’m a Mac guy now which means… FileMaker?

Given the prospect of tinkering with FileMaker or resurrecting a PC to run Access, I chose a spreadsheet to manage my to-do list. At the time, it seemed like a good compromise. I could get something up and running immediately… it’s portable… it’s visual… it’s Excel… and I know Excel fairly well. Let’s go for it.

As described, I created a simple spreadsheet to track my to do list. I spent a good many months deluded that this solution was working for me. HEY IT’S GOT LIST MANAGEMENT! I can sort, filter, AND GOLLY IT’S GOT SYNTAX HIGHLIGHTING. Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic.

It’s a spreadsheet. Sitting on my hard drive. What if I want to look at it from home? I should copy it to the network, but I FORGET TO DO THAT which means I write my to do on a post it and HI WE’RE BACK TO TRACKING THIS CRAP ON PAPER. This means that I am spending more time thinking about what I should be doing than actually doing it. As is common with things you should not do, you stop doing which, in the case of a to do list, is a bad thing. I started to looking for another solution.

Paint savior on StevenF over at Panic software, as he recently pointed out a potential solution in the form of Alex King’s TASKS web application. Take a look at it right now. I was amazingly lucky when it came to TASKS because, as it turns out, Alex King and I pretty much think about task management in the same way. We use the same language to describe tasks and we apparently want to interact with our tasks in similar ways. Again, this is luck. You may look at the application and have no clue what a sticky tasks is, but I did… didn’t need to look it up in the documentation.

Task mind meld aside, what is more relevant about the application is that it’s web-based. No, strike that, the big deal is it’s DATABASED. Ahhhhhhhh. Sure, I had to enabled MySql on my Mac OS X Server box (it’s built into Mac OS X Server) and I also had to set-up PHP on that box (2 minutes — thank you MarcL), but, at end of the day, I’ve got web-based to-do list solution. This means I can fully use it from any computer on the planet which has a net connection and I can count on one hand, the number of times a day, I’m not within twenty feet of a wired computer.

Other TASKS wins:

It remembers everything. Deleted in database land means “I set the deleted flag, please don’t show this anymore”. How many times have you crossed something off your to-do list and later wondered, “Did I cross that off? Did I even add it to my list? How screwed am I, anyhow?” Problem solved.

It’s extensible. While I haven’t delved into the nuts and bolts of TASKS, I’m reasonably confident that an afternoon of poking around PHP reference manuals would show me how to add my favorite feature to TASKS. My spreadsheet solution was already filling my screen with unnecessary rows and columns with the only extensibility prospect being Visual Basic for Applications. STABBING MYSELF.

It’s a web application done well. Anyone who has designed an application for the web has run into the problem, “Do I make it act like a web page or native application?” King has done an intelligent job of mixing native application functionality and web sense without going overboard.

What’s crossing your mind right now is this, “Rands, how is setting up a database server, a web server, PHP, and configuring a web application easier than tinkering with a spreadsheet?” It’s not. It takes some semi-non-trivial terminal-surfing expertise to get TASKS running, but when you’re done you get the geekish satisfaction of tinkering with the plumbing of your server. This is doubly important for manager types who constantly run the risk of, well, becoming stupid. Getting under the hood of an application and figuring out what makes it ticks is good mental exercise that will help keep you relevant.

Regardless, it’s the end product that matters and, for the past two weeks, I’ve successfully used TASKS to keep track of the miscellaneous details of my day which, at any time, could erupt into CAREER CHANGING DISASTERS. A huge part of management is the art of skillfully handling a fire hose which is spewing information and knowing what pieces are relevant and, more importantly, which pieces might be relevant… at some future date… maybe.

TASKS can help.

13 Responses

  1. chuckr 16 years ago

    One problem corporate boy:

    “This means I can fully use it from any computer on the planet which has a net connection ”

    Only if you install it outside the mothership.

    That’s company confidential info you’ve just

    spooged all over the net.

  2. We call the technology VPN.

  3. chuckr 16 years ago

    Not from your parent’s house over Thanksgiving you don’t. Maybe it’s called ssh with lots of port forwarding.

  4. Yes, from my parents at Thanksgiving. Yes, from that Starbucks on the corner street. Yes, any time there is a IP, there is VPN. Honest.

  5. Rolling on the floor laughing my ass off!

  6. Thanks for the kind words about tasks. 🙂

  7. TheNintenGenius 16 years ago

    I’m starting to get sick of hearing about Leisure Town being dead, truth be told.

  8. TheNintenGenius 16 years ago

    I don’t disagree with your sentiment, I’m just saying that using every single new post by rands as a launching point for the exact same comment (“yeah, (blah) is/are (fuh) but LEISURE TOWN IS GONE!”) is not honestly going to get you anywhere. Yes, Leisure Town’s death was sad and untimely, but I honestly don’t need to read about said fact every time I read comments to rands’ new posts. It makes it kind of lose its effect. To put it this way, here’s how my reactions have gone.


    Second: “Yeah, it’s dead, I know, it sucks.”


    Thus ends my small, useless opinion.

  9. Klaatu 16 years ago

    Re: TASKS and Leisuretown;

    Dear Rands;

    I am sold on TASKS. As for Leisuretown, it’s fine with me that people still write in to lament that they miss Leisuretown. I miss it too; it made sense of some of our life experiences, so there’s a vague political protest going on when it left before letting me archive it on a zip disk. I don’t think of it in the same vein, like when I saw the nightly news report on TV. about a serial killer over a couple of days, even after the guy died. I thought the caption in the news should have been “He’s still dead!” Yep.

  10. I was about to suggest MacJournal since it has the groovy mac-ness of it plus corporate-friendly things like journal encryption, but it’s neither networked nor offers a shell component, so you’d either have to depend on VNC or depend on syncing between remote and local.

    TASKS might eventually be the approach I need, even though it’s overkill for something I really only need running off a laptop.

    The big difference is that MJ (and Apple’s iCal) deals with responsibilities/deliverables/due dates as a product of a schedule — in the case of iCal, as a function of schedule and contacts — while T deals with a schedule as a product of responsibilities/etc. The one who recommended MJ to me has regular classes and meetings on which most of her deliverables hinge (homework, term papers, reports), so MJ’s method is relevant. My contract work involves arbitrary deadlines, dates, meetings and contacts which can be defined by my own whim as much as a client’s or contact’s or lead’s prompting. TASKS might be the better choice. If nothing else, it’s leverage for me to learn PHP. Now I’m noticing TASKS exports to iCal, while MJ doesn’t. Interesting.

    I’m going to give MacJournal a try first, since picking it up is lower-impact. I’ll keep an eye on TASKS.


  11. Orion 16 years ago

    1) LT’s demise is odd and sad, but if he is doing something else then not telling you and making his fanbase whine about it is just about all the publicity he needs.

    2) VPN RULES. We’ve had to shut tyhe motherfucker down a few times recently because of Microsoft’s 733t p/\7ch3s needing to be installed on client machines, but it’s made work/life balance a reality in my household. I also get a little thrill what with all the packets doing the whole tunnelling thing.

  12. I found one.

    A Comedy Crisis (Dec.16 1997)

    Bonus Dirty Dilberts too!

  13. pedrofeo 15 years ago

    An archive of leisuretown for you to put on your respective zip disks:

    Will be removed if any formal protest occurs.