8 Apr 2020

Andy Uses This

I’m a big fan of the Uses This website, which posts interviews with people asking them about the tools and productivity techniques they use to get stuff done. The interviews range from the awful (Apple fanboys salivating over their Macs, or <shudder/> Emacs diehards) to the sublime, when the interviewee gives you an insight into their personal philosophy, and forces you to question your own outlook.

My personal favourites include interviews with:

As I’m very unlikely to ever get interviewed for the site, I thought I would post my own ‘Uses This’ interview.

Photo of Andy Parkhill

Andy Parkhill

Software developer and eejit.

Who are you, and what do you do?

In no particular order, I’m a dad, husband, son, brother, Christian and an eejit. I’m really only any good at being the later. I’ve been working as a software developer for the past 15 years. I mainly work with Microsoft technologies, such as Office 365 and the Azure platform. In the past, I spent many years working with SharePoint (on-premise) but rarely touch it now. I’m currently working for the Queen’s University in Belfast, where I work on a range of different projects (developing mobile apps, building custom sites and bespoke line of business applications).

You can some of my open source code on GitHub, though I mainly use GitLab these days, and most of my projects are private. I’m on StackOverflow (though I use it less and less these days), and also on WeChat (essential for speaking to family in China), but otherwise I avoid social media. I do have a Twitter account, but I’m currently on a long term break from it. I feel a lot better when I’m not spending time on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, so I have blocked them across all my devices. I have started using WhatsApp to stay in touch during the Coronavirus lockdown.

What hardware do you use?

The most important hardware I use are a notebook and pen. I think best when I commit my thoughts to paper, and I'm most productive when I plan my day in advance using a journal. For the past 5 years, I have been using Pukka Pad’s Jotta A5 notebooks, with BIC Orange Original Fine (0.8mm) ballpoint pens which fit nicely within the notebook’s spiral. The books and pens are cheap, decent quality and can be found everywhere. I also use a ridiculous number of post-it notes daily.

My work PC is a Dell Optiplex 7040 with i7-6700 DPU @3.40 GHz processor and 16 GB RAM, running Windows 10 Pro. It is around 18 months old at this point. I use a Dell USB SK-8115 keyboard – this is an older keyboard that is a bit more solid and sturdy than the flimsy one that came bundled with the PC. I use an Anker ergonomic vertical mouse, which I simply love. I use the exact same model of mouse at home, and a wireless version for when I'm travelling with my laptop. Similarly, I use identical Fellowes crystal gel mouse pads and keyboard rests at work and home. I have a dual monitor setup in the office, using 2 mismatched Dell monitors.

I have recently started using an old Surface Pro 2 tablet at work. It has a i5-4200 CPU @ 1.6 GHz processor and 4 GB RAM, and runs Windows 10 Pro. I quite like having it for meetings, but it is useless for any development work.

My other main hardware in work are my Sennheiser HD202 headphones. This is my second set of the same model – I had the initial set for 6 years and liked them, so I didn’t see any point looking at other headphones when I had to replace them.

At home, I have just received and setup my new laptop, a Dell Inspiron 14" 2-in-1 (5491) touch enabled laptop, with a i7-10510U CPU @ 4.9 GHz, with 8GB RAM installed, and another 8GB arriving shortly from Crucial. I have it for under a month, and absolutely love it. My previous laptop was also a Dell, an Inspiron 15 (7537) that was over 7 years old, and that I finally managed to brick after it stopped supporting Windows 10. At the minute, I don’t use a monitor along with my laptop at home. Otherwise, my accessories at home match my work setup – a sturdy generic keyboard, Anker vertical mouse, and identical mouse pad and keyboard rest.

My home laptop uses Windows 10 Pro – after several attempts to use a Linux desktop, I have given up spending my free time messing around in dotfiles and trying to get things working, and instead focus on spending my time getting things done. Windows 10 allows me to do that, and the introduction of WSL means I no longer need to setup a dual boot drive if I ever need to use Linux. Additionally, my laptop is our main PC at home, so my wife also uses it, and she definitely prefers using Windows over Ubuntu.

I currently use an iPhone 5s, having finally given up on my beloved iPhone 4s a few months ago. The iPhone 4s was my first ever Apple product, as I had previously been using Android phones. It was a present from my then-girlfriend (now my wife), so I couldn’t say no... It was second hand when I got it, and after using it for around 5 years, the increasing number of unsupported apps and poor battery life meant it was time to upgrade.

Like most people working in IT, I have a number of other older devices kicking around at home – an iPad mini that I inherited from my wife when she upgraded and that I no longer use, an older model iPad that needs repaired (stuck in a boot loop), and an old Toshiba laptop that I’m still trying to find some use for. Also, a number of old Android phones in various states of repair.

Other notable pieces of hardware:

  • A decent desk, and an sturdy, comfortable office chair that I got when a previous employer moved to smaller premises
  • Lego – Our son has a large tub of Duplo sets, and a small but growing amount of Lego City sets, and it always keeps him entertained.
  • Sennheiser CX 870 ear buds – I carry these everywhere in my...
  • Swissgear laptop backpack – I’ve had this bag for over 7 years now and it appears to be indestructible

As you can tell, I prefer to using decent low to mid-range hardware. If possible, I max out the RAM for a device, and then continue using it until it fails.

And what software?

Any important information I put in my paper journal will eventually end up in OneNote, which is the best digital notebook and organiser I have came across (the OCR functionality in particular is excellent). I still use the desktop app, as opposed to the web application. My notes are then synched and available across all of my devices.

Using the same OS across my home and work devices means I can have a consistent setup across them all. I use this Windows 10 setup script to automate my setup, and I create a PC specific PowerShell script for installing any programs using this template. I then have a checklist to complete the my Windows 10 setup (mainly configuring security and privacy options, and application specific configuration). I haven't yet taken the time to automate this, but probably should. It is worth pointing out that my Windows 10 configurations are mainly hiding the new feature bloat (has anyone ever used 3D objects?), and returning it to the classic Windows 7 desktop configuration. To help with this, I also use the Open Shell for the classic Windows 7 Start menu.

The main desktop applications that I use are:

  • Dropbox – despite its growing cost, and increasing feature bloat, this is still the best synchronization tool I've came across.
  • My main browser is Firefox, and I sync my profile across my various devices. I work hard to minimize my use of extensions for security, and to avoid being fingerprinted by sites. My main extensions are CanvasBlocker, Privacy Badger, and uBlock Origin. I use Startpage.com for search.
  • I occasionally use Chromium for web development.
  • Visual Studio 2019 for development (generally C# but also a little Python).
  • Visual Studio Code for lightweight code and text editing.
  • Git and Git Extensions for source control.
  • Notepad++ for occasional text editing (specifically for any serious regex work).
  • Launchy – an application launcher. It isn’t really required for Windows 10, but I've grown so used to it that I prefer using it to the built-in launcher.
  • Greenshot for taking screenshots.
  • Cobian – a backup tool for Windows.
  • LibreOffice at home, instead of Microsoft Office (though I debate if I still need to install it, given how good the Office 365 web apps are now).
  • MarkdownPad – a Markdown editor for Windows (I have a license for the Pro version).
  • I use KeePass as my password manager.
  • Signal for secure messaging across my devices.
  • PureText – a tiny utility for stripping out the formatting of any text copied to the clipboard.
  • The Authy desktop client for 2FA.

I also have some console apps that I use to limit my distractions by blocking social media and any advertising on my various machines.

The main web applications/sites that I use are:

  • Gmail
  • Google Calendar
  • Wallabag, an open source alternative to Pocket
  • Feedly for managing my RSS subscriptions
  • Google Spreadsheets
  • Microsoft To Do

I am slowly but surely starting to reduce my use of Google products. I still use Blogger to host this blog, but I've decied to start self-hosting later this year.

I try hard to limit the number of apps I install on my mobile, but...

  • The iOS Mail and Calendar apps
  • OneNote
  • Microsoft To Do
  • Dropbox
  • Authy for 2FA
  • MiniKeePass
  • Signal
  • WeChat for keeping in touch with family
  • WhatsApp for keeping in touch with friends and work colleagues
  • Pleco
  • Nemo for Cantonese
  • Shortcuts for iOS
  • Apple Health app for tracking my weight, along with the Lose It! app for tracking my food intake.
  • A generic Interval Timer for circuit training

After writing this list, I reckon I could do with culling the number of apps even further. I use the iOS Screen Time settings to track and limit my use of my phone.

What would be your dream setup?

When I wrote the first draft of this post, my main wish was for my own home office setup, rather than just a desk in our bedroom. Now, in the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown, I actually have a home office with the same desk in the same bedroom, but with (relative) peace and quiet during the working day from my family. It is working out a lot better than I thought, but there are still issues around distractions.

Ideally, I would love to move away from using Google products and, where possible, start self-hosting open source alternatives (like NextCloud, or my own Wallabag instance). Similarly, it would be great to be more involved in open source, and to start programming in other languages outside of the .NET ecosystem. I have started looking at Python, but would love to do more than just Hello World projects.

But that all takes time and I don't have a huge amount of time for programming outside of work these days... I suspose what I am really asking for is more free time - and it turns out Coronavirus has cleared all our social calendars for the foreseeable future. We'll see what I manage to achieve in the next few months.

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