The joys of large-screen monitors

In my ideal world, I’d have two 30″ Apple Cinema Displays, but my less than ideal world ain’t so bad either. My souped-up 24″ iMac serves me well for my day to day work, quite well indeed.

I’m positive that my productivity gains are large – I always have emacs open with at least 4 frames, or eclipse with several views open without anything important having to stay annoyingly minimized. I also have a browser open with lots of tabs, a bunch of terminals open with iTerm, and a bunch of other what-nots, and managing all this is easy. This multiple desktop manager makes it even easier. Finally, if all those windows distract you, use Think!

Anyway, if you want a quick and relatively cheap way (in the long run) to become more productive, get a large screen monitor. Or three.

Using mind maps to start planning a project

As you might have read earlier, I recently started a new team that has been chartered with building a suite of new products from scratch. The business folks have been working in the domain for a long time and have built similar products before. Despite that, requirements for the new products have not all been nailed down yet, making this project somewhat of an ideal situation to start a new team. We’re using Agile (Scrum with XP practices) methods, and I’m infusing several ideas from Lean Software Development into the mix.

I used a new tool to kick-ff the high-level planning sessions this time. I’ve been using mind maps (FreeMind, Mindjet Manager, and NovaMind) for a while now: for various things – keeping track of to-dos, planning my personal projects, thinking about high-level goals, brainstorming and brain-dumping, and so on and so forth. I’ve always felt that such an intuitive tool might make for a great way to facilitate work sessions, especially when the work at hand is fairly high-level. An example might be – early stages of planning.

In my opinion, using the tool turned out to be quite a good idea. The first meeting lasted three hours (including coffee and a 10 minute break), and had about 12 participants with me facilitating using a whiteboard and sticky flip-charts. I ended up with several mind-maps including one for the overall project layout, one for training requirements, and another that detailed a particular module. The whole team was able to participate in building it as it was merely a form of a brainstorming exercise, with some extra structure.

Here’s a mock-up of one of these mind maps that got produced at this session –


One possible next step is to pick up the area which needs to be worked on first (actually this will probably be more than one – for example, the architecture-spike and config-management piece will need to be done in the beginning regardless of what else gets picked up) and continue to drill-down into its details. When sufficient granularity has been achieved, the leaf nodes of the mind map can be translated into backlog items (or phrase-level user-stories). Of course, this will mean that the brainstorming will need to be done with an eye towards this end goal – and all the guidelines around writing good user-story phrases will need to be kept in mind.

Overall, it was a good exercise – it was interactive and fun. More importantly, it was a visual way of representing the project and its potential scope – and was a great start at arriving at a shared mental-model of the system. Having all members of the team present (developers, QA, BA, and sponsors) helped a lot as well.

Note: I didn’t use the actual software in the meeting, instead, I chose to draw on the whiteboard and one of the participants (the sponsor!) volunteered to scribe. This let the session be more about the content than about formating and word-smithing. I later converted the notes to soft-copies using FreeMind.