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Managing Construction Projects Wirelessly with the HP Palmtop

Managing Construction Projects Wirelessly with the HP Palmtop

The company president and employees of a multi-million dollar construction company keep on top of their business using modems and RadioMail, along with built-in applications on the Palmtop.

By Randy Polumbo

Although it doesn't run windows, the HP Palmtop is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of computing power. Brilliantly engineered and well-integrated built-in applications cover more tasks more portably than anything else around.

In the late 1980s, computers revolutionized the way I worked and I suspected that when they left the desktop and came into the field, my effectiveness would again improve dramatically.

I tried out several laptops that are all since retired. Mostly I used them to print fancy customized reports (from ACT!, Organizer or Packrat), that I then folded up and jammed into my pocket. Entering my notes into the computer from one of these coffee stained and dog-eared parcels was not a task I looked forward to at the end of the day. Waiting five minutes for all the software to load was not an option in my fast-paced work environment, nor was lugging an extra bag full of expensive equipment that would be gone in a New York minute if I turned my back.

I started reading the HPHAND Forum on CompuServe and this convinced me to order an HP 200LX and give it a shot.

We should hold an official office holiday to commemorate the day my briefcase became a rubber-banded collection of a 200LX, a Motorola flip phone, and a PCMCIA modem. Some people commented on the primitive nature of the output, but I was faxing meeting notes and uploading files from taxi cabs and street corners my second week. The accelerated pace of communication, coupled with improved accuracy carved some time and worry from my day.

Here are some of the specific applications I have found most worthwhile. By far the most rewarding feature is how well all the built-in applications exchange information and work together. Particularly when automated with macros, this is a powerful set-up.

 The Notes field in ToDo is essential for my business. I can add up to 30 screens of additional information to each ToDo item. I can later save the note as a text file and open it on a word processor. Better still, I can cut and paste the ToDo information into CC: Mail (see below).

 The "punch list" is the dreaded document that we prepare containing all the small details that must be produced to high standards by many trades at a rapid clip in the last week of a project to get to 100% completion.

 The individual Data Item screen for our modified Phone Book. I tend to leave Phone Book open in this screen and search by keyword on name to move to another contact.

Staying on top of appointments and ToDo's

I use Appointment Book to stay on top of a large number of appointments and an even larger list of ToDo's. If I have to change an appointment, which I often do, it s easy to cut and paste it to a new time and day. The best thing about Appointment Book is that the Palmtop fits in my pocket. I have run six different organizers or scheduling packages on my expensive laptop and office computers for years, but I m never anywhere near them when the alarm goes off. When the alarm goes off on my Palmtop, I actually hear it.

The Palmtop feature used the most at our firm is the Appointment Book s ToDo list. I enter ToDo's, tag them by priority, and deadline, and mark the carry forward box so they continue into eternity or until I check them off. The list grows, but I never loose a ToDo.

Some of my ToDo's require detailed explanations or attached notes. (Screen 1) I press (F3) (Note) and add up to 30 screens of additional information to each ToDo. I can later save the note as a text file and open it on a word processor. Better still, I can cut and paste the ToDo information to CC:MAIL, Mobile or RadioMail and e-mail or fax it to the office staff to finish up and send. For example, I will e-mail the "punch list" (an official document detailing work to be done; see Screen 2) to my production and office staff while sending a copy to the architect, home owner, or subcontractors by fax or e-mail, all in a single efficient operation.

Now that I m getting better at delegating, this is one of my favorite uses of the Palmtop. It provides a record of what was sent, who it was sent to, and when it was sent. Whether the recipient is on a desktop PC or a Palmtop, he or she has this information in a file that they can print out, edit, or pass along in seconds.

E-mail for quick communication

My company used to run a simple computer bulletin board on our company network, with menus and file areas for uploading and downloading information. We now use cc:Mail solely because it is more "carpenter-friendly," as well as extremely robust and reliable. It lets us attach files to messages, providing an extra level of security.

We use a single modem on our office network post office and a program called Router (part of CC: Mail for our local area network) to exchange e-mail daily with our lead carpenters and project managers. They call in twice a day, or when they know that we have something for them to download. They use the Megahertz XJACK card in their Palmtop to download their e-mail quickly.

My production manager and I receive e-mail on a more continuous basis. In our case, our messages are more time-sensitive. Because of this, we use the RadioMail service to send and receive e-mail. It costs more than paging or linking up to the home office with a PC Card modem, but it is infinitely more useful. RadioMail offers nationwide coverage as part of the basic package, with no roaming charges. We get our phone messages, budget reports, change orders, etc., in minutes. We can get e-mail from clients, vendors and subcontractors wherever we are. Instead of getting a beep on a pager, calling back and waiting for the person to answer, we just e-mail a response and get on with business.

This approach provides a record of all communications. I can take meeting notes and send a copy to all those involved in one shot. The CC: field (Carbon Copy) shows who else is in the loop on a message. The BCC: field (Blind Carbon Copy) lets you address a message to a party, but not have the name show up on other recipients messages.

A separate modem server exchanges our Internet mail (RadioMail goes in and out over the Internet) by calling our UUCP dial up account with our Internet service provider.

Modifying Phone Book as a contact manager

The built-in Phone Book application is nothing more than a basic, searchable database. As is, it s good for maintaining simple contact information. Our needs were greater, so we loaded the Phone Book file into the Database application and added some extra fields to make it more like ACT! (See Screen 3.) I can now keep massive notes on each person or record in the Phone Book. In the Note field I create a historical record of my conversations and meetings with the contact (using the date stamp).

I use macros to paste addresses and phone numbers into my e-mail or fax messages. This saves a lot of looking up and hunting around for information.

We use a basic Phone Book for vendors, subcontractors and clients. A separate Phone Book tracks sales and prospects. We use the Notes field to record discussions concerning unit prices and bids, and transfer that information to a separate estimates database.

 List view of the leads database. Select an item and press (ENTER) to display the full screen view of an item. Then it is simple to check the status and detailed history for each project.

 Individual item view of the leads database. This shows how we track prospective clients at different stages: Lead (brand new), Bid, (has received proposal), Alive ,Dead, etc. These items are sorted by priority.>

 Screen 6: Macro pastes current bids from leads database and pastes them into Lotus. This screen shows a graph of how many bids are dead, alive, or actual jobs.

 Phone Book data can be exported and merged with a number of desktop contact managers, like ACT! We tried this for awhile, but determined that except for a couple of people who never leave the office, it was handier and faster to get everyone a Palmtop. They never have to boot up a desktop PC, load Windows and start a separate contact manager application. This makes looking up contact information a twenty-second operation, instead of a five-minute one. Screen 3 shows the individual Data Item screen for our modified Phone Book (loaded in the Database application). You can space the fields over four screens, but I like to jam everything into one screen. It is more immediate and looking up information is faster.

Separate Database tracks leads

We created a separate database to track our leads. Screen 4 shows the list view of our leads database. The next screen shows a detailed record. We used check boxes for status of lead, such as Lead (brand new) and In Bid, (we have submitted a proposal). We also use check boxes to indicate if a lead is Dead (not to be pursued), Alive (active) or Job (we have been given the job). I sort and resort the files according to my needs, such as sorting them by priority to help organize our time effectively.

It is possible to create a multi-field Smart Clip to paste different arrangements of data into Memo, Lotus spreadsheets, or other applications. My most useful macro selects current bids and pastes them into a Lotus spreadsheet that displays in dollars a graph of how many bids are dead, alive, or actual jobs. (See Screen 6.)

I use the same approach to display graphs of the characteristics of our residential and commercial clients. This is a powerful tool that helps us determine marketing priorities. We can tell in a minute where our sales are for any period and plan accordingly. We tend to be awarded commercial contracts in the summer and have a steady diet of residential work all year. Both have different cash flow, staffing and equipment needs. This modest tool lets me spot deviations from the norm as well as take an overall snapshot that is easy to compare to other years by changing subsets. Our office staff is moving more into desktop ACT! lately and their orphaned Palmtops get placed with lead carpenters or in some recent cases with architects and designers. With the five minute learning curve of cc:MAIL, it is worth it for us to give these out to our colleagues at other firms particularly in the cases where they have no e-mail capability in house. A few are looking into developing a similar setup for their projects, so we give a lot of nickel tours of our headquarters and help with hardware and software specification and installation.

From my cold, dead fingers . . . .

On our desktop and laptop computers we have started to use CAD and full-featured project management programs on more of our projects. Both are exciting tools to have at your fingertips, but I do not see these or the new Windows CE units displacing our use of Palmtops anytime soon however.

My other computer is an RDI portable SPARC workstation that cheerfully renders huge CAD files while running eight other packages in simultaneous windows. This is really the only other computer that has attracted my attention in a couple of years, so the new Windows CE handhelds will have to either beat that or my 200LX will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.

The field crew has really inspired me in their quick grasp of the handheld technology and the increased responsibility and efficiency it affords them. I can see we are at the beginning of developing a project management system that always meets our high company standards. The Palmtops have helped us implement a "Mobile Manager" model that we can replicate anywhere with repeatable and excellent results. This is allowing us to expand and work on projects out-of-town, starting this year.

My gratitude goes to HP, the many CompuServe Forum postings and The HP Palmtop Paper articles many of my ideas for implementing the Palmtop in business were cribbed from these sources.

Products mentioned in this article

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