Career Opportunities

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On the beat...

© Douglas E. Welch 1999

April 23, 1999

I recently returned, full-time, to the realm of the independent computer consultant and I found the world to be a bit different from when I took a hiatus a year ago. There has been a major change in the people, equipment and connectivity that you face whenever you go to someone's home or office. This week I will provide some insight to those of you who might be considering computer consulting as an opportunity to work for yourself.

Mr. Mom
The reason I took a leave from the consulting world is running around my home office as I type. His name is Joseph and his arrival last March gave me a new role to play, that of Mr. Mom. Since I worked at home already it seemed silly to hire a nanny so I decided to concentrate on my writing while I took care of him.
Now that Joseph is over a year old, I find I have more time and my wife, Rosanne, has the ability to take him to work with her on occasion. Recently, a friend who worked part time for a consulting company needed to replace himself. The timing just seemed right so when he recommended me, I accepted. I am only working several days a week out of the house and it feels good to be connected a little more closely to the computer industry again.

The unexpected
The first thing I was reminded of, on my very first call, was to always expected the unexpected. In order to get to the client's office I had to ford a stream, literally, with my car. The client is located in a remote section of Malibu and had we been having normal rainfall for the year I would have had to cross over a footbridge and hiked a _ mile to the home office.
Once there I discovered a small network of Macintosh computers and video editing bays. This is certainly not what I would have expected from the old farm buildings that were used to house the offices.

Always something new
I had been called to this location to integrate a new computer into their existing network. I soon learned that this would be a common task for me. Due to the inclusion of easy peer--to-peer networking in Windows and the MacOS more and more people are connecting their computers together. In this case, not only were they sharing files but also sharing a FileMaker Pro database that served as the central part of their business.
The new computer to be installed was an iMac. This presents another common problem. How do you integrate this Ethernet-only computer into an Appletalk environment. As computers grow in capabilities more small companies are faced with stepping away from simpler, free technologies and into faster and more robust networking systems. I find that many of the clients are engaged in this right now. It is up to you and I to lead them through the sometimes confusing world of Cat 5 cabling and Ethernet hubs when all they had to worry about before was cheap phone cabling that could be tossed over a wall.
In some cases the previous consultant who installed the original network is no longer available. This means you have to decipher the network before you can even begin working on it. Unfortunately, few consultants are rigorous about documenting the wiring of configuration of a small network so we are often in the dark. You need to be prepared to trace wires through ducts and ceilings and even between buildings.

Getting Connected
Another major change over the last year has been the tremendous increase in Internet connections in both small and medium-sized offices. You will need exposure to not only the old connection methods such as dialup to an online service or ISP but also high speed connections for entire offices using ISDN, DSL or T-1 lines. If you haven't had a need to learn about these technologies already, I highly recommend you start doing your research today. DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is exploding in its availability and since it provides higher bandwidth than ISDN at a lower price it is particularly attractive to small offices.

Age old problems
Even with all the new hardware and software being developed you will often run into an age-old problem for consultants: missing or pirated software. In the past it was much easier to move software between computers. Most software was self-contained and could be moved merely by copying one directory. Today, though, most software adds files and information to a host of other locations on the computer, whether the Macintosh System Folder or the Windows directory.
Users often fail to understand the legal or technical ramifications of copying software in this method. They will often call with questions about why certain functions no longer work. They will also ask you to re-install software after a computer crash or upgrade. Without the original installation disks, though, there is not a lot that you can do. My only solution in some cases is to gently remind the client that software must be purchased for each machine and that software disks need to be stored in a safe, yet accessible location.

Drop me a line and let me know the major concerns and questions that you face on a daily basis, either as a freelance consultant or as a computer staffer in a larger company.

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