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Interview: Matt Bontrager

September 30, 2006 — Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann

This month I’ve had a coffee with Matt Bontrager. Matt is the owner of Southpaw Data, LLC, a company that offers various services around the huge field of data management. Matt uses both DEVONagent and DEVONthink for his daily work.

Matt Bontrager

Hi Matt! What exactly do you do with our applications in your company?

Southpaw Data is a data management company, which sounds simple enough, however it does get quite involved I use DEVONagent and DEVONthink Pro extensively during the course of my day. As an example, I have a client who requires very specific types of information to be stored in a database, yet the only source for this information is from publicly available, unstructured data streams. DEVONagent helps me find it, and DEVONthink Pro helps me store it in a way that is relevant and searchable.

Why have you chosen a Mac for your business?

Why Mac? Two words. Bulletproof. Intuitive. Bulletproof, because I have never ever had a single problem losing my data or crashing with a Mac. I have only experienced applications crashing, but that has nothing to do with the Mac. Intuitive, because apart from a very few things that aren’t just plainly obvious, everything else on a Mac is. For example, for me, installing applications is not very obvious, but almost everything else about using a Mac does make sense. Need to throw something away? Put it in the trash can. Need to move something from here to there? Drag and drop it. To me, that’s like asking: “Why have you chosen to drive this Ferrari rather than a Ford?”

How has DEVONagent changed your work?

DEVONagent has completely changed the face of my workday. As I said before, I have to comb through tons of information on a daily basis. Before DEVONagent, there was Google. There was page after page after page of Google. And therein was the problem. I couldn’t tweak my search parameters enough to filter the results to return anything really relevant. So I would enter the search, and then I would have to search through the results myself.

Now, with DEVONagent, after taking some time to learn a few little tricks, I enter my search terms, and that’s the end of it for me. I have the results automatically load themselves into my database so that when I require that information, I quickly type in a few keywords, and: Voilà!

How much time and money does DEVONagent save you by automating research tasks?

That’s hard to quantify. However, I can tell you that using DEVONagent has freed up a significant chunk of my workday for me to develop more aspects of my business. I am not sure what that would equate to in dollars or euros, but, it has proved to be invaluable. DEVONagent has given me more time in the day to be able to service more customers, and service them better. And that pays off sooner than later.

Which features do you value the most, and why?

In DEVONagent, one of the things that is quite valuable is the “secondary query” field. That has proven to be the real multiplier in search capability because it enables me to circumvent the shortcomings of most Web search engines. The archive is also a valuable tool when used properly. It sort of like a holding tank for me. Everything get stashed in there, until I can go through, clean it up, and then move it over to DEVONthink Pro.

In DEVONthink Pro, anyone who uses it to manage large amounts of information would agree, that the intelligence that you guys have built into it is by far the most valuable thing. Specifically, I am referring to “auto-classify” and “see also.” When I have a search that returns 400 results, and I need all of them? You better believe I love auto-classify!

One more thing I would like to mention is the “export to iPod” feature. I had read in the past that there was a way to put lists and text documents on the iPod, but I never could figure it out. But now with DEVONthink Pro, I just select what I want on my iPod, click export, and I’m done with it. I now use my iPod extensively as a quick reference tool.

Have you developed usage strategies you want to share with other users?

The bottom line for what I do is, I research broad topics for specific data and then serve it up to the client in whatever format they require. This can be very time consuming – and the one thing that most business women and men lack is: time. That’s why my service is so valuable to my clients. If the data needs to be emailed, DEVONagent can handle that for me easily enough. If the data needs to be entered into a client database, a bit of human intervention is needed.

Basically, I use DEVONagent’s incredibly powerful search capabilities to find what I’m looking for, which saves me time on the back end of the search. The information that I’m seeking is actually there. Then I just tell DEVONagent what I want it to do with the results. Email it, schedule an- other search, archive it, export it, send it to the database, etc.

Once the information gets to where it’s going, it is there for me to manipulate in whatever way the situation requires. DEVONthink Pro assists me in that process. Whether I need to summarize an analysis for a client, store the information for entry at a later date, or write a report and have the ability to source the data a month later, DEVONthink Pro makes all of that very simple.

Really the only “custom” thing that I have done to this whole process is automating the entry of search terms. I deal with large amounts of data which can sometimes equate into large amounts of lists of search terms. So, with the script that I have written, I can create a list to be searched (my last list had 2,500 search terms), click a button, and watch it go. Three and half days later I had an authoritative collection of relevant data consolidated in one place that was completely organized and searchable!

What don’t you like?

I don’t like that I can’t work in multiple databases simultaneously. I am a pretty heavy power-user. So, it becomes difficult for me to switch back and forth between databases for some information to be entered into one, and more into another, etc. With some of the data that I research being “business classified”, some of the databases must be protected as well. You can see how this slows me down. I also don’t like the fact that I haven’t been able to completely switch over my browser to DEVONagent. There are still some things that Safari has that are indispensable to me, e.g., remembering usernames and passwords.

And finally: Which feature do you miss the most?

The one thing that would be the next step for me has to do with exporting from Mail. I go through approximately 250 emails per day, and a significant portion of the information that I collect on a daily basis, comes through email. So, I use smart mailboxes extensively. I know that I could build something with AppleScript, but still I have found myself wanting an easier way to automate the transfer of certain emails, while leaving others alone. A better integration with Mail would be the icing on the already great cake!

Matt, thank you very much for your time!

You’re welcome, Eric. Your products are really amazing even for the casual user. But, for someone like me, it really goes beyond amazing!