Tech tips for development workers (1)

Most of the people who read this blog are interested in development rather than computers. Many of you live in developing countries, where the internet can be slow and expensive, and computer support can be difficult. So I thought it might be useful to give you some non-technical suggestions for how to manage if you live somewhere where the computer facilities are rather basic.

In this first post in a series, I’ll look at the basic set up.

What computer should I use?

If you are travelling a lot, you probably want a computer that is light, not-too expensive, with a good battery life and reasonably robust.  You might want to look at the new generation of netbook computers – these are less powerful than more expensive laptops, but perfectly adequate for writing documents, doing email and surfing the web; and they can cost as little as £200.  The Samsung N220 or the HP Mini 110 are both good options.   The other disadvantage is that they have small keyboards and screens: but you could quite cheaply add a monitor and keyboard to use at home.

If you want something a bit bigger or faster (which you would need if you want to edit photos or video) then you won’t go far wrong with a Dell or an HP laptop.   If money is no object (unlikely for most development workers) then get a solid state disk – they are much less likely to break down in hot and dusty climates.

Should I use Windows?

Most people use Windows, because it is so universal.  You’ll be able to share files easily and get some basic support.  If you go with Windows, then use either Windows XP or Windows 7 (not Windows Vista, which is slow and unreliable).

Lots of people prefer Apple Mac.  Lots of Windows users who try Macs never want to go back.  You can get Microsoft Word and Excel for the Mac, and you can swap files without problems with Windows users.  Most people find Macs easier to use and more reliable than Windows; and the design is beautiful; but they are a bit more expensive than their Windows equivalents.

Most normal people wouldn’t use Linux software: so I’m not recommending it; though if you fancy a walk on the wild side, the latest version of Ubuntu (10.04 – Lucid Lynx) installs very easily and is very easy to use; and of course it is completely free and much more secure than Windows.  It is what I use on my main computer at home.  OpenOffice is a powerful, free alternative to Microsoft Office.  If you are technically minded this might be a good cheap alternative – especially if you want a second computer.

What office software do I need?

For your work lots of people need Microsoft Word and possibly Powerpoint.  The latest version is Office 2010, and this enables you to read files from, and create files that can be read by, earlier versions.  But there is not much new in Office 2007 and Office 2010, so if you already have Office 2003 you can stick with that for now. If you stick with Office 2003  you may want to download and install a compatibility pack which enables you to read documents and spreadsheets created with later versions of Office.  You can get Office for the Mac or the PC; but if you are going to do presentations with a Mac, use Keynote rather than Powerpoint.

If you don’t need Microsoft for work reasons, consider getting OpenOffice instead.  It is free and it works well with people using Microsoft. UPDATE: Cato in the comments points out that OpenOffice for the Mac is called NeoOffice.

How do I stay secure?

Computer viruses are a big problem in developing countries, even more than in rich countries.  Here are four things you should do to stay secure:

  • First, you should use registered software, especially Windows. If you use unregistered or pirate software, it won’t update itself automatically to close any security loopholes, and that will leave you vulnerable.
  • Second, install a virus checker and keep it up to date.  AVG Free is, er, free, and perfectly adequate.
  • Third, don’t use Internet Explorer for surfing the web.  It is very insecure. Use Chrome or Firefox instead. I am using Chrome all the time now because it is so fast.
  • Fourth, if you can, choose a Mac or Linux rather than Windows.

Making backups

Everybody using a computer should have backups; and that is even more true if you are living in a developing country where something is more likely to go wrong (e.g. hardware failures because of heat and dust; software failures because of viruses; theft  etc).  Concentrate on backing up your data – documents, photos, music etc, rather than software which you can always install again if you need to.

Ideally you should use the 3-2-1 rule: you should have three copies of everything, on two different types of media (eg hard disk and DVD), of which one should be stored off-site.

I have an external hard drive which I use to back up all my documents, photos and music.  I also make occasional DVDs of important stuff.   Try to buy one that does NOT need an external power supply, because then it is easy to pop into your travel bag. This Freecom drive is 320Gb for £50, which is not bad.  If you use a Mac, set up Time Machine to make backups.

In addition, consider using an online backup service such as Dropbox.  These services make copies of particular folders on your computer onto a password protected disk online.  They work in the background, copying changed files when your internet connection is available and not otherwise being used  They enable you to get those files back whereever you can get online – very helpful if you are travelling and need to get hold of a file from your computer.


I use GMail for everything.  I’ve got several different email addresses, but they all go in to the same GMail account which I can access anywhere. (You can use free Google Apps to have your own domain name – that looks more professional than using a gmail address.)

A good idea is to use Outlook on your computer, connected to your GMail account.  Here is how. (Use IMAP rather than POP, because that way any change you make in GMail will be made automatically in Outlook, and any change you make in Outlook will be automatically reflected in GMail.)  With this set up, you can work offline (eg on a plane, or when the internet is down) in Outlook, or use Gmail or Outlook to work online.

If you rely entirely on GMail, then you run the risk that you might be locked out one day. This does happen, either because of a cockup at Google, or because your account gets hacked.  Would you be OK permanently losing all the mail you have ever sent and received?  That is probably not as much fun as it sounds.  If you use Outlook connected to your GMail then you’ll have a local copy of everything.  Alternatively, you can use a service like Backupify which makes backup copies of all your online services such as GMail, Facebook and Flickr in case they go down.  I use Thunderbird (made by the same people as Firefox) because I like the fact that all my mail is downloaded in a standard format; but most people are comfortable with Outlook.  I have it installed on a USB stick, so all my mail is backed up on that.

You’ll have noticed that I am quite focused on staying secure by avoiding viruses and having good backups. This is because  I know too many people who have seen their hard disk fail in a dusty city, or found their computer so comprehensively infected with viruses that there is no option but to wipe the hard disk.   You really want something that you can set up and then forget – which is why online services like dropbox or carbonite are a good idea, but they may not be much good for you if your internet connection is very slow.

In the next installment, I’ll look at software for the non-technical development worker.

12 thoughts on “Tech tips for development workers (1)”

  1. Maybe add: OpenOffice for Mac is called NeoOffice. It has some glitches, but is much, much faster, for example when starting up, than Microsoft Office. If that’s not an option, Microsoft Office for Mac can be purchased as group licenses for five people, so you can share the license with others at a lower price (each comes with its own serial number, so you can even migrate to a new computer etc.). It’s worth it from two or three people on.

  2. Pingback: Links « Waylaid Dialectic

  3. Owen,

    Thanks for a great set of practical tech tips for development workers.

    Dropbox is great for more than backing up, it’s a handy way to keep files synced on multiple computers, access them anywhere via web, and share docs with colleagues (either through public folder or weblink.)

    Google is also a fantastic tool. In addition to Gmail, you can set up customized news and blog feed on iGoogle, search scholarly articles and generate quick graphs from WDI data by simply searching for say ‘GDP india’.

    There are also a growing number of apps for smartphones – eg Dropbox and Google for iPhone. Great for staying connected on the move.

    Thanks for sharing ideas on tech for development. Above all this is about being able to work effectively anywhere and anytime – so invaluable for development professionals.

    Best wishes,


    (poolside in New Delhi)

    Matt – you are absolutely right. I’ll be talking about Dropbox some more in a later installment in this series, when I plan to discuss online services that are useful for development workers, even though many of us do not have access to reliable and fast internet.

  4. For laptops a reliable battery is important. You can buy extra battery for your laptop which can last 8 or 10 hours. It’s very useful when you work in a country whit a lot of electric shortages.

    For electric shortages consider to buy a modem which can be plugged to your laptop for electricity. If the power shut down it ensures you few hours of internet.

    For my back-ups I use Carbon Copy Cloner on Mac. It’s free, work very well and you get a clone of your computer. I use Open Office on Mac, I tried Neo Office but I prefer Open office.

  5. You should also have a look at SSuite Office for a free office suite. They have a whole range of office suites that are free for download. 🙂

    What is also great about this free software website is that there are no trial versions, no registering your personal information, no strings attached at all. Just free office software. 😀

    You may try these links for more info:

  6. Great article! I run an HP mini 110 netbook with ubuntu. I love it for most things, but i’m not sure that I would recommend it in the developing world context. The security on Linux is great, but the downside is that a lot of the peripherals at least where I am are off-brand and only support windows. Naturally it is also harder to find tech support if needed.

    Also, I’ve heard of a lot of cases of Macintosh power adaptors or logic boards having trouble with shaky current (i fried 2 logic boards overseas). Of course that comes from being stupid and not using a stabiliser, and could be anecdotal, but I have heard that the power supply of macs are a bit less tolerant.

    Owen replies: Mike – you make a great point. As it happens I was with a Mac user yesterday evening who said she had been through three power supplies here in Ethiopia. They do seem less tolerant.

    I’ve not had any problems with the latest Ubuntu identifying peripherals – but I tend to buy kosher.

  7. good guide Owen, thanks for putting all of this together. One thin g I would add is on the offline access for Gmail- Google Labs now offer that service for most users

    having been using gmail for a number of years for all mail i cannot get used to Outlook and I find this is a good tool for using mail when out of connection.

  8. Owen,

    I enjoyed these tips and the more recent blog on RSS feeds, but I’d also be interested in some tips for us nerd-geeks out there interested in both development and computers? I reckon there are a fair number of people who subscribe to both your blog and blogs like White African and Afrigadget.

    As an example, I find wget to be an essential tool. Combining the FlashGot Firefox plugin and a wget flavor called “Visual Wget” lets me download anything, anywhere… with extreme patience…

  9. Owen,

    I have just got back to Timor-Leste with my new iPad – and it seems to be the perfect Dev worker tool:

    – offline reading (as internet connections are rare)- using Instapaper
    – download books, which is handy as this country has no bookshops
    – very long battery life for field trips
    – slips into a very small backpack
    – easy to stash (hide it in the bookcase – no one will look there)
    – all the glorious iphone apps, some of which are even useful
    – collaborative sketching / brainstorming using Adobe Ideas or similar
    – and it is still a word processor / spreadsheet tool.
    – It isn’t Windows, so it actually works most of the time

    In fact, it is somewhat more useful than I thought it would be.

    Owen replies: Yes, I have a nasty feeling that you are right. (I put it this way because I have no love of Mr Jobs, or his desire to imprison us in his warm embrace.) I was with a development economist yesterday reading the news on his iPad and he is clearly finding it very useful.

  10. Owen, great post! I work for Backupify so thanks so much for the recommendation! I also use Dropbox which has been amazing so far and I am considering upgrading so I can use more of it.

    Marketing Analyst

  11. Is a solid state ‘disk’ less susceptible to heat and dust than normal HD? Sure, less susceptible to shock etc. I think I’d only consider it if I was into cloud computing and had decent internet connectivity (and loads of money).

    In developing countries you can, of course, get MS Office and virtually any software absolutely free. Hacked or Cracked or whatever, and don’t expect auto-updates. It seems to be a way of life in some parts of the world. But I’d not condone it because of security vulnerabilities apart from illegality.

    I ditched MS Office and use OpenOffice on Vista on my stalwart HP 6715b. It works well. I’d move to Windows 7 if it didn’t.

    I second your AVG recommendation. Maybe partly because of hacked software, internet cafes/digital printing studios/usb memory sticks etc are a seething breeding ground for malware. Regularly updated AVG, and a policy of trusting no one, has protected me well so far.

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