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My Top 5 Tools for Software Consultants

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Doing software consulting day in and day out involves many tasks including client communication and software development. Like many people, I’ve found a set of tools that are indispensable in keeping me organized and productive. I thought I’d share these in the hopes that they might help someone else. Here they are in no particular order:

 

Tool #1 – Workflowy

Workflowy is “a notebook for lists.” With it, I can keep all of my to-do lists in one place, backed up to the cloud, and shared across all of my devices. Entries can be organized hierarchically—which is the way I think. It’s like Microsoft Word’s outline mode on steroids. Here’s a screenshot: 

Workflowy

With Workflowy, I can move all of the nagging things that need to get done into one place so I can stop thinking about them. It has lots of nifty features like dragging bullets to move them (this is the #1 feature in my opinion), favorites, tagging, and marking tasks complete. The only thing it’s missing is the ability to drop files into the lists. This is on their to-do list (J), so I’m looking forward to that feature being completed.

I organize my lists in a way similar to that described in “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen. This approach and Workflowy go hand-in-hand.

 

Tool #2 – DropBox

DropBox provides cloud storage that is easy to work with across a wide variety of devices. I have a work laptop, home PC, and mobile phone. I have many files that I need on all of these devices. With DropBox, I’m able to sync all of my files to the cloud and have access to them anywhere on any device. This happens transparently and reliably. 

DropBox integrates cleanly with the host file explorer, allowing you to work with files locally as if they were not being shared across the cloud. Here’s a finder window on my Mac laptop showing all files authored by me (I store everything in DropBox): 

dropbox

Gone are the days of using thumb-drives or email to transfer a file from one location to another.

Note that there are many players in this field including Google Drive and Apple iCloud. What drew me to DropBox was the reliability with which files stayed synced across multiple devices.  I’ve used other solutions in the past that didn’t sync so well.

 

Tool #3 – Snagit

When working with clients, I often find the need to take screenshots and make quick edits to the image like drawing boxes, arrows, or adding a quick note. These shots make their way into requirements and training documentation, bug reports, and emails to help with client communication.

 Snagit is a great screen capture tool that goes beyond the built-in Mac and Windows capabilities. With a minimum number of keystrokes, a screenshot can be taken, annotated with shapes, arrows, and text, then exported to a clipboard or file. The Snagit team has worked hard to ensure you have to expend little effort to create professional-looking screenshots. I can produce marked-up screenshots as easily as typing out a sentence. Here is the Snagit editor (which pops up after taking a screenshot) with a screenshot I quickly annotated:
 snagit

SnagIt has many features that I don’t often use but are great when needed. These include capturing a full web page by automatically scrolling and stitching images, capturing video screenshots including audio, and capturing expanded menus with the mouse cursor visible.

 

Tool #4 – Balsamiq

A big part of interacting with clients centers around discussing what they would like their software to do. Often, showing a client a wireframe of a possible user interface can help them decide how a specific feature should work.

Balsamic provides a drop-dead-simple way to quickly throw together UI wireframes quickly. It’s so easy to use and so fast that I often use it for rough architecture diagrams as well. Here’s a screenshot of Balsamiq in action:
 balsamic

The things I really love about Balsamiq are the little touches, like how UI widgets automatically snap to align with each other, and the ability to hit a single key type in part of the name of a widget you’d like to add, then hit enter to add it. These kinds of features make wireframing fast, easy, and fun.

I’ve found that by using Balsamiq wireframes to communicate with my clients I’m able to convey information much more easily. A picture really is worth 1,000 words (and sometimes more)!

 

Tool #5 – LastPass

Keeping sensitive client information secure is extremely important. One misstep can result in the end of a great client relationship or even worse, legal action. I use LastPass to store all of my client credentials as well as my own personal information. This ensures that sensitive information is not stored on my devices in any way. Instead, it’s encrypted and stored in the cloud. I have access to it from anywhere which is very important. And, if I were to lose a device a malicious person would not be able to gain access to the credentials.

In addition to the security benefits, one of the best things about LastPass is that I only have to remember one pass phrase (long and very difficult to crack). Once I’ve logged in, I can navigate to any site and the browser integration will auto-fill my credentials and log me in. I’m able to use unique and difficult to crack passwords for all systems because I don’t have to remember them anymore. This also improves security.

The enterprise edition of LastPass allows personal and client credentials to be stored separately and for client credentials to be shared among members of a team. This is critical for larger projects.

I highly recommend using a password vault like LastPass. Security is really the most important aspect of the work we do.

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