School Supplies

Getting into business school is the easy part. Now comes the hard part: hardwiring your personal tool kit of learning technologies. Here's what to pack.

At 8:30 on most any morning last spring, you could find Sarah Heckscher gearing up for another day of high-level learning at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Heckscher, who graduated this past June, would check the day's mission-critical classes and meetings on her Palm III. She'd then fire up her IBM ThinkPad, log on to the Kellogg Serial (the school's intranet), and download the PowerPoint slides that her technology-strategy professor uploaded the night before. While in class, she'd boot up her ThinkPad and take notes right onto the slides themselves. She could rarely be found without her Palm, her ThinkPad, and her Nokia cell-phone — all of which provided her with vital links to classmates and to recruiters.

In her two years at Kellogg, Heckscher learned in real time the new rules of surviving and thriving at business school: That you live online and therefore put in a 24-by-7 week. That with data ports scattered all around campus, you can plug in your laptop and work virtually anywhere you want. That because you work on the move — cross-campus, cross-town, cross-country — your briefcase must hold all of the tools that you need to do research, to keep pace with your assignments, to partner with your project teams, and to build a network of contacts.

If you're leaving for business school in a few weeks, here's your first lesson: Find the high-tech gadgets that work for you before you head to campus. To give you a head start on packing your briefcase (as well as on finding the right case itself), we talked with hardwired students at Kellogg and three other blue-chip schools: MIT's Sloan School of Management, Harvard Business School, and Stanford Graduate School of Business. Students at these institutions helped us identify the gizmos that will help you keep up with your fast-paced life on campus this fall. Even if you've already snagged an MBA, you'll learn something from the way that today's B-schoolers leverage personal technology. So get the right gear right now, get familiar with it, and you won't have to reboot on your first day of class.

PC Unbound

Thinking about buying a desktop PC for B-school? Forget it. Many first-year students who start with a desktop abandon it for a notebook computer before midterms. "A laptop is all but essential," says Robert Dreyer, who worked at Intel for nearly 12 years before enrolling at Harvard. "I carry my laptop to campus at least three or four times a week. I can't be chained to a desktop."

Almost all work gets done online, and libraries and lecture halls at many schools have T1 lines or ethernet ports. Students can plug in, log on, and get going — anytime, anywhere.

Most business schools suggest standard configurations for a computer, regardless of its portability. For instance, Stanford recommends that a system packs at least a 266-MHz Pentium Pro or Pentium II processor, 64 MB of ram, a 56-Kbps modem, and a 14-inch screen. But that's the bare minimum. You'll need a machine that's a whiz, not a dullard, so opt for as much computing power as you can afford, such as a 333-MHz Pentium II processor. Heckscher also suggests that incoming students make sure their laptops have an active-matrix display, which has a wider field of view and responds to mouse movements faster than a passive-matrix screen does.

"You'll be working in groups a lot," she says, "and with an active matrix, other people can cluster around your laptop and view the screen from all sides."

At Harvard, Dell portables are a big favorite. Dell can painlessly and powerfully custom-build laptops to a student's specs. The Inspiron 3500 C400GT, for instance, has the clout to keep you multitasking with the best of them. With its 400-MHz Celeron processor and 64 MB of ram, the Inspiron has enough power and memory to open a Web browser to Hoover's Online, to run a statistical model on an Excel spreadsheet, and to download email and attachments from your teammates — all at once.

If you want to be among the vanguard of cutting-edge student digerati, go for the Toshiba Portégé 3020CT. The Portégé is among the most popular of the new breed of ultrathin, ultraportable laptops. Measuring less than 1-inch thick and weighing an anemic 2.9 pounds, the Portégé comes with a bright 10.4-inch screen and a keyboard that's almost full size, so you can pull an all-nighter without giving yourself a repetitive-stress injury.

Coordinates: $2,486. Dell Inspiron 3500 C400GT, www.dell.com; $1,899. Toshiba Portégé 3020CT, www.csd.toshiba.com

All Cell, All the Time

B-schoolers live and work on the move. They are in class, in the library, at job interviews in different states, and on the road during stolen weekends. One place they're rarely found is at home. Since they're constantly on the go, a cell-phone is their primary connection to classmates and to recruiters; landlines at home are used mostly for logging on to the Net.

Some students wait until their second year to buy a cell-phone. That, says Rob Bailey, who graduated in June from Sloan, is a big mistake. "Buy a cell-phone as soon as you can, and buy lots of time: You're going to need it," Bailey advises. "You'll want recruiters and the people on your project teams to be able to reach you on their first try — which they'll never do if they're calling your home phone. In fact, I would never even give out my home number. My only phone of any consequence was my cell."

A real standout at Sloan is the Nokia 5190 digital cell-phone, no doubt because it comes in can't-be-missed colors like "Bermuda Blue" and "Gecko Green." At 5.2-inches long, the Nokia takes up minimal space in a briefcase; it weighs less than six ounces and delivers three to five hours of talk time with a standard battery. Its phone book stores up to 250 names and numbers, and there's one-button access to such features as email and faxes. Bailey suggests that people spring for Nokia's Headset Kit, which resembles the tiny, in-your-ear gadget made famous by the Secret Service. The earpiece frees up his hands so he can enter information on his computer while he talks on his cell.

The slick Motorola StarTAC ST7760 cell-phone, with its clamshell-like design, remains the standard-bearer for stylishness among business school's ubiquitous cell-heads. Now there's a bonus: Motorola's personal StarTAC organizer, dubbed the clipOn, can be piggybacked onto the StarTAC phone. Multitaskers can make changes, consult scheduling information, or access up to 1,000 names and phone numbers on the clipOn while talking on the cell. When the two units are connected, users can leverage the phone's one-touch dialing to call directly from the organizer's address book.

Unfortunately, choosing the right cellular provider and calling plan is a little like buying a car: No matter how good the deal, you can't help feeling as if you've been ripped off a little. And sorting out the sheer number of choices offered by even one provider's plan is nearly impossible.

While there's no comprehensive online comparison of cell-phone services, Point. com (www.point.com) covers a lot of ground with its Service-Plan Locator. By narrowing service searches by city and state, cell-phone shoppers can compare plans offered by companies such as Nextel, Cellular One, and AT&T Wireless Services.

Coordinates: $149. Nokia 5190, www. shopnokia.com; $524.95. Motorola StarTAC ST7760 phone; $250. clipOn Organizer, www.motorola.com

Coming Attraction

One gadget that's made some cameo appearances on a few campuses — and will almost certainly take center stage in the next year or two — is the digital camera. Visual components are increasingly being included in class projects, and students are beginning to use digital cameras to make PowerPoint presentations more compelling, to beef up project Web sites, and to enhance assignments with visual aids.

In fact, Rob Bailey's digital camera played a critical role in his product-development class. His project team, which designed a one-hole paper punch for kids, used a digital camera to capture ideas, share prototype suggestions, and show off the final design. One of his team members would upload digital images on to the Web and email the URL, so the rest of the class could view the latest version in real time. "Clip art is dead," says Bailey. "People expect to see real images."

A camera that's worth considering is the Sony Mavica MVC-FD81. It saves images on floppy disks as jpeg files, which frees you from having to mess with PC cards. Just pop out the disk, which holds about 40 still photos, and slip it into your laptop. With Sony's mpeg movie mode, you can also record up to 60 seconds of digital video; if you still take stills, you can annotate them with up to 5 seconds of voice-memo recording.

Coordinates: $799. Mavica MVC-FD81, www.ita.sel.sony.com

CD Future

B-schoolers aren't all business all the time. Almost everyone carries a gizmo for playing tunes — just make sure that when you pack your briefcase, you don't include a CD player. CDs are out; MP3 music files are in.

MP3 is a high-quality digital-storage format that compresses sound files to 1/20th of their original size. B-schoolers can download MP3 files from the Internet, put together their own compilations, and play them on Diamond Multimedia's Rio PMP300 MP3 Player. Abandoning CDs saves money — MP3 files cost just a few dollars to legally download — but carrying around a Rio isn't about adopting a parsimonious lifestyle. Rather, the Rio is a sign of technological savvy in a relentlessly techie culture.

The Rio resembles a coal-black Sony Walkman, only it's small enough to fit in your palm. The device comes bundled with software that converts music from a PC's CD-ROM drive into MP3 files; additional flash memory cards are available, which increase the amount of music that the Rio can store.

Coordinates: $169.95. Rio PMP300 MP3 Player, www.diamondmm.com

Office in a Bag

Now that you have accumulated all of that gear, where are you going to put it? On many campuses, backpacks are taking a backseat to more professional-looking leather bags. The big winner, especially on the East Coast, is clearly the Coach line of business bags.

Students give the Coach Organizer Brief a winning nod because it helps you to look like you're going places — without making you appear like you've already arrived. Stow your laptop in the Brief's padded center compartment, and stash CDs or floppies in three disc pockets. The bag also has a gusseted pocket in front and two additional compartments inside. And its strap lets you sling the bag over your shoulder when you're on the run.

To complement a computer carrying case, you'll need a travel bag for flying off to meet with recruiters. In-the-know students never check their luggage, so the challenge is to find a bag that's small enough to meet the strict size restrictions for carry-ons, yet large enough to accommodate a suit without crumpling it.

There's no clear consensus on luggage, but Tumi's Wheel-A-Way 20-inch Expandable Carry-On can be stashed in an overhead compartment. It can also weather a trip through O'Hare without looking like it experienced anything worse than the backseat of a town car. "I've never been embarrassed to arrive at an interview with my suitcase in tow," says Sarah Heckscher. "It's hip yet professional looking." So there's your final lesson: In business school, fashion applies to gear as well as to garb — there's no reason to look uncool.

Coordinates: $498. Coach Organizer Brief, www.coach.com; $525. Tumi Wheel-A-Way, www.tumi.com

Heath Row (hrow@fastcompany.com) is an associate editor at Fast Company. Ilan Greenberg (ilang@ix.netcom.com) writes on technology from his home in San Francisco.

Action Item: How Are Your Marks?

Before you hit the books this semester, bookmark these sites.

Fatbrain.com, an online bookstore, has 1,100 subject areas on business and technology; its business books are competitively priced.

Hoover's Online serves up capsule profiles on more than 14,000 companies free of charge.

Hotel Discounts, a service of the Hotel Reservations Network, offers cut rates on hotel rooms in 32 major cities worldwide.

Coordinates: www.fatbrain.com; www.hoovers.com; www.hoteldiscount.com

Sidebar: Palm Upgrades

Palm organizers can be found everywhere on business-school campuses. "They're ubiquitous; we might as well wear them in holsters," cracks Stanford's Edward Batista. "Some longtime users even refuse to get upgrades — they don't want to come off as newbies." Since you're probably already packing a Palm, here are two valuable add-ins to consider:

AvantGo.com grabs data from the Web or your school's intranet and plops it into your Palm. After registering at the AvantGo Web site, you can download the software that lets you store Web-site info on your Palm. You then tap on your Palm's hypertext links to cruise through the downloaded information. Students love this program, because it allows them to view, say, a company's downloaded financials while they're flying in for an interview.

Coordinates: Free. AvantGo.com, www.avantgo.com

Documents To Go, from DataViz Inc., eliminates the need for you to lug a laptop around campus, just so you can view a word-processing or a spreadsheet file. Just drag a file into the "Documents To Go" window on your PC or laptop, and Documents To Go converts the file so you can read it on your Palm. The next time you hit the HotSync button, the file will be automatically moved from your computer to your Palm for viewing anywhere, anytime. And Documents keeps links to the locations of all your files — whether they're on a server or in a folder — so you can quickly access your work on your Palm.

Coordinates: $39.95. Documents To Go, www.dataviz.com

Sidebar: How to Excel

Business-school students live in Excel. The Microsoft spreadsheet is the tool kit most students use to crunch numbers, justify business plans, and scrutinize cases. But the standard Excel 97 (and this year's upgrade, Excel 2000) isn't enough to get you through two years of B-school. People in the know turn to add-ins to augment Excel's capabilities:

Only quant jocks bother with handheld calculators. Almost everyone else uses Abacus, an Excel add-in from Advanced Numerical Methods Ltd. Abacus has a calculator interface and a large library of built-in mathematical and conversion equations. Using Abacus, you can enter complex formulas right into Excel — and lose that calculator.

Coordinates: $29.95. Abacus, www.numericalmethods.com

Trying to forecast using spreadsheet scenarios? Check out Crystal Ball, another Excel add-in that uses a simulation called Monte Carlo to analyze the risks and uncertainties associated with your spreadsheet models. Just choose a range for each uncertain value in your spreadsheet, and Crystal Ball performs hundreds of what-if analyses and displays the results in a graph.

Coordinates: $495. Crystal Ball, www.decisioneering.com

SprEDGAR for Excel, from SprEDGAR Software, is especially useful for second-year students doing due diligence on a prospective employer. SprEDGAR calculates and graphs 30 standard financial ratios from a company's 10-K and 10-Q filings that are stored on the SEC's EDGAR database, so you can quickly evaluate a company's profitability.

Coordinates: $49.95. SprEDGAR, www.spredgar.com

Sidebar: Study Groupware

The toughest part of working on a team project is getting the team members together. "People are hard to reach," says Harvard's Bob Dreyer. "It's not like we're all in an office from 9 am to 5 pm." But wired students stay connected thanks to instant messaging, an Internet application that lets them communicate in real time from their browsers.

Think of instant messaging as a pager for the Internet. Many students use Yahoo! Messenger, which is a service from Yahoo!, because they get their Internet gateways from their university. Once you've registered and received a Messenger id, the Windows version will take you about 10 minutes to download. (Macintosh and Unix computers run a Java version, which doesn't require a download.)

The first order of business is to input your list of "friends" — teammates and classmates who are also using Messenger. After that, you'll get an instant alert whenever a team member (who's also registered on Yahoo!) logs on. To communicate, just type a message to the people you want to reach. Messenger is less than ideal for swapping big brain dumps, because you can't attach large files from programs like Excel. But you can't beat it for brainstorming with the rest of your team.

A bonus for Mac and Unix users: Messenger's Java applet resides on the Web, so it's not location-specific. Just type in your Messenger id, and you can send messages from any computer that's also running Messenger. Web-based instant messaging. Pretty cool.

Coordinates: Free. Yahoo! Messenger, messenger.yahoo.com

Sidebar: First-Year Advice

Name: Sarah Heckscher, graduated in June, Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management

In Beta: Helped launch the business-development team for Kaiser Permanente's medical group.

Campus Networking: Cochair of Kellogg's High-Tech Club and an instructor at TekCamp, a technology workshop for new students.

First-Year Advice: Recruiters will want to send you a fax, so check out Panasonic's PC/Fax Store. It records a fax that comes in over your phone line, so you can download the fax to your laptop later on. You don't have to be online to receive the fax — and you don't have to buy a fax machine.

Name: Edward Batista, second year, Stanford Graduate School of Business

In Beta: Helped launch the Homeless Children's Network, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco.

Campus Networking: Organized 15 dinner seminars featuring high-tech heavy hitters for Stanford's Entrepreneurship Club.

First-Year Advice: The ability to do advanced Web research that's free of charge is one of the best perks at business school. Once you've graduated, you'll have to pay for subscription-based research from companies like the Gartner Group and Forrester Research, so take advantage of it while you're still in school.

Name: Rob Bailey, graduated in June, MIT's Sloan School of Management

In Beta: Spent two-and-a-half years leading product-development initiatives for e-commerce at Banamex-Accival SA, one of the largest banks in Latin America.

Campus Networking: Former copresident of Sloan's mediaTech Club and founder of Sloan's E-Commerce Awards competition.

First-Year Advice: Most of us didn't use cash. We used plastic and bought online. So a credit card is a critical tool in anyone's briefcase. To compare interest rates, annual fees, and benefits of bank cards, log on to the Credit Card Rates Guide (www.asque.com/credcard.htm).

Name: Bob Dreyer, second year, Harvard Business School

In Beta: Worked at Intel for nearly 12 years, where he was part of the team that developed the Pentium processor.

Campus Networking: A member of HBS's High-Tech and New Media Club.

First-Year Advice: You should be able to make Excel sing — before you start classes. You should know how to total up the columns and make a graph based on the data in the spreadsheet; if you're given a financial scenario for Amazon, you should be able to use Excel to see how changes in that scenario can affect Amazon's bottom line.

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