Software packages I cannot live without

I read an interesting question years ago, on the JMP blog, “What are 5-9 software packages you can’t live without?”

That reminded me that when I started this blog almost four years ago, I wrote a post with the title “Nine software packages I can’t live without” . I never finished publishing the list, I started another list a year ago that I never published, and then started another one today – which I finally finished!

My daughters call me an “anti-hoarder” because I am always going through the house and giving away old clothes, appliances or other items we no longer need. With a new “app for that” coming along every 15 seconds, I thought it would be interesting to re-visit that and see which I really and truly could not live without. Top of my list is, showing up all three years was :

1. SAS

I hesitated to put this at the top of the list because if I didn’t get a free SAS On-Demand license from teaching at Pepperdine University and have free access to computers with licenses on-site at clients’ office, I’d certainly gulp at the price tag. That being said, SAS does almost everything I need done and does it well. Last year, and this year I had it on my list as the software I used the second-most. Four years ago, it was further down, but the point is, there has not been a year that I have not used it OFTEN. As I rant about a lot here, I get a lot of messy data that needs to be beaten into shape and SAS is good for that. I also do every kind of statistics from bar graphs to  mixed models to survival analysis . As I tell students all of the time, if you’re taking one statistics course, buy SPSS. It’s cheap (for a student license) and easy to learn. If you are planning a research career, learn SAS. Yes, it is harder. The hard stuff is what people are willing to pay you for (duh!)

2. Graphic converter – Some people call this the poor man’s photoshop. I would have no idea. I never use photoshop, having failed art in junior high and never tried it again. People say you can’t fail art. They are wrong. You just have to be really, really bad at it. I use it for photo editing, changing gif backgrounds to transparent, cropping, re-sizing. It’s super-cheap. $40. You can’t go wrong. This has also been on my list every single year.

3. Webstorms. I purely love Webstorms. I started coding Javascript with Text wrangler (see below) but webstorms has saved me SO much time and caught so many errors. It is the number one package I used most often this year.

4.  Dreamweaver: This was on the list four years ago, not on the list last year and indispensable today. We had some “legacy clients” for whom we did website work. They came with The Julia Group when we split off from Spirit Lake Consulting, Inc. years ago. Some of them have thousands of web pages and Dreamweaver was the best solution to manage that. Although we don’t do much website development any more (including our own, obviously, if you take a look at the site!) we do provide “vertical integration” of services. That is, we have some clients in remote communities and we’re their technical “go-to” for everything. These days, the rocket scientist (retired) is handling that and he prefers WordPress. On the rare occasion that I actually got around to doing anything with The Julia Group site, I used Textwrangler for that, too, and upload it in Fetch. This is ironic because in my post four years ago, I made fun of people who coded HTML and CSS as being slow. The difference is, if it is only a line or two, I can fix it in the time Dreamweaver takes to open. THEN, this year, we ended up doing a lot more web development. So, I am back to Dreamweaver again.


OmniOutliner Pro: I still use this for outlining any large new project, whether it is a grant or a book I am writing. I bought it years ago for pretty cheap – I think I got it on sale for under $40. Four or five years later, I downloaded the upgrade and it was free. Pretty awesome deal. I thought I could replace this with something that would be accessible everywhere. I tried a number of products for notes – Google notebook worked fine until they discontinued it. I tried another notes package I have forgotten since I used it for about a month and then they went out of business! I tried both Zoho and Evernote. Neither worked seamlessly between my iPad and computers, so in the end I am stuck taking notes on the iPad notepad if I don’t have my computer at hand and using omnioutliner the rest of the time. I don’t use this all that often but I do use it several times a year when I am starting a new project.


Text wrangler from Bare Bones software: It’s surprising because it is free and was not on my list four years ago. At the beginning of the year, I used it almost every day, sometimes for quickly editing html. Mostly, I used it when I was playing around with simple Javascript. These days, my js isn’t simple and it isn’t playing so I’ve moved up to Webstorms.  Very often I need it for an “off-label” use. I often get files in formats ranging from SAS report to God knows what and I have no application on my Mac that will open them. Using Text Wrangler, I can open the file and read the text. Yes, there may be all kinds of ugly formatting codes around it, but if I just need to see R-squared = .648   or “Meet me at 3:30 by the pool”,  as long as I can read the text, I’m fine.

7. Open Office

My Windows office computer, the three lap tops (including the one belonging to the world’s most spoiled fourteen-year-old), the rocket scientist’s desktop and the computer in the living room (because someone felt we must have one there) all run Open Office. I like the templates for  Impress – their version of Powerpoint – better than the Microsoft ones. Plus, we have so many computers, and are buying another one, buying the Microsoft version is just too much money.

8. SPSS 

Some clients are more comfortable with SPSS and it runs native on a Mac, so if I don’t want to go to the massive effort of turning around and using the computer on the desk on the other side of my office, or re-starting my laptop or desktop in boot camp, I use SPSS. Also, if you teach, there are some really good deals for educators buying SPSS, check it out. Otherwise, it costs you approximately a kidney and your first born.

On thin ice

The Microsoft Office package … I have it on two computers, my Mac desktop and one of the laptops. I’ve actually found myself using Office MORE this year. Last year I only had it on one computer. The main reasons I am using it more is that I teach a class and use Powerpoint. I wrote a book that was hundreds of pages long with lots of photos and used Office for that. The book is done and the class ends in three weeks so I don’t know how much need I will have for Office after that.


So, that is my list of software I would take with me on a desert island – or, more likely, to the Bahamas. What’s yours?


Disclaimer regarding sponsorship: Nobody paid me a damn thing to endorse their products above. You’d think that someone could at least go the effort to TRY to bribe me now and then, but NO-O-O !

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  1. No R? It’s free, it covers most everything statistical, and it has nice graphics (ggplot2). (And I’m a long time SAS user)

  2. This is my personal list of software *I* can’t live without. I don’t have any clients asking for R. If they aren’t willing to pay for software, maybe they aren’t willing to pay for consulting. Or maybe people who use R are used to ‘coding their own stunts’. Either way, it hasn’t been a market for us. Teaching with SAS Enterprise Guide or SPSS draws enough resistance from social science PhD students. I can’t imagine the horror on their faces if I tried to teach them R.

  3. Ah, I didn’t understand that teaching was part of the need. Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching R to softer science folks. Not so much horror as total confusion with the lack of shiny buttons.

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