The Mobile Office - ready to be mobile?
What can I say - it's great to be a software developer
these days! Good pay, flexible hours, great challenges, and so on. And if you're
lucky, you get an additional benefit - be able to work off-site.
If you're a consultant, or just someone who wants to be able to work from home every now and then - here's how you can be truly mobile!
When you're involved in a project, to be truly mobile, the project's information you're allowed access to must be at your fingertips at all times. Project files, documents, excel sheets, reports, TODOs, etc, they must be easy to reach.
Thus, when you need to get something done, accessing the project's knowledge base is a few seconds away.
Sounds easy? What about that Post-it you left at work? Or that meeting with Dave where you discussed the projects deliverables? What about those features from yesterday's email, which are stuck at your desk? And by the way, what ever happened to the notes you wrote by hand, on that memo you printed 2 days ago?
Nowadays, we're literally struck with lots of information, and it's very hard to have it accessible 95-100% of your time. But, let's see how close we can get.
1. A laptop
2. A PDA and a phone. If you have a 2-in-1, that's even better!
3. An internet connection
4. A backup internet connection - this is either a PCMCIA or a USB modem, to connect to your laptop
Lets delve into more details for a bit:
1. A laptop
That's a given - how else can you be mobile? Of course, you can always choose internet cafes, but why make your life complicated, when it can be sooo easy?
2. A PDA and a phone. If you have a 2-in-1, that's
In this modern age, I highly recommend you get something that's both a PDA and a phone. Don't go for cheap - it'll hurt you in the long run. My preference is to go with something that has a QWERTY keyboard, since I take a lot of notes on my PDA. The bigger the keyboard, the better. Personally, I have an Orange SPV 3100 - excellent ballance between space and usability (QWERTY keyboard). Whatever you choice is, remember that you need to have it with you at all times!
3. An internet connection
This is your regular internet connection - both home and work have one.
4. A backup internet connection - this is either a
PCMCIA or a USB modem, to connect to your laptop
Wherever you are - at home, in the car, at your favorite cafe, the internet needs to be there with you. If you have a cool wireless plan, go for it. Otherwise, make sure you have a backup plan - so wherever you are, you can connect to internet. Make it broadband - no time for compromises!
Information at your fingertips
Now that you have all the above, let's make good use of them. As I've already said, the information needs to be at your fingertips:
Everything must be stored in your laptop, or be accessible via internet
Key information needs to be available on the PDA/phone
In case you'd want to keep some information (maybe confidential?) only on your PDA - I highly recommend not to - any information is way better processed on a PC - and there are way way more tools to process your data on a PC than on a PDA.
The line between work and social life is getting more and more blurred, and you do need to stay responsive to your customers - especially if they're in a different time zone. Any queries they might have, you should be able to answer ASAP - even if you're nowhere near your laptop. This is where key information comes into play. This is the information you need to have with you, at all times :
customer phone number(s)
key people on your project(s)
the project's website (if any)
summary of the current project status
project blocker issues, if any
whatever else you think it's appropriate for your project
In addition to that, I highly recommend something you probably already do: check your email on the phone as well. In the right hands, this is a time saver - instead of waiting at work (or wherever) for that important email, you can go out with your friends, and every now and then, see if it arrived; if it has, plan accordingly.
Keeping thy notes
Are you used to keeping your notes on Post-its, paper, etc? That's a No-No. How can you be mobile, if you need to take a lot of papers with you? The more mobile you are, the less trips to the printer you will take...
When dealing with a project, make sure all notes related to the project are available electronically. Papers get lost. Electronic information is there for the long run. In the worst scenario, at least take a picture of your notes, and keep it electronically. Better safe than sorry!
Project related info should be easy to find:
- On your machine, in a directory + its subdirs. The project should have a directory assigned to it.
- A repository, which should be accessible via the internet/VPN
- Email. I recommend each project has its own folder within your email reader - makes things much easier to track.
- Any other information should be available via links. The easiest way for this is to create a .txt file with the external information links.
When dealing with documentation, avoid .pdf files. Whenever you deal with a .pdf, turn it into a Word document. Why? Because you can electronically modify it - add your notes, electronically "highlight" it! There are rather cheap pdf2word convertors there, and they're certainly worth their money!
Here are a few:
- http://www.soliddocuments.com/products.htm?product=SolidConverterPDF , 49.95 usd
- http://www.verypdf.com/pdf2word/index.html , 39.95 usd
- http://www.pdfpdf.com/pdfconverter.html , 49.95 usd
Personally, I've been using the Solid Converter, and so far, it's quite cool.
Whether you like it or not, you should be using some software that allows remote access. Be it Remote Desktop, VNC, GotoMyPC, Live Meeting, WebUnyte etc.
More often than not, you'll need to teach your customer(s) to do something, and the easiest way is to literally show it. If your customer is rather close by, you can visit their office. But most of the time, it's much easier and cheaper to do it from where you are - thus, you'll need access to their PC. And, every now and then, someone will need to show you a thing or two ;)
Talking to your customers/colleagues can be done in several ways. First, you can use skype, which I quite like. If so, use a head phone set with incorporated mike, in order to avoid microphony.
In addition to talking face-to-face/over the phone/skype, we all use the popular IM programs. Whatever you use, make sure :
It logs all messages (in a persistent manner)
Its logs are easy to read
Logs date and time. This way, you can see when X said Y.
You can change the logs' locations. Thus, you can move them to a folder that is automatically backed up every now and then
It logs offline messages (Yahoo Messenger doesn't - so far)
In addition to this, I strongly recommend your team has a virtual chat room, where everything is logged by default. All your colleagues, whenever they work, they go into this chat room, and they talk project related issues. At any time, you can see things that were solved, problems, etc. Thus, at any time, someone that encounters an issue or blocker, he/she will log it. If it can't be answered right away, the project leader will find a solution at a later time.
Every project's discussions can then be archived once the project is finished. This way, even future colleagues will learn/benefit from your previous discussions.
There are many applications that implement virtual chat rooms. Take your pick - note that some even provide encryptability of messages.
As one that has traveled a bit, I can tell you one thing - one extra laptop battery is great! And if you travel over the seas, get one of those plug converters as well.
Finally, make sure you record all your notes electronically. Post-its tend to stick to a fixed location, and you dont' want that. Note that there are several electronic versions of Post-its you can find on the net, for free - so get them!
Well, that's about it for now. Being mobile doesn't have to be hard!
Do you have any comments/ suggestions/ feedback? Talk back!