How I travel Part 2: the software

Having discovered the hardware that keeps me productive on the move, what of the software?

In my last article, I took a dive into my travel bag as to the hardware that I carry that keeps me productive while on the move, whether in the air, on a train or in a car. Hardware is only half the story. The software that supports this lifestyle is probably more important. With this article I will go through what has evolved to what works well for me.

If you recall, I have 3 primary devices that I hop between; laptop, tablet and the good old mobile phone. What I have learned over the years is that data needs to move seamlessly (in other words without me exporting/importing) between them all and be in such a way that I am never without the piece of data I need.

I have three types of data I handle on a professional basis and each type has their own life cycle.

  1. Proprietary portfolio data — this is typically source code, scripts and documentation that is handled in a conventional version control system, such as SVN or GIT.
  2. Documentary data — this is the usual document, spreadsheet and presentation content. Meeting updates, thought/vision pieces.
  3. General scratch files — files that don’t have a long life cycle.

When I am working on any type of document, Google Docs is my instant goto. I absolutely love Google Docs and it has matured over the years beautifully. Contrary to popular belief it works extremely well offline. I am using Google Docs at this precise moment, on my tablet, at 35000 ft, with no Internet access. The Google Docs apps for Android works very well, syncing up when a network is available automatically. Having all my documents on Google Docs I know where they are, and instantly available, even if i have to borrow someone’s browser to pop on and access.

The collaboration feature of Google Docs is second to none. I have tried many a multi-user experience service, but Google has got this right, services like Office365 are still way behind in this area. Ever found yourself in an endless email chain of edit-by-email-attachment game? Then it always ends up in the merge hell at the end, because at some point, someone has edited out of sequence. Google Docs eliminates this completely and you can see in real time as people contribute to the document at the exact same time.

So this covers anything from a word document, spreadsheets right through to preparing a presentation. While I have Microsoft Office on my laptop, the only time that ever gets opened up is when I receive an email attachment from someone that is still living in the past.

Speaking of email — we use Office365 at ParkerGale. While I am a big Google fan, the one place that Microsoft has really done well, is group calendaring. Outlook is our email client of choice on the laptop, with the Outlook app doing an admirable job on the tablet and phone. It syncs between all devices seamlessly with no reported problems.

We use Slack for internal chat system. Slack works extremely well on the move with their mobile apps. Slack has reduced the number of emails and texts that are sent dramatically. It is also wonderfully bandwidth friendly — you never get into the reply-of-a-reply-of-a-reply and what should be a two letter response “ok” is in fact 100s of KB of data and that’s before all the repeated email signatures and dead noise.

DropBox is where I put my files. I have the 1TB account which means I don’t have to worry about running out of space. I keep most of my life there; every bill, statement etc is scanned and placed here. I rarely keep the paper version of anything, as soon as it’s scanned it’s shredded. This allows me to handle the vast majority of any issue that would arise while on the road knowing I have all the information at my finger tips.

I take a lot of photos. Photos of sketches, whiteboards, meetings etc. We run so fast we sometimes forget to capture the moment. I use DropBox as my communication mechanism. As soon as my phone or tablet takes a photo, it is automatically moved up to DropBox waiting for me. Depending on the type of photo, it will either goto Google Docs or Google Photos for permanent storage. I always delete the photos from my devices to keep them with as much room as possible.

Keeping a good backup is important. While all this data is in the cloud it is important to keep everything backed up just in case something goes wrong. This is an area I am probably more anal than most and take a belt’n’braces approach to my data.

The first thing I do is to consolidate all my cloud data (Amazon, Google, Office365, Slack) into a DropBox folder. I use an excellent service cloudHQthat specializes in syncing your data across multiple cloud providers. This gets all my cloud data to DropBox which is then sync’d offline to my laptop and desktop computers. That is the first step.

Both laptop and desktop, run BackBlaze. A $50 a year service that backs up an unlimited amount of data that continually backs up in the background. This service just works. I have never had a complaint with it and it has rescued the odd accidental deletion situation on a number of occasions.

Backblaze just working away in the background

In addition to this, I backup everything up to my own personal Amazon S3 bucket. I have a script that takes weekly snapshots of my DropBox and pushes it to Amazon.

All backups are encrypted with AES with my own personal key that these services don’t know. Speaking of security, I run PureVPN pretty much all the time I am not on a trusted network. I purchased a lifetime membership ($60) that allows me to have 8 concurrent devices on at once. My phone, tablet and laptop all have PureVPN running, allowing me to safely jump on to the local free WiFi hotspot without fear of data leakage.

That is the business side of data but what about non-business data such as music and movies. All work and no plays make Alan a very dull boy.

I have a rather large music and movie collection which I run my own Plex Linux server that manages all this. This sits on a very fast Verizon FIOS line and is accessible to me from any device.

Plex has great apps that lets you sync data offline for when there is no network. It plays through the browser with no effort at all. I travel with a Google Chromecast device, so I can easily cast to a large screen TV or projector depending on where I am. I love never having to choose to what to watch — I have it all available to me, securely, when I need. Plex has a nice feature where it will trans code the content according to the available bandwidth in real time. So if you don’t have enough bandwidth to stream the HD version, it will drop down to what can handle. Your own private Netflix. It is also nice to be able to watch movies together apart with family and friends. My Plex server can handle multiple concurrent streams with no stress whatsoever.

Ipurchase most of my music from Amazon and being a Prime customer, I use Amazon Music a lot and thoroughly enjoy the stations and prime music that pops up there. When I purchase, I always download the MP3 files immediately and add them to Plex. Plex is also backed up to Amazon S3 once a month which as you can appreciate is a few TB at this moment and growing. The Amazon music app syncs data locally for playing offline.

I love watching music videos. I subscribe to YouTubeRed ($9.99 a month), which gives you ad-free YouTube but also the ability to save offline videos. This is extremely handy, as I have a lot of playlists off-lined on my tablet for my airtime pleasure.

As a technical chap, there is a lot you have to keep on top of. I watch a lot of presentations and talks. YouTubeRed makes this perfect. I will tag the presentation I want to watch later to a given playlist, and then my devices will wake up and automatically sync that list and download it. Once watched I remove it from the playlist and it is then removed from my other devices. I use YouTubeRed in a very podcast player like manner. Great way to keep up with talks from user groups, conferences and even the odd TEDtalk thrown in there.

Speaking of podcasts, I have a lot of podcasts I follow. I have tried many podcast apps and the one that keeps winning is BeyondPOD. It has all the usual features you would expect from a good player (syncing, play-then-sleep) but it is multi-device aware. I can start listening to a podcast on my phone, pause it, pick it back up on my tablet all seamlessly without having to worry about where I got. It will also add and delete across my devices. A good podcast player can really transform your podcast pleasure.

Finally, keeping up with news in a more traditional article style, I use that again, syncs across all devices. Content finds me and I dip in once or twice a day when idle to see what is going on in the world.

You have probably noticed a theme here — device agnostic data access. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I don’t have access to what I need when I need it. Even if I don’t have my own device, as long as I have access to a browser, I can securely get to what I need.

Like most people, you try to keep your business world away from your personal world. Some people will go as far as having separate devices for that. You don’t have to go that far and with a little bit of planning you can keep your worlds safely apart.

Afeature that most people don’t know about is the multiple profiles on the Google Chrome browser, which extends down to Android devices beautifully. Say you have a personal GMail account and a business Google account. You can utilize these both at the same time and not share any data.

Multiple Google Chrome personalities

When you setup a profile in Google Chrome, everything is synced with that account. Your bookmarks, history, plugins, everything. You can have as many profiles as GMail accounts. Each one in their own world that lets you keep everything completely separate. To switch between profiles you will notice a small tab on the top right hand corner of the browser that tells you which user profile you are in. I have setup three profiles (private, business and a shared family one). Each profile has a completely different theme, so visually I can quickly see which profile I am in. You can run them in parallel, just a different Chrome window for each one. This is a really powerful under used feature that keeps your life wonderfully compartmentalized.

Outside of that, I don’t do any social media except for dipping in and out of Twitter. No Facebook. No LinkedIn.

I am sure there are things I am forgetting about. There is a number of things that I have not listed that is more developer focused which isn’t really relevant to the wider audience.

This setup so far works very well for me, as someone that is continually on the move and bouncing between multiple devices on multiple networks. It is always being evaluated and improved on. But if you have a different setup then please let me know.

Digital freedom .. keep your life simple but accessible.

And that my friends, is how I keep productive while on the move.

Author: Alan Williamson

CTO | Partner | Investor | Java Champion | Author | Podcaster | Speaker | Architect

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