Every time I start a new project, either personal or for work, I first give it a project name. I started doing this about seven or eight years ago and it has contributed immensely to my personal and professional organization. It’s like using paper files. I mentioned this practice to my IP attorney, and he heartily approved, I think for reasons of operational security, but mostly its a mechanism to help me keep track of . . . projects. It’s also very useful when working with others, such as other employees at work or engineering contractors, because there’s no ambiguity when referring to a project name as there might be when using a mere project description.

Project names are assigned randomly. I use an Excel spreadsheet (natch) which includes a hidden column of unused project names. When I add text to the next cell in the description column, a new project name automatically appears. Since the unused project name column is hidden, the new project name is a surprise. Makes the whole thing a little more fun.

The challenge, of course, is coming up with that list of project names to begin with. The set of names I work from has to be a large one, because I literally write down every idea I have and give it a project name, even if there is little chance I will ever do anything with it. My project list is a convenient way for me to record — and organize — my thoughts and ideas.

When I was at Cisco, projects had themes: for example, development projects related to a particular router device might be snakes (“Rattler,” “Asp,” “Cobra,” etc), or perhaps national parks (“Yellowstone,” “Yosemite,” “Denali”). When I started using project names for my work, I took the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks list of mountains and rocks and randomized them (“Amethyst,” ” Chuckwalla,” “Galena,” “Bear,” “Butler,” etc).

But eventually I started running out of names, so I cast about for other lists, other sets. So I used names of all the counties in California; all the counties in Nevada; names of seas; counties in Ireland; names of constellations (which get a little hairy). Finally, I found a list of all the Nobel Prize for Literature laureates and added those. I have plenty of names for now.

But you can never have too many potential project names. I have a list of 164 UN member names (“Panama,” “Kazakhstan,” “Iran,” “Namibia,” “Peru”); 44 American states (“Wisconsin,” “Indiana,” “Alabama,” “Pennsylvania,” “Texas”); 567 auto marques of nine characters or less (“Transinco,” “Frontenac,” “Moskvitch,” “Lambretta,” “Voglietta”); 81 US National Parks (“Gates,” “Hagerman,” “Jewel,” “Hanford,” “Vermilion”); 511 Christian saints (all denominations) (“Anthony,” “Venantius,” “Ursmar,” “Wulfram,” “Severinus”); and 112 Old Testament angels and prophets (“Jeremiah,” “Daniel ,” “Kushiel ,” “Ariel,” “Puriel”). If the numbers don’t seem to match (44 American states?) it’s because I edit each list to eliminate two-word names, etc.

The trickiest part is eliminating duplicates from new name sets. I can do this using the Excel VLOOKUP() function. The lists themselves are randomized, by putting the RAND() function in a column adjacent to the names and sorting on that column (you will get a different sort order every time).