As I enter the last nine days of work at my current institution (not that I’m counting), I’m also ramping up the infrastructure for my consulting work. I thought I’d share some of the tools I’m using (including a few new ones I hadn’t heard of), and I hope you’ll perhaps find something in here you’d like to try.
This definitely isn’t a new tool, but it’s certainly an important one. This site is running WordPress with the Rowling theme (and a few customizations). I’m not going to list all the plugins I’m using, but I do want to highlight a couple I think are important. First is Wordfence – “an endpoint firewall and malware scanner” according to their web site. I’m using the free version, but even that has lots of monitoring, protection and reports. It’s kind of interesting to see when someone tries to brute force a login to my admin site at the very least. Second is WP Accessibility – a plugin that addresses some common shortcomings in WordPress themes when it comes to accessibility. I’m not an accessibility expert, but in my limited testing this plugin definitely helps in that regards. All this is hosted at Reclaim Hosting (my favorite hosting provider).
I’ve been a Google Apps user (both personally and for work) for over 10 years, but I’ve become less and less comfortable with the way Google collects and uses data about me (I’ve switched to Firefox for my browser and DuckDuckGo for my search engine). With an opportunity to start fresh (and small – I’m the only person in my company), I decided to take a look at my options. Of which there seems to be really just two (OK, three if you count “host everything yourself”) – Google Apps or Microsoft 365 Live. Given my privacy concerns with Google, 365 Live was really the only choice, but I have to say that the bundle of tools Microsoft provides for an enterprise (even an enterprise of one) is pretty impressive for a very reasonable price. Here’s a short list of what you get:
- A hosted exchange email/calendar server
- install of the full version of MS Office on up to five devices (per user)
- cloud versions of the “core” MS Office Suite (i.e. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint)
- 50 gigs of storage on OneDrive
- Microsoft Invoicing
- Microsoft Booking
- MileIQ (mileage tracker – much more on this one later)
Honestly, that’s basically enough to get me started. There’s no financial package, but my finances are going to be simple enough that I’m going to use my personal copy of Quicken and just add a couple accounts and some categories for the business tax stuff.
As I mentioned above, the 365 Live enterprise suite includes a couple tools to help with billing and, for mileage at least, expense tracking. Microsoft Invoicing is built on their business dynamics platform, and it kind of shows. It doesn’t look anything like the rest of 365 Live, and it is counter intuitive at almost every step. It took me nearly an hour to figure out how to add payment remittance instructions to an invoice, and even with it done I don’t love it. For the volume of billing I’m likely to do initially, it’ll be OK, but if (when) I get busy I might have to look for something else.
I wanted to take a minute to talk about MileIQ, mostly because if you decide you want to try it you really should read the entire privacy agreement (which is both clear and does a decent job protecting your data). Why? Because the MileIQ mobile app is designed to access your location all the time and use some other data from your phone to figure out if you’re driving or not. There’s no way to just turn it on for a trip and then turn it off, and, honestly, the app would be mostly useless if you tried to do that. The real advantage to the app is that I don’t have to remember to do anything. It just logs my drives and then prompts me to categorize them. But that convenience comes at the cost of the app basically tracking you all the time. That’s going to be a non-starter for many people, and if I don’t end up doing a lot of driving I’ll probably just delete the app and do something by hand. That much tracking kind of creeps me out (given the amount of unearned privilege I have as a white, CIS, heterosexual male that’s saying something), and on top of that it uses probably 15% of my battery every day.
The last thing I wanted to share was how I’m handling scheduling. 365 Live comes with Exchange, so that’s more core calendar. As I mentioned above, the enterprise bundle also comes with Microsoft Booking. That tool creates a page for me that people can use to find time on my calendar and then book it. You setup the kinds of blocks of time, any off limit times (the system also honors your already booked time in Exchange) and, if you want to, a requirement for payment before allowing anyone to book time. Like Invoicing, it’s a bit basic – especially when it comes to what the customer sees. But given the cost it’ll do. I might only use that for initial consults though because of another tool someone on Twitter pointed me to – Calendar.help.
This is another Microsoft tool, and it uses the Cortana AI system to schedule meetings for you. Once you’ve given Cortana access to your calendar, all you do is add the AI to the email and ask it to schedule a meeting with natural language requests. If Cortana has access to the calendars of other folks on the email, it will find a time. If not, it will email the other participants with potential times and then schedule when over half of the people have responded with a time that works for everyone. I’ve only had an opportunity to try it once, and it does work. At least for me, it avoided the hassle of all the back and forth emails.
That’s about it. After that it’s just random stuff like a laptop and a phone. Feel free to leave a comment if you have a question about any of the stuff I’ve mentioned.