Defining Productivity or How Tablets and Consumption Improve Productivity

During a break from some blissful productivity, I came across an intriguing post titled “I Can’t Find a Single Productive Use For My Tablet” (via Hacker News). It was a Saturday afternoon and I was biding some time at a local rec center while my five year old son attended a gym and pool party, my production made possible courtesy of a Nexus 7 wirelessly tethered off my Galaxy S3.

I could have brought our iPad and the story would remain largely the same, albeit involving larger pockets (ergo this isn’t an endorsement of a specific tablet or platform).

That little inexpensive tablet turned what would have been dead time into a useful, enjoyable experience. I was able to update and prioritize my Asana work items, and then spent some time becoming acquainted with the Parallel Programming improvements in Visual C++.

Two and a half hours perfectly spent, without lugging a laptop around or dealing with those laptop-related security issues when I needed to do something as basic as take a bathroom break or respond to the party host about where to find my son’s towel: When I needed to be instantly mobile the Nexus 7 dropped in my pocket and I was on the go.

Of course my smartphone itself has a 4.7″ screen, courtesy of the exploding size of mainstream devices, however while it suffices when no other options are available, something bigger has much more utility for longer use. As an aside, it is unfortunate that we commonly use misleading diagonal measurements to describe screen sizes rather than screen area (e.g. the Nexus 7 has double the screen area of GS3).

Life with children has made me very thankful for the easy access, mobility, and always-ready-to-go nature of tablets. Whether I have to keep watch for the boogeyman until they fall asleep, or have to wait in the car while they attend an extracurricular, it has brought value to many otherwise disconnected times.

Of course you can argue about the value of disconnecting and being at one with yourself and so on, however such ascetic pursuits are much more enjoyable when they’re voluntary, in the same way that a life with little is fantastic when you can have anything you want on a moment’s notice.

Such tablet moments certainly aren’t restricted to life with children: Waiting for the car at the shop, in the dentist or doctor’s office (ed: redundant…dentists are doctors), on public transit or when carpooling, though ideally not when you’re a driver in either case — instant, mobile productivity.

Yes, it’s “just” a bigger smartphone. Yes, it’s like a smaller laptop without a keyboard. Overlaps in the Venn diagram of functionality don’t discount its value or value in the tool gamut, anymore than a canoe is just a small fishing boat is just a small yacht is just a small cruise ship.

And no, a tablet is no replacement for a “real computer”. If you don’t have a laptop or desktop and think a tablet is a good universal substitute, you’re going to have a bad time. My wife has a tendency to grab a tablet when interacting with complex online web apps (which includes simply ordering a pizza or Chinese food from some shops), and the result is almost always one that ends in frustration.

Tablets are, however, fantastic consumption devices.

Here’s where the disagreements start, however: Too many define productivity to mean typing, as if this were a secretarial pool and utility were measured by keystrokes.

The primary complaint about tablets is that they aren’t great tools if you need to produce a lot of keystrokes, at least without an add-on physical keyboard. I wouldn’t think of authoring this entry on a touchscreen, for instance, though I might proofread it or perform minor edits on one. Most only send the most truncated of missives from their smartphone or tablets. idk y lol.

So avoid typing on your tablet. That doesn’t mean you aren’t productive.

We’re in an age where the information you consume is of critical importance to the products you produce, whether it’s blog posts or emails or coding artifacts or strategic technology directions.

As software developers we are in a world where each line of code we produce may paradoxically push us further behind as millions of programmers around the globe work on solutions that we could and often should leverage to catapult ahead. Constantly researching and gaining awareness of these technologies is absolutely critical (bootstrap + backbone + jQuery lets you produce in minutes what many teams spent months building), and it’s where most products and teams falter, stuck in a path where they convince themselves of their accumulation of great code assets, on the slow decline to failure.

Protocols change, libraries are updated, standards evolve, clients update, tools grow capabilities. I truly believe that a good coder should be spending 50%+ of their time on “consuming” information, that activity informing their production. The end result is better productivity  and a better product.

Do you?

Have you really read those emails the userbase sent to you, or did you skim and jump over to the code editor to start banging out your solution? Do you really understand the nuances of the platform that you’re developing on? Do you understand the features of toolset you’re using? Are you up to date on industry trends?

The answer for most is absolutely, positively not. Your code is full of error prone code that redundantly duplicates features of the platform you use. Your security is full of holes because you don’t understand CSRF exploits or the big news about that Ruby gems vulnerability. You aren’t planning your parallel strategy properly because you aren’t informed about the Xeon Phi or DirectCompute or AMP or OpenCL.

And on. And on. And on. Many comments on Hacker News posts lately start with “I haven’t read the linked submission, but…” (insert some knee-jerk wisdom based upon the title).

Show me someone in technology who claims that a moment spent consuming information is wasted and I’ll show you someone in denial about their own complete lack of knowledge in the face of an endless avalanche of information.

Now of course there are limits to all technologies, and the linked piece makes some arguments about limitations when doing research (e.g. multiple monitors to jot notes). While many such observations are reasonable, often it is simply of the “stuck in my way” usage patterns. For instance one complaint was by an individual who likes to open dozens of links in the background. Patterns differ, but I find it hard to believe that such a use is legitimately productive.

Which is how we go full circle and I’m going to embrace the ascetic simplicity of having a restricted ability to type, and a restricted ability to spin off dozens of tabs of every link you come across: Embrace it because it makes you better. Instead of reading the title of a post you saw on Hacker News and rushing to type a knee-jerk “counterpoint”, enjoy the lack of the keyboard and actually force yourself to consume.

You will be better for it.

Consume with pride. Consume to be better. Exult in being an information consumer.