Engineering Minimalism

When is the last time you did some house cleaning? Some purging. Boxing & bagging and donating?

It is liberating on one hand to see things getting cleaned. It is also frustrating seeing my hourly wages getting stuffed into garbage bags for donations. It is uplifting knowing that we were able to have our kids grow up in a household that provided the right wares to help them leave the nest on good footing, but going through their left-behinds, it is sad to see childhood accoutrements that no longer bring the joy to them as they did when they were little.

For my stuff, I’ve never been a “keeper” or a “saver.” Yes, there’s my baseball cards, my cassettes & CD’s, but I’ve never been a huge collector of “things.” Safe to say, if & when Beth & I decide to move from our current home, I could have my wares boxed and in the truck in about 20 minutes. (And no, that doesn’t include my tools, that might take me a bit more time to pack up…)

But then I think about my books. My paperwork. The real “tools” of my trade. That will be a struggle. It is a struggle. I’ve been struggling lately with information management. There is too much coming at me.

I’m drinking from a fire hose.

Emails. Lots of emails. And I’m not talking about just work emails. I’m talking about web emails. Subscriptions. Content sources that I receive industry-related articles from. And while I value the people, companies, publications that I receive information from, the inflow of information has been simply overwhelming.

Back in the day, it was trade publications. I remember when I subscribed and received my first copy of Roads & Bridges how cool that was! I poured through those magazines, page by page. I looked at the ads, read the articles.

I cut out the checklists and the bullet-pointed articles and pasted them into sections of my Brain Books. I still have lots of those articles stashed away in my 3-ring bindered Brain Books.

Then came e-documents. Scanning. The world is going paperless!!!

I was working at O’Hare Airport in the mid-90’s. The Department of Aviation was on a push in 1994 to go to paperless documentation. Anything and everything related to a project was getting scanned.

I remember in the construction trailers that I was working out of, there was an entire department of people dedicated to this effort. Scanning machines were being developed that could speed the process. All of the data was being filed and categorized. I remember that OCR technology was in its infancy, so keywords were being used to be able to recover the information.

But I kept my paper files. My Brain Books contined to build & grow.

Then there was Expedition. A database to log documents.

Issues. The Issue module became my best friend.

I was a junkie. I was logging & referencing everything. I would build an Issue and then link documents to the issue for later retrieval.

I remember being able to assemble aged documents at close-out quickly. I was onto something that nobody else was using at the time.

Cutting edge. But, labor intensive.

How much time did I spend doing all of that logging? Tracking? Linking? Report building & customizing to get the dot-matrix printer output to be “just right?”

That was 2002.

Expedition got more powerful. Easier to use. Custom reports became easier to create. But getting the documents, the data, the links, the report formats – It was a time-suck.

Did it make me a good Resident Engineer? Yes, it did. I was organized. Our teams could retrieve information quicker than the paper file folders of the past would allow.

But that was back in the day. We got emails, yes, and they came with attachments. But it was mostly job-related information. The Web was young. The Palm Pilot was about as close to e-information as I’d be at that time. You could manage information…

Fast Forward

Now I’m thinking about what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. When did we really start getting inundated with information? I don’t know, but when did the flood start?

What have I been doing with the influx?

Copying & pasting articles into every nook and electronic cranny I have.

People are creating new crannys to throw more shyt into. Evernote. Onenote. Outlook.

What am I doing with it all?

It’s just sitting there!! Why?? What good is it if it isn’t being re-purposed?? Nothing other than accumulating dust.

Look: I have a library of books on my shelves. Do I refernce them? Yes. Often. Well, not so often, but, I have them for reference. I know what’s in them. I have the ability to pull them off the shelf.

So what am I doing with all the e-Information I have. Stuffed in old emails. Dragged over into some electronic file cabinet.

Have you ever heard of PageScan? It was software that came with my first paper scanner. You could scan and file your scans in an electronic file cabinet. It was brilliant. I scanned magazine articles. I scanned checklists. I scanned field documents that I wanted to save for the future. I was building an “Electronic Brain Book.”

And then, years later, it happened. The program became unsupported. No more updates.

I lost a TON of information when PageScan decided to stop supporting the electronic file cabinet system that I had. Poof. Vanished. The hundreds of hours I spent with my Logitech page scanner, scanning & cataloging. I’ll bet I lost 200 crib-type documents because a company decided to stop supporting a technology that I came to depend on.

Last month, our company’s computer system was attacked. We had our servers & email system shut down for a day or so. Thank God we have smart people who are able to understand all that.

But it got me thinking: What happens when data is lost? Or encrypted? When my PageScan program went dark I lost information. But what if I lost ALL my information? What do I/we have to fall back on?

Yes, I’m sure people will say that there’s backups of backups. There are servers backing up servers and that “everything is retrievable.”

But what if it’s not? Am I being too skittish?

Probably. But it brings me back to full circle.

I have data. I have lots of e-manuals on my hard drive. And I have books. And Brain Books. And old plan sets.

Which formats should I depend on? Which should I preserve. What should I do to re-purpose information that I kept for a reason, things I’ve “dragged” into a Windows Explorer file folder for use later? What am I doing with it? When is the last time I looked at it? Am I going to ever look at it? Will I ever need it? Can I use it now as a resource? Has it expired / outdated?

Digital minimalism. Engineering documentation. Re-purposing.

Here’s what I’ve decided.

Crib Sheets

I’m going back to crib sheets.

How did I “used to learn?” What did I do in college to learn?

I thought about how I used to cull information and take notes for myself. Simple pictorial diagrams. Formulas References. Simple. Retrievable.

I want to explore this concept. I want to think about the information that I have differently. I want to try to mine out what I have buried in my system. Give it another look. Like looking at a box of old clothes in our basement. Keep or toss.

I’m gong to explore going back to crib sheets. I’m goinng to start culling & pulling. I’m going to build a Franklin binder with section tabs that match my Areas of Focus, and start working that information into a system. MY SYSTEM.

Will it be houseable at the website? Maybe. Maybe not. Will the website be able to harness its power as a retrievable resource? Do I need to split paper vs. e-documents? I don’t want to print every single PDF I have, right? No, I do not.

I think I’m onto something here that’s worth exploring….stay tuned.

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