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As a programmer who work in a company whose vision is to make paperless office possible, is there any way I can work effectively while using less paper?

I can list at least several kinds of papers I use quite often:

  • Paper notebook, on which I do most of the pre-coding design work and ideas
  • Books
  • Temporary printouts of source code, though not so often (in color, with a 6 point font at 600 DPI)
  • Sticky note, to remind myself of things that should be taken care of within a few days

On the other hand, I also use a wiki and an office text editor. Once a while I would use a diagramming software to make a few flowcharts.

Deeper questions:

  • Is there a relationship between paper use and productivity?
  • How can programmers help save the trees?
  • Is paperless software development fundamentally different from paperless office?

Related questions:

Additional info, if it helps:

  • Everyone has dual monitors.
  • We have decent project management and issue tracking software (both web-based).

Please be constructive. In particular, please give your answer to your peer programmers who wish to be flexible and are willing to change working style in order to become more productive as well as meeting certain their own personal values.

Edited: I removed the company's view because it appears to be too flamebait. If you need to see my original words, go to the edit history.

Deleted: Doxygen and whiteboard.
Reason: disregarding my personal experience with these great tools, we never had to print out anything as a consequence of using/not using them. To see my original words, go to the edit history.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by MichaelT, gnat, GlenH7, Corbin March, mattnz Sep 10 '13 at 8:19

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

How exactly does not using paper save trees? If demand for paper goes down there certainly will be a lot less trees planted to generate paper? –  JohnFx Oct 25 '10 at 3:12
Because of increasing indications that my question title doesn't match the description and the directions of answers I'm looking for, I'm now considering changing the question title. Suggestions are welcome. (If you think I need to start another follow-up question, please let me know, too.) –  rwong Oct 25 '10 at 4:39
In the US, where a substantial amount of electricity is still generated using coal, you probably have a lower carbon impact from brainstorming on a few sheets of paper than you do from running your computer for the equivalent period of time. –  Jon Purdy Oct 26 '10 at 14:14
LOL - I remember reading about the "paperless office" in a magazine from the 1970s - and we are not there yet! Good luck to that company. BTW, I hate getting paper cuts. –  DarenW Nov 16 '10 at 5:46
And add to Jun Purdy's comment - if someone just wants to make a sketchy diagram, or make a quick little list of reminders - it would take a longer time, far from an equivalent period, to do so on a computer. Someone has yet to invent a way to make quick scribbles on a computer. Without everyone needing an artist's digitizing pad, that is. So paper is here to stay. –  DarenW Nov 16 '10 at 5:49

13 Answers 13

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Absolutely Yes

Paper, along with a whiteboard, is absolutely indispensable.

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+1 to whiteboards. I wish you could save the drawings though for future reference. –  Morgan Herlocker Oct 25 '10 at 2:28
I use my iPhone to take pictures of whiteboard sessions and mail them to the meeting participants. Works fine for us. –  user1249 Oct 25 '10 at 2:37
@Josh K: my understanding of whiteboard is that it is written using erasable (water-based) markers, therefore it is not paper-based. Please correct me if I'm wrong. –  rwong Oct 25 '10 at 3:01
@rwong: I don't understand why you would be wrong, however what is your point? –  Josh K Oct 25 '10 at 3:04
we have an electronic whiteboard that can save what has been drawn to PDF (and some other formats) –  flamingpenguin Oct 25 '10 at 10:52

Oh, yes!

I really don't believe in a paper-less office, which is quite radical even though I extensively use the wiki, tracker and other digital tools. I'm a bit biased though given I work mainly as a UI programmer and also freelance as a illustrator as well.

There are some reasons and occasions where I have to use paper and (pencils|ball-point pens|felt-tip pens):

  • As I'm a user interface programmer, I need to sketch out ideas (such as placement and other notes) which is just not time effective for me to do in ASCII form.

  • For me, concepts and implementation details tend to become easier to explain when I'm doodling them out on paper or on the white board.

  • In a dynamic workplace where I'm at I need to write down requests when they crop up during meetings I have with real people. Unfortunately these requests pop up while I'm not near a computer. This is why I need paper and pencil to write it down, or else I forget to add it to the tracker.

  • I always keep a small todo list next to the monitor, so I can focus on what I need to do right here, right now. This is far more quicker than task switching to the notepad or tracker on the computer… and I'm using multiple screen setup!

Also, my favorite kind of pen is the ball-point pen.

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I run a completely paperless office and I don't find it to be an inconvenience. I consider myself to be a successful programmer.

I use a whiteboard + camera for sketches. I used to supplement this with a Tablet PC but gave this up after Tablet PCs started coming in either low durability (HP) or low performance (everyone else) models. Now I just do whiteboard -> photo -> diagram (Visio et al).

I keep my notes in Evernote and always have an EverNote capable phone or laptop or netbook around.

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Thanks for sharing your success and strategies. –  rwong Oct 25 '10 at 12:59
+1 for the camera. That's becoming common. –  Michael Durrant Mar 6 '12 at 6:59

It really depends on the programmer. During meetings, some people jot notes on paper while others use a text editor from their laptop. I prefer using a real notepad to write stuffs on during meeting because I don't like dragging my laptop with me. Moreover, in 2+ hours of meeting, the laptop might run out of batteries(some rooms might not have enough power outlet for your charger). Some of you might argue that laptops can last 10 hours but a 3 year old laptop can have a battery life of 2 hours.

Paper is also useful to quickly write pseudocodes, algorithm, ideas and hand drawn graphics to connect your points.

When all the above can be done faster, more efficiently with very little hassle electronically for a budget programmer, then paper might become obsolete in a programmer's work environment.

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This echos my feeling quite a lot. However, this year, I've found that an Mac Air SSD is so light and quick that it addresses most of the traditional laptop issues. You open it and it's on in seconds (and very few of them) and it's amazingly light. I actually prefer the smallest one for the size and weight benefits. This was hard for me to get into though as I don't normally like / own / use Apple products. Too many people jumping out the windows in China. But in this case, I had to get one to work with other folks. –  Michael Durrant Mar 6 '12 at 7:02

PDF versions, of books are nice and can be a convenient reference. I do not think I could work without my legal pad though. It is like my brain that sits on my desk and never forgets anything (unless it gets wet). I like to print out screens of UI prototypes as well so that I can mark them up with a pen.

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I enjoy PDFs for text-based search, however, when it comes to actually sitting down and reading I prefer a book. As computer programmers we spend too much time on the computer already. I also find that I retain knowledge better from a book. –  snmcdonald Oct 25 '10 at 1:57
I'm aware of the limitations of paper notebook: (1) not shareable, (2) not searchable, and (3) danger of getting wet. –  rwong Oct 25 '10 at 2:01
more limitations: (4) currently, text extraction from handwriting (especially the kind found on paper notebook) is still technologically out of reach for most people. –  rwong Oct 25 '10 at 2:22
@rwong true, but they are: 1) easily commentable 2) unforgettable (when on your desk instead of some directory) 3) put-in-your-pocket-able –  Morgan Herlocker Oct 25 '10 at 2:27

About the only thing I use paper for now is note-taking when on the phone, printing cheat sheets to stick on the wall, and occasionally algorithm development when my brain needs a change of context. There's also reference text books around the place.

To get me completely off paper, I'd need a digital copy of any reference books I need, either online or preferably on a separate e-reader/tablet. If I had a headset I could type to take notes when on the phone (which is rare anyway).

As for the need to scrawl algorithms, perhaps a desk surface that's a whiteboard would work. A shared whiteboard is OK, but often my scrawl is not something that should be/needs to be shared.

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I will say no, but I use a whiteboard for most my brainstorm/design work, where as I notice most people who don't use a whiteboard use a paper notebook or legalpad. It looks to me that it really depends on the programmer, with the key being to make sure that they have something to jot ideas onto.

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For patent records I use a bound, numbered notebook.

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I keep a notebook handy and take it with me to meetings. However, I've been using the same pen for 6 years and haven't replaced the ink in it yet. Between the laptop and my iPad, I've no need for paper. I've even given up buying physical copies of technical books whenever possible in favor of e-books.

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Ditto on the iPad + e-books. Great combination and way easier to carry. –  Jesse Mar 6 '12 at 5:52

It takes me about 2-3 years to fill a notebook, although it's indispensable for occasional note. Also, sometimes I print out e-mails or notes for meetings, though it's usually limited to few sheets of paper a month. I never print out source code, apart from occasional diagram or database schema. And that's about it.

I don't buy books unless I'm pretty sure that I'll read them over and over. First reading is on screen or from library.

Whiteboard is fine, but I could live without it.

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Personally I like using paper. It is really useful.

I think your company fell into the trap of (green) penny saving. You don't have to eliminate all papers to save the planet, only waste.

If you really want to make a difference vs the environment there is a TON of other things you could look for. Try to minimize waste in other areas instead. Maybe you could try saving on fuel cost, or anything really.

What is your company doing exactly? There is also the option to work directly in technology that could help to save the environment.

Penny picking, green or not, really don't sound like the right solution to me, just don't waste.

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@n1ck: I edited my question to remove the focus on the company PR. It seems that a number of people are caught on my flamebait words. It is better to focus your answers on reducing paper usage in general, and to explore the major blocking issues. –  rwong Oct 25 '10 at 2:34
@rwong: well then you invalidate a big part of my answer. I though it could have been useful, more than a question about how to reduce your paper usage. Why do you want so much to reduce it anyway? Paper is recyclable and is not that bad, just don't waste it. I still think paper is very useful and it is not replacement for electronics. Paper = short draft, drawings and the likes, electronics = long term storage. At least that how I find it useful. –  n1ckp Oct 25 '10 at 2:52
I'd argue that using paper is GOOD for the environment because it encourages planting young trees to replace older ones. Young trees remove a lot more CO2 per square acre of land than old growth trees. –  JohnFx Oct 25 '10 at 3:13
@JohnFx: I wouldn't be so sure about this. You have to consider the whole picture: planting tree will need space, fertilizer, fuel to move the tree/workers from/to where they are planted, etc. I would continue to recommend to look after minimizing waste instead of trying to find 'miracle' cure to the problem. –  n1ckp Oct 25 '10 at 3:16
@n1ck - True, plus the whole C02 is destroying the planet thing is likely bunk anyway. So you are probably right about that. But the whole scarcity of paper thing is also silly. I'd say do it for costs savings, but the environmental thing is just a way to feel smug about one's self. –  JohnFx Oct 25 '10 at 3:21

I keep a notepad handy when I am working. It tends to have a todo list and a lot of short term notes. Stuff like the id# of the db record I am working on and things like that.

Well and anything that may pop into my head that I may want to deal with later. I also tend to doodle in the margins.

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Not really

Paper notebook, on which I do most of the pre-coding design work and ideas

I find it much faster and easier to just write stuff in notepad,todolist, visual studio



Temporary printouts of source code, though not so often

Are you printing your emails as well? ;)

Sticky note, to remind myself of things that should be taken care of within a few days

Todolist (http://www.abstractspoon.com/tdl_resources.html) is excellent for this kind of stuff although you can get by with just a textfile, excelfile or other todolist.

Even doing interface prototyping can be easily done on the computer, either in software for that purpose, or powerpoint templates for example to the effect, or simply do quick prototyping in blend/visual studio. Functional prototypes are always so much more useful IMO since you can really get a feel for how something and works.

So to summarize, while paper might be indespensible for you and part of your habits I hardly think it is for everyone.

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