The Long and Winding Road to WorkFlowy


January 10, 2014


This is a guest blog post by Maciej Lasyk, who used to run operations at the game development company Ganymede. It explains how he and his team went through a long series of software tools to help manage their projects, and eventually found WorkFlowy to help manage it all. 

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How we work with WorkFlowy

We used a lot of software tools on my team at Ganymede. WorkFlowy sat above them all, as a meta-management system. We used it both for little things that didn’t fit in other systems, and to structure our use of these other tools. In the rest of this post, I’ll describe all the tools we used, and how WorkFlowy fit in.

Waterfall is a beast

When I took over Operations team in Ganymede few years ago I faced the problem of managing our resources, documentation, IT infrastructure, roadmap and ideas. It was a really hard and interesting challenge. Back then we used classical waterfall approach for our daily tasks & projects. It was really killing us – we had so many interrupts and context switching, that it was really hard to stay calm and find a couple of minutes to focus on some particular issue or project.

Getting agile

Back then I took part in a few agile meetups here in Krakow / Poland (#omgkrk ftw!) and found that we should switch immediately to Scrum or Kanban. Later on, we decided to follow an evolution (not revolution) approach – so we decided Kanban is the only way (Scrum would be the revolution for us). It was a really great move – we had our Kanban board hanging on the wall, we met daily & weekly during standups and things started going smoothly. After a few weeks we switched to Jira / Greenhopper (nowJira Agile) instead of classical wall board. Why? We just needed some automation (Jira tasks triggered by monitoring system, integration with some other apps via Jira API). Jira & Kanban rocked 🙂

Our Operations interrupt driven workflows were not annoying us anymore as we used goalkeeper (a guy that for a whole week takes care of all interruptions, quick tasks etc so others are able to work on projects and much more specialized issues).  Kanban is about Continuous Improvement (after every iteration during standup we thought about possible improvements to our issues resolving processes),WIP (Work in Progress limiting and metering bottlenecks), time estimations and so on. But time was passing and our workflows were getting more and more complicated. It was really good, but we just felt like we were missing something.

Organizing notes and documentation

We used Jira together with Confluence where we kept our documentation, procedures etc. Those solutions are really great, but we still struggled with the issue of gathering and saving information. How many times we had to look up some particular issue in Google? After finding the solution we could write a new Confluence page, create some comments etc. But this took time – and plenty of it, to be honest. Additionally we were a really small team (4-5 guys) so we couldn’t afford such a waste on bureaucracy. We had to find a way to quickly save and share information and data and even more important – find it in a really easy, reliable and repetitive way.

Then we hit Evernote (Greg – thanks for that!). This was another killer software which helped us a lot. We could easily save whole webpages (via browser plug-ins), tag our notes, create information with rich text editors and later on – browse that on our mobiles. Moreover – Evernote changed our way of taking notes during conferences. We just took photos, attached those to notes and that was it – later we could just use text find option which highlighted search results even on those photos (background and asyncOCR involved). Man – that was really great. But… We found that we lost some of our velocity – we were working as hard as usual, but despite Jira and Kanban and even Evernote – we were struggling with some issues. The problem was that not everything could be saved as a Jira issue (mainly ideas or some jobs that didn’t fit into our workflows, so would probably be lost in Backlog forever). So such things were liable to be forgotten & abandoned. We tried to save those in a special page in Evernote, but it didn’t work out. Evernote is great, but it’s quite a massive application. Moreover we used Linux and there is no native Evernote app there (only NixNote / NeverNote that is way too slow), so we had to use Evernote webpage – which is not that handy.

Simplifying flows

One more thing; Everyone of us has a private life – we took part in some open source projects, developed some ideas or worked after hours on something completely different. And let’s be honest – it’s normal (and even recommended) to use the same management tools privately at home.

So what were we missing? Something really simple – for instance, when I got an idea, I usually saved it to Evernote. Later on, that idea evolved into some private project. But it’s quite hard to manage a project within Evernote – yes there are some “To-Do” checkboxes but those are so hard to use and don’t give you any possibility to create dependencies, trees etc. It’s just a normal rich text editor where you could put lists and checkboxes. That just doesn’t fit.

So I started taking notes in standard text files, which I saved on my Dropbox account, so I had access to those from any device I used. I arranged those into a complicated system of subdirectories (yes, I’m a sysadmin) and… got stuck. It was really horrible to find anything there. But at least I could check the tree of those projects with… shell command ‘tree‘ 😉 And why didn’t I use Kanban / Jira here? Because no one really wants to Kanban his/hers life. Our lives have that crazy velocity, go in so many directions and through so much mind tunnels that it’s just impossible to save all of that to Kanban board. We shouldn’t even try (maybe with some main activities, but come on – our lives consist of so many activities, ideas and possibilities that you could say that it’s a continuous and evolving brainstorm). So what happened next? GTD. And Workflowy.

Let’s get that done!

Getting Things Done is a stress-free productivity action management system (whoa that was complicated – I took it from Wikipage: ). GTD is basically about writing down all your ideas and tasks and managing those in a really simple way. This was what I tried to achieve with my text files & subdirectories hierarchy. But GTD over text files doesn’t work. With Workflowy it simply kicks ass.

You have your page which is a clear and simple list of projects, tasks and/or ideas. Anytime any of those evolves into something more complicated – you just extend it into a new branch. you can collapse it in a very easy way, you can open branches in new tabs – and it’s all so simple and takes seconds. You can tag, share and collaborate. It’s like a meta – programming language for managing your daily routines, projects and ideas. Effectiveness by simplicity – it’s what we really looked for! Imagine, that right now I’m managing four data-centers, personal training plans, home works, my Fedora Project contributions, CTFs fights and much more with the help of Workflowy. Yes – still Kanban / Jira, still Evernote but Workflowy is on one corner of that triangle.

So, how the daily routine looked back then, after starting using Workflowy? It was very simple. Workflowy & GTD just wrapped any other management systems. I started my day with Workflowy / “daily” branch. I had that “Kanban” point on the list, that told me, that I had to check the Jira Kanban table. Later on (break, lunch, after work) I’ve rechecked Workflowy and moved on. Sometimes simple lists from Workflowy evolved into normal projects which we’ve put into Jira / Confluence.

Erm, Workflowy.. why? Once again..

  • simplicity
  • mobility
  • 100% keyboard steering
  • tagging
  • sharing
  • faving (starring pages)
  • Just watch this video 😉
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Kel Arrey
9 years ago

This reminds me a bit of Matt Cornell’s blog entry from January 2006: “Is GTD the ‘Extreme Programming’ of Time Management ?”

Maciek Lasyk (@docent_net)
Reply to  Kel Arrey

Agree – that’s a really nice reading!

Grzegorz Szczepanik
9 years ago

More than few years ago, when Ganymede had been quite small company, we used OneNote (2007) as well. For a time, it was quite efficient tool, but rapidly stopped to scale up after we grow bigger.

Nicholas Perry
9 years ago

Yeah, we’ve started to use OneNote as more of a project drafting and idea creation board. Its basically become effectively our digital moleskins. . It’s also been pretty useful as a journal system that we hope to mine for blog-posts and technical discussions when we are ramping up to launch anything notable.

I used to have a pretty lean GTD system in my personal one, but with Workflowy’s tagging system, i’ve all but done away with that. Its still useful as an idea collection and research platform (most of my research is visually oriented, and OneNotes screen capturing tool is still the best). It serves as my personal filing system.

I’ve seen some companies use it effective on a larger scale, but they are typically the ones that have money to bankroll a customized sharepoint that actually meets their workflow.

One of our first projects was to make a DIY-surface because we got sick of our IRL white-boarding brainstorm sessions going to waste. I’m hoping to get the time to integrate Wacom’s web drivers with some html canvas so we can move away from being locked into OneNote. All we really need is inking support.

If we ever get big enough to have employees, everyone is going to be given a high-end tablet-pc or some type of android with ink support.

Nicholas Perry
9 years ago

I’m actually coming in from the exact opposite direction to this workflow. I started with GTD -> Onenote -> DropBox+sourcecontrol-> Kanban -> Workflowy.

The only difference is that instead of Evernote we are using OneNote because of it’s excellent inking support (think vectors with pressure support) and everyone in the Lab has a a wacom enabled inking tool for their computer. (I love tablet PCs).

Thanks for helping me take a look at this from a different prespective,Its really going to help us tie things together better for when we get more people on board.

Jesse Patel
Jesse Patel
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Perry

Cool. What type of lab do you work in?

Nicholas Perry
9 years ago
Reply to  Jesse Patel

Me and friend basically took over half of a house and have been experimenting with various projects. We are hoping one of them will take off and we can actually turn it into an official business.

9 years ago

Awesome story on how you use WorkFlowy in your day-to-day. You all should create a video too. 🙂

Maciek Lasyk (@docent_net)
Reply to  neoprime33

Honestly I’m thinking about filling CFP for devopsdays Warsaw here in Poland where I could talk a little about agile management – with use of some tools like Workflowy 😉

Oh did I just reply to a comment posted 7 months ago? 😉

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