Practically Paperless, Episode 30: Managing Projects in Obsidian

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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

I thought I would wrap up this series with a demonstration of how I use Obsidian to manage software projects I work on. In my day job, I make software and manage software projects. Aside from writing code now and then, most of what I do is make notes — notes on requirements, design, procurement, technical notes, lots and lots of meeting notes. Until about 2018 or so, I filled composition book after composition book with these project-related notes. Here is a stack of notebooks from about 2015-2018.

Project notebooks I filled between 2015-2018.
Project notebooks I filled between 2015-2018.

From 2019-2020, I started taking notes on computer, using Mathematica (believe it or not!) because I liked their self-contained Jupyter-style notebooks. When I moved to Obsidian in January 2021, I started keeping my project notes there and have been doing so ever since.

Theory of project management: Keep it simple

I am not a project manager by training. I sort of fell into the role from the work I’d done on software. It turned out that I had a skill for managing projects–or so I have been told. Over the decades I have taken a few courses in project management. Most of the books I’ve read on project management have been worthless. But there have been three books that heavily influenced how I manage projects today; they are not, strictly speaking, project management book, but they are the best books on project management I’ve ever read.

Project management courses I’ve taken and those books that are about project management that I have read focus on things like budgets and schedules, Gaant charts, and requirements, and all kinds of tools and services that you can use to manage your project. What most impressed me about the unconventional books I’ve read on project management–those linked to above that are not strictly speaking about project management–is that (a) they focus on the practical aspects of managing projects; and (b) they are about great big projects that were carried off before all of our fancy tools and services existed.

Indeed, it seems to me that the primary tool of the best project managers is the notes that they take, in whatever form they collect them.

So my theory of project management attempts to keep things simple:

  1. Take good notes
  2. Link them appropriately
  3. Be able to find what you need quickly

This has served me well. Just as the pandemic started, in January 2020, I began a big software project involving lots of departments and dozens of people. Because of them pandemic, the entire project–which lasted about 16 months–was done remotely. We never had an in-person meeting, from our kickoff meeting, through 33 requirements meetings, dozens of design meetings, countless hours of co-programming sessions, testing, product demontrations, training sessions, rollout, and post-rollout support. I started the project a year before I started using Obsidian, but as soon as Obsidian began working for me, I moved all of my project notes into Obsidian and it made things much easier for me.

My ingredients for managing projects in Obsidian

Here are the ingredients that make it possible for me to manage projects in Obsidian. I’ll go into each of these in a little more detail below.

  • A template for meeting notes
  • A template for technical notes
  • A note that I use as a map of content (MOC) for the entire project
  • Templater plug-in
  • Quick Add plug-in
  • Dataview plug-in

Template for meeting notes

I have a fairly simple template for meeting notes. It looks as follows:

My meeting notes template
My meeting notes template

The template is designed to work with the Templater and Quick Add plug-ins to make it quick and easy to create a new project-related note. The “project” line in the metadata section presents me with a list of my currently active projects so that I can select the project in question.

You may note that Project is listed twice, once in the frontmatter and once below. The second listing is so that I can link directly to the project MOC. This link is a kind of backup in case something goes wrong with the dataview plug-in and I still want to see the relationships between my notes.

Below is an example of what a completed meeting note looks like:

An annotated meeting note based on my template
An annotated meeting note based on my template

Template for technical notes

In addition to a template for meetings (and calls) I have a template for technical notes. This one is a lot simpler, and just allows me to create a hard link to the project to which the technical note is related. Here is what the template looks like:

My technical note template
My technical note template

These technical notes can be anything. They can be fleeting notes that I’ve jotted down when trying to optimize some code. They can be my notes on a review of some documentation. They can be a simple outline of tasks I have to try to complete that week, or an outline for a briefing that I have to give.

Plug-ins

I make heavy use of the following plug-ins to speed up the creation of my project notes:

  • Templater plug-in
  • Quick Add plug-in
  • Dataview plug-in

For the first two, I use them almost identically to how I use them to manage my writing in Obsidian. Rather than be repetitive here, I’d urge you to check out Episode 25 where I go into great detail on how I configure templates to work with the templater and quick-add plug-ins.

Tying the project together: My project map of content

It is helpful as a project manager to have all of the information I need at hand. I do this in Obsidian by creating a single map of content note for each of my projects. I follow the same format for each of my project MOC notes. Here is an example of a project MOC from a project I am actively working:

A project MOC note
A project MOC note

Here are the sections that make up this MOC keyed to the numbers in red in the image above:

  1. Frontmatter: this is used to aggregate all of my projects at a 50,000 foot view so I can see the status of everything at a glance.
  2. Administrative: this section contains links to administrative information: charge codes for projects, status reports for our project management office, etc.
  3. Project documents: links to any documents produced for the project. Here you can see links that point to documents on Confluence, as well as Excel (on Office 365) and a PDF (also on Office 365).
  4. Presentations: I end up giving lots of presentations over the life of a project, and I link them all in this section. I’ve lost track of the number of times that someone can’t make a meeting, but asks for the presentation later. This makes it easy to find.
  5. Meetings: this is a dataview that lists all of my meeting/call notes. It lists them in order from newest to oldest, along with the title of the meeting or call (which also links to that note in Obsidian) and finally, what type it was, a meeting or a call.
  6. Technical Notes: You can’t see it in this view, but below the Meeting Notes section is a section called “Technical Notes” which is another dataview that lists all of my technical notes related to the project, in the same order as the meeting notes.

Other Tools

As far as notes go, this shows pretty much everything I use for managing the project. But it isn’t the entire picture. We use Jira to create tasks and track the tasks in sprints and releases. I have created macros that makes it easy to convert my Obsidian markdown to Jira markdown. I also frequently link to Jira issues in my Obsidian notes. Ultimately, everything is tied together, and I can find what I need quickly.

Envoi

That is, as they say, a wrap. I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on these posts over the last nine months. I hope that folks have found them useful. The series isn’t going anywhere, and will be here on the blog for people to reference for the foreseeable future.

I will be here, too, although I will be writing about other things. You can stick around for that if you want, but I understand if you were just here for the series. In the free time I have now that the series is completed, I plan on getting back into some fiction writing, which I used to do quite a bit of, until I had a bout of writer’s block. That block seems to finally have passed, and I’ve nearly completed the first draft of a new story–my first in more than five years. The first draft was written in a notebook, but the next draft will be written in Obsidian, of course.

Prev: Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

Written on May 23, 2022.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for putting this whole series together. Jamie, would you mind sharing your template / dataview code used to generate the project map of content? Specifically, I’m interested to see how you chose to generate the list of project documents, presentations, and meetings specific to the project. Thanks!

  2. This is really helpful. I have the same issues with projectmanagement and this will help me. Can you elaborate a bit on the project structure in terms of notes and folders you are using, per project and over projects?

    And – as mentioned above as well, the template/code you use for:
    – dataview on the meeting notes
    – code to show the jira issues
    – overview on projects with certain status

    Thanks!

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