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I have been programming for a while and I often find myself writing my thoughts down because I've found that it helps me to focus on the solution.

It feels like I am wasting a lot of paper. On the other hand, I feel insecure about getting a white board installed in my personal cube because it feels like a whiteboard is more specifically used to discuss solutions with other developers.

What is your experience with note taking? Is a whiteboard useful outside of collaborative situations?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by MichaelT, GlenH7, Robert Harvey, david.pfx, Ampt Jul 22 '14 at 15:51

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.

This question isn't specific to programming. In fact, in its current state, it could apply to almost ANY profession. –  Walter May 5 '11 at 18:43
Easily fixed. Although I feel like this question has been asked several times in the past. –  user8 May 5 '11 at 19:03
Well, Walter, yes it could, this is relevant to programming since it is hard to keep thoughts together especially when you are presenting with changing fairly complicated data model. And it does help to be more productive if one shares their doubts with other developers, and ask for their thoughts. –  Erion May 5 '11 at 19:06
You may want to avoid the 4' X 8' model. –  JeffO May 5 '11 at 20:48
I consider the whiteboard to be my brain. For the period that my cube didn't have a whiteboard I regularly went into my boss's office and used his until he called building services to have one placed in my cube. It's a little barren at the moment because the only thing I need to diagram out is a TFS branching strategy for a migrating project. –  Joel Etherton May 6 '11 at 16:43

13 Answers 13

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Whiteboard all the way. :) For some reason it really benefits me to write things down on a board and be able to take a few steps back to look at it.

In any case, don't feel insecure about asking for it. Worst thing they can do is say no. And if you really feel it might help you to improve your performance, they would be crazy not to allow it.

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+1, I -heart- white boards! –  GrandmasterB May 5 '11 at 19:50
+1 : "For some reasons" > I've read somewhere (maybe "Design of Everyday Things" book) thinking using your hands is far more effective than thinking "in the wild". That's one reason making schemes by hand feels more efficient than making them through a graphics but less practical because you can't "edit" it easily. Whiteboards are a kind of compromise in this view. –  Klaim May 6 '11 at 16:40

I'm experimenting with using mind-mapping / brain storming software in place of using a whiteboard for my own thoughts. This way I don't have to either keep track of bits of paper, or go to the hassle of photographing my whiteboard (transferring the pictures to the computer etc).

So far it's going quite well, I'm playing with X-Mind and Free-mind at the moment. Using this software I don't find the computer a barrier, I can quickly get notes/ideas on screen and manipulate as I please, be that straight away or later.

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When the ideas I have are too big for a piece of paper, and not structured enough for a mindmap or Visio diagram, I use the whiteboard.

When I'm done, I take a picture of it and erase it, so it's ready for next time.

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I take a picture and upload with Evernote on my phone to get the text search feature. –  JeffO May 5 '11 at 20:45

Be careful with a whitebaord, depending on your manager, they may judge you based on how often you update it.

He had that same list of things to do last week. What has he been doing?

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On the flip side, it can make you look busy if you update it frequently, even if you're just surfing around all day. –  GrandmasterB May 5 '11 at 19:49
@GrandmasterB thats true, good point. –  JD Isaacks May 5 '11 at 20:17

The advantage of a whiteboard over paper is whenever you want to do visual things. Whenever I try to draw a complex UML diagram or try to brainstorm using a Venn diagram I tend to waste a lot of paper redrawing everything with a slightly different layout. A whiteboard is great because you can just erase a small part or change where a box is located.

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I've heard of this erasable device for drawing on paper called a “pencil”… –  Donal Fellows May 5 '11 at 20:42
@Donal I don't think I've carried a pencil and eraser with me since I was 8, but good point. –  Deckard May 5 '11 at 21:30
@Donal after a couple of iterations of write and erase the paper starts of suffer -- overall not so good for lots of changes. Also note the latest generation of erasable pens (like Pilot's Frixion really work. Overall I use both, but a white board with its ability to stand back even when working singly is very useful. –  Richard May 6 '11 at 10:34

I love having a whiteboard, don't get me wrong. That said, the best tool I have for jotting down notes is a collection of spiral notepads. This allows you to refer to previous thoughts / notes which is impossible on a whiteboard.

Of course, if there existed a touch-screen whiteboard that could save snapshots (not to mention copy/paste, drag/drop, voice recognition, etc.), I would take that. :)

EDIT: Also, keep this in mind when buying a new whiteboard. The larger the board, the more it costs and the more difficult it is to mount on the wall. You might try finding some used whiteboards to save money.

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+1 for buying used. I bought mine at the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore for about a quarter of the price it would have cost new. I did have to spend a few minutes and some elbow grease getting some old writing off the board but for the price, a bit of effort cleaning was worth it. –  Jason May 6 '11 at 18:08

Whiteboard and paper are interchangeable for me. There is no 'intended use' for a whiteboard... it's for writing on. Write whatever you need to on it. Right now mine has a pseudo-class diagram, and a grocery list on it.

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I use a large white board just about everyday, but then I teach programming.

As for a personal white board, I don't. I do keep a cheap paper pad for doodling, but then to keep notes, to do lists and such in text files.

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I miss having a whiteboard (and the office I had at the time). I would use it as a solo developer all the time to just keep a running tally of outstanding issues, or to do a quick sketch of a problem. When I was a One-man IT Department I quartered it off into partitions for support issues, systems issues, programming issues and it would really help when the owner would talk to me about something; I could point to the board and let her know I'm aware and it's on the list of things to research.

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If you think it would help you, then I don't see why you don't just go and getting it. Your insecurities I think stem from the fear of "what would people think".

You may find that they will think it's a good idea and copy it. Or they might laugh for a while. But the key piece of information that you require is whether in fact it works for your or not.

I would go and get one if you want to and I would based your thoughts more on how you'd use it effectively rather than "what would people think".

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I would recommend a whiteboard combined with sticky notes. This is especially useful for designing software as you can have sticky notes representing different classes, then move them around the whiteboard and change connections as necessary without rewriting everything.

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Paper is fairly cheap, whether or not you get a whiteboard, I would feel OK about using as much scribble paper as you need. I much prefer than to whiteboards.

But if you think it would help, it feels totally reasonable -- surely you explain things to other people sometimes, whether they're programmers or not, and even when you're not, if it helps you think, then that's a good reason, there's no reason people should expect that it shouldn't.

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A whiteboard isn't just to discuss solutions with others, just like a phone isn't just for calling for pizza delivery. A whiteboard is an easily re-writable medium, plain and simple. I've found them to be indispensable in the design/architecture parts of a project. I almost never use pen and paper; I'm more likely to use a combination of whiteboard and plain text documents.

You should never be insecure about doing something that helps you work better/faster/smarter. The results will speak for themselves. And a whiteboard is a lot more practical than, say, lucky socks.

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