Road Rage

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - When The Prudential Insurance Company of America authorized a pilot project to equip 500 agents with IBM Corp. ThinkPads and technical training, a sample group of agents within the pilot doubled its sales.

Newark, New Jersey-based Prudential then initiated one of the nation's largest rollouts of mobile and remote computing. Called LaunchPad, the effort involved providing all 12,000 agents, field management and support staff with customized laptops, instructor-led and computer-based training, technical support and a new infrastructure to undergird the mobile system.

LaunchPad has changed the way Prudential agents conduct business, despite some early skepticism that the laptops would become just expensive paperweights.

"All arguments [against mobility] have dropped, and now everyone is asking for more mobility," says Chris Ludwig, vice president of field technology at Prudential.

Now, being ready for the road is all the rage at Prudential - and at other companies, too.

Mobile and remote computing experts agree that the trend is taking off in interesting directions. According to Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Group Inc., 40 percent of mobile users will adopt smart phones - wireless phones enhanced with personal digital assistant and Web browsing features - by 2004.

The Wireless Application Protocol will accelerate the adoption of wireless Internet access, creating a mobile-commerce revolution, according to Synchrologic Inc., a developer of Internet-based mobile computing software in Alpharetta, Georgia.

This explosion of mobile computing has prompted unexpected career growth for many information technology professionals.

Expanding Skill Sets

As agents became more technical, their questions to the help desk became more complex, says Roy Schwartz, vice president of information systems at Prudential.

To meet the demand, Prudential trained its help desk professionals in security, applications and Internet functions. The company also promoted the help desk director to vice president, commensurate with the expanded responsibilities.

Because of the widespread corporate usage of mobile and remote computing, IT professionals who implement and support it are often thrust into the limelight and gain opportunities for additional training.

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, Colin D. Jones, a global program manager based in the U.K., is leading an international team of 20 IT professionals to create a virtual private network (VPN) for the firm.

Team members are "systems integrations people with good diagnostic abilities and knowledge of networking, firewalls and databases, plus the obvious soft skills of teamwork and problem-solving," says Jones.

The team has rolled out the VPN to the U.S., where approximately 25,000 consultants rely on remote access, logging 1 million hours of connection time in January alone.

"The IT pros who work on the VPN are very visible throughout the firm, and they've earned great street credibility," says Jones.

"Wireless is a hot field for digital and analog engineers who understand microelectronics, radio, multithreading and multiplexing," says Richard Wonder, president of Richard Wonder and Associates Inc., a technical recruiting firm in New York.

He estimates that those with engineering credentials and five years of experience can earn $100,000 or more working for the "bicoastal wireless development companies."

Vitiello is a freelance writer in East Brunswick, N.J.

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