This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Levenger Surf Desk

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I always thought lap desks were for the bed-bound, until the Levenger Surf desk arrived on my doorstep, an early birthday gift from Levenger’s founder, Steve Leveen. The Surf Desk is a super-light desk made of the same materials used in surfboards, and as hip-looking as something one might see in Malibu. I’ll admit I was a bit puzzled by the thing at first and I never imagined a lap-desk would be a useful tool, but I now use the darn thing every day! It’s perfect for working with a laptop and my notes while slouching on a couch, or relaxing outside on a deck chair. In my office, I often set it atop an open file drawer as an impromptu credenza to hold paper sprawls during big projects. When I am not using it, the Surf Desk parks conveniently in a corner or propped up in my closet (though I use it so much it is hardly ever there). The folks at Levenger joke about “alternative desking,” but I think the term gets at what makes the Surf Desk so interesting: it gives vastly more flexibility in choosing how — and where — to work. I haven’t taken mine away from home yet, but the Surf Desk is so light and convenient (and presumably water proof), I’d think anyone who wanted a travel desk in their SUV, van or the like would enjoy this one. And solo surfers take note: pull out a surf desk at your local espresso bar and you are sure to draw a crowd, especially if you are close to the beach!

Levenger Surf Desk
$148
Available from Levenger



Keep-A-Cable

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For sheer bang-for-the-buck, these cord management cards are tough to beat. They’re cheap polyethylene sheets you either stick or screw to the edge of your desk and then snap the cables coming from your computer and peripherals into the recesses. I was tired of picking my iPod connector off the floor when it would fall off my desktop. With this, the ends of the cables are kept at the ready on your desk, which is especially great for stuff you are regularly plugging and unplugging. You can also use it to neatly route other cables coming from the back of a PC tower, like speaker and ethernet, which really helps cut down cable clutter. I’ve had one card stuck to the underside of my desk for about a year for two iPods (video and shuffle), a digital camera cable, and a charger for my Bluetooth headset (I find it is less visually obtrusive underneath my desk). The double stick tape they use is very sticky. I have a lacquered wood desk. It sticks great. I’ve never tried to pull it off, but I imagine it would be tough. I imagine if you had a smooth metal desk these would stick even better. Of course, if you were trying to stick them to a rough surface like a unfinished wood, you’d probably want to use screws. I didn’t consider trying to make my own. No reason to: I got a four-pack of the Keep-a-Cable 5-wire holders at Frys for about five bucks. I gave the extras to a few friends. They love them.

-- Cormac Eubanks  

Keep-A-Cable
$9 (pack of 3)

Available from Amazon



Plan Station Portable Workstation

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I use this portable desk as a stationary desk at work and love it. If you need to relocate your workspace for whatever reason, it folds into a large portfolio style case with handles, so it’s quite easy to move your ‘hub’ with you. You have to provide two pieces of plywood, which slip into two pockets to create the rigid surfaces. Installation is a snap: two metal “O” rings on either edge allow for easy hooking on any sturdy screw/nail/hook. The rings are 48″ apart so they line up with any standard 16″ O.C. wall stud system. I’ve been using it for a little over a year now. Boy is it sturdy. The case is nylon with nylon bands well-stitched to support all stress points. The ability to adjust the height is key, as I prefer to use a stool rather than a chair at my work. The working distance from the floor to my desk is approximately 36″, so it’s more like a workbench, except with this desk, there are no legs to deal with.

-- Jai Dixon  

Plan Station Portable Workstation
$80

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Finley Products, Inc.



Cable Clamp

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The Cable Clamp is a cord/wire/hose organizer I’ve found helpful, especially in dealing with items that have both long electrical cords and long hoses that can get mixed up with each other. In addition to keeping the long hose and electric cord on my pressure washer coiled separately, I’m using one of these clamps to hang my small electric chainsaw from my belt when climbing a ladder, sort of an improvised tool belt. They come in four sizes, including a Mega-size available from the manufacturer.

They’re fun to use — they close like a handcuff, with ten click-stops. They’re more expensive and bulkier than zip ties (i.e. an average tool chest couldn’t carry dozens of these clamps), but they have advantages over tape, cable ties, and other hook & loop products. They’re reusable and, unlike tape, leave no gummy residue. They’re durable — won’t lose grip after many re-uses. They’re less likely to damage delicate electronics cables than a thin cable tie. And they can be opened one-handed (and closed one-handed if there is a backstop handy).

Note: I do find they can be hard to open because the trigger doesn’t go back far enough to clear the teeth completely unless it is held down hard. Also, they can get temporarily bent out of shape when under stress — i.e. the jaw won’t go into the catch unless it is guided in by hand. And they are plastic, so they could get broken if something heavy crushed them or fell on them. Nevertheless, for a relatively inexpensive piece of plastic, they do seem pretty sturdy; I’ve used mine for about five months and haven’t had to replace any.

-- Roger Knights  

Cable Clamps
$19 (7 clamps in three sizes, includes shipping)

Available from Amazon

$20 - $25 (sets of 4-17 clamps in various sizes)
Available from and manufactured by QA Worldwide



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Cordinator

This neat little box hides all those computer and phone cords and doubles as a power outlet. Inside are 10 outlets and the box comes with a clever method for keeping things very organized: metal ties that are affixed to the inside. You just coil each cord, wrap a tie around it (twisting the end like you would with a sandwich bag), and stack each cord on top of one another. Unplugging is a cinch: simply find the cord you want, undo the ties and pull out the plug. I own two — one at home and one at the office. You can keep it under your desk or on top (I have my monitor on it), and the front accessibility means you can plug/unplug items (i.e. cell phone) quickly and easily without having a mess of wires on your desk. With everything plugged in I’ve never had any trouble closing the lid. I once tried making something like this out of laminated wood (to match my desk). It cost about $200, didn’t look as nice and wasn’t nearly as convenient.

-- Vic Habersmith  

Cordinator
$55
Manufactured by Herrington



BBP Messenger Laptop Bag

Like many people, I’ve received a Kanchenchunga-sized pile of nylon conference give-away bags over the years. All very ho-hum. But after a recent conference I came home with a BBP bag. I was using an old Tumi bag, which I liked, but it was falling apart. This BBP bag turned up in the nick of time.

BBP makes a range of messenger-style briefcases. Their initials stand for “bum back packs” — bags for people with bad backs, and they hang near your bum. They’re thoughtfully designed, rugged, waterproof (ballistic nylon with rubberized interior), can be carried in a variety of ways (single shoulder, double shoulder like a backpack, slipped over the roll-aboard handle). Your laptop fits into a top-loading, well-padded, velour-lined outer pouch with a waterproof zipper, so the thing is super-accessible at airports and very well protected.

It’s a better bag. And at $85 it costs about a third of the price of most of the Tumi bags (the Tumi nylon brief cases list for about $400 now, and $500-600 in leather). Actually, I kept the old shoulder strap from the Tumi, which has a leather ergonomic pad that has morphed to fit my shoulder. It works fine on the BBP. It is even better and cheaper than the popular Timbuk2 bags. To get your laptop out of the Timbuk2, you have to open the bag (two clips), then open the inner pouch (velcro). To get your laptop out of the BBP, you just unzip the shiny black waterproof zipper on the top of the outer padded compartment. And the Timbuk2 costs $115 (and more if you get little optional thingies, which you don’t need on the $85 BBP as it has several extra pouches).

The medium size BBP holds my Apple 15″ PowerBook G4 perfectly in the outside padded sleeve. In the rest of the bag I slide two batteries (there’s a pouch just for those), power supply, dongle, a bit of USB stuff (like an indispensable 6″ Treo HotSync/Charging cable, and my pen-sized radio remote controller), a power adapter, some paperwork, three books (quaint, but they’re not available electronically), an iPod, cell phone, camera, wallet, keys, and bits and sundry pieces (my moleskine notebook, a couple pens, business cards, the usual). It’s actually hard to make the pile much smaller. It all fits into the medium BBP.

-- Michael Hawley  

BBP Hybrid Messenger/Backpack Laptop Bag
$95
Manufactured by BBP Bags

Available from Amazon

One way to carry it.



Sharpie Twin-Tip

Sharpie markers are well-known for being indelible, particularly on plastic, glass and metal surfaces. Folks in labs, movie sets, and hospitals who need to mark things permanently use Sharpies. If the ink goes on, it won’t come off. What’s special here is that the other tip of these pens is an ultra- fine point Sharpie, fine enough to write like a ball-point pen – but permanently — when you need to. The “industrial” version of Sharpie ink will even resist chemicals and scrubbing. Since more writing surfaces seem to be plastic-like, I find we use Sharpies all the time now.

-- KK  

Sharpie Twin-Tip Permanent Marker
$4

Available from Amazon



Spray Adhesive

What magnificent stuff. Glues together thin layers of paper products such as cardboard, photographs, foam core, even light fabrics, firmly and evenly. Most of the time it’s superior to rubber cement, white glue, tape or contact cement. Comes in various formulations. 3M’s Spray Mount is most versatile. You can find archival versions, too.

-- KK  

3m Spray Mount Adhesive
$14

Available from Amazon



Peopleware

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Hard-won wisdom fills this small book: How to create a team, place, or company that is productive. First published 20 years ago, and updated once since then, copies of it have quietly served as a guru for many start ups and successful projects in Silicon Valley. Neither academic nor faddish, two veteran consultant authors offer real intelligence. This book has totally informed how I do projects. I learned about the myth of overtime, the need for closure and ceremonies, how teams jell, and why everyone should and can have a window. I first read it decades ago and re-read it every time I embark on anything involving more than one person and several years of my life. Unlike a lot of management lore, it is aimed at the project level (where I want to be) rather than the large organization. The message in the book touts productivity, without ever mentioning the dreary idea of time management. It’s more about optimizing people, and thus the title, Peopleware.

-- KK  

Peopleware:
Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd ed.
Tom Demarco, Timothy Lister
1999, 245 pages
$29

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

I was teaching an in-house design course some years ago, when one of the upper managers buttonholed me to request that I assess some of the people in the course (his project staff). He was particularly curious about one woman. It was obvious he had his doubts about her: “I don’t quite see what she adds to a project — she’s not a great developer or tester or much of anything.” With a little investigation, I turned up this intriguing fact: During her twelve years at the company, the woman in question had never worked on a project that had been anything other than a huge success. It wasn’t obvious what she was adding, but projects always succeeded when she was around. After watching her in class for a week and talking to some of her co-workers, I came to the conclusion that she was a superb catalyst. Teams naturally jelled better when she was there. She helped people communicate with each other and get along. Projects were more fun when she was part of them. When I tried to explain this idea to the manager, I struck out. He just didn’t recognize the role of catalyst as essential to a project.

*

Any regular get-together meeting is somewhat suspect to have a ceremonial purpose rather than a focused goal of consensus.

But organizations have a need of ceremony. It’s perfectly reasonable to call a meeting with a purpose that is strictly ceremonial, particularly at project milestones, when new people come on board, or for celebrating good work by the group. Such meetings do not waste anyone’s time. They fulfill real needs for appreciation. They confirm group membership — its importance and its value.

*

Modern office politics makes a great class distinction in the matter of allocating windows. Most participants emerge as losers in the window sweepstakes. People who wouldn’t think of living in a home without windows end up spending most of their daylight time in windowless workspace.

We are trained to accept windowless office space as inevitable. The company would love for every one of us to have a window, we hear, but that just isn’t realistic. Sure it is. There is a perfect proof that sufficient windows can be built into a space without excessive cost. The existence proof is the hotel, any hotel. You can’t even imagine being shown a hotel room with no window. You wouldn’t stand for it. (And this is for a space you’re only going to sleep in.)

Women’s dormitory at Swarthmore College; everyone has windows.

*

The purpose of a team is not goal attainment but goal alignment.

*

A few very characteristic signs indicate that a jelled team has occurred. The most important of these is low turnover during projects and in the middle of well-defined tasks. The team members aren’t going anywhere till the work is done. Things that matter enormously prior to jell (money, status, position for advancement) matter less or not at all after jell. People certainly aren’t about to leave their team for a rinky-dink consideration like a little more salary.
There is a sense of eliteness on a good team. Team members feel they’re part of something unique. They feel they’re better than the run of the mill. They have a cocky, SWAT Team attitude that may be faintly annoying to people who aren’t part of the group.

*

In my two years at Bell Labs, we worked in two-person offices. They were spacious, quiet, and the phones could be diverted. I shared my office with Wendl Thomis who went on to build a small empire as an electronic toy maker. In those days, he was working on the ESS fault dictionary. The dictionary scheme relied upon the notion of n-space proximity, a concept that was hairy enough to challenge even Wendl’s powers of concentration. One afternoon, I was bent over a program listing while Wendl was staring into space, his feet propped up on the desk. Our boss came in and asked, “Wendl! What are you doing?” Wendl said, “I’m thinking.” And the boss said, “Can’t you do that at home?”

*

Organizations also have some need for closure. Closure for the organization is the successful finish of the work as assigned, plus perhaps an occasional confirmation along the way that everything is on target (maybe a milestone achieved or a significant partial delivery completed). How much confirmation corporations require is a function of how much money is at risk. Frequently, closure only at the end of a four-year effort is adequate for the needs of the organization.
The problem here is that organizations have far less need for closure than do the people who work for them. The prospect of four years of work without any satisfying “thunk” leaves everyone in the group thinking, “I could be dead before this thing is ever done.” Particularly when the team is coming together, frequently closure is important. Team members need to get into the habit of succeeding together and liking it. This is part of the mechanism by which the team builds momentum.

*

Lost production due to change of personnel.

Productivity took a hit when Louise left, even passing below zero for a while as others scurried to make up for the loss of a well-integrated team member. Then, eventually, it worked its way up to where it was before.

The shaded area on the graph represents the lost production (work that didn’t get done) caused by Louise’s departure. Or, viewed differently, it is the investment that the company is now making to get Ralph up to where Louise was after the company’s past investments in her skills and capabilities.

*

Once a team begins to jell, the probability of success goes up dramatically. The team can become almost unstoppable, a juggernaut for success. Managing these juggernaut teams is a real pleasure. You spend most of your time just getting obstacles out of their way, clearing the path so that bystanders don’t get trampled underfoot: “Here they come, folks. Stand back and hold onto your hats.” They don’t need to be managed in the traditional sense, and they certainly don’t need to be motivated. They’ve got momentum.

*

Have you ever been in an organization that simply glowed with health? People were at ease, having a good time and enjoying interactions with their peers. There was no defensiveness, no sense that single individuals were trying to succeed in spite of the efforts of those around them. The work was a joint product. Everybody was proud of its quality.

Presented below is an admittedly simplistic list o the elements of a chemistry-building strategy for healthy organization:
-Make a cult of quality.
-Provide lots of satisfying closure.
-Build a sense of eliteness.
-Allow and encourage heterogeneity.
-Preserve and protect successful teams.
-Provide strategic but not tactical direction.

*

When you first start measuring the E-Factor, don’t be surprised if it hovers around zero. People may even laugh at you for trying to record uninterrupted hours: “There is no such thing as an uninterrupted hour in this madhouse.” Don’t despair. Remember that you’re not just collecting data, you’re helping to change people’s attitudes. By regularly noting uninterrupted hours, you are giving official sanction to the notion that people ought to have at least some interruption-free time. That makes it permissible to hide out, to ignore the phone, or to close the door (if, sigh, there is a door).
At one of our client sites, there was a nearly organic phenomenon of red bandannas on dowels suddenly sprouting from the desks after a few weeks of E-Factor data collection. No one in power had ever suggested that device as an official Do Not Disturb signal; it just happened by consensus. But everyone soon learned its significance and respected it.

*

When you observe a well-knit team in action, you’ll see a basic hygienic act of peer-coaching that is going on all the time. Team members sit down in pairs to transfer knowledge. When this happens, there is always one learner and one teacher. Their roles tend to switch back and forth over time with, perhaps, A coaching B about TCP/IP and then B coaching A about implementation of queues. When it works well, the participants are barely even aware of it. They may not even identify it as coaching; to them it may just seem like work.
Whether it is named or not, coaching is an important factor in successful team interaction. It provides coordination as well as personal growth to the participants. It also feels good. We tend to look back on significant coaching we’ve received as a near religious experience. We feel a huge debt to those who have coached us in the past, a debt that we cheerfully discharge by coaching others.

*

Learning is limited by an organization’s ability to keep its people.

*

The most likely learning center for any sizable organization is the white space that lies between and among middle managers. If this white space becomes a vital channel of communication, if middle managers can act together as the redesigners of the organization, sharing a common stake in the result, then the benefits of learning are likely to be realized. If, on the other hand, the white space is empty of communication and common purpose, learning comes to a standstill. Organizations in which middle managers are isolated, embattled, and fearful are nonstarters in this respect.

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Learning happens in the white space.

*

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The proper curve of hiring for a project. Looks odd (so many at the end), but may be the ideal.

*

If you have ever undertaken a major development effort, you almost certainly know the wisdom of the adage, “Build one to throw away.” It’s only after you’re finished that you know how the thing really should have been done. You seldom get to go back and do it again right, of course, but it would be nice.

This same idea can be applied to whole careers. Between the two of us, we’ve spent nearly thirty years managing projects or consulting on project management. Most of what we’ve learned, we’ve learned from doing it wrong the first time. We’ve never had the luxury of managing any of those projects over again to do it entirely right. Instead, we’ve written this book.




Lasko Pivoting Task Fan

My office building’s climate control is like a pendulum — it swings back and forth in the general area of comfort, but never quite reaches it. I have long used small table fans, but have to leave a suitable gap between the fan and the wall/partition behind it, to avoid blocking the air flow. Now I use a Lasko “squirrel cage” blower, which takes in air from the sides, allowing it to be placed flush against any wall. The blower head is adjustable in a vertical direction. An added plus — its design is extremely quiet, making it perfect for the office environment.

-- Bryan Quattlebaum  

[In the United States, this product is sold under the Stanley brand name in a black-and-yellow package which is more likely to harmonize with a workshop than an office. A representative from Lasko stated that their original two-tone gray design is not available from retailers until the summer months. -- CP]

Lasko Fan
$50
Manufactured by Lasko Products

Available from Amazon