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Turbocharge Your Lab with Free Software Tools

| Matt Stratton, Sr. Manager R&D, CAP / Zahn Dental |

Once was a day when any software you wanted for your computer needed to be purchased.  Sure, there were free “trial” versions that lasted some limited amount of time, but ultimately you would need to buy it if you wanted to continue using it.  These days the “freemium” pricing model for software has taken off and we see this almost everywhere, from smartphone games to business software.  This post focuses more on the latter, since we’re talking about work and making our professional lives better! 

The premise of the freemium pricing model is that a customer (like yourself) could install a base version of a product and use it for free indefinitely.  How do the developers make money?  In the case of video games, you will see extra content, resources, shortcuts and whatever else that is for sale once you are playing, but they are not mandatory most of the time.  In other software, specifically business software, you may need to pay once you reach a certain user limit or need a feature not included with the free package.  But the point here is that the free version can be perfectly adequate in a lot of situations!  

I would like to highlight two example software products that are extremely useful in their free versions, and are tools that I have used extensively for business purposes over the last few years.  The first is a great tool by Atlassian called Trello.  Trello is a very simple online tool that lets you create boards that have lists of cards.  A very basic example of how this could be used might be a daily task list.  You could create a list called “My To-Do” for instance, and add a card for each task that you have to complete.  You could then have another list called “Completed”.  When you complete a task you simply drag the card from the To-Do list to the Completed list.  Now all this sounds very simple, but your cards can contain a whole bunch of information, depending on what you want to put in there.  This includes file attachments, checklists, due dates and much more.  It may be a little overkill for some people’s tasks, but when you put it in a work context and add real projects to your lists, you will begin to see how powerful it is to have your cards and all the info you added to them.  It becomes a one-stop place that you can view your work items and drill deeper to get more information.   

It also excels when you start connecting more people to your board. Now others are interacting and seeing changes in real time. As a manager, you may find this a useful solution for distributing projects amongst your team, and being a place where updates to each project are posted. In this way you have one place to go to see your team’s progress on various items. Just an example of a very basic tool that can be adapted to business very easily. And everything I mentioned is free! If you find you need extra features, then you would explore one of their paid plans, that usually charge by the number of users that would be connecting.

The second example I have is a tool called Slack. Slack is basically any of the following things on steroids – Text messaging, IM, Google Hangouts, Email, etc. It is meant for communicating with team members and/or friends quickly and easily.

On a basic level, Slack lets you send messages either to individuals or to “channels.” Channels are essentially chat rooms that certain people can have access to. Your messages then remain in this channel for a time of your choosing and serve as a historical record of communications. Kind of like a community text messaging application, except there are many more bells and whistles and ways to configure your experience to your liking.

Any sort of texting application is bound to cause a little friction in the work environment, given its propensity to be “misused” by employees for non-work purposes. But I can safely say that while that will happen (and will anyway, just in less efficient manners), the benefits of centralizing your organization’s communications into one managed framework is game-changing. Not to mention the ability to share files, links, remote connect to each other’s computers, make video calls, customize notification preferences and all in a package that’s enjoyable to use.

It is amazing how much functionality you can have with the free version of Slack. And if your company has a decent amount of people on computers, then I would highly recommend trying it out. It will take everyone to buy in but the persistence is worth the results. Not like it will cost you anything 😊

Enough of me touting the products I enjoy and think you should too. The point here is that there are tools available online that will legitimately improve your life – professionally and personally – and will not cost you a dime unless you end up really liking them and expand the service. The ones I referenced might not be the best fit for you, but there’s plenty of others to try. Just take a look!

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