The Mobile Consultant Toolkit

As a consultant, I am moving around quite often. Here is what I learned when it comes to having a usable IT toolkit when on the move.

A professional mobile phone

I am currently using a Blackberry Bold. Since using it, I have cut the PC usage by a good measure. It is a great email client that follows you and allows for quick responses when located at a place that disallows connecting laptops to their networks.

The GPS capability is very useful when navigating unknown territory. There is also an option to use Google maps on the device and it is a welcome addition when the GPS signal is weak, absent, or you do not have time to wait for it to catch on. If you do not fear big brother, you can activate Google Latitude and have your contact to meet to do the same. That is a pretty high tech/geeky way to meet but is nevertheless very effective. To be honest I would never leave that on permanently.

Also worth of notice is the camera in the phone. With a flash and a 2 Megapixels resolution, it is a good way to capture drawings, whiteboards and the like. Especially when coupled with Whiteboard photo described hereafter.

An interesting point is that the phone is also a notes recorder and can play audio podcasts on the move. Coupled with the Supertooth One, this makes for a perfect dictation device in the car. Also, having a decent keyboard on the Bold is really a killer feature for me. When used to it, there is no issue writing even long texts on it. This is why I do not have an iPhone BTW.

Whiteboard photo

Whiteboard photo is what I would call "a single minded piece of software that performs its duty perfectly". What is that duty will you ask? Its duty is to clean and reshape pictures of whiteboards. The key advantage is that I am able to run a workshop, write all kinds of things on whiteboards, blackboards and paperboards (along with common paper), take a picture with a digital camera (2Megapixels is way sufficient) and convert the ugly looking images to neat drawings. These can in turn be printed as a PDF and be mailed to the meeting attendees. This software beats most of the electronic whiteboards I have ever seen. Another interesting use is projecting the pictures back on a whiteboard and changing them. This is terrific for sessions after the first and also to explore alternate designs or remember how to the final idea came to life. I could not be without and achieving the same quality with a generic graphics package would require way too much work.

Usb keys

A bunch of USB keys is a mandatory device for the mobile consultant. Of course they do have to be filled with the proper material. I use them as a backup should my laptop ever be stolen or break. Both happened already and it is very bad to appear in front of an audience when not having the tools working. You can always get another laptop on a spot but not your material. Placing the material on the web is a good idea too but flakey Internet connections and firewalls can ruin the day. So keep the key stuff on a key or two and have it also in PDF form, should there be no other alternative tooling. I also do keep my security passwords and so on on a key.

Dell Latitude D430 Laptop

Well, any lightweight laptop would do. This one is the one I use and it is quite a good one when it comes to sturdiness, battery life and capabilities. Its casing is a mix of magnesium alloy and plastic which is perfect as a light companion. I have placed a larger battery in it and this allows me to work for really long stretches of time while on the road. The screen is 12" something and that’s a good size for readability and keyboard size. I also do own an Acer One Netbook but this is too small for my tastes. The Wi-Fi is good. The major pain is the sound but with headphones it is okay.

Philips VoIP mobile handset

This is a USB handset that works with Skype. I do not know why but I do have a hard time using a headset. This gizmo is looking like a normal phone and makes my experience of skype much better. It is made for travelers and works like a charm.

Xplorer2

This thing is one of the reasons why I am using Windows instead of anything else. It is simply the most powerful file manager I have used to date. I have tried quite a bunch, be it on Linux, Mac OS or Windows itself. There is now a version that can travel with you and a USB key and which works without any requirement for anything to be installed on the client PC. A dream come true. My productivity with projects just soared when I started using it. When dealing with tons of files, the 'browse flat' mode combined with the great preview feature and the powerful search capability just cut the frustration by a huge factor and help getting things done fast. The bookmark folders and the sync abilities are great time savers as well.

Portable HDD

A somewhat less used device is the small for factor hard disk that I do carry in my laptop case. 250GB of space which comes handy when I need to access source code and huge resources when on the go. When needing to edit video recordings, having a separate disk just speeds up edits enough that I can't be without it. Also nice when you need to take copies of material and USB is not roomy enough.

Access to OReilly Safari

In the past when I wanted to access my bookshelf, I needed to either be limited to my office, hope to find the book at the destination or carry copies of the books in electronic format. All of these options were bothersome. With OReilly Safari library edition (the full thing) I do have unlimited access to a staggering amount of books in my domain. The added value is the search feature as well as the favorites feature which allows me to replicate my office bookshelf in virtual form. An additional value comes from the fact that the system allows access to a wealth of video trainings. These are especially nice when dealing with design, graphics and other interactive domains. Reading on screen may not be for everybody but I do happen to like it.

Gmail

Gmail is great for reading email on the move. Especially when email accounts are configured in it. Also, it is very useful for sending out emails with attachments and viewing the content of received ones without requiring any special software. The search feature is also very welcome. Another nice feature is that Gmail is usable from the Blackberry with a custom application that integrates nicely.

Skype

A must have to save some money on international calls. I do use the world unlimited plan which means that I can call any landline for free from anywhere. That is really helping keeping projects on the right track.

Multicountry AC adapter

As I do have European plugs, I need to adapt to other styles when in the UK or the US. This adapter works with all of these and takes very little space.

Usb-based chargers

This is really making my bad a lot lighter. When choosing a new device, I first look if it is using a standard mini USB charging plug. Otherwise I ended up with lots of various chargers and when one died, I was stranded when the power was gone. Another benefit: things are usable with a laptop and a USB cable.

Dataviz Word, Excel and PowerPoint to go

This is commercial software, priced $69. But allows me to view and create word, excel and PowerPoint documents. Quite nice when it comes to write memos on the move and that the sessions are short lived due to switch of train, tube, plane and so on. Also nice when waiting for a meeting to occur. Of course, typing is a bit slow but is still productive with the keyboard of the Blackberry.

Supertooth One

This gadget lives in my car and provides hands free communication with Bluetooth enabled phones. It works well due to noise cancellation. It also serves as a sound output for the player in the Blackberry and I do use it for listening to podcasts. It is also nice when recording notes and ideas.

CutePDF, Solidconverter PDF, Foxit PDF editor

PDF has proven to be a very good format to use for me. It is great as a format for email attachments when I do issue proposals since what the receiver sees is what I wanted him to see. Also, the file size can be tuned and kept reasonable no matter the content. For example I do tend to use a lot of OLE in my MS Office documents, most of the time embedding Visio diagrams into MS Word documents. Well, when viewed on a Mac, this will prove problematic. So, to produce my PDFs I do use CutePDF, an open source product that provides a virtual Windows printer. It works very nicely and produces clean PDFs. There is another thing to do with PDFs and this is editing. For that purpose, I do use FoxitPDF Editor, a fine piece of software (commercial). As the last weapon in the arsenal, I do use SolidPDF converter. This one allows converting a PDF back to RTF and that allows me to edit it. This is very useful when dealing with RFPs and requirement specifications that are issued as PDF. The tool converts back tables and graphics beautifully. Of note, advanced PDF password recovery is a nice hidden resource that can unlock most password protected PDFs.

Password Safe

Since I am working with a lot of web related technologies, I do end up with a ton of passwords and user ids. To keep all of that info up to date I do use Password Safe, an open source product that is very usable and secure. I do need one master password for my password file.

Truecrypt

Truecrypt allows me to create and mount encrypted drives. A drive is a file on disk and that disk can also be stored on a USB key. When working with sensitive content under NDA, this is a must have should your machine be stolen or compromised. Truecrypt is open source.

Mikogo

Mikogo is a free tool for meetings on line up to 10 people. Coupled with Skype this makes for a good virtual meeting room. For a cheap price, GoTo Meeting is a very nice alternative.

Blueberry screen recorder

While on the move, I find that the quickest way to explain things is to do it by example. I hate writing tons of text when I can record the screen and just ship the movie along with my voice track. Blueberry is very powerful for doing so and adding little post-its around, editing the frames and tracks and publishing the results as AVI, flash, or Quicktime.. Also able to record from a webcam as a screen insert and produce standalone EXEs, this is a great workhorse. I also do use it to record webinars that I do attend on the web.

Witopia

Witopia provides VPN services for $39 a year. This is great when you do not want to anyone to spy on your Wi-Fi or LAN connection. The IPs provided are located in the US and the UK and also allow viewing sites that do require an IP from these countries. It appears to not work anymore with Hulu.com but is okay with others.

A 3G connection

This one saved me several times when I had to conduct demos requiring the Internet and the intranet of the prospect just was bad or disallowing connection of alien machines. The Blackberry Bold can act as a 3G modem in Windows and drivers are provided for that purpose.

JFax

Jfax allows me to send and receive faxes over the web from anywhere. This is a very important capability especially when receiving purchase orders and sending them to suppliers. My accountant also sends me faxes and JFax help me keeping the trees safe.

This concludes the list of tools that help me conduct business from almost anywhere. They proved themselves over the years and I recommend you give them a shot.