Career Opportunities

A ComputorEdge Column

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Keeping on your toes (Parts 1-4)

© Douglas E. Welch 1997

Regardless of whether you are looking for your first high-tech job or have been working in the profession for a long time, one of your largest challenges is remaining current with all the new hardware, software and systems that flood the market in any given year. This can be even more challenging if you are the one responsible for purchasing technology or making recommendations to others. Not only do you need to know everything about the technology itself, but also everything about the company that produces it. Now one wants to make a bad decision that costs the company thousands of dollars.
As daunting as it may sound, keeping your knowledge current doesn?t have to be impossible, or even much of a chore. There are many resources available to you and most of them are free. It does take time, though, and a bit of focus. It is important to concentrate on information relating to the most popular products and those products that most interest you.
It helps if you are a computer hobbyist. If you are not, you might want to reconsider your career choice. This may sound a bit harsh, but personal experience has shown me that you will find it difficult to remain current if your interest is only out of obligation to your work. There is so much information to absorb that work hours alone will never be enough. It really pays to have other interests and needs driving your interest in computers.

Paper, paper everywhere
Even in this age of email and the world wide web, paper magazines are one of your best sources for current information. They offer in-depth analysis of complicated issues and are famous for their comprehensive reviews of entire classes of hardware and software. Columnists for these publications offer opinionated and cutting insight into the most important issues in the computer industry.
While you may be most familiar with the monthly consumer magazines like PC Magazine and Macworld, there is an entire class of magazines that may have escaped your attention unless you already work in a high tech job. These are the trade weeklies.
Trade magazines, like PC Week, MacWeek and Network World, are designed for and distributed to members of the computer industry. They are usually free to those people who meet the magazines target market, or qualifications. This usually means you are in a position to buy or recommend hardware and software for your company or consultancy.
These magazines offer the most recent news about companies and new innovations as they are released. You might wonder how you can get your hands on these magazines if you don?t already work for a large corporation. This is as simple as making friends with someone who does. Perhaps a friend or aquaintance works in a large company. You might even find some of these trade magazines at your local library.
Once you get your first job, it is as simple as tearing out one of the free subscription forms, filling out the long questionnaire and sending it in. This does not always guarantee you will receive the magazine but usually you will. Before you know it you will soon be receiving a stack of magazines each and every week with more information than you could possibly hope to absorb.

Next week: more sources of information and a method for getting the most from this information.

Part 2

Last week I discussed trade magazines as a method of staying current with the computer industry. Any person working in a high-tech field must remain knowledgable about their industry or they can be in danger of making bad decisions that can cost their companies money and themselves, a job.

Welcome to the Web
When I first started working with the computers, the Internet consisted of fewer than 10 sites throughout the entire US. The only online sources of computer information came in the form of local bulletin board systems scattered across the country. These systems only allowed one or two people to be connected at a time and required long distance phone calls if you wanted to access information outside of your hometown.
Today, the Internet brings a plethora of computer information directly to your local computer. There are sites run by manufacturers of software and hardware, interested people and groups who want to share information about various computer topics and even a few crackpots who want to change the way people work and think.
Your Internet connection allows you access to company troubleshooting databases, technical notes, software updates and much more. Even if you don?t have your own Internet connection you can usually find access at your local library or through your school.
The Internet also provides access to other services besides web sites. You can discuss computer topics with other interested people using Usenet News, a bulletin board-like service that allows you to ask questions and share information with people all over the world. Newsgroups, or topics of interest, encompass thousands of computer topics and more general areas of interest as well, like writing, painting or musicmaking.
Participating in a Usenet newsgroups can be like joining a user group in your own town. Members can discuss upcoming technologies, problems with existing products and how to make the best use of the hardware and software tools you already have.

Expose yourself to computers
You might be feeling a little overwhelmed about all this information that you can access. How do you know what information is the most important? What requires the most attention? The answer to this question is easier than you might think.
When reading magazines and wandering about the Internet it is important to remember that exposure is more important than expertise. There is no way you can know everything about a product or technology. It is much more important to know that a certain technology exists then to understand every technical specification and operation. This exposure allows you to gain an overview of the computer industry and develop and understanding about what is important to you and your employer. If you need more in-depth information about a product, you can search it out when you need it. As with most everything in life, it is more important to see the forest, than the trees.

Next week: Information on trade shows and free seminars.

Part 3

Another great method for keeping on your toes regarding computer information is by attending trade shows and seminars in your local area. This can be a low cost method of gathering lots of computer knowledge quickly as you can usually attend most trade show exhibits for free. Watch for free registration information in the mail and make sure your friends pass on any tickets they might receive. There are more trade shows than you can imagine, each focused on a particular topic, industry or market.
As I mentioned last week, exposure is more important than expertise. A trade show exposes you thousands of hardware and software products althought it doesn?t give you a lot of information about any particular one. Exposure is the goal though. If a product interests you, you can always research it more depth. It is more important that you know the product exists.
You will probably be overwhelmed when you visit your first trade show. There are so many products and so many people milling about. In time you will learn where to focus your attention.
Since a trade show collects hundreds or thousands of vendors in a single location there is no better place for the beginning computer careerist. You can gather more information in a single day then you could get from reading a hundred magazines.

While most trade shows offer a selection of seminars, usually at an increased price, you shouldn?t feel they are required to get the most out of a show. Often these seminars are just a re-statement of a companies goals and direction or an introduction of a new technology. There are always a few useful seminars but you will have to read the descriptions carefully to see if they are worth your time and attention. Even if you do attend the seminars, allow yourself plenty of time for the show exhibit floor.
Another type of seminar is the vendor sponsored training or product introduction. These are usually not associated with a trade show and are staged at hotels throughout the country. In most cases, these seminars are free and focus on one particular product or a particular market the company is trying to serve, such as education or manufacturing.

Suspicious minds
The most important item to remember when visiting a trade show or seminar is to not to believe everything you hear. Trade shows are sales events and vendors are never the best judge of their own products. Be suspicious of claims that are too good to be true. In most cases, they are. Collect technical specifications and other information and then make your own decision about the usefullness of the product.

Make an effort to attend trade shows and seminars in your local area. Even if you don?t have a lot of money, these free events can be invaluable in widing your computer knowledge.

Next week: How to find evaluation software & professional organizations

Part 4

The question I am asked most frequently is "How do you learn about so many software programs?" I don?t pirate every program I need to learn and I recommend that you don?t either. There are ways to gain access and exposure to a wide variety of software without breaking any laws.

Back to the Internet
The best avenue for finding evaluation software is the Internet, plain and simple. Many companies now offer time-limited evaluation copies of software directly from their web site. You merely need to go there, download the software, install it to begin your education. Some companies might even send out their software on CD-ROMs or floppy disk to anyone that asks.
This new method of software delivery has opened the educational possibilities for new computer careerists. Even as little as 2-3 years ago, it was very difficult to gain access to software that you didn?t own. Even when I had to evaluate software for a large corporation it was difficult to get the updated software on an "try-before-you-buy" basis. Today. anyone, regardless of whether you are a student or a computer career veteran, can check out thousands of pieces of software on their own computer.

Watch out!
One important item to remember, though, is to not use your evaluation software to generate final documents or data. It took me a few times to learn this fact. Nothing is more frustrating than working on a project and then having the software expire at the worst possible moment. You can put the software through its paces using data from a previous project but don?t put yourself in the position of stalling a project if the software expires or fails. You won?t want to have data that you can no longer access if your customer requires an update or change in the future.

Teaching to learn
I read once, that in order to learn something well, you must first teach it. While this might sound backwards, the truth of this statement has been proven to me many times over the years. By teaching someone how to use their computer, you learn more about that computer yourself. You have to internalize the information and the concepts in order to effectively pass them on to another person. Teaching can also increase your exposure to software and hardware in the process.
For example, perhaps someone wants to learn how to print envelopes from their word processing program. You will need to take a few moments to learn the steps yourself and then pass them onto the trainee. You might end up doing this for many different word processing programs. Even though you don?t own the software you have been exposed to its operation and interface and have increased your knowledge much more than you might think.
When you apply this concept to other types of software, you will find that while you may only use one word processor or spreadsheet program yourself, you have learned how other pr ograms operate without buying one piece of software.

This month we have discussed many inexpensive ways to increase your knowledge of computers and keep yourself current with changes in technology and the computer industry. Always be on the look out for learning opportunities and you will never feel out of touch again.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at