Walking around offices of different companies, you notice whiteboards everywhere. Mostly filled with clunky boxes, arrows and a lot of handwritten text that almost no one can read. And sometimes you’ll see flowcharts, component diagrams, UML flows or even simple design sketches. Something that at first glance looks like a pile of mess. Yet crucial to get the job done. The masterpieces of engineering teams.
Whiteboards and pen and paper have been an important part of our work for a long time. Here’s what’s really behind those messy drawings that make them so important.
1. Explain complex topics in a visual and simple way.
I’m not a developer but understanding how things work has been a crucial part of doing things well. I would have been a lousy incident manager if I had no clue about how networks and certificates work, for example. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from many extremely smart engineers around me. Instead of long explanation about complex things, I’d always receive a drawing instead.
Ever wanted to understand how certificates work in few minutes? Ask for a drawing.
2. Track and discuss pretty much any topic.
In many situations, I’ve noticed it’s really hard to figure out how you should format your ideas and which tool would be the best for it. The free-form nature of online whiteboards is one of their best benefits. It’s just a blank space, but it has proven to be an extremely adaptable tool for various situations.
We would often do a status check on particular feature development to see where we are and what else needs to be done. These sessions always ended up with a mix of lists, tables, and drawings. Starting to document such things in a word document, excel or elsewhere would have been a nightmare as you’d always be focused on how to format it all, instead of focusing on the content itself.
3. Get a vision out of their head.
It’s amazing to see engineers when they have a vision in their head how to build a new feature. But to implement it as a team, this vision needs to reach everyone on the team.
That would be the moment when a bunch of boxes and arrows appear on the whiteboards with a simple architecture or flow diagram. It’s easier to scribble it on a whiteboard instead of using complex diagramming tools. And honestly, who needs the complex “beautiful” drawings anyways – things change today too quickly to keep those up-to-date.
These drawings often remain also for reference throughout the entire implementation – a place where everyone can go back and check if things are being done as planned.
4. Real-time conversations.
We gather in front of a whiteboard as everyone is close and can participate in the conversation. It’s easy to point out what you agree or disagree with, change things as you go. Well, changing things aren’t always the easiest as it involves usually a lot of erasing and re-doing. For this purpose online version of a whiteboard makes much more sense.
5. Get instant feedback on design ideas.
I’ve seen many designers and engineers meeting up on whiteboards to scribble basic design ideas. It’s crucial to validate direction before starting the heavy work. Why? Because sometimes a design might be too hard to do or even completely not doable. Who would want to do full design and mockups for something that won’t work anyways?
Today with online whiteboard it’s no longer just drawing out an initial sketch, but you can support your ideas with visual content. You can add screenshots, documents, and images as well.
6. Share Information
The best engineers in my mind are always smart and a bit lazy. Why should anyone use a complex tool when those are not needed?
I’ve seen teams start using a complex task management tools because hey, we’ve seen it used by some cool big company. Yet the tool is too much for their daily needs. In a tiny startup team, all you need is a place to write down tasks you agreed to get done and track in a simple way the current status. In some cases, you may need a task management system and in some cases, all you need is a whiteboard.
I’ve seen many small teams start from a simple whiteboard to track their sprint and task status and switch to more mature tools only when they are needed.
7. Simply have fun.
Watercooler conversations are not only about meeting up with a cup of coffee in the kitchen. Or a bunch of gifs in a chat. Sometimes a brilliant surprise will wait for you on a whiteboard in the most unexpected places. Engineering work is about creativity. So is drawing and whiteboards, after all.
With remote work being more common, physical whiteboards have become a burden instead of helping get the job done. That’s why more and more engineering teams are switching to online whiteboards. I personally prefer online tools not only because you can collaborate from all locations, but the technology simply puts your tools on steroids. You cannot move content around a physical whiteboard without erasing. Or add photos and other content (well, unless you print them and stick those around). Online tools remove all common barriers making the tools much more powerful to use.