(This article has also been posted on the GitLab blog.)
With an idea and a name, I was ready to start working more seriously on UnscrewMe. Well, almost – to avoid ending up with a mess of files and folders and stuff scattered across different devices, and certainly never where I need them, my next objective was to set up a central location where I could store and organise everything flexibly.
GitLab – selecting simple tools
I wanted to keep the overhead low and the management of the documents simple, yet extensible enough to cover everything I would need to get started, including simple lists, longer notes, logo drafts, and also more structured technical concepts and even invoices.
Being a Certified Scrum Product Owner and using a GitLab instance at work, I decided to take advantage of the free private repositories and use GitLab.com for UnscrewMe. This combines the simplicity of “just” storing everything in files and folders, with the advantage of being able to use Markdown for more advanced formatting including sub headings, nested lists and images. And all information can easily be accessed on any device, either via Git directly or the GitLab.com web interface, which also renders Markdown files nicely.
In addition, project management features of GitLab like issues, milestones and issue boards would provide a useful, flexible and light-weight framework to track my progress. By defining project phases and grouping all open tasks in various ways, I could get a quick overview of what I would need to do next, before I could actually launch my Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Using the full power of GitLab.com, I created a “Group” and three separate repositories: One for all the general documentation, one for the actual web application, and a third one for the pre-launch website.
Defining a flexible structure
You could of course call my folder structure flawed as it is not always entirely clear where new content or document should go, but so far it works fine for me.
I started with a high-level view and specified six broad areas:
- ideas – for anything largely creative
- concepts – for more detailed specifications and drafts
- business – for business plans and similar documents focused on the business in general
- roadmap – to define the main steps without immediately looking at all the details
- design – basically, everything that is not text
- finance – for invoices, contracts, etc.
These six folders give me enough structure and flexibility to get started, without having to think too hard about what should go where.
A couple of years ago, I started prepending most files I create with dates, like “2017–08–31". I find that adding dates are a useful primary sorting criteria when trying to get a quick overview, so I stuck with this approach for my new project as well, even though it might not be the perfect match for all files.
Google Keep – enabling quick, low-barrier content generation
With a system mainly based on text files, I could use any editor. As I started using Google Keep for personal notes a few months ago, I knew that it was flexible and reliable enough for my needs.
I do have a subscription for a very stripped-down text editor, but I must admit, that I don’t like the barely-existing interface too much, and started using Google Keep for many tasks instead. The big benefit of Google Keep, above the other web services I used to rely on for writing, is the support of writing notes offline. While these days you mostly have 4G, 3G or wifi anyway, even on holiday, I did find myself sometimes at events or in places without connectivity. And then, being able to write something offline, that would automatically be synchronised as soon as I would be online again, proved rather useful.
The only obvious drawback for me now is, that Google Keep does not support Markdown for structure and formatting. But as Markdown markup is pretty minimal and easy to read, this hasn’t been much of a limitation.
The notes editor is simple and fast – I do not really need anything more advanced or complicated. What I do value though it the possibility to add labels, just a different name for tags, and colours to notes. That way, I can easily group my project notes together and even find the ones I am looking for quickly in my main view.
Visual Studio Code – lightweight editing with Markdown preview and Git support
To get my basic notes from Google Keep into GitLab, I used Visual Studio Code. It is a simple editor with many useful plugins, making editing and checking Markdown documents very convenient and supporting Git out of the box, which was pretty much all I needed.
Often, my Google Keep notes require just a little bit of cleanup, before they are ready to be committed to the Git repository.
As I use GitLab milestones and issues to structure all the work, I could also take advantage of this when adding documents to the Git repository and making changes. So I also reference the relevant issues in my commit messages using GitLab Flavoured Markdown syntax.
Next on my todo list was to create a simple pre-launch website to announce the new service, even before it was built. I did read a few times that building a pre-launch website before starting to work on the application code can help to gauge if there even is enough interest for the product. In my case, I was not too concerned about this aspect, since first and foremost, I wanted to use my service, therefore by definition it would be worth the effort.
(I began writing this overview at Pantry Marylebone and finished it there too, a few days later. I wrote the final paragraphs there after having had three wines at 108 Brasserie before: a beautiful and well-balanced 2016 Picpoul de Pinet from Domaine Felines Jourdan in Languedoc in France, a surprisingly light and smooth 2016 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Il Faggio in Italy and a somewhat harsh and slightly disappointing 2016 Beaujolais Vieilles Vignes par Vincent Fontaine from Domaine de la Rocailler, in France.)