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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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: http://home.earthlink.net/~dewelch/
He can reached via email at email@example.com