Integrating free software into the Workplace

I work for a Microsoft dependent company. We do some interesting stuff with non Windows platforms from time to time, but at the centre of my workflow is Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook It’s a fact I’ve struggled with and tried to change but, to be honest, it’s not going to change at any major rate.

I’ve experimented with using free software at work in the past, but it’s not gone well. My attempt to use Virtualbox was shut down - I had to provide licenses for all software I used in it. Our IT Director apparently didn’t take kindly to 15 or so copies of the GPL2+, GPL3 and some BSD licenses taking residence in his mailbox, so it came off regardless. I tried Libreoffice, but apparently when you already have an equivalent tool supplied by the business, that’s what you’re required to use.

I sound a little bitter, and I shouldn’t be - there are two lessons I gained from this:

I let it sit for a while, but old dogs and their existing tricks are often hard to separate. Little bits and bobs crept in here and there but, to be honest, nothing stuck until I found what has become my Holy Trinity.

First, and arguably most important, is emacs from the GNU Project. Emacs is a text editor, mostly, but it’s been extended in a number of huge, and fascinating ways. my primary usage is org mode, which is essentially a project planning package.

It lets me build to-do lists, hierarchical documents and more. It’s really difficult to describe everything it can do, so it’s easiest to describe what it does for me:

I use it to track all of the project data surrounding my day-to-day work in a structured manner, in the form of markdown formatted, interactive text documents. It also works in that capacity as my to-do list and allows me to track progress on my large number of tasks. I’m using it to bring structure and planning to what I was previously doing in an unplanned manner, essentially.

I’m also using it to build up my project logbook, a document containing a record of every project I’ve worked on, the major information about day-to-day running of the project and useful information like my lessons learned logs. This gives me a record for future of mistakes I’ve made, successes I’ve had and the background information for all those major points. When I decide to become a chartered engineer, it’ll go a long way towards proving that I’m a competent individual at what I do, and I actively try to improve myself.

When I choose to publish this collection of documents, I can do it as a whole host of files, including HTML, PDF (via TeX), ascii and more.

This all happens in a terminal window, which is a method of interaction I’m particularly familiar with, but there’s a GUI as well. I’m not so fond of that.

Second is babun. This is a fantastic wrapper around the often difficult Cygwin package which provides a POSIX environment on Windows Systems.

It provides the shell within which I run emacs, and gives me (as default) a friendly zsh window I’m happy to start in the morning. There’s an inbuilt package manger, which is where emacs came from, and a whole host of default plugins.

Finally, there is git - Git is a distributed version control system which is typically used for software projects.

I’m running a git server on a box at home, and I sync my work machine to that box every day with the latest updates to the org mode planning system at the end of the day. I can then continue working on my logbook at home, or change machines and have all my information, in context, very quickly.

Git is typically used for source code management, but using it to manage my text files in a manner which shows revision and change over time I feel will be very helpful. Plus, being able to distribute the files to various machines will help me keep information safer in the long run.

As a result of my holy trinity, my work days have become noticably more structured and busy. I’m not struggling to find tasks now - I’m planning them in a smarter way, carrying them out more effectively and having better results at both a management and a client level.

I appreciate this all isn’t tied in to a single, software based epiphany - there’ve been a few changes in my approach to work which this has complimented, but for the most part I’ve finally found an element of my day-to-day work which Free Software adds to, and the results will hopefully support that in a better way than my normal sarcasm ever can.


i'm hibby · blog ·