When we started our “Tools I Use” series we wanted to take a look at what we use every day, both as an opportunity to share with the community what works for us, and as a way to help home in on what makes a tool good. Our work is focused on making everyday experiences easier and improving business tools, so taking the time to think about what would make our own experiences and business tools easier is kind of a no-brainer.
But we’ve been overlooking one of our most valuable resources in the discussion, and we feel shame.
Karen So is our Operations Analyst. She’s one of a handful of individuals in the office whose job is the only one of its kind at Myplanet and as a result, her work experiences tend to be exclusive to her a lot of the time.
But even though her experiences are unique within our organization, they are quite common to businesses outside our organization, across nearly every sector and industry. The insights she provides are often more applicable to the work we produce every day than the ones provided by our designers and developers.
Karen keeps us on time, on budget and, frankly, grounded in reality when our big ideas start to run away with us. It can be a bit of a thankless gig, but she’s damn good at it and we’re lucky to have her. So how does she do it? We’ll let her tell you.
My title is Operations Analyst, I help the team gather clean, standardized data that we can use in an informed way to maximize efficiency and plan our resources intelligently.
I help the leadership team understand the numbers we gather and then provide reports based on those numbers. But really, from a data perspective, a big part of my job is to help facilitate conversations to get this data. I help the team focus and ask the right questions, so we can get the right information in a timely manner and act on it. I work with the leadership team, the POs, and the different departments. As a result, my tools are mostly focused on organization and collaboration functions.
Tools 1: Microsoft Excel & Tool 2: Google Sheets
In my head, these are two separate tools, though I know a lot of people would put them together: Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. They are, in fact, two different applications, so there are pros and cons to both and I use both, depending on what I need to do.
At Myplanet, we have Excel for Mac, so there are some different features to that version vs the PC version, but I use Excel if I have to do lots of data crunching, it’s more functional for me when I’m trying to analyze data. Plus, there are more options to visualize the data than I have found when using Sheets.
The major pro of Sheets, by comparison, is that it is a shared and collaborative tool. Excel for Mac, unfortunately, isn’t—it’s very on-your-own-computer and doing-your-own-thing—so I think that’s a good way to think of the different use cases for me.
And an interesting thing I’ve found when we’ve moved some of our bigger, data-heavy spreadsheets from Excel to Sheets (because we want more people to have access to it) is that Sheets can be really slow if data is updated. Formulas can take a long time to process on Sheets if it’s a really big document.
But if it’s a collaborative document that I need to work with multiple people on, that’s when I move it over to Sheets, regardless, because the team can actually look at it together, people can update it as needed, and everyone will see it in real time. The collaboration aspect can be a big plus.
Sheets is also a little easier to use, so for simpler spreadsheets, it makes sense. It also has a few different features I like—for example, if you hide certain rows the calculations will change accordingly, which is an interesting and sometimes really useful tool.
I do a lot of internal and external coordinating of events, too, so Sheets is often my default because again, it’s a collaborative tool that many people can work on together.
The collaboration and ease of use versus the robust calculating and analysis tools are the things I consider most when choosing between the two applications. Basically, it comes down to who is my end audience and what is the intention or use-case for the data.
Tool 3: Manual Entry Agenda
After many years of trying to find a system for me to not forget all my to-dos—and I think everybody struggles with that—I’ve found the one that works best for me.
I’ve used Evernote, I’ve used Google Tasks, I’ve used the reminder tool on Mac, I’ve used pen and paper, I’ve used post-its, I’ve used spreadsheets—I’ve even used a spreadsheet printed out and then hand-written in the information I want to track—but right now, the thing I’m still most comfortable with, is a pen and preferably a notebook with a list of all the things I need to do, ready to be checked off.
The main struggle I have had with this system is that if I don’t get to it one day, it gets lost or left behind. So one method I now employ is to go back, cross everything off the list, and add the ones that remained unfinished onto the new list on the next page. Not only does it keep it on the agenda, it actually helps me remember to do it by writing it again.
It does take a lot of energy, to some degree, but it’s worth it.
I loved my agenda in high school. I wrote everything in it. My teacher actually told my parents I used it too much. But that’s what I miss, so now I recreate it as best I can.
I find with electronic versions of reminders and to-do apps, it’s so easy to snooze the reminder and forget about it—especially when it pops up and I’m in the middle of another task. I don’t want the distraction when I’m trying to concentrate on something, but with a book that doesn’t happen. I have complete control of when I reference it.
I also have complete control over the use of the book or agenda. If I I want to use it for dual purposes, for example, for to-do lists and for thoughts, ideas and other musings, I’ll make a separator for it and the half that is my “agenda” remains purely for that purpose. Years of experience have made me realize that I have to separate it out, or I’ll just lose everything.
This weekend I found out about what a ‘bullet journal’ is, so I’m going to integrate that into my day to day.
Tool 4: A Philosophical Approach to Email
I’ve tried to find a way to integrate Outlook with our email server—I’m even part of a 3-person support chat here at work that reminisces about the loss of our Outlook platforms—but unfortunately, it’s not meant to be.
What I love(d) about Outlook in a corporate environment were the seamless integrations with my calendar and the calendars of my coworkers, the highlighted changes when meetings got changed, pop-outs for emails… I just found the user experience to be better.
However, since I can’t use Outlook, I’m constantly searching out and trying new add-ons and extensions. A recent one I’ve tried is MixMax, a Google/Gmail add-on, which offers the snooze feature that I missed about Outlook. It also enhances my composing options, so it gives me more to work with when it comes to basic composition changes. I’ve added in things like polls using it, and I’ve used the snooze button to put non-urgent items to the side temporarily.
For me, it’s the process that matters as much as the tool itself, though. Here at Myplanet we have many different ways of speaking to each other: we have email, we have Skype, we have text messages, we have Slack for some teams… there are almost innumerable ways to keep in touch.
I have developed my own strategy for navigating the communication channels, because there are so many opportunities to cross-pollinate. If I’m talking to someone and I’m trying to find an item we talked about—maybe even a specific attachment or file I’m trying to locate—it often happens that I’m asking myself “Where did they send it to me?” And then I can’t remember and it takes me 10 minutes to find it.
So I, personally, have been starting to use a philosophy of communication: If I need to document it or the group needs a documented archive of the communication, then I’m going for email.
If it’s a quick yes/no question conversation, where speed is essential and thoughtfulness is less important, I’ll probably go Skype.
And if it’s urgent and I need to get a response now, then I’ll text or call.
I know we’re in this age or mindset of “Oh, we get too many emails!” but I think email is still so useful, and I don’t want to cross it off right away. If we have a good standard of why we use email, that is very helpful. That’s what it was meant for. Not the quick things, but a searchable, communication history.
If we have a good standard of why we use email, that is very helpful.
Tool 5: Spotify/Music
My final tool…
I just had this conversation with one of the people I was working with on Startup Open House, because he came by right when I was “in my zone” and I was blasting my Diva Tracks. His question, immediately, was “How can you work with music like that?”, but then also said he listens to jazz. My answer: I needed to focus.
I think music can be a really powerful tool. Everyone has their preferences and you have to find the right one for you, but if you have music that puts you in a trance, if you will, the way diva ballads does for me, and that pumps you up internally, it can be a really great way to kind of focus and drown out any distractions, both internal and external.
Spotify has pre-programmed playlists and you can build your own, but really any music tool that lets you build a playlist that puts you in the zone and keeps you there works.
For me, with the diva ballads list, I’m not being distracted by “Oh, what’s this new song”. I know what’s in the list, and I picked those songs for a specific reason—either they gave me a certain emotional feeling or bring my energy up, for example. Music (and headphones!) are very powerful tools to keep me focused.
Because I have a unique role at Myplanet, I get to find and choose my own tools with a fair bit of latitude.
We’re all capable people, we can all handle learning a new habit, and that’s really all that’s happening when you learn a new system. So for me, it’s the ROI of learning the system when I look at choosing a new tool. If you need three years to learn the system inside and out and there are five other people you’ll need to teach it to? Maybe it’s not the right choice.
Lately we’ve been looking at different tools to help with our scheduling needs and we haven’t found the right one yet. We’ve considered a lot of things:
How many people will be using it?
How easy it is to onboard?
What kind of support tools are available?
What are the types of data going into it and what’s coming out?
How easy is it to import data—will I have to click a bunch of times to get each piece of data in the system?
And then, once we’ve made it through all those things, we ask ourselves this one: in the end, does it make sense? The UX may be beautiful, but if it’s too hard to understand what it’s trying to say, it’s not useful. You’d be surprised how many tools fail to clear that seemingly basic hurdle.
When I choose a new tool, I know I’m going to be the one using it so I can kind of go where I want with it. But the rest of the team still needs to be able to access it and add data to it, so I have a lot of considerations I need to keep in mind and there are lots of factors to consider.
I’m always willing to try new tools, but it’s all about what can it do for me and how long will it take me (and others) to learn it. If the quality of the output doesn’t meet or exceed the amount of input required, it doesn’t pass and I move on to a new tool. It’s as simple—and as complicated—as that.
Like it? Disagree with all of it? Have a few killer suggestions for tools Karen is missing out on? Leave a comment below and if you found the post worthwhile, why not go ahead and recommend it to a friend?