How to build technological expertise into your company

It's 2:00 in the afternoon, and that major bid your office has been preparing all month is due tomorrow. Everyone is working like mad, and you're about to print the final draft of the text. You turn to your computer, which tells you, FILE NOT FOUND. Aghast, you fish out an earlier printed draft from the wastebasket and retype the whole thing, trying to remember all your changes. That done, you're ready to put the numbers into your bid, and only then do you discover that your word processor and your financial-analysis program are incompatible; the numbers will not go into the bid document. So someone starts calling airlines for late pickup while you start cutting up pages with scissors, and someone else hunts for glue. What good are computers anyway?

Sadly, this is not some far-fetched nightmare. Scenes like this occur often in today's offices. Chances are, you've already lived through some yourself. At times like these, it doesn't matter if your equipment is still under warranty or if you have a great service contract. You don't have time to call for help -- you need help right away. What you could really use is someone on your staff who can diagnose and solve technical problems on the spot.

I'm not suggesting that everyone ought to hire a full-time technician or computer programmer. But I think you should look specifically at technical skills whenever you hire, no matter what the size of your company. The more people you have with some technical know-how, the better you'll cope with today's office technology.

Technical skills come in many different levels, which, for convenience, I'll call basic, intermediate, and advanced (see "Hiring Skills," page 2). Every office needs at least one person with basic skills. Offices with a dozen or more computers should try to find someone with intermediate skills. A person with advanced skills is very handy to have around in offices with 30 or more computers.

The people with these skills aren't usually hired specifically for their technical knowledge; rather, they are hired into "normal" jobs -- management, sales, secretarial. Because they are an integral part of your company, their knowledge will help you plan for the future. If your office is big enough, you may want a full-time technical person (preferably someone at the advanced level), but that person will probably work in a supporting role and remain outside the core of your business. So even if you have full-time technical people, you should look for others with some flair for technology.

The difficulty of identifying these people varies with the skill level. People with basic skills are the easiest to find: just ask about technical expertise during hiring interviews. For example, give applicants a problem that has arisen in your office, and see how they would go about solving it. Encourage current employees to gain basic skills through a training program.

People with intermediate skills are harder to find. Unlike those with basic skills, who have learned what they know mostly because they had to, intermediate people are usually computer or technology enthusiasts. These are the power users of computers -- people who know all the shortcuts and unusual features of their software. They read computer magazines, and they may belong to a user group (a gathering of people who use or are interested in a particular computer).

People with advanced technical skills are uncommon. They usually reach their level of expertise through experience with a variety of computer systems. The easiest way to hire one of these people is to raid another office. You can also find people with advanced skills among recent college graduates. I don't mean computer science or engineering graduates, who will probably go on to specialize in their fields and may have more theoretical than practical knowledge. Instead, find students who installed and maintained equipment at school; they will have learned about the chaotic real world of technology.

Once you have technical people, you need to encourage them to develop their skills. Aside from the traditional incentives -- salary, title, perks -- here are some special bonuses that you might consider:

* Pay for training courses, if you can find good ones. People with intermediate or advanced skills will often learn faster on their own than in a course, but a good course can give people basic skills.

* Encourage attendance at computer user groups by paying the $15 to $35 annual fee. Most user groups are dominated by businesspeople rather than hobbyists; the monthly meetings are often the best source of answers to computer problems.

* Reimburse employees for personal subscriptions to computer magazines. Offer a budget for computer books.

* Pay for or subsidize the purchase of a computer for an employee's home. A home computer encourages extended work hours, not only for ordinary work but also for experimenting with software. In return, you could ask to use the equipment in the office one week per year; this strategy assures you of a readily available backup in case yours breaks down.

Will technical skills always be necessary? Some argue that as computers get easier to use, fewer people will need special technical skills. Maybe, but I think we will have to live with at least 10 more years of complexity before things get simpler.


The kinds of skills you should look for in job applicants

You can solve many of your computer problems by filling your openings with people who also have some knowledge of technology. Depending on your particular needs, here are the sorts of skills you should look for:

* Basic. People with basic skills have used computers enough to know how to install and upgrade software and standard hardware for desktop computers. They can set up and organize a hard disk drive and, in many situations, recover files that have been erased accidentally. They can help new users get started and design policies to ensure that no one in your office loses data. Basic skills are fairly common these days -- many secretaries and managers have them. A person with basic skills can usually solve up to half of the computer problems that might show up in a typical office.

* Intermediate. People with intermediate skills can troubleshoot hardware problems by swapping components and can set up and configure additional software and hardware, including installing circuit boards inside computers. They can also get modems and other telecommunications equipment working, as well as set up and manage straightforward local area networks. These people can set up -- but probably won't want to maintain -- inventory and repair records for all your equipment. Someone with intermediate skills should be able to solve about three-quarters of the computer problems that may arise.

* Advanced. People with advanced skills can take on almost any personal-computer hardware and software problems, including conflicts between products from different companies. They can also install and link together multiple local area networks and cope with difficult telecommunication systems. A person with advanced skills can usually diagnose hardware problems just as well as a computer dealer and is likely to know more about software.


For some items you'll want them; for others you won't

Manufacturers and retailers like service contracts because they yield high profits. But service contracts are often unnecessary. After all, most office technology is pretty reliable, and true breakdowns are rare. Which service contracts do you need, and what can you do for a backup in case trouble strikes?

* Computers. A service contract is rarely necessary for desktop computers. If one breaks, move the work to another. If you have a dozen or more computers, buying a backup machine is more cost-effective than buying service contracts. If you're desperate, you can always buy, rent, or borrow another machine from an employee. If you have a minicomputer or mainframe, you may well need a service contract with a guaranteed response time.

* Copiers. The typical office copier is a complex mechanical device that probably needs a service contract. For a backup, have a mutual agreement with a neighboring business, or get a small personal copier.

* Telephones. This one is a judgment call. Phone systems shouldn't break down often, but they are so critically important that most companies feel they must have a service contract. For a backup, get your telephone company lines (central office lines) wired not only to your PBX or key system but also directly to jacks inside your office. Normally, you wouldn't use these jacks, but if either your internal telephone system or the power fails, you can plug in ordinary telephones and keep working.

* Fax machines. All but the fanciest fax machines are fairly simple and reliable; service contracts are almost always superfluous. For a backup, you can buy or rent another unit or make arrangements with a neighboring office.

* Typewriters. Modern electronic typewriters have far fewer moving parts than the classic IBM Selectric and do not need a service contract. If you need a backup, buy a $150 electronic model.