Eight Great Tools Simple Enough for a CEO

Much of the early part of my career in publishing was spent writing and maintaining scripts used for automating book production. Applying the tools that developers use to manage code to managing manuscripts was a big part of the strategy behind the XML publishing toolchain I helped build (alongside @abdelazer) at O’Reilly (work now being impressively extended by Adam Witwer and Sanders Kleinfeld).

These days I spend much more time in spreadsheets and video conferences than in Vim, but I’ve never lost the appreciation for quality tools. I rarely write my own anymore, but here’s a list of tools I use every day that are indispensable for effectively working with a growing company that has team members around the world:

Google Apps for business

Get your discussions out of email (or worse, email attachments)! @liza and her team introduced us to using Google Docs for tracking running meeting notes, and from there our use of shared documents for everything from meeting agendas to press release reviews to training videos to board reports has grown dramatically. Some days the volume of documents getting updated feels overwhelming — until I remember that the volume of conversation hasn’t actually grown, it’s just been pulled out from where it was hiding in email. The full Google Apps suite is cost effective, easy to administer, and makes it simple to integrate authentication with third-party and internal apps.

Google Hangouts are a simple and easy alternative for video conferencing and screensharing — and Google Voice is a lifesaver for anyone who gets a lot of unsolicited sales calls.

Bonus tip: Comment notifications. It’s not well-documented, but you can use the Google plus “+” convention (or the Twitter “@“ convention) to add notifications to Google Docs comments. For example, if someone includes “+andrew@safaribooksonline.com” in a Google Doc comment, I’ll get notified by email.

Gmail keyboard shortcuts

I’ve used Outlook, Thunderbird, and Mail.app over the years, but I’ve never been faster than when using Gmail right from Chrome — because of the extensive keyboard shortcuts. In general they mimic the Vim convention of modal editing, so they don’t require a lot of complex key combinations. To see the keyboard shortcuts from Gmail, just press “?” (that’s “Shift-/”) while your cursor isn’t in a text field and you’ll get a popover.

SaneBox

The concept is similar to Google’s Priority inbox, but the results are much better. SaneBox connects to your social media accounts to help it filter your email. It works great with Gmail, and is compatible with most IMAP-based email systems. My favorite feature is a folder called “BlackHole” — drop an email in there, and you’ll never see another one from that sender again.

Boomerang

The one feature I missed most from Outlook and Thunderbird when using Gmail via Chrome was the ability to schedule a message for later, so I was thrilled to find Boomerang. Boomerang’s main feature is to send an email from your inbox back to you later, but I use it almost exclusively for scheduling messages to send in the future. Unlike with Outlook, you don’t need to have your computer on for the message to go out. I often catch up on email in batches during odd hours, and it’s nice to be able to queue up replies for Monday morning while working on the weekend, for example.

1Password

While I’m not quite ready to compare them to polio, passwords are a constant aggravation. Having strong, unique passwords for everything and not having to remember any of them is wonderful. 1Password stores credit card info and other info (securely), and syncs with Dropbox to your phone. The Mac version is $49.99 and worth every penny (as is the $14.99 extra you’ll pay for the iOS version).

TextExpander

Expanding short abbreviations into longer text snippets sounds like a small thing, but it makes a big difference over time. Email salutations, phone numbers, addresses — it’s the closest thing I’ve found to Vim’s imap feature for use with everything else.

Alfred

I tried Quicksilver a number of times, but couldn’t get myself over the learning curve. Alfred is similar, and I use it dozens of times a day for launching apps, looking up contacts (the PowerPack is worth the investment), and even doing quick calculations.

CloudApp

A theme with the tools on this list is that most of them only do one thing (or a small number of things) but do them very well. This last one is perhaps the best example of that. CloudApp puts a small icon in your menu bar. You drop files (or folders) onto that icon, and CloudApp creates a shareable link and puts it on your clipboard. I’ve been thwarted enough times by overzealous corporate IT departments with excessive restrictions on file attachment types and size that this is a very worthwhile preventive measure — since you can just send a link instead of an attachment.

There’s a lot more great apps on my laptop and my phone, but these are the essentials I depend on day-in and day-out to help keep the small stuff from getting in the way of the important stuff. Leave your own suggestions for indispensable tools in the comments below.

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