Here’s how the conversation went:
– Did you take note of what I told you?
– I memorized it!
One hour later. There is a huge hole in my memory. Nothing but deafening silence in my head.
“I memorized it. Everything is in my head. Great. Sure. I’ll do it.”
This is how I was. I tried hard to demonstrate to myself and others that I had a perfect memory and that I could grasp everything in a single flash. It was a fail. Actually, I failed on many occasions. Details of discussions would be wiped out the next day and when it was time to show my piece of code it went like this:
– No, no, it’s not correct! It’s not the way we discussed it! Show me your task list. But there are only 6 items on the list out of 7, and 2 of them don’t reflect what we talked about. Why couldn’t you come up and clarify it one more time? Why are you stuck with this task that was left for “dessert”?
Failure after failure. A facepalm, to put it in a contemporary manner.
The human brain can only memorize so much information. Is there a metric to calculate how much information it can store in its memory? It looks like it can handle 6 items just fine but the following items just replace the first ones. Just like a stack in a software algorithm. If a discussion goes beyond the time limit (everyone’s attention span has a limit), you start losing the details that were mentioned at the beginning. They are gone. You will be left with nothing but panic.
You start berating yourself with thoughts like: Why couldn’t I have written it down on a piece of paper? Why didn’t I try to refine the details if they escaped my memory? Why didn’t I clarify the task if it turned out to be more complex than I thought it would be? Why is my list of priorities mixed up?
Don’t Trust Your Memory
I once came across the following saying: “Whoever comes to a meeting without a pen and a notebook loses.” The text was about commercial projects and transactions. If you don’t document it the details of the discussion might get changed, mutilated, or just lost post factum. This can also be said about any professional field.
You may say you have an excellent memory, but let’s imagine you go on vacation tomorrow. Would you be able to remember everything from the discussion when you come back? Would you be able to pass this information to a colleague? Will he or she memorize it?
Correcting the Situation
There are many items and details that are discussed, in most cases verbally, during development task assignments. There is no digital copy. Some analysts are as bad at assigning tasks as you are at documenting them. There is no point arguing whose responsibility it is, I just want to help you do your work more efficiently. If you do, too, well, you should write everything down!
This is my workspace setup for online conferences. You can see the results of our Icons8 developer’s team discussion of git-flow implementation on the table.
A workspace for an online conference
First and foremost, your go-to is a pen and a piece of paper. Every time you want to bring up a question during a conversation you should write it down.
Even when a term of reference is enclosed, you should still document everything said. This is very important because you can later demonstrate that all those details were actually discussed. Write down everything on the spot and organize priorities later.
You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a pen and a piece of paper. Yes, you may lose your notes, or they may decay with time, but you still need to use them. A short protocol or a summary of a meeting is a must. Any other tools are just a backup measure. Perhaps they are more precise and convenient, but they are still just a backup.
I saw a question being raised on several occasions about whether web developers need a higher diploma in IT. My answer is YES because you learn such skills as note-making and fast writing. I’m not touching on the subject of the courses themselves, just the valuable abilities that you get from them.
Memo Pad or Note-taking Apps
Here we refer to both special digital devices that allow taking notes as well as to tablet/smartphone apps. You can use them at the meeting, and it can be convenient if you are skillful enough with them. But you will have to stop a speaker from time to time to be able to finish your notes. People speak faster than we can write. It will be hard for you to keep up with the pace of speech unless you are a certified shorthand typist. Otherwise, you will have to stop people or have an assistant to help you. Apps are superior to pen and paper in that it gives you the ability to sort your notes by priority, add a new note, or refine an existing one.
There is one disadvantage though – your eyes and arms are swamped. You won’t be able to get involved in a discussion or ask a question. If you can do a “Caesar” and do many things at once, good for you. But most people can’t, so it’s going to be hard to type and be involved in a conversation at the same time. When a question pops up in your head, you first need to finish typing, and when it’s done the conversation has already moved to the next topic.
This one is really helpful. It will record everything while you participate in a discussion. There are specific tools that can convert speech into text.
You are free to ask questions, draw on a whiteboard, or examine someone’s doodles if you are bored.
Don’t be afraid of looking out of place with this gadget. You won’t. At first, people might be skeptical or uncomfortable out of fear of saying something wrong. But then they will get used to it and will actually start clarifying whether it is recording and should they repeat. You will notice with time how people adapt to it by starting to speak more clearly, making references to the content (a diagram, screenshot, text, etc.) being discussed. They would go as far as to mention which section of the text this discussion relates to.
I have been to meetings where you can see several voice recorders in the middle of the table. I’m sure you have been to such meetings as well. So in case the battery in your voice recorder dies or a memory card runs out of memory, you can always ask a neighbor to lend you their recording. I once saw a special station at a conference being used which allowed you to connect to a group Skype conference with an audio-recording ability.
Advice: make sure to check your voice recorder battery life, your memory card available storage data, and whether your gadget is functioning before the meeting.
But don’t become overly reliant upon it, you should still have a pen and paper on hand.
A reconstruction of a meeting protocol
If it is announced that there will be lots of slides, screenshots, illustrations, or sketches presented, you should bring a photo or a video camera to the conference. Video-recording from a tripod is a bit unorthodox, but you can capture both the speech of the presenter and any accompanying images.
Another option is to use two video cameras – one to record the screen where graphic material is demonstrated and the other to capture the presenter and participants.
In case of an online meeting (Skype, Zoom, Join.me, TeamViewer) you can use software to capture the whole screen as a video, rather than just audio. You will be able to not only listen to what was discussed at the meeting but also view it.
During a Skype call about the technical details of a project, I mentally gave the other participant 100 points for negotiation skills when I spotted the icon of an active screencast on their screen. It appeared I forgot to run my screencast software and all the valuable details could have been lost.
But as I already mentioned above, you should always have a backup in the form of a pen and paper. There were times when software accidentally recorded a screen from a different monitor or it failed to capture audio from the microphone, leaving me to only rely on my written notes.
When a meeting is over every participant should get the results of the discussion: which topics were on the agenda, which problems were debated, and which decisions were made. It should be done right after the meeting, if possible, or at least on the same day.
Do not hesitate to admit that you are struggling to compile an outline of the discussion. That could drag on for a long time, up to 2-3 hours. Debates could range far and wide; many irrelevant questions might be raised. Speakers could suggest different solutions, and it might not be clear which were approved. Tell everyone you are having trouble with it, list all the items you understood, and ask whether you missed something important.
When discussing a problem, tons of details could come up. Some of them might be recalled just for the sake of refreshing one’s memory. People tend to go from one problem to another, delving into the specifics of each problem instead of going from primary to secondary problems.
Setting priorities is the second phase after every problem has been discussed and solutions were approved on paper. This is where an outline of the discussion or a task list comes in handy. Sort those by the order they were approved and follow that order.
Refining Details After a Discussion
A task list is not set in stone. You can always go back and discuss items again, add new details, and update priorities. The following questions are all okay to ask. I would even reward some of these questions with medals for courage and responsibility.
- I can’t remember what needs to be done regarding that issue
- The picture of the whiteboard is of low quality. Can I draw it again and have you revise it?
- I forgot (didn’t start the recording, was late) what we started with? Could you please remind me about those first two tasks?
- I was tired by the end of the meeting (busy with other stuff, was on the phone, my battery died) so I lost the line of thought a bit. What were the last two tasks we discussed?
Reconstructing a discussion protocol and an outline is important. There is a chance you will have to call all the participants back together again. If it is not possible, you should discuss it privately with each other. All the details should be refined within a day. Otherwise, you might forget some of them.
Some might get annoyed. Be ready to iron out these difficulties. But that is a different story. What is important to you is that all the productive tasks are sorted. And next time make sure to bring a pen and a piece of paper, all right?
What I have on my desk: a voice recorder, a second camera, handwritten notes, and lots of pens and pencils.
- I purposely wait until my conversation partner gets a pen and a piece of paper, and then I ask him to read his notes. First-timers are usually shy and might flounder a little bit, but I totally understand it. I’ve been in their shoes. I won’t take, “I’ll remember it” as an answer
- There was a time when I relied too much on a voice recorder, but the sound was so loud I could hardly understand a word. No problem, we reconstructed it from memory. I bought a higher quality voice recorder
- I have an additional battery for my voice recorder, a couple of MicroSD memory cards (they are so tiny and don’t take up much space), a voice recorder app on my smartphone (not an ideal solution because of the low quality sensitive microphone and sometimes it just switches off during an incoming call), and a tie clip microphone. As you can see, I have quite a few backup tools, and they didn’t cost a fortune.
- Every 15-20 minutes I stop the discussion and review an outline of the current topic – which problems were discussed, which questions popped up, and which solutions were approved. It helps everyone to stay on track
- I ask one person to document everything and to make a list of tasks as a result of the discussion. I keep an eye on their work to make sure they don’t forget or miss anything important
- I take pictures with my smartphone. All those megapixels are finally put to use after not taking pictures of my cat or my meals. My favorite screencast software is HyperCam. I use Monosnap or Gyazo to take screenshots
- During a meeting I use Google Docs and Evernote. They both allow editing of a shared document collectively. In case I forget to write something down someone else can do it
- After a meeting, I enter tasks into Todoist and Trello. These are great tools for collaborative work – you can share your tasks with colleagues to work on them together. Todoist can also be used as a notebook with your smartphone or a tablet. One can attach a photo, an audio file, a document from Google Docs, or a file from Dropbox to a task
- I love my spiral notebooks. I adore them. There are usually several of them on the table. Some are still blank; some are full of notes. I use highlighters to mark important notes and I fold corners on important pages. I also use tiny sticky bookmarks
The Opposite Point of View
Everything said thus far concerns a doer or a listener. I would like to hear the other side of the process – from the point of view of an analyst or a speaker. What would you change in the process assuming your conversational partner forgot everything you said?
I would be interested to know which tools, methods, or tips you consider indispensable.
Also, you can learn about prototyping experience of another Icons8 team member, Ivan.
About the Author: Pavel is a Fullstack Senior Developer at Icons8. He is a technology evangelist and brings to light his knowledge of a development process.