10 things they didn't tell you about mobile working

Jeff Dray reflects on the role of mobile networking in his work as a roving IT support pro and shares some of the mobility "rules" he's discovered over the years.

Jeff Dray reflects on the role of mobile networking in his work as a roving IT support pro and shares some of the mobility "rules" he's discovered over the years.

After years spent supporting mobile devices and more years as a user of mobile data products, I felt it was time to note down some of my experiences. In some ways, mobile working is a liberating experience. But if you're not careful, it can follow you all the way home.

Note: This article originally appeared as an entry in our User Support blog. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: Portable equipment breaks

If you keep your Blackberry or PDA in your shirt pocket, don't lean over to look at things -- it will fall out. Whether it falls onto a hard floor or down a toilet, the effect will be the same. If this does happen to you, take plenty of pictures. At least you might be able to publish it as a PDA "unpacked" article.

2: Synchronization is essential

A daily backup of your mobile device means that vital information isn't lost when the inevitable happens (see #1 above). If your diary is maintained by the office, it is essential to download the next day's appointments.

3: Big stuff disappears

If you are going to lose, leave behind, or forget something, it isn't usually something minor -- it will be the AC adapter, USB cable, or the item itself.

4: Murphy's Law applies especially to mobile devices

In the UK, it is known as Sod's Law, but the effect is the same. You will drive out of network coverage just as you are getting details of a brilliant money-making opportunity or vital information about a key project. Know your geography as far as it relates to network coverage and find somewhere to stop if you think you are about to lose connection.

5: It can be tough to get a lunch break

Learn where the coverage black spots are and use them for uninterrupted breaks. This isn't laziness; people need their breaks and should be able to enjoy them in peace. There's always voicemail.

6: Communications will fail you at the worst time

Jeff's Law of Mobile Data Communications: The quality of a stable connection is in inverse proportion to the urgency of making it. This means that any trivial or unwelcome communication will have no trouble getting through. If you are being chased by wild dogs or angry customers, the display on your device will be the unwelcome message "No network" or "Emergency calls only."

7: The runaway stylus is gone forever

It is possible to render an expensive piece of equipment useless by losing or breaking the 50p stylus that comes with it. There must be dozens of them in my car, but without emptying it and ripping all the carpets out I am unlikely ever to see them again. Take care of them.

8: The phone is elusive

With the advent of Bluetooth headsets, I have discovered a new phenomenon that takes me back to a quandary I last experienced back in the 1960s, before the age of Caller ID. Sometimes when a phone call comes in, I can hear the phone ringing, but I don't know where it is. I can answer it with the Bluetooth headset but don't have the chance to see who it is. By the time I have disinterred the phone from under a pile of tools, jackets, and pieces of machinery, it will have gone to voicemail. I like to be able to see who is calling before I answer, so that I can greet them by name.

9: Information is at your fingertips... and it's impossible to read

Sometimes the PDA's capabilities exceed my own. I carry a device that has all the service manuals for every piece of equipment we sell, the entire global phone and e-mail listings for the company, our call logging system, and all the other Windows Mobile apps we know and love. Sadly, this is all shown on a two-inch screen, making spreadsheets, parts diagrams, and the global phone list all but unusable. Yes, you can zoom, but it is a slow and laborious process and nigh impossible if the sun is shining. (It sometimes does here.)

10: You may be perennially on the clock if you don't stand firm

All mobile data equipment comes with a vital component, the off switch. A friend of mine complained that his boss would call him at all hours of the day and night, stating that he had the right to do so because the mobile phone was supplied by the company. My answer to this is simple: When you finish work for the day, turn it off. When you go to a pub or restaurant, turn it off. When you go to bed, check that it is off. Turn it back on when it is time to start work again. Remember, your time is a marketable product. Don't devalue your skills by giving it away for free.

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Obviously if you have some of these issues you should be looking at a rugged device from Sumbol/motorola, Intermec, Janam etc. Instead of the frilly and only somewhat useful blackberry, Palm Pilot etc. Drop on cement or fall in a toilet (I've dropped a cell phone in a toilet too), a rugged device will withstand both, as well as rinsing it under atap if it falls in a toilet. Losing a styus, most rugged devices have a tethered stylus. network connectivity/wireless is generally much stronger in a rugged device also, not to mention far better security and encryption standards. Sycnh, a decent mobile network (again such as Symbol wireless ), in-house, will synch your device automtatically and offers far greater coverage and signal strength. As for taking breaks, if you can't refrain from answering a phone, if you can't put it in silent mode, turn it off for half an hour etc. Your problem is well beyond the device itself.


1: Portable equipment breaks. I've been lucky here. The worst that happened to me was dropping a one-pound calibration weight and having it roll off the scale platter and land on the face of my 3-week-old Blackberry. I've still got that Blackberry three years later, but corporate changed phone providers, so now it's just a PDA 2: Synchronization is essential. Luckily, this doesn't apply for me. Our call system is web-based and corporate was nice enough to provide a laptop and an air card. 3: Big stuff disappears. This is my downfall. I've left numerous tools and testers behind at one store or another. Usually, I can go back a day or two later and find them, but I've had to replace a couple of big-ticket pieces. 4: Murphy?s Law applies especially to mobile devices. Verizon Wireless ("You have 3G everywhere" - the Americans will get that one) has holes in places you wouldn't expect. I've learned to pull over if I think the call will be important. 5: It can be tough to get a lunch break. No lie! I do my best to stop and relax, but sometimes I find myself eating lunch in the van. I find myself keeping healthy snacks (raisins, peanuts, wheat crackers, etc.) on hand. When I can though, I will find a good sandwich shop with free wifi and kick back. 6: Communications will fail you at the worst time. Guaranteed, and 'nuff said. 7: The runaway stylus is gone forever. Thankfully, I do not need a stylus and have not for years. But some of the equipment I work on does require a stylus, so I keep one on hand...in the tool bag. Since the stylus only costs $1 for 3, Rule 3 has yet to impact. 8: The phone is elusive. Nope. Always in the holster on my belt, Bluetooth or no Bluetooth. I'm more likely to lose (and have lost) my Bluetooth headset. 9: Information is at your fingertips? and it?s impossible to read. Not applicable, have laptop. 10: You may be perennially on the clock if you don?t stand firm. I'm already on call almost every weekend and definitely every evening. I do coordinate with my boss to obtain the occasional weekend off if I have out-of-town plans. Now the benefits: 1. The boss may be breathing down your neck, but you can always drive through a "hole" and drop the call. 2. No two days are ever the same. 3. The customer knows who fixed the problem and occasionally will thank you to your face.


This one is especially important for *all* workers, not just mobile types. With the economy being what it is these days, it's definitely an employers' job market; unfortunately, some unscrupulous employers will take advantage of worker's fears about job stability to run them into the ground. One should certainly put his foot down (but in a respectful manner) if his employer is starting to do this. Failure to do this really will, in some cases, turn your job into a 24/7 on-call affair whether or not it was ever part of the job description.


or in the time accounting system. Make sure all your co-workers are also doing this. When HR or payroll starts asking what's going on, it's not the worker bees on the hot spot.

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