Why You Need a Technical Swipe File, and How To Get One

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

Just yesterday, I was totally impressed by a guy I met at a technology conference who has an amazing technique for organizing his projects and interests in technology.

So much so that when I revise my book ‘The 10 Habits of Highly Effective IT Professionals’ (if you haven’t got your copy yet, then download it for free by entering your name and primary email into the form on the right) I will include it.

What he showed me was something simple, but very effective.

Mark Jacques has a ‘swipe file’ of information he collects and uses on a day-to-day basis. During any technical conversation, he can choose to pull out a page from his file to contribute to the conversation. It saves a lot of time and effort and it immediately helps the discussion get to the point and move on. Sounds too simple, but it blew my mind on how effective it is.

He collects pages from trade magazines (such as CIO, Information Age, etc), prints from web articles and just as importantly, scraps of paper that contain his own notes and data that he has generated himself.

Creating an Information Catalog is something I strongly suggest, and this is a real-time extension of that. Mark carries uptodate slices of information relating to current projects and initiatives, and also any ideas he is working on, as well as other snippets on current affairs in the technology space.

We all need a swipe file of some kind. We waste so much time re-iterating technical information and sharing knowledge from scratch, time which could be best used working on problems or on technical delivery – this tactic solves this problem.

In my opinion, the most powerful aspect of Mark’s technique is that he carries his own notes around with him and is able to lay his hand on them at any point during a conversation. Over the years in IT, I have found that I have needed to explain a technology’s design/architecture or to demonstrate the idea/concept behind something – each time I re-draw it, sometimes missing something out or totally screwing up the drawing. I hadn’t figured that once I have struck upon a way of articulating something, I should re-use it over and over again.

This isn’t the same as formal technical documentation. The kind of drawings I am thinking about are the ones we’re asking to show non-technical people to help them understand why they need to allow time, fund something, or secure resources. They’re the kind of drawings you write on a whiteboard for executives or colleagues in Finance.

There is a much longer term benefit to this tactic Mark found. When he prepares documents this way and has them on hand, he is much more confident about discussing the subject. In turn, this makes him appear more impressive (as I found) and the impact he had on the listener is much greater, which increases his authority and trust placed on him. Because each presentation of the subjects are essentially well-practiced and highly-tuned. (I did note that when I asked Mark about some details on the drawings, he filled in more detail and can now use it again should he need to.)

How Do You Get Your Swipe-File?

Easy. It starts with a cardboard folder and a ring-bound notebook.

Many people use fully-bound books during their day-to-day activities, but tearing these pages out is a risky move (I’ve tried it, and torn right through my work!). Avoid these kinds of books.

When you’re drawing a design or an idea, write it in your book as you normally would. Review it afterwards and see if there are ways it could be presented better. Redraw it on a fresh page, and tear it out an place it in your folder.

If you read industry magazines, tear out articles or even ads for products that are relevant to your current projects and place them in the folder.

Each week, fortnight or month (depending on how often your environment changes), empty your folder and put back only the items that are currently relevant, and discard the rest (although I am a little bit anal and place those pages in an archive folder for future reference!). The point is, your swipe file should be lite and current, and most of all, easy to search and retrieve. If it’s full of crap, then you will get frustrated with it.

This is such a simple technique, but so effective it was worthy of an article.

For those of you who are digital-only (I still haven’t made that jump yet) then there is a technology which I think is brill – Evernote (the winner of my readers ‘Free Tools’ contest last year). This is an online swipe-file in essence. It enables you to record snippets of almost any digital content – text, images, audio, etc. and retrieve them using multiple client types.

Evernote has a great feature that might just push me over the digital precipice – text recognition. Say you scrawl a diagram on a napkin (I like to call these ‘napkinagrams’) you’d like to reference in the digital world. Take a picture of the napkinagram using your blackberry/iPhone’s camera, and then reference it in Evernote. Hey presto, you can search the text on your napkinagram like you will using any other content. Marvellous!

You can download an Evernote client for Windows/Mac/iPhone/cellphone or just use the web client from the Evernote website.

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2 thoughts on “Why You Need a Technical Swipe File, and How To Get One”

  1. Hi Simon,

    During a rebuild of my laptop yesterday I noticed MS One Note – I confess I haven’t even opened it in 5 years, but it actually does a lot of what you describe.

    A folder/tab based structure where you can notes, audio or video recordings as you need to and organise as you need.

    Coupled with a tablet PC it could work really well as e-Swipe File …

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