Essential Tools Every SE Needs

I have only been doing the SE gig for three years now and I have learned a lot from my own mistakes or from other SEs I work with. Here’s a compilation of things that I regard as being the “trade-craft” for Sales Engineers:

Laptop: Your company will probably outfit you with your own laptopwith enough juice to run a VMWare demo and PowerPoint slide deck simultaneously, while projecting your desktop onto a presentation screen. Make sure you do the regular maintenance so your system will keep up with the demands. There’s nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of a 3 hour demo and your system freezes for no reason and you have to reboot, thus delaying the demo and creating a 10 minute window when the customer loses interest in what you are presenting. Additionally, if your company allows you to claim business related expenses, drop the cash on a solid-state drive for your demo VMs and install the maximum amount of RAM your laptop can handle.

Removable Storage: You can never have enough storage! I have a Maxtor 3.5″ external 500 GB external drive for backing up my system; a Memorex 2.5″ Ultra TravelMate 120 GB external drive for my demo images (and music on the road) and then I have a number of USB thumb drives ranging from 1 GB to 16 GB. I had a military prospect, that I was doing a product trial for, ask me for some documentation during the week onsite.  It was too big to email so I dropped the 500 MB worth of data on to a thumb drive for him and after he plugged it into his laptop and copied the files  he exclaimed that he couldn’t hand it back to me without destroying it now that it had come in contact with a classified system. He asked if I wanted it back after he cooked it in the microwave or should he just keep it – I let him keep it as a souvenir. Additionally, solid-state drives are much faster than conventional hard-drives and I have one in my laptop to host my VM demos due to the speed at which they operate.

Projector: If your company doesn’t already provide you with one of these then go out and buy one and expense it! You can’t depend on a customer to have one handy. Additionally, get a small enough projector that you can take have it with you all of the time because you never know when the prospect may want a demo or presentation – The sales rep has been working on a particular prospect for months and they finally agree to lunch. During the lunch date they get so excited they invite you back to do a demo of the product – aren’t you glad you had your projector with you!


Cell Phone / PDA: Ok, I’m a BlackBerry addict! There, I said it. Most of my colleagues have an Apple iPhone, which is fraught with apps that will provide the seasoned road-warrior with hours of entertainment. But, I digress, my “berry” provides all of the necessities I need in a PDA – email, cell phone, bluetooth, audio player, ebook reader, web browser and Skype. The iPhone has all of these features but I need the qwerty keyboard and the enterprise BES capabilities of being able to access my corporate address book and send meeting invites on the road. Plus, it’s much smaller and less vulnerable (I like to drop stuff).

Rolling Laptop Case: You need one of these to carry all of your equipment, not to mention clean socks, undies and a toothbrush if you are staying overnight. I have gone through three of them since I started three years ago. The telescopic handles on these cases are vulnerable to heavy wear and tear and if you are like me, I can’t be bothered to collapse the handles going up and down stairs and end up swinging the bag to the next step as I climb the stairs. The case should have enough compartments to safely and comfortably house your laptop, projector, cables, books, chargers, etc, with some extra space for emergency sundries or stuff you may purchase in your travels. One thing to note is that you should make sure the dimensions are compliant with the various airlines that have strict carry-on limitations – my case meets most of these guidelines but once in a while when I get a small aircraft for connecting flights, I’ll have to check the bag.

Valid Passport: I’m a Canadian citizen and whenever I want to go to the United States I need to produce a passport. This is a no-brainer. However, even if you have a domestic flight within Canada it’s safe to have your passport handy just in case you fly into some bad whether and have to land somewhere along the US border. We hit a snow storm going to Calgary once and was grounded in Glasgow, Montana for de-icing and I couldn’t leave the terminal to get some food (small airport = bad food) because I didn’t have my passport. Additionally, make sure it’s up to date. I have a colleague who was held in customs for 5 hours because his passport was to expire in less than 3 months and he wasn’t being let into Canada (who requires a passport with an expiry greater than 6 months away).

Pocket PCRef: This is an awesome pocket reference guide by Thomas J. Glover and Millie M. Young that covers everything you ever needed to know about computers including troubleshooting, command reference for different OSs, hardware, wiring pinouts, storage and networking. It’s small (about the size of a pocket bible, in fact I think it’s printed on bible paper!) so it can fit nicely at the bottom of my roller case. This little reference guide has saved my bacon on a couple of occasions, usually when I am onsite during a POC and have no Internet access. I also have the original Pocket REF by Thomas J. Miller that covers everything from weights and measures to welding and architecture – again, great reference or even a good read when you are bored and sitting on a plane with no Google at your fingertips.

Optical USB Mini-Mouse: I have a collection of wireless presentation mice with built in laser pointers because I can’t live without a mouse! But nothing compares to my optical mini-mouse with a retractable cord. It’s perfect for using a laptop on a plane since they won’t let you use anything wireless. I am a tall guy and find myself compressing my arms against my chest when I fly in economy class and I’m too clumsy with my digits to use the touchpads or eraser heads on laptops – thus the mini mouse and it’s 1800 dpi optical can be whipped out and layout my presentations and Visio drawings with the mouse gliding over the side of my leg (since my laptop takes up all the real-estate on the tray table. This is definitely an honourable (note Canadian spelling) mention!

I’m sure every SE has their own list of what they consider to be the essential tools of the trade and I’d invite other SEs to add their favorites to the list.

– Cheers


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