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Fine Tuning the Development Process: An Electronic Notebook

  • October 3, 2007
  • By Matt Weisfeld
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As you just saw, using an Electronic Notebook is a great way to organize information. One of the primary concepts that I teach in my classes concerns the ability to process information, which includes the following organizational skills:

  • Identify what information is required.
  • Locate that information.
  • Store that information.
  • Retrieve that information when needed.

One of the major problems with the paper-based notebook system was that the information was only organized by time. Once a notebook was full, it was hard to include more information in it—you went on to the next notebook. If items in one notebook related to items in another notebook, the only way to truly relate then was via reference notes. And this was only possible if you could actually find the item that you were interested in from an earlier notebook. With an Electronic Notebook, you can always update and refine your notes.

One of the problems with an Electronic Notebook is that there are still some things that are not electronic. For example, what if you are taking a class, or are in a meeting, without your computer? In this case you, will need to take notes the old-fashioned way.

I often have students tell me that they learn better by writing out their notes. I also have students whose primary language is not English, and they like to hand-write their notes in their native language. This is where a scanner comes in.

Writing out notes is great; however, you still have the possibility of losing those notes. Even if you take all of your notes by hand, it is still a very good idea to scan your notes into an electronic format and insert them in your Electronic Notebook—which provides the ability to recover the information if lost. You can even use OCR to create documents that are in word processing format.

This works great for high-school students as well. How many times do high-school students leave their notebooks at home when needed at school or leave their notebooks at school when they are needed at home? If you make it a routine to scan your notes into your Electronic Notebook, the problem is minimized. And if you email yourself the notes (or place them on a server), you can always retrieve them anywhere there is an Internet connection.

This practice has saved me in a work environment on several occasions. For example, once I traveled out of town to a customer site for a meeting that required several documents. When I got to the meeting, the overnight package containing the documents had not arrived and the CD I had brought as a backup would not work. I was able to get the documents from my server via an Internet connection.

Tools and Downloads

Another advantage of the Electronic Notebook is that you can literally keep your toolkit with you at all times. This is important in an academic environment as well as a professional one.

There were times when I visited a customer site to debug code. It is always helpful to have specific tools that I prefer for the debugging activities. For example, you may prefer to use a specific editor or communication tool. You may also require certain tools for the debugging process that the customer does not have on their systems.

As seen in Figure 6, I create a directory in my notebook called downloads, and I keep all of my software tools in this directory. In this way, I have constant access to these tools (I know where they are and they are safely backed up).

Click here for a larger image.

Figure 6: Engineering Notebook Directory—toolkit.


Perhaps the most important advantage is the simple fact that an electronic notebook provides the ability to backup your data in the event that the primary source is lost.

This may seem obvious; however, you would be surprised how many people don't back everything up. I see this all the time in the classroom. Surprisingly, it happens even more in the work environment. People are fired over loss of data.

This brings up a vital point—make sure that you test your backups to ensure that they are backing up properly. I call these fire drills. I have witnessed situations where backups were being done regularly for months and then, when desperately needed, it was discovered that the backups were flawed and useless.

Although software developers are very cognizant of backing-up code (using configuration management and so forth), they often don't bother to backup their own work-related data, like notes, ideas, and so on.

If you create a directory in your Electronic Notebook called notes, place all of your notes in this directory, and do regular backups, you will always have access to your notes—no matter what happens.

Even when you do not have direct access to the computer with the original Electronic Notebook, there is a simple way to back up some of your important documents; simply email them to yourself. As long as you have access to an Internet connection, this provides a great way to save important documents easily. After each class, I have my students email themselves documents that they have worked on in class—again, this assumes that they have computers and access to the Internet in class.

Finally, the elegance of this system is evident when it comes to backing everything up—all you have to do is copy the single directory called notebook.

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