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Ask HN: Do you keep an engineering notebook?
51 points by Pete_D 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments
I'm a software developer wondering about starting to keep an engineering journal/notebook and curious about other peoples' experiences and practices. If you keep one, have you found it useful? How often and what do you put in it? What format/tools do you use?

I spent the first decade or so of my career not taking any notes at all. Constantly, I was forgetting little things after meetings, spacing out on information after a week or a month or whatever. Now I keep a notebook on my desk at all times and I write with a pen. I constantly write down what I am doing, what I am working on, what I am thinking, the gist of conversations that I have throughout the day, and more. More information is always better. I find that writing in pen is better than pencil because I am not tempted to try to fix when I spell a word wrong or make some other kind of error, and I find that physically writing things out with a writing utensil is much easier for me to maintain verbal conversations vs typing the notes out with a keyboard.

It seems to me that the notebooks create their own value, and you have to start somewhere to begin seeing the value. Then you will find that value and you will accelerate your usage of note taking.

Notebooks can be a really incredible tool - if someone asks me what happened on the first Tuesday in May, I can flip through my notebooks and figure it out. If I wonder what the heck I was thinking as I was writing a PR, I can check the date of the PR and find my notes. I've never once regretted taking a notes and now I will likely never stop.

Interesting. Do you organise it in some way? Or just write everything at the next empty line?

I start a new page each new day if I was in the middle of the previous page, and I write the date at the top of each new page. Other than that it’s essentially stream of conscious and that tends to work well for me

I do the same. Plus:

* use a spiral-bound notebook and keep my pen tucked in the spiral binding so it never gets lost (I actually use a Pentel 0.9mm clutch pencil, and think I've lost two pencils in 25 years)

* buy my own notebook, different from the standard one everyone else has, so I can find it easily (I've never lost one)

* draw boxes to highlight To Do items or deliverables from others

* every meeting starts with its name and the people present (initials for colleagues, full names for those more distant)

* every few pages, bring forward old To Dos in a list in the top right margin

* start work notes from the front, personal notes made while at work from the back

Honest question: How long have you been maintaining this kind of thing? I tried something this detailed a few times in the past and at most was able to carry this on for about two months. Painfully.

I should also have mentioned the notebook format is A5, not A4/letter. It is small enough to carry everywhere. If I have a few A4 printouts, I normally fold them in half and tuck them inside the front cover. Inside the back cover I always have a few sheets of blank paper, for sketching ideas on with colleagues.

This is the specific notebook I use: https://www.viking-direct.co.uk/en/office-depot-wirebound-no.... I tried Moleskin etc but they aren't as convenient for carrying my pen, aren't as expandable for carrying extra papers, and are 3 times more expensive.

I've been doing this since my first full-time job, so around 26 years. If you carry it with you everywhere at work, and open it at the start of every meeting, it quickly becomes automatic.

The key I think is only having one place where you write stuff down. That makes it automatically an append-only log :) The rest is optional. I have occasionally tried keeping notes electronically, but was never able to maintain it consistently for more than a few days, and found myself wanting to write different types of notes in different places.

The bullet journal model of organisation -- essentially an updated table of contents at the start of the journal -- helps tremendously.

Possibly off topic but after years of trying I'm finally on a good streak at 750Words [1]. What's really changed the game for me is filling out my entry in vim. I used to be bummed with copy pasta entries because I couldn't see my typing speed and distractions ya know just lotsa words / minute but it's worth it with how good it feels to bust out entries in vim with often shift downs like a type writer dinging along without a whim.

g ctrl-g

I always carry little notebooks that are for songwriting, general notes, grocery lists, and anything else that comes to mind.

Drawing notebooks, books full of notes on non-fiction books and videos, clipboards with graph+plain paper, voice memos, and a huge amount of random note apps and websites.

For collaborative projects I usually write a markdown file while I'm doing something worth documenting. Easier distribution to team members.

Interested to try a physical notebook for a personal project though. A progress dairy of sorts.


[1]: https://750words.com

About a year ago, I did an experiment where I wrote down everything I learned while coding for one month [0]. Ever since, I have been keeping an engineering notebook by jotting down new lessons. The main things I found were:

- Attention is cheap. The amount of attention we devote to ‘learning’ is not directly proportional to the amount we actually learn.

- We need to get into the habit of recognizing new information, and capturing them while doing engineering task. Otherwise our everyday learning escapes us.

- Being productive does not make us learn more. They are correlated but productivity does not cause learning. In my most productive days, I did not learn more than normal days. I 'measured' learning by looking at the number of notes I took per day in that month.

In short, I found that I was not learning as much as I thought because I did not pay attention to capturing new information. Therefore the most important thing for an engineering notebook is a way of instantly capturing new information without effort.

[0] - https://dnote.io/blog/writing-everything-i-learn-coding-for-...

I use Boostnote[0] (not affiliated, just a happy user), it's a simple to use note keeping application that supports Markdown.

Keeping an (almost) daily journal of stuff that hangs me up has helped me immensely. You know the type of problems that take 12 hours of debugging just to find out it's something trivial? Write that down, it's sure to come up in the future and our memory isn't great at all.

[0]: https://github.com/BoostIO/Boostnote

I kept one in the lab and the habit has stuck with me.

There's good advice in this comment page but I will add two things I haven't seen:

1 - If this is your personal notebook (not a lab book that is the property of your company and will be archived by them when you leave), don't be selective: write anything of interest in, including shopping lists or whatnot.

This has two benefits. One is that personal stuff (e.g. order those flowers for your sweetie) won't be taking up "space" in your head while you're actually working on stuff. (This theory is part of the GTD movement by the way)

The other is that if you use this system in your whole life you'll hone it more appropriately to your needs, and won't ever have to decide "is this worth writing down?"

2 - review it daily, either before going to bed or first thing in the morning. Mainly just review what you wrote down the day before; older stuff becomes reference. Before you go to sleep offers the possibility of your brain chewing over some stuff while you sleep; doing it first thing in the morning pages in the state from yesterday. So whatever works for you.

I keep a Rubber Ducking notebook. I rubber duck every day. So amazing how much it creates _momentum_ and _progress_.

I just write it down, typos and all. Just write it out, anything, I even right the next step repeatedly when I am procrastinating. e.g.

Test out X, just do it, do it now. Okay, do it. Go do it already.

It works!


I think it's a good habit, but making it habitual (e.g., daily) is something I'm still working on. :-)

I found this document a good start at ideas of what to include in your notes:


Yes, I have an engineering notebook. It's actually a system that consists of both a public codex and a private digital note taking system.

The public codex contains lessons learned and other such things which are publicly shared so that others may learn as well.

The private digital note taking system is less formal and more ad hoc and is thus probably more akin to what you have in mind. It contains semi formal documentation on both engineering processes used and noted properties of physical phenomena (which software is included in) that should be noted to simply remember things.

Both of the note taking systems are very useful as one of the primary purposes is to, again, simply remember things.

The public codex as a notebook mechanism is not used as often as its private digital notebook counterpart, namely because it requires more energy to add new entries given its formal presentation requirements. The private digital notebook, in contrast, doesn't have such stringency and so creating new entries is easier. Also note that it's digital because my physical notebook has run out of available writing space :)

I've never done it but I was just thinking about starting this morning after reading someones journal they kept while making their first Atari 2600 game [1]. Having the thought process, trials, failures and successes documented like that seems so valuable. I can forget the "why" of things I've done in just a matter of days, making me question my own sanity the next time I look back at some code or design choice.

I was thinking of starting with simple daily stream-of-consciousness text files. Anything more complicated might deter me from even starting the practice.

[1] https://www.mickmuze.com/notebook/the-atari-video-computer-s...

Do you use one?

I keep one on dead tree media in chronological order. It gets used at least once per week as if it were a lab notebook, for note taking during debugging firmware or hardware prototypes, less so during initial development for roughing out architecture and doing first pass state diagrams. As for utility it's indispensable when trying to recreate something like test bed setups months later. In the old days it would have been useful evidence in patent litigation.

Those days $DAY_JOB bought us high quality and very pleasant to use pricey half-bound (each page bound in front of a perforated copy sheet to tear out) and page numbered engineering notebooks. That's no longer the case with the new first to file regime.

I have a few Emacs org-mode[0] files in a git repository. I have one for work, one for personal projects, and one for home stuff. Works great for me.

I often take notes during meetings. The trick is to maintain eye contact with whoever you're speaking to so they know you're paying attention to them, not working on something else.

Sometimes I'll just bring a notebook and my pen, but I will generally put those notes into my org file afterwards.

I also track every project I work on in org-mode, with lots of TODO entries. Without it I have a pretty hard time staying on track.

[0] https://www.emacswiki.org/emacs/OrgMode

How in this day and age does orgmode work without a laptop. It is such a powerful system but useless when you are not in front of your laptop. I have struggled with this for years. I love org mode but I can’t stand it’s 80s usecase of must be used on my desktop/laptop. Would be great if orgmoders can share examples of how they use it without laptop. Yes there is beorg but it is nowhere near what orgmode offers and being tied to a laptop is just not very current with the times.

I've maintained a personal one for over 20 years of different designs and architectures etc. Sometimes I'll save code snips when they were particularly creative, but pretty rare. In general it is more for me to reference designs and help me be creative on solving new problems. One of the interesting things is looking back and seeing designs/solutions that were popular 20 years ago are still going strong, or in some cases are being sold under a new name as the greatest thing ever to exist and being totally new. I think that is fair of any industry though, so it isn't knocking anyone/thing, just kinda fun to see.

A lot of my notes are about particularly interesting problems or things that didn't work as much as things that did. This way I can try and not repeat mistakes or at least see why it went wrong and what might be different now. BTW I do this using an everyday spiral notebook (5 subject) to hand write things down and then over time I transfer them into a 3 ring binder I keep. I also keep the old notebooks which I usually date and write what I was doing then. The 3 ring binder is where I keep the stuff that seems more important and isn't just my quick notes, it will be sketched designs, written notes as well as the occasional code snip printed. I know I am evil but I also keep some important pdf's I have printed in there because frankly it is easier to keep track of then the electronic document over 20 years.

I also keep notes for each company I work at/with, generally I do those in some repository for the company (it is the companies not mine). This is nice because it gives others, not just me, some historical information on why things are and what we were discussing or other thoughts we might have had while doing design discussions. Today I use Quip for a lot of that for company specific notes, and honestly it helps for on-boarding too.

A few years back I started using OneNote as well for my personal notes, this has worked pretty well but I still handwrite a ton of stuff because I find people banging on a keyboard in a meeting hiding behind their laptop to be rude & distracting, so I won't do it. But I have been moving even some of my handwritten stuff into OneNote and/or Apple Notes, which I started playing with recently as well. What I like about both of them is they sync to multiple devices so I don't have to go digging as much.

I use a sketchbook for any development and design sketches, as well as meeting notes and information from conversations.

I try not to bring my computer to meetings so I'm not distracted. I prefer to write things down with pencil because I'm the type of person who needs to erase things all the time, and by crossing things out with pen, things get messy, and my OCD flares up.

For everything else, I keep my life in a variety org org-mode files.

I came across https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/General_Engineering_Introducti... and have experimented with a few related things, not to any great success so far.

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