Charlie Leighton, the 48-year-old chairman of CML Group Inc., a $120-million specialty marketing company, still does most of his figuring with a pen on yellow legal pads. But about a year ago, the head of the Acton, Mass.-based company whose 11 divisions include Caroll Reed Ski Shops and Sierra Designs, decided it was time to move into the computer age. "If you're going to be in a specialty marketing company, you have to identify with the consumer and how that consumer is changing," he says. And certainly the upscale customers CML courted were becoming more and more familiar with micros.
Leighton himself had begun to encounter computers at every turn. His college-age daughter told him she cut her research time by 80% with her school library's machine. He was impressed by the computer that The Fidelity Group Brokerage Services Inc. in Boston had installed at the airport for quick financial planning. Closer to home, Sears, Roebuck & Co. had tested a shop-by-mail service via home computers, an experiment that could someday have an impact on CML's mail-order business. Besides, all the company's divisions used computers. Leighton was increasingly aware that he should know more than he knew, which was nothing.
"At our age, we are really all computer stupid," Leighton says. "I thought we ought to just play with one and see what they are. So in the spring of 1982, he bought an Apple II and installed it in CML's conference room for anyone who wanted to have a go at it.
Leighton is not fond of reading instructions. "It's boring," he says. "It's much more fun to have someone take you through it. With that goal in mind, Leighton asked a friend, the head of the math department at nearby Concord Academy, whether he would be free to do some tutoring. He wasn't, but he recommended that Leighton hire Morgan Stair, who was a 17-year-old junior and, the friend said, "very bright." He was already teaching some underclassmen in computer subjects at another high school.
Morgan is computer literate with a vengeance. He can program in Basic, Lisp, Pascal, several assembly languages, and Logo. He took his first computer course in the fifth grade, although, he says, he didn't get "really serious until my eighth grade -- ninth grade summer." In addition to teaching the "Computer I" course at the high school, he helped a local company develop a stock options software package. For $10 an hour this whiz kid agreed to stop by CML every couple of days on his way home from school and instruct any of the nine employees at the company headquarters who had a thirst for knowledge.
"Michelle [Waterman, one of CML's secretaries] and I were the first ones," says Leighton. "We wanted to be the guinea pigs."
Leighton instructed Morgan to begin with the rudiments. "I to1d him to pretend I never finished junior high school," he says.
"Charlie was very eager to learn," Morgan recalls. "First I explained to him what the memory was and how the computer worked, then we went on to make sure he could turn it on and use it any time. He didn't want to learn how to write programs, he wanted to learn how to use programs, specifically VisiCalc." After Leighton mastered the fundamentals, Morgan showed him how to use The Source, a data bank owned by Reader's Digest Association Inc.
Leighton was perfectly at ease with his tutor. In fact he found it much less threatening to receive instruction from a younger person than he wouId have from a contemporary. "You don't mind being stupid," he says. "It's hard to be stupid to your peers, psychologically." Morgan's experience with teaching ninth graders was also a plus, since he used the same "what would happen if you did this" style with his CML pupils. "He wasn't intimidated that we were older or had quote, unquote, fancy titles," says Leighton. "He was very patient," adds Waterman.
At the end of two months, Morgan left to take a Harvard summer course -- in computers. By then, though, interested CML employees had a pretty good sense of what the machine could do. Company controller Bill Harris uses the Apple frequently. He received some initial tips on VisiCalc during Morgan's visits, then met with him privately for more advanced lessons. He now uses the software program extensively for budgeting and planning.
For his part, Leighton thinks he will continue to have someone else do the forecasting. "What I might like to do," he says, "is pull up what someone's done and change an assumption. I'd say, 'Okay, the prime rate is not going to be at 15%, it may be 8%,' and see what this does to us overall."
Morgan is not sure that hiring someone like himself is the best way to learn about microcomputers. He recommends taking a machine home for a weekend and playing with it. "You might want to let your kids learn how to use it, then learn from them," he suggests. "You can be taught all sorts of things, but you'll have a much greater understanding if you do it yourself."
But for Leighton, the lessons that he learned with Morgan gave him just what he needed. Computers are no longer as mysterious to him. "It's like learning how to use a slide rule," he says. "At least you know what everybody else is doing. You may not be doing it as fast as they are but you're not intimidated by it." Although Leighton gives the impression of knowing as much about computers as he feels like learning it looks as if he may have caught the bug. This past spring, he and four other CML employees signed up for a five-week course at Concord Academy on the personal computer.
THE USER GROUP
Fred Linch managing director of Phoenix-based The Systems Approach Inc., comes from the you-can-learn-better-on-your-own school of thought. "I very honestly find it hard to be taught," he says. So, after he bought an IBM Personal Computer for his $2-million-a-year commercial-carpeting and office-furnishings business, he spent part of the summer teaching himself how to use it. For 10 weekends, he threw the computer in the back of his GMC Jimmy and headed for his cabin in the mountains. "The atmosphere was relaxed, I was not disturbed, and I could concentrate for hours on what I was doing," he says. While he had no trouble getting the system up and running, he was smart enough to realize that there are limits to self-instruction. That is why he formed an IBM PC user group.
Linch is a joiner. He belongs to the Lion's Club, a business brainstorming group, and the Arizona Kids, a coterie of B-grade Western movie buffs. So when he found that his friend, CPA Jim Serbin, also wanted to start a group, he leapt in with both feet.
The two men set a first meeting for October 1982, and tacked up announcements in local computer stores. The 14 people drawn by the fliers decided to keep their new club simple: The only membership requirement would be ownership or potential ownership of a PC; dues would be $12 annually.
"We never anticipated that one year later we would have 200 members," says Linch. The club is split into two subgroups: hobbyists, or "techies," and those interested in business applications. A general meeting every two months unites the members. The business subgroup welcomes people at any level of expertise, as long as they are serious about using the PC for a business application. "We literally have had people some in who didn't know how to turn it on." says Linch.
The agenda for the business-applications meetings usually includes a talk by a member or a panel discussion, a product demonstration, and a question-and-answer period. At one recent meeting, for example, everyone trooped down to the local ComputerLand store, where three members led a discussion on modems and the store dealer gave a full-blown demonstration of Lotus 1-2-3.
A great benefit of the user group, says Linch, is discovering that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You find out that there are very few problems that are truly unique." In one of the question-and-answer sessions, for example, Linch described his difficulty in creating a VisiCalc model to track materials taken out of inventory. Sure enough, says Linch, "one of the fellows who had an auto-parts dealership was doing something similar. I just changed a few things, and had my solution."
Finding people who can give you a hand between meetings is easy says Linch. The membership list includes not only names, addresses, and phone numbers, but information on which hardware and software programs a member owns and his or her special interests, such as "I'm a VisiCalc freak."
The general meeting can be even more rewarding. The first half is a "park-and-swap kind of thing," says Linch, in which people announce that they have this board for sale or that printer. But then it turns into "almost the equivalent of the New England town meetings." Since the technical people are there, he points out, "when someone says, 'Hey, I have a problem,' you immediately have six experts in the room to help you." Recently, one of the business group members wanted to add more memory. He had heard this could be done very inexpensively by buying chips and installing them himself. "That's fine," says Linch, "except if you're a CPA and have never been inside the machine, it's a little scary. So one of the technical guys said, 'You buy the equipment, and I'll be glad to come over and hold your hand.' "
The Phoenix group likes to concentrate on mutual aid. Some clubs in other cities, says Linch, have become "very, very sophisticated," using their clout to purchase hardware and software at discount. But, he says, "we don't have the time or energy for that." The club does produce a monthIy newsletter, which it exchanges with those of other IBM PC groups.
Although the Phoenix group limits its scope, it doesn't suffer from an apathetic membership. The meetings, which are supposed to run from 5:30 to 7:30 in the evening, generally spill over into an hour-long bull session. Then, says Linch, "if we're meeting in a public place, we usually drive everyone out with a big stick." If they're meeting at Linch's offices, though, they will frequently lock the doors and spend hours working out a problem on his machines. Or people will wander over to the nearby Munch-a-Bagel to continue the evening's discussion over coffee.
Linch feels that the hours he has spent educating himself have paid off. "The changes in my business in the last eight months have been enormous," he says. "We're like a big company now." Linch has added another IBM PC and a portable Compaq, an IBM PC -- compatible computer, to his hardware arsenal. He will buy another PC sometime this fall, and by 1984 he hopes to have micros on most of his employees' desks.
To look at profit margins, Linch and his employees use Lotus 1-2-3. For job estimating and costing, they have two Scripps Data Systems software packages that cost less than $500 each. The job-costing program alone, Linch estimates, saved about $600 the first week, when it turned up errors on freight and labor vouchers. The Peachtree Software Inc. accounting system is used for general ledger, payables, and receivables; WordStar for word-processing; and Innovative Software Inc.'s TIM for creating data files. Three other employees are also user-group members; Linch meets with one of them about once a week to discuss what other jobs they can automate.
Many more people, Linch thinks, could use microcomputers effectively in their businesses if they were not so fearful. "To a child," he says, "it's like a video game. But adults have in their minds, 'God, this is a $5,000 machine.' It's as if they're handling the family jewels. An adult has to realize that this is a piece of equipment that can take a lot of abuse, and the worst thing that can happen is that you're going to dump some data." Potential buyers, he says, might be a lot more comfortable if they joined a user group a month or two before they purchased a machine.
No one had to twist Linch's arm to persuade him to take the plunge. Linch is a gadget lover. Besides the PC, his office contains a five-inch television set and a programmable Hewlett-Packard calculator. He used to create multimedia slide presentations and is now evaluating video cameras. But for him, the computer will always be the ultimate gadget. "The micro world is the best thing since the gold rush," he says.
In Pete Perucci's office hang two framed diplomas, one from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (B.S., management engineering), another from George Washington University (master's, engineering administration). Perucci, the 37-year-old president of Meridian Corp., a $3-million-a-year management consulting firm, is, technologically speaking, no babe in the woods. In fact, Meridian specializes in helping government agencies solve technical problems. Perucci, it would seem, was not a prime candidate for Arthur Andersen & Co.'s two-day seminar on "Using Microcomputers in the Business Environment."
Still, although he is a whiz at designing information systems, Perucci, until recently, knew little about micros. His one programming course had been in 1966, back when students sent their punched cards for processing on a distant central computer. "In those days people carried slide rules," he says.
Arthur Andersen's accountants were already helping Perucci's Falls Church, Va.-based company with financial and business planning. They were also advising Meridian on how to automate. So the Big Eight accounting firm's seminar seemed to Perucci a logical choice to help plug the holes in his education.
Designed for training its own employees, the Arthur Andersen seminar was first offered to the public in November 1982. For $500, it promises a thorough grounding in VisiCalc; an introduction to the IBM PC's operating system; a brush with Basic, the programming language; and lunch. Classes are small, with no more than two people to a computer. "If you want to learn, you have to sit at the computer and press the keys," says Rick Maples, who leads the seminars in the firm's McLean, Va., office.
The promise of hands-on experience drew Perucci to the Arthur Andersen classroom at 8:30 one raw morning in March. His first encounter with the micro, however, came not through the keyboard, but via the strains of classical music. "Just communicate with your computer," says Maples, as the lilting refrain of the "Blue Danube Waltz" floats through the room. "For the next 20 minutes," he tells his students, "watch the machine. It will be asking you questions."
"HELLO! Welcome to this course," says the computer on cue. "Will you please type in your first name." For the next quarter hour, the only sounds in the room are beeps and clicks, as the machine quizzes the 16 men and five women on the computer's history and capabilities, probes their expectations for the course, and takes them on a pictorial tour of the IBM PC's components.
This first lesson is easy for Perucci. Increasingly concerned with automating Meridian's accounting functions, he had started reading articles on the micro in December. And he had played at home on the $300 Texas Instrument's TI-99/4A he gave his nine-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son for Christmas. But he has high hopes for what he can learn from the rest of the seminar -- and pressing reasons for becoming more knowledgeable.
In the last year, Meridian had added a subsidiary, Altus Corp., which provides energy management services to commercial customers and had entered into a joint venture to produce interactive video programming. All three of these businesses have different planning, accounting, and reporting requirements. "In the last year, it's become unwieldy," says Perucci. "It takes us now about a month after the financial month closes to get all of the data. That means the ship can be running the wrong course for a month longer than it should be."
Meridian leased eight Raytheon word processors, which clumsily ran some financial and accounting software, and owned an IBM PC, used for one of its research and development contracts. Perucci hoped the course would help him decide whether to buy more microcomputers or wait until he could afford a more sophisticated system. He was also eager to learn VisiCalc.
"Now," Rick Maples says after the introductory exercise, "get to know your partner." Perucci's partner, Bill, is senior accountant with the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C. "I could learn this from a book," says Bill, "but then I wouldn't have the chance to ask questions. Besides, even if I put a bar across my office door, someone would always interrupt." Other students include financial analysts from Charter Medical Corp. in Macon, Ga.; a number of employees of large local law firms; and representatives from national associations. Joseph Barr, a director of several major corporations, has signed up with his wife because, he says, "we want to communicate with our grandchildren.
By the end of the first hour, the students have learned which parts of their IBMs do what, how to handle their floppy diskettes ("if you treat them like your stereo records, you'll be safe"), and the importance of backup copies. They are ready to buckle down to 10 1/2 hours of VisiCalc.
Dan, the second instructor, creates a simple sales, cost, and margin model, which is duplicated on a large screen at the front of the room. "Wow," say several people as he demonstrates how the program instantly recalculates the first row of numbers for the next 11 time periods. The students will learn that trick, the heart of VisiCalc, later in the day. Rick begins at the beginning. "The lighted box is your cursor," he says. "We call the different locations, cells."
In the morning, the students learn how to initiate commands, edit, and create formulas. By afternoon, they are trying to create a 12-month forecast on their own. "Can we make it more complicated, a little more of a challenge?" asks Bill. After Maples gives a lesson in "footing" -- correcting for what may appear as an error in calculation -- class is dismissed.
On the morning of the second day, Maples reviews the material from the day before and shows how to find individual files on a diskette. Then he zips through some of the more esoteric VisiCalc functions. By 1:45, the spreadsheet lesson, at last, is over.
After an explanation of the utility programs of the IBM PC's operating system and practice with such tasks as copying a file and a disk, it is time for the lesson in Basic. Everyone will write a program to calculate depreciation on a fixed-asset balance, says Maples. The directions for Basic, though, are a little confusing for novices, particularly following the day and a half of step-by-step instructions for VisiCalc. With the spreadsheet program, Maples had time to make sure the students understood the logic behind everything they did. With Basic, the inexperienced class members simply try to imitiate what the instructor is doing.
As a finale, an instructor demonstrates how to dial up the Dow Jones News/Retrieval Service with a modem, and Walt Bell, an Arthur Andersen partner, demonstrates Lotus 1-2-3, which will soon replace VisiCalc as the course's centerpiece. The two-day seminar is over. "The strength of the course is the thoroughness of the VisiCalc, and the weakness is that people think there should be other applications," says Maples.
Perucci doesn't mind not learning other applications, but, he says, the seminar "wasn't what I thought it would be. I was looking for the ways and the degree to which microcomputers could be used in the business environment. I didn't realize how much it was a training course in VisiCalc. But I now can take a product, such as VisiCalc and play with it myself."
Back at the office, Perucci's partner, Skip Shipman Jr., asks whether he could take an Altus business plan and create a cash-flow statement, do the same with Meridian, then merge the financial statements for the two businesses, using VisiCalc. No problem says Perucci. The partners plan to do this for a presentation to the bank the following week. "That will be the first time we'll do it this way instead of having everyone hit the silks with calculators," says Perucci.
A week later, Perucci is glowing. The bank presentation, he reports, was a great success. To prepare the numbers for it, Skip's assistant used SuperCalc, a program Perucci was easily able to understand with his VisiCalc training. And he could suggest ways to make the formulas more accurate. "If I'd had to fight through just understanding that particular software package, I don't think I would have been able to do it," he says.
Perucci thinks he may have been able to learn as much by just slogging through the manual, but it would have been much tougher. "You can learn by your own mistakes," he says, "but that's expensive and time-consuming. If you spend $500, you don't make mistakes."
CORRECTION-DATE: November, 1983
In the article "A Byte of Education" (October), McCraw-Hill Publications's Byte was incorrectly listed as "free for any businessperson whose company has a computer." In fact, Byte costs $3.50 per issue on newsstands, and $21 per year by subscription. Business Computer Systems, from Cahners Publishing Co., is the magazine that is free to computer owners.