Henry Lee, president of Lee Pharmaceuticals, says he is still discovering things to do on his microcomputer more than three years after he bought it. But nowadays, he notes, hundreds of packaged software applications are being released each month to solve problems people once had to solve on their own. "For most people," he says, "there's now less incentive to write their own programs." Vernon K. Jacobs, president of Syntax Corp., a software development and consulting firm in Prairie Village, Kans., goes even further: "I don't believe an executive today should even consider doing his own programming."
Among the new products are programs to handle taxes, complex financial calculations, personal scheduling, project planning, and personnel management. In terms of difficulty, they vary from some that can be used in a couple of hours to others requiring a few weeks' training time. Jacobs, who has advised other small company owners on computers, says many of the better-packaged programs state all questions in English.
Lee thinks executives starting out with microcomputers today may have an easier time of it than he had. In 1979, for example, there were only two micro dealers other than Radio Shack within 20 minutes of his home. "You had to make an appointment with the Apple [computer] dealer," he recalls, "and he met you at the door wearing a turban and a knife in his belt." Now he says there are at least eight other dealers. In addition, there are more books and periodicals. And self-help groups for micro users, such as the one Lee belongs to in Pasadena, are sprouting up in even smaller cities. Jacobs says that one good way of finding user groups is by checking classified ads in computer publications or asking dealers.
When Lee started out, most of the software available for his TRS-80 was intended either for playing games or for helping in the writing of custom programs. Today, there is at least a chance of finding business applications that profess to do the things a company wants to do. "A year from now," says Jacobs, "there will be a much better chance."
In Lee's view, finding the right software is the appropriate first step before buying the computer. "You'll still have to shop around, but you can get a better education before you actually buy the computer than after you've bought it," he says. Indeed, Lee suggests having salespeople in as many as six different stores explain and demonstrate software packages for various applications. Says Lee: "I've seen people make the salesmen teach them. They come back week after week with more questions."
Lee acknowledges that he waded into computers deeper than most chief executive officers would have to today. Jacobs says any CEO should plan on spending 6 to 10 hours at the very beginning just to get his feet wet -- learning to do things like turning the machine on, copying disks, and using a printer. Lee and Jacobs agree it is easier to be shown these maneuvers than it is to dig the instructions out of a manual.
The task of herding an entire company into the world of computers is something Lee feels he could not have delegated. "You need to have somebody who's high enough up, who knows the company's goals, and who has good judgment," he believes.
But nowadays, playing the role of leader may be substantially different from what Lee encountered at his company. When precocious middle managers already have computers of various brands on their desks, Jacobs says, making the computers compatible so they can share data should be one of the first things a CEO undertakes. "Otherwise, you'll have a Tower of Babel and risk losing many of the potential benefits," he notes. While it is true that some compatibility problems are being addressed by new software, Jacobs stresses that "it's always important for the boss to set the overall direction."