The Case For The Logbook

Christopher Rath

2004-07-24

Introduction

A key tool in an IT professional's work practice is a logbook. The truth is that all working professionals benefit from a logbook, but this essay is being written from the perspective of an IT professional.

Note that I haven't written that a diary is a key tool---where I use the word "diary" in its North American sense. A logbook is a log of information learned, a recording of events attended, notes of plans made and alternatives considered, observations of outcomes, and other information & data related to your work.

The purpose of the logbook is to augment one's memory and bring objectivity to your memory of the past; whereas a diary---in the North American sense---is a place to record emotion, secret thoughts and feelings, in addition to an account of events and observations. It is my belief that if feel that you cannot show anyone the contents of your logbook, then it is a diary and not a logbook, and it has lost its purpose/use as a professional's tool.

In my experience training newly-hired IT professionals taking their first job following graduation, one of the most important tasks to undertake with the new-hire in the first few hours is to introduce them to the concept of a logbook, and then cajole them into using a newly issued logbook through the remainder of the indoctrination session(s).

If a new hire will begin to capture key information on that first day, and to begin to develop a discipline around the logbook, it will save the new-hire and the mentor vast amounts of time later; through a reduction in the number of re-asked questions and an increase in the rate the new-hire will complete new tasks (because key information about those tasks does not need to be recalled by the new-hire, or figured out from first principles when memory fails).

Logbook Benefits

The logbook keeper's motto should be, "If it's not written in the logbook, it didn't happen." (c.f. Clifford Stoll's book, "Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage").

Benefit By Way Of Example

Several years ago I had to write a memo that documented the events related to a software supplier's interaction with my employer; to provide the Corporation's lawyer with information in support of a decision to take legal action against the supplier. I had four information sources to draw upon in writing the memo:

  1. The paper file in my filing cabinet, containing contracts and correspondence with the supplier;
  2. Emails exchanged with the supplier;
  3. The recollections I and others had of interactions with the supplier; and
  4. The information in my logbook.

In my logbook I had kept notes on what had taken place in meetings with the supplier, what actions had been committed-to by both parties, notes on when actions had been completed & what had been done in fulfillment of those actions, key points made in conversations help with the supplier, data gathered by my team in tracking application usage, etc.

I had inherited the corporate relationship with the supplier from another manager, along with an incomplete paper file folder; since the previous manager had not done a good job in maintain the file. Since the paper file was not complete, it was necessary to rely heavily upon the emails I had saved, as well as my logbook. Without those snapshots in time, my memo would have consisted mostly of fading corruptible memories, and would not have produced as authoritative a result.

I have chosen to illustrate the benefits of keeping a logbook by giving the above example, and readers may react by thinking, "I'll never be required to contribute to a lawsuit."; however, I had never expected to contribute to one either. The fact that I had been keeping a logbook simplified my assigned task.

Specific Benefits

Specific tasks undertaken with your logbook and an associated benefit:

Logbook Form

There is nothing sacred about the form or style a logbook takes; however, a paper logbook should have bound pages so that they do not become misplaced. That said, early in my own career I used a pad of paper and placed the papers in a file folder at day's end; and this did work. The failure of the loose paper method is that you don't have logbook entries from previous days with you when you are away from your desk.

Paper logbooks I have seen successfully used:

Electronic logbooks I have seen successfully used:

Logbooks I have looked at but do not have personal experience with:

In the electronic realm, I have never seen the very small PDAs (WinCE or Palm device) successfully used as logbooks. These shirt pocket-sized devices are simply too small to be easily used as logbooks. Many people use these devices to augment their logbook activities, but the small form-factor is a considerable barrier to surmount.

Electronic vs. Paper

Paper logbooks are the most popular form in use today. Paper logbooks don't need electricity, and their file-format never becomes unreadable because the software needed to read the file isn't available on your new computer. Pictures, illustrations, tables, and other documents can be easily stapled, pasted, or taped into a paper logbook. All-in-all, paper is still the best logbook medium for most users.

For technically proficient individuals with access to a scanner, an electronic logbook can be more effective than paper. The electronic logbook allows searching in a way that paper does not. An electronic logbook is generally less useful than paper when it comes to capturing freeform sketches---but that limitation can be overcome if one is diligent to capture the drawing on paper, and then to scan it into your logbook immediately upon returning to your desk.

I have seen one example of an individual was proficient enough in a high-end drawing package (Diagram!, a predecessor of Visio, but on NeXTSTEP) such that he was able to capture drawings in real-time during meetings; but such proficiency is unusual.

Conclusion

If you are not using a logbook today, buy a small bound notebook and try keeping one. The more you use it, the more you will see its benefits---but don't be stopped in its use by the fact that you won't do a complete job of using it when you first begin. A logbook is like a savings account: its full benefit accrues over time, as your investment provides a return.


ęCopyright 2004, Christopher Rath
Telephone: 613-824-4584
Address: 1371 Major Rd., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1E 1H3
Last updated: 2010/01/27 @ 12:55:19 ( )