I am a nerd about productivity tools and hacks. Here is a list of all of the tools, apps and other stuff that I have used or been recommended in the last few years.
I’ve spent a lot of time shopping, trying out things, and returning what didn’t work so I hope this helps you. Enjoy!
Software, Apps, and Systems
Paper notebooks. A paper notebook is useful for taking notes in meetings especially those with “laptops down” rules. I prefer Field Notebooks ask 3.5″x5.5″ because they are small enough to carry comfortably and large enough to take considerable notes.
Note taking app. I still use Evernote. I know a lot of engineering managers I talk with have switched to Notion. And a few use Onenote. For me Evernote is quite satisfactory and I have a lot of notes there. It also works great with https://evernote.com/products/skitch so i can add screenshots into my notes.
I’m not recommending this since I don’t know anyone who uses a smartpen but you could try it. I used to have a client that made smartpens so I tried them. Cool idea.
I keep a stack of 3×5 index cards. These are useful for making quick checklists and notes.
Many people I interviewed on managersclub rely on apps like Asana, Todoist, Omnifocus, monday.com, and Things. These are all good apps and I’ve tried several of them. But I’ve found straight to-do lists too stressful. They can quickly grow out of hand and become overwhelming so I prefer to use a Kanban board to track my personal tasks.
A personal Kanban board for yourself. I use kanbantool.com to keep track of what I need to do personally and professionally. There is a free plan and works quite well but I am always looking for something better.
Rescue Time. This is to automatically track how you use time and which apps and websites you spend the most time in. This is very eye-opening when you first use it! There is a free plan.
Slack. Maybe your company already uses Slack and you have this but even if your company doesn’t you still need it because there are at least 2 very good online communities for Engineering Managers.
- Rand Leadership Slack Channel. This Slack group seems the most popular with EMs.
- Engineering Managers Slack group.
JIRA. The is the standard used at most companies for task tracking and project management I have seen. I’ve been were we evaluated multiple different alternatives and we always returned to JIRA. Does everyone love it? Not in my experience but it works well enough.
Reading & Learning
Audible. There are a lot of management and leadership books to keep up on. I find it so much easier to listen to books when I am doing other tasks such as driving, household errands, etc. Here is a list of recommended books for Engineering Managers most of which you can get on Audible.
Kindle. Another good way to learn read on the go. You can carry 1000 books with you in a small package. Here is a list of recommended books for Engineering Managers most all of which you can get on Kindle.
Grammarly. Helps me improve my writing, and as an engineering manager, I find I need to write a lot. http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ is also useful but it is somewhat different. Focuses more on style and writing bolder text with fewer adverbs for example.
Ulysses. I use this for writing blog posts, etc. in markdown like the one you are reading now! IAWriter also was also recommended by some people I interviewed.
aText for autocompleting. This will increase your typing speed by letting you use shortcuts for common phrases you type. I have also used TextExpander. aText works will IMO and is only $4.99.
Misc (Mac) Apps
Magnet. Easy to use tool for window management. There are several other tools like this but I find Magnet the best one.
Bartender 3. Useful to declutter all the menu bar icons you accumulate on your Mac.
Password keeping program. I use 1Password. A lot of other people use LastPass.
Disclosure: Please note that a few of the links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase.
MacBook Pro. 13-inch model. I prefer the 13-inch model because it is more portable and lighter. I used to carry the 15 models and would not go back. You can always connect to a desktop monitor and keyboard when needed. It’s great for work, writing, and pretty much doing anything include serious software engineering. My advice is to max out the processor, HD and RAM to the most your can afford (I know it hurts) since you will want to keep it a few years and they are not easily upgradable after the fact. You can also buy refurbished models for 15% off directly from Apple with a 1-year warranty to save $.
iPhone XS/11 Max. I’ve gone back and forth between iPhone and Android phones several times. (And if you know me, I used every other phone that came out before them also….). I think the larger screen size is best since smartphones are not really used for making calls anymore but instead sending texts, running apps, browsing, etc. that all benefit from a larger screen. If you are going with MacBook and Apple Watch then it makes to stay in the ecosystem with an iPhone too.
Apple Watch 4/5 with cellular. I could write a whole review on it. TLDR; it has a good activity tracker to tell you when to stand and keep track of your steps, etc. The alarm function is useful. The heart rate and EKG functions are interesting. The feature to find your iPhone when it is nearby is a big time saver. I use that feature 1 per day on average. Having cellular is only $10 more per month and very useful if your phone dies, or is not near you as a backup. Apple watch is good to reply to short text messages and make phone calls or send calls to voicemail without having to take out your phone. You can also discretely be sending text sometimes and no one will be the wiser. And more…. This will not replace your phone (today!) but it is a super useful device.
An external battery pack that serves both iPhone and MacBook. I used to carry a small one just for my phone, but having a larger one that can also charge a MacBook is hugely more useful. This has been helpful to me when commuting on a train, or somewhere without electric plugs (or they are all busy). I no longer worry if my MacBook is charged or not before heading out. ZMI USB PD Backup Battery & Hub for MacBook 2015/MacBook Pro 2016 or later/Pixelbook/Nintendo Switch/Pixel/iPhone 8
For only a few dollars buy a webcam slide cover for your MacBook. Cheap privacy insurance. Webcam Cover Slide by imluckies, 0.023in Thin Metal Camera Cover for Laptop, MacBook Pro, etc.
To store the MacBook this is a sleeve with good protection and large pocket. I often will take my MacBook out of my backpack and travel with just this to a coffee shop for example. tomtoc 360 Protective Laptop Sleeve for 13-inch MacBook
Gear ties. I find these super useful for wrapping up loose charging cables, etc. that I carry. Wonderful in that they are reusable, colorful and easy to use.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” they say so get a standing desk. Where i have worked the company provided it so I didn’t get to choose mine. But for myself to save money I converted a table in my home office into a standing desk with the following 32” Wide Adjustable Height Standing Desk – Convert Your Desk to a Standing Desk. Works well but you cant raise and lower it like the nicer more expensive ones.
If you are getting a standing desk then an anti-fatigue mat will really help you. Here is the one I use. Genuine Joe GJO53231 Air Step Joe Anti-Fatigue Mat, Beveled Edge, 2 by 3-Feet, Black,
Also, recommended to me, but I have not used yet. https://heyfocus.com/ a website and application blocker for macOS if you get distracted.