Posts tagged: Time Tracking

On top of Tasktop

My post about tracking time attracted the attention of Tasktop. While this had been mentioned to me before, I was mistakenly under the impression that this was a windows only app.

I was pleased to find out that this was also available for linux. Great… Lets try it out.

First stumbling block is the requirement to register on the website before I can download a trial. I am a firm believer of try before you buy. I should be able to register but it should be entirely my choice.

I am more comfortable with registering before buying or for the use of a free piece of software. However, registering for a trial always irritates me. This was also the case when I wanted to trial InDesign / Illustrator the other day.

After registering, there was the irritating wait for the email to arrive. Now, this is irritating. When I want something, I want it NOW. I hate waiting. Adobe did not make me wait for the confirmation email of registration before downloading the trials. There are two good reasons as to why this irritates me.

  1. Email, as reliable as it is generally, can take time. In theory, this can be anywhere from a few seconds to hours. How about if my mail server is currently down. Or even more importantly, what if I have shut down my mail client so that it does not keep distracting me from something that I am trying to do. Opening up my mail client, I now want to find out about the other emails that are in my inbox and whether any of them require an action…
  2. I have reluctantly provided details about myself. Confirming my email address before I am allowed to download a trial suggests that Tasktop does not trust me enough to just let me download the trial. The software has started off on the wrong foot. How much of an issue is it really if someone gave the wrong details before downloading a trial. Is it really that important that you are able to keep bugging them via email to buy the product?

I was curious enough to jump through the hoops to download the product. The first thing I noticed is that there is no 64bit for Linux :-(. More steps involved in installing this on my 64bit machine. So instead, I installed it one of my 32bit machines – save time.

Once the download completed, the steps on the website suggested that I needed to configure it (with ./configureTasktop.sh) and then run Tasktop. The configuration step required no input from the user and outputted nothing. I have to ask:

  1. Why is the configuration step not integrated into Tasktop and configured to run once? Alternatively,
  2. Why does the configuration step, not start Tasktop right after.
  3. Even better: Make Tasktop a symlink to configureTasktop.sh, which then relinks that to the Tasktop Binary with the configureTasktop running Tasktop right after. This means that from the users perspective, they are always running the same command, and you save any cost associated with run once checks.

I finally got Tasktop to run and it asks me if I want to install the firefox addon to integrate with Tasktop. I want to see how it integrates, so I do. Of course, this is yet another step.

A restart later, I was ready to try out Tasktop – or was I? We use bugzilla to track tasks and I wanted to integrate that in similar to how I do it in Eclipse. This was also trickier than I expected.

I went into the partner connectors section which did not cover bugzilla, which I assumed meant that it came with Bugzilla integration by default. This is true but how the hell do I get there to configure it. It took me a little while to find the configuration section (there are no menus). Once I was there, I wanted to get back to the original layout which was tricky since the “close configuration” button was nicely hidden away up at the top right.

Once I had this working, I tried out the active/deactive mechanisms and this works just the same as in Eclipse. Except with the Firefox plugin, it adds in the links that you browse as part of your context – GREAT!

Add in a task to blog about it and went through writing half the document, then decided to de-activate it before I started working on something else. All the firefox tabs were closed – again, great…

The problem is that when you re-activate the context, it just clears the tabs in firefox and shows you the links you last had open. The page titles for the pages that I had open were the same for a few, so going through them trial and error to get to the blog post was tricky. More importantly, the cookie was already gone and I had to re-login. This might be a timeout issue with WordPress so wont tag that against Tasktop.

I haven’t tried linking folders / files yet but considering that with the above process taking me more time than I expected due to the sheer number of steps involved, I shall have to leave that to another day. In all honesty, it might never happen.

I do like the time logging feature of Tasktop as it tells me which tasks I spent my time on in different chart formats. This is great. However, I have a problem in that this is on an individual basis. I see nothing on here about how a team leader can link in Tasktop used by the team to calculate total time spent on a project / task. This is a necessary feature for a tool like this in the team environment.

It is possible that all of this is easier in a windows environment. Possibly because it was built on there, but more likely because Windows users are used to taking several steps to achieve something (what is it – 7 clicks to delete a file in Vista?)

Having ranted on for a while, dont get me wrong. I think that Tasktop is a fantastic concept and with a bunch of tweaking can be a very intuitive tool to use. However, at the stage that it is in, it does not do what I need it to do. It is actually more obtrusive than useful (e.g. by removing all my tabs from firefox when switching out of a context and not re-instating them on going back to the context).

Then, it is probably just because I simply expect too much… :-(

Your Time

I have always been curious about how I spend my time. It would be useful or at the very least cool, if I could figure out what I did with the 24 hours I get each day. Considering that this is overkill, it would be useful to find out how much time I spend on each task / client at work…

This is something that a lot of companies would find useful, especially in the professional sector. Lawyers, for example need to know this information for the purposes of billing. Time tracking has always been a personal bug bear of mine and is something that I often ramble on about.

In fact, in Chris’ Blog, the team management application he speaks about towards the end is something that I have been talking about and working on in the background for about a year now (actual effort is probably only around a week since I keep getting distracted with other things)

My aim has always (unconsciously) been to have an invisible interface, more because if there is effort involved, its going to take away from the task at hand and unless you are an obsessive compulsive (which I sometimes end up being), its going to be inaccurate. More importantly, its going to take up time to track and log time and ends up being a task of its own which requires management.

The most common way to log time is to just have log sheet which is filled in at the end of the day – just putting numbers against tasks and making sure it adds up to the number of hours you worked in the day.

Mylyn for Eclipse, which is a task/bug management plugin has a cool and useful concept of task contexts. This means that when you activate a tasks, it remembers the files you are working on, as well as which lines you were on and saves it as the task context. You can then de-activate the context or activate another task. When you go back to this task, it loads up the context. In other words, the files you had open, at the lines that you were at. This is a real boon and can save a lot of time once you get the hang of creating a task for everything you are working on and practice a little bit of self discipline in terms of activating and de-activating tasks.

Mylyn could use a little more intelligence in context management and creation on activating tasks with no context. But the concept of contexts is great and it should be possible to apply this at the operating system level.

For example, I am working on Task A. This involves a number of URL’s in firefox, a number of emails from Thunderbird, some files in Eclipse, some terminal windows, couple of Documents, and a spreadsheet.

Task B involves a url in firefox or two and a document.

and so on.

It should now be possible for me to simply tell my “Task Manager” that I am about to work on Task A and have all the applications load up in the locations that I last left them and hide away or close the other applications. When I want to switch to Task B, it should close everything else and open up the applications for Task B.

My desktop environment (GNOME), like most Linux desktop environments have the concept of workspaces. You can also get this as an addon for Windows. I have used these to emulate this kind of behaviour but this is far from perfect.

In theory however, this should make it possible for an application to track the time spent in each workspace. If the application is told what task is associated with each workspace, it could automatically log time against that.

The real power for task management would come from a powerful use of task hierarchy. Lets say we have the following task list

Client A => Project A => Subtask 1

Client A => Project A => Subtask 2

Client A => Project B => Subtask

Client B => Project A => Subtask

In this setup, the task management could be told (or even better figure out on its own) that there are application hierarchies… In other words, for all tasks related to Client A – the user will always need application X (with a particular configuration – say firefox on a particular url)

For Project A, there could be the requirement of another url in firefox.

This way, when a new Project or subtask is created, the system can automatically start a few steps ahead…

Client B could have completely different application setup / layout.

Automatic time tracking, task managment and planning then becomes so much easier.

For this to be viable, however, there are a lot of things that still needs to happen.

  • Context awareness for applications and ability to save a context
  • Ability in applications to merge contexts (for hierarchical contexts)
  • Efficient Application swapin/swapout when tasks switch for instant task switching
  • Applications needs to be more lightweight to make task switching quicker

Most, if not all modern applications provide extension points and it should be possible, at least in theory to add this functionality on to most applications. More importantly, it is theoretically possible to add this functionality on to all the open source software since the source is available. However, since it requires a fairly radical shift in thinking about application state, this is probably far more complex than it seems.

Once we have something like this working, it should be much more straightforward to add workflow using the task hierarchy to make it seamless including passing the contexts to the another person if necessary…

In any case, a few years into the future, who knows, these features might be built into all applications and perhaps we will be talking about task management, not application / process management.

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