11 Jan 2013

The Right Tool for Your Job

We’ve all been there: too much to do, too little time to do it in, and eventually some things get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes what gets forgotten turns out to be unimportant, but other times it makes rather unpleasant headline news. To make these catastrophes less likely, it helps to have tools to remind you of what needs to be done. But what should you look for in a good tool?

I found myself thinking about this earlier in the week when I wrote a short piece for ASP Free on the Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Best Practices Analyzer (BPA). This handy tool for programmers and systems administrators analyzes a SQL Server stack and reports as to whether it conforms to best practices – and if it doesn’t, it tells the user where the issues are and what needs to be done to fix them. It sounds to me like a very useful way to stay on top of potential problems.

Everyone can use a tool that helps them keep track of issues and what needs to be done. The kind of tool you use will vary with your job, of course. You might need a control panel to help you manage your social media campaigns, or a ticketing system to track issues with your website, or even an internal wiki to capture the knowledge base of long-time employees concerning specific procedures. Most companies maintain multiple tools for the use of their employees, and you may use a dozen or more in a single day without even thinking about it.

If (or when) your workload gets to be too much for you to manage, or certain tasks need to be tracked, you might need to add a new tool or three to your routine. Since we all do different jobs, I’m not going to suggest any particular tools. I will, however, suggest that you ask yourself a few quick questions while you hunt down what you need to help you get your job done.


What do I need this tool to do?

You should try to answer this question pretty specifically. A tool that “keeps me on task so I get my work done” can come in the form of something that limits the time you spend on particular websites, or keeps your list of tasks front and center, or actively reminds you about what needs to be done at certain times of the day…you get the point.

If you want a tool that helps to keep track of your clients, for example, consider what information you’ll need it to record and how it will be stored. How will you use that information? How do you plan to consult it? If you’re evaluating multiple tools, even free ones, you can’t tell whether they’ll suit your purposes if you don’t have a clear idea of what you need them to do for you. Keep in mind, however, that it’s the rare tool that will do everything you want it to do, so you may need to be a little flexible. If you like to make lists, you might prioritize what you want your tool to do by separating the “must-have” capabilities from the “nice-to-have” and “unnecessary” stuff.


Will this tool ultimately cost me more than it saves?

Somebody who is running a cottage crafts business probably won’t need the sophisticated bookkeeping system used by your typical Fortune 500 company. Good thing, too, because a good financial management system at that level isn’t cheap. But the wrong tool can cost you in other ways. For example, how easy and intuitive is the tool to use? If you’re cursing every time you try to use it, that’s not exactly a helpful tool.

The wrong tool can also cost you in time as well as money and personal aggravation. If you’re pretty sure you’re only going to need to track a few simple things, you may be able to get by with a simple tool, rather than using one that records every little detail of an issue. This is why I suggested you imagine in specific detail what you need your new tool to do.


Is this tool flexible enough for foreseeable future needs?

People and companies outgrow tools from time to time, and it can be painful to learn a new tool (and in some cases, move old information into it). If it’s a minor tool, like a basic to-do list, that may not matter. But if it’s a major tool, like a ticketing system that’s going to keep track of lots of issues, and be used by hundreds of people, you’d better go over it well, while considering what you’re likely to need from it over the next few years.

If you think your company will grow, it may not be a bad idea to employ a tool that gives you a little “head space” for tracking more than you need right now. That goes double if you’re in a field in which the government or some other organization might regulate how you handle your records or other sensitive data.


How well is this tool supported?

When it comes to matters of support, “open source” and “proprietary” form an interesting dichotomy…one that may not matter to you at all. Does the tool receive regular revisions and updates? Is it easy for you to get in touch with someone who can help you when you have questions? How secure is the tool…and how secure is your data within it? Can you find reviews of the tool, and what do they say about it?

You may not need to ask all of these questions for every tool you consider using in your job. Still, when you choose the right tools for your job, know how to use them, and use them well, it can make all the difference in the world. It’s a little like gaining extra RAM for your brain. The wrong tools, on the other hand, will make you feel like you need to gird for battle. Choose wisely!

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