Tools for working together

I work in a fantastic group of very fun, kind and intelligent people. I make sure that I get along to group seminars and meetings (and not just for the baked goods). Unfortunately, this is a group of ocean modellers, my supervisor is a land surface expert and I am more specialised in atmospheric modelling.  So rather than working ‘in’ this group, I more accurately work ‘alongside’ this group.

I’m lucky that the ocean folks have taken me in and given me a dynamic home, but I still miss working directly with people. Last week, I was lucky enough to briefly host a visitor, who is an associate investigator in my Centre of Excellence.

We’ve worked together previously and have a few embryonic paper ideas in the pipeline. My visitor was in Canberra for the launch of a report and decided to carve out a couple of days from her very busy teaching schedule and stay on to work through some of these ideas.

In the weeks before the visit, we had a lot of back and forth emails and a few Skype sessions to put together some structure to our early ideas. We planned that in the 2 days, we would get one particular idea to the point of resembling a paper. We also planned to map out a second paper, so that we could share our large datasets (~1Tb) and have access to the same data from both Melbourne and Canberra.

It was brilliant! First, the discussions in preparation and at the start of the visit really set us up for churning through work rapidly. And sitting down together and talking in person meant that we were able to nut through nutty issues that would have otherwise warranted innumerable emails.

Also, working together was energising! We had a slightly ridiculous set up in my office – laptops, mice, keyboards, books and phones everywhere. But when it came to it, and fuelled by various sources of caffeine, we were able to plough through and get most of a paper drafted.

That means that we didn’t quite get to the point of having a full paper drafted. And we didn’t quite get our datasets sorted. But our goals were very ambitious. Instead, we have a plan to get a first draft completed shortly and for Australia Post to help get our data where it needs to be.

Overall, the intense visit was a very productive use of time. I had shifted all my meetings to earlier in the week and dedicated those couple of days to focus just on specific tasks with my visitor.

Also, we made use of some great tools for collaborative writing. In this case, we were using authorea, a latex-based system that allows online collaborative writing. It meant that we could both write at the same time, we could leave notes and comments for ourselves and each other to address later, and we could easily add in figures, equations and references.

More generally, these semi-collaborative dedicated writing approaches seem to work really well. Around the time that I was waving my visitor off in a taxi, my girlfriend was kicking off a busy weekend helping organise a thesis bootcamp for PhD students.

The thesis bootcamp sees a group of long-suffering PhD students led through a weekend of intensive writing exercises. Students prepare a thesis map and undertake a series of exercises in advance preparation of the weekend. Then, from Friday lunchtime until late Sunday, the group cycles through writing, caffeine, active breaks and meals. The idea is to encourage the student to set aside their ideas of perfection and simply write.

The outcomes are phenomenal! Of course, there are tears and frustrations and counselling sessions. But on the positive side, its not unusual for individual PhD students to write more 20 or 25,000 words in a single weekend, and for a group of 20 or so students to band together to crack 250 or 300,000 words.

For some students, the bootcamp is impetus enough to get a Phd finished and submitted. For others that need more words down on paper, there are follow up Saturdays and weekly ‘shut up and write’ sessions that use the same intensive pomodoro approach.

The success of the bootcamp and ‘shut up and write’ sessions seem to reflect my experience of hosting my visitor. Dedicating time to switch off the email, shut the door and cancel meetings freed me up practically and mentally to focus on writing and planning. And working with someone else was exciting, energising and highly motivating.

As much as I enjoy working amongst my adopted group of oceanographers, I now know this isn’t quite enough to satisfy my needs in terms of being part of a group. I’m glad I’m aware of this now and can try to supplement my ocean group seminars and meetings with occasional intensive working sessions with collaborators.

2 thoughts on “Tools for working together

  1. Great post. (The authorea link has a typo.)

    I naturally came here for a long list of tools with working together and reviews of their strengths and weaknesses. Writing, coding, planning, etc.

    I am just setting up a group to jointly analyse parallel measurements. We want to write the data processing together in R. Up to now we considered GitHub and Redmine, but no one in the group has much experience. Do you, or any other reader, have any experience with these collaboration tools or other tools?

    • Thanks – link is corrected now. Yes, sorry, “tools” might have been an oversell. I guess I meant more approaches. I use github and authorea and find them very useful. I’m not so much up to date with other collaborative tools. I’d recommend hassling drclimate . Damien is a superstar in this realm.

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