Working in the Cloud

April 19th, 2012

When I came to Ministry Matters in 2010, I set two major goals as I was acquiring tools to help me do my job. First, I wanted to go as “paperless” as possible. It's not that I was trying to make some kind of environmental statement (although being green is certainly an added benefit). I just get overwhelmed quickly by stacks of stuff on my desk!

My second goal was to do as much work “in the cloud” as I could so I wasn’t tied to a particular computer or location.

If I could work toward these goals, I figured I’d bring a couple of important things to my job—simplicity and flexibility. The idea was for me to keep productivity and creativity levels high while keeping stress levels low.

I’ll write about going paperless in another post, but first I want to share some of my experiences with cloud computing.

Cloud computing, if you’re not familiar with the term, is loosely defined as using computer services through the internet, usually through a web browser. Rather than running software or storing files on your local computer, you do everything online. If you’ve used Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo! Mail, for example, you’ve already used cloud computing.

The biggest advantage to the cloud is that I’m able to work from almost any device (phone, tablet, PC, or netbook) anywhere that I have an internet connection. This is huge for me. If I need to complete a project before the end of the day, instead of sticking around the office I can leave on time, beat the traffic, relax a little, then finish up at home. If I’m traveling, I can do work from the airport or hotel using my laptop. And if I’m waiting somewhere, I can access almost everything from my smartphone and work during the downtime. I’ve even written and edited articles using my phone while visiting a coffeehouse or riding a bus.

My company uses Microsoft Outlook for email, but I prefer using Gmail, so I have two email accounts. Gmail's search functionality is superior and I love the user interface. Outlook sometimes makes me want to punch the wall of my cubicle. But even so, I can still access my Outlook account from any computer through a web browser, and I also have it set up to sync with the email program on my phone. You have to really discipline your workaholic tendencies if you’re going to take your email with you everywhere. It isn’t always easy—it requires setting priorities and being able to discern what really deserves your attention when you aren’t in the office. I don’t obligate myself to read or respond to email after hours, and most of my regular email contacts know this. But I’ve found that it’s nice keeping in contact with the office in case something big does come up. Like anything else, you have to set boundaries to make it work.

Here are some of the cloud programs I use on a regular basis:

  • Gmail: I already mentioned this one—it’s my favorite email client, bar none.
  • Google Docs: I use this instead of Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. It’s free and you can open and edit Microsoft files inside Google Docs. I do run across an occasional formatting issue, but nothing major. You can also collaborate on documents with others using Google Docs and see each other’s changes in real time.
  • I also use a smartphone app called Documents to Go. This one isn’t free, but it’s worth every penny if you need a powerful way to access and edit your Google Docs with your phone. You probably won’t be doing a lot of heavy lifting with this app, but it’s nice to be able to if you want.
  • Another good alternative is Zoho, which offers similar features to Google Docs, as well as tons of productivity and business applications for managing projects and collaborating with others.
  • Evernote: This is my personal assistant and my other brain. I use it to save ideas, lists, sound files, photos, and various documents. I also use it to take notes during meetings. There’s a smartphone app, desktop client, and web-based version and they all sync together nicely. It’s free, but there’s also a paid version that gives you more functionality, the ability to create and upload bigger files, and the ability to collaborate.
  • Dropbox: I have this program on all my devices. It essentially creates folders that are shared across your devices. So if I put a file in a Dropbox folder on my desktop PC, I can get to that file easily on my phone, netbook, laptop, or tablet. I can also create folders that I make accessible to whomever I choose. It’s free too, but for a few bucks a month I can get additional storage space.
  • WeVideo: I was skeptical at first about doing video editing in the cloud, but I love this service. It's great picking up where I've left off on a project without having to somehow get the file to my other computers. To really get all the bells and whistles with WeVideo, I recommend getting a paid account, but the free account will let you try it and see if it’s for you.
  • Amazon: This isn't work-related, but I'll share it anyway because it's in the cloud. When I buy music, I buy it from Amazon because I can download it anytime I want or use their free cloud player no matter what device I’m using.

I've been able to use many cloud applications to replace some of the more traditional software programs typically used in the company I work for. Have you used any of these applications for work? What are some of your favorite cloud applications that I didn't mention?


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