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These articles are by Grant Barrett of
World New York
Here are links to the original first and second articles (the latter is by far the longer).
These article concern why and how technically oriented but unemployed individuals should consider offering freelance technical support.
This article by the New York Times suggests that people are becoming technically adept by necessity, and that, as happened with radios and automobiles, eventually all technology will take care of itself and be as mindless to operate as toasters are today.
I see that day as decades off. Computers are still complex to make, complex to learn, complex to integrate with other gadgets. More importantly, they still have more than one knob or lever. Until that day of machine self-reliance, I see a golden opportunity: an under-served market waiting for the ambitious to step in.
The following is a small excerpt of a manuscript, modified to suit this topic.
Last year, at a Christmas party held by a client of mine at a very nice restaurant in Manhattan, I ran into a friend of a friend. I don't know him well, but we've socialized once or twice, and have had solid geek conversations in the past. He does Active Directory management for big corporations.
I should say, he used to do that. He's been unemployed now for more than a year.
After we shook hands I could see his face change from a friendly howdy-do. He dropped down into commiseration mode: the corners of his mouth drooped, his head ducked, he took a Hapsburg stance--his feet angled, his left foot perpendicular to his right, heel against arch, his torso yawed a few degrees off center, his hands lightly on his hips--and waited expectantly.
I knew what he wanted. I make my living with private computer consulting: client-site tech support, mostly, but pretty much any of the little computer-related tasks small businesses have. I knew he wanted to talk about the tech business. And he wanted me to start, so I complied. "How's business?" I asked.
He jumped in according to the script. "Oh, it's not been going well at all. Awful. I've been out of work. I can't find anything. How're you doing?" He anticipated a long bitch session of headhunter mistreatment, interview mishaps, finicky clients, resume failure. He relished the chance.
"It's great," I said. "I've got more business than I can handle. I'm giving it away. I've probably handed off or turned down enough business in the last six months to employ another person full-time. In fact, I've just turned over a second $30,000-a-year piece of business to another tech so I could concentrate on other clients."
He looked at me in amazement. His eyes bugged out. I saw doubt, then self-doubt, there, and eventually he just walked away.
My theory: If you are reasonably adept at using or setting up a computer, there's no good reason to be unemployed.
Forget the boom-time Nineties. They're gone. I'm sorry. I really am. It was a fun ride, but the roller coaster is closed and the "you must be this tall" sign has been replaced with Tornado fencing topped with razor wire.
This is a hard lesson to learn, even this far into the recession and this long past the bubble. In posts on Slashdot, in discussions on Usenet, in many conversations with professional peers, particularly those in New York, London and San Francisco, I find again and again that the main barrier to re-entry in the work force for many people--not just technically-oriented folks--is a reluctance to admit that things will never be quite what they were. It's pride, mostly: they have difficulty reducing their expectations.
-- Boom-time paychecks are no longer. They were gold-rush prices in a seller's market and bear no relationship to the current reality. If you want to work for a large corporation, you will have to take a sizable pay cut. You are not being cheated: the prices go according to the market, and the market is awash with qualified candidates.
-- When working full-time for companies, you can no longer expect to learn part of your job after being hired. You need to know it before. Technical skills acquisition is now more something you do on your own rather than learn as part of your job.
-- Job hop-scotching should be scotched, not the least for your own protection. Expect to keep your job for two or more years, rather than the six to 18 months that were more common for technical professionals in the Nineties.
Each of these points is moot, however, if you go into business for yourself doing freelance computer technical support.
Another barrier to re-entry in the market is a misunderstanding of what kind of talent tech support work requires.
From talking to other techs I know my experience of entering the tech support world from a non-tech field is not unusual. Most of the good techs around me entered into it from a non-technical arena: they have literature or philosophy degrees, have worked as elementary teachers or restaurant managers, and each of them, every one, has a lot of outside interests that have somehow brought them into regular contact with computers. Incidentally, that other side of them, the non-technical side, has given their work a personal flavor that makes them likable to their clients. Not chops grilled on a heatsink, but I think you see my point.
Perhaps you've been struggling for years to make your family understand that when you work with computers, you don't exactly going around installing printers or troubleshooting DSL connections. I'm a programmer, you said, or, I build web sites, or, I'm an information architect, or I'm a graphic designer who uses a computer. I'm white collar, you explained. I don't ever get down on the floor under the desk and mess with the fiddly bits.
But now that you're out of work, perhaps you should be installing printers and DSL connections. That's what I'm proposing: that if you need a paycheck, that you get into freelance tech support. Become the tech support person for your friends and family. They've been asking for your help. Make it a business. Charge what the market will bear. It can become the core of your new client base, and the core of your new income.
Are you qualified to do freelance technical support? If you're a programmer or web site developer or project manager, perhaps not immediately. But unlike the jobs available through corporations, this is the kind of work you can learn as you go along. As a person with some sort of technical aptitude you are, even if you were a programmer or engineer or a technical writer, already substantially more qualified than the average computer user. You already have an understanding of the underlying technology. You can learn more. You should learn more. It is work which you can do.
Myself, I do not have a single bit of certification. Everything I know I learned on the job, from books and the Internet, from other techs, and from making a lot of mistakes.
Forget the certifications for now. Forget classes. You don't need them to get started. They are ghost barriers.
The key is to know more than the users. We have got to accept that we will not soon reach a point where computer literacy, even mere functional computer literacy, is high enough to make common technical support unnecessary. There will be for many, many years someone asking how to set margins in Word, burn a music CD, email photographs to the grandkids, hook up a printer, etc.
I know I'm basically a computer plumber: the same repetitive tasks over and over. It's blue collar work. It doesn't sound nearly as fancy as "information architect."
But I'm not too good for it. You're not too good for it. Suck it up. You are not above it. It's honest. It's widely available. It pays well. When I hang out with my friends, I look around the table and I see people who are unemployed, underemployed, moving back in with their parents, flat broke, even bankrupt. I have none of these problems. I have a job. I can pay my rent and my student loans and see a movie in the theatre when I want.
I never really believed in the dream job. Po Bronson's book What Should I Do With My Life? addresses a question which may not need answering. I am of the school which believes a non-fantasy job which pays well and doesn't require I work weekends is a great tool for subsidizing everything else I like to do: restaurants, movies, trips overseas, dating, books, writing, writing, writing. Inversely, a fantasy job which pays poorly can compensate by being intellectually rewarding, or life-affirming, or adrenaline-pumping, etc.
Anyway, who says freelance technical support isn't a fantasy job? It pays well. I work when I want: I make my own schedule, leaving room for emergencies or last-minute client requests. I sometimes leave a couple hours free in the afternoon to sit in the park and read. I can choose my clients; at this point it's become cherry-picking, where I can retain the most desirable clients and pass the others along to friends, or even just refuse the business outright. Naturally, I pick personable, funny, creative clients who like me.
What I'm telling you is that there is a need for freelance tech support folks across the United States. Those requests you've been getting for help from family and friends all these years are the evidence of a latent, largely untapped market--actually two: home users and small businesses. You might be saying right now, I don't do that. Technical support is not for me. Well, do you need a job? Money? Well, then maybe technical support is for you.
A good deal of the whining I read concerning disappearing tech jobs claims they are headed for China and India. Sure they are: the numbers are irrefutable. But only certain kinds of jobs, and they're almost all jobs at large corporations. But left behind are still hundreds of thousands of computers requiring technical support. The computers in homes are staying put. The main corporation office based in Atlanta, no matter how much of its business it has moved to Bangalore, will be staffed by people who use computers at work and use computers at home. The small print shop down the street, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, none of them are leaving. Those are the people who will pay you to help them with their computers.
The market for tech support is basically a pyramid. At the pinnacle are the very large companies with many employees who are willing to pay the most for support. This is not your market. That belongs to EDS. Below them are the second-tier companies with fewer employees and smaller budgets, but still not your market. Your market is composed of the next two tiers down, two very broad tiers: small businesses and home users. Which is suitable for you depends upon where you live, what you know, and your temperament.
For someone who has no real experience with technical support, but who does have an underlying skill which comes from other technically oriented jobs, working with home users is basically a cinch. Their needs are simple. Odds are there are fewer deadlines, so you can take your time in solving their problems, and same-day visits are less likely to be required. If you charge a flat fee for a service call, you can take as long as you want and perhaps learn on the job.
For home users, you will be doing the same tasks over and over. A downside is that this is boring. An upside is that after you've done it enough times, you become so good at it you look like a hero. I'm not saying that any home-bound housewives or househusbands are daydreaming about a fling with computer geek like they might with the washer repair-person, but looks of gratitude are a good start, and you'd be surprised how many people tip.
But if your business progresses, you may find it to your advantage to leave behind those home users. There are several reasons why home users are just a starting point.
First, they offer little repeat business. Home users are generally one-offs. They tend to have just one or two computers, and need you rarely, and for short periods. The time spent simply getting and managing the business of home users is high. Repeat business is more efficient.
Second, they tend to be very annoying. If you bill by the hour, home users watch the clock like it's a television. They'll hover over you as you work. And they'll decline to have you do very important things, such as update three-year-old virus definitions, because they don't want to pay for your time. (And that's why I recommend a flat fee for home visits).
Third, while home users have a tendency to pay on the spot, they also have a tendency to dicker. This, combined with the one-off nature of home users, makes it difficult to moderate your income so that you can count on some sort of weekly average income.
Finally, home users are generally the least technically adept users found anywhere on the planet. I read that computer illiterate children in rural India were able to figure out the basics of using a computer within a few hours. I don't doubt those children are more adept than your average American home user. You will no doubt encounter those legendary users who think they have a touch-screen computer, just like an ATM, or who search for "hotmail" on Yahoo every time they want to find the link to check their mail. If that last sentence seemed reasonable to you, I would encourage you to consider selling Grit subscriptions instead of finishing reading this document.
After finding your sea legs with the home users, small businesses--by my definition, companies which have from five to 25 employees--are those which you should be targeting. The money is better. There's more work. The clients aren't quite so money-conscious. And they're more likely to be technically adept.
The only downside to small businesses is that they sometimes conveniently forget that you aren't on staff. They make unreasonable demands upon your time, and that can make it very difficult to adjust your scheduling.
The small business market is very, very large however. The number of small businesses in the United States in 2000 was more than four million. That's firms, not individuals. That's your target. Each one of these companies, unless it is a tech-oriented company, may not have the resources or the interest in having a full-time person on staff. They need someone part-time.
You're not going to get every client you try for. Some of them you'll lose to fellow techs. That's fine. But you'll also be competing with third-party support companies--companies with staffs, offices, secretaries and incorporation papers--who are reaching outside of their market, that second tier described above, and down into the third and fourth tiers.
I don't really consider these companies competition for what I do, even though they try to be. One sign they are reaching below their true market is that they tell you that the market is saturated. It is, for their niche. Here's why:
Many of these companies started out as I am, a single individual trading upon his skills and reputation to acquire a list of clients, something akin to a doctor developing a practice. At some point, as I have found myself, it becomes evident to each solo tech support person that there's more business out there than they can handle. They begin to envision in their minds a larger operation, in which they hire staff to do the work, paying the staff perhaps half of what they're charging the clients, and thus being able to take on the additional clients they might otherwise have to pass on. Of course, they hope to make a killing in the process.
For me, the evidence that this is a bad move is clear. In order to take on that additional staff, and pay for incorporating, lawyers, accountants, office space, and other administrative costs, such a company would have to raise its rates. It's a fact: most of these large companies charge double or triple what I charge my clients, for the same work. So basically, when rates are raised like that, they price themselves out of the very market which made them successful. But still they try to reach down into that market.
It's a very delicate financial balance. If a tech support firm charges its clients too little, then it cannot afford to hire sufficiently qualified technical staff. Business suffers from poor service. If such firms charge too much, then they lock themselves out of a large part of the underlying market segment which, while it has real technical needs, simply will not or cannot pay for expensive support.
My basis for this conclusion is the amount of business I take from such third-party companies. The client complaints are almost always the same: "I just couldn't see what I was paying for when most of the work involved installing software and moving computers. I can't justify paying $220 an hour for that." It's only the larger companies, where the invoices which result from doing such work rarely cross the desk of the person in charge of getting it done, or where there's a "it's not my money" attitude, which can and will usually pay such high rates.
The way I perceive it, a chart of clients' willingness to pay would match the market pyramid described above. A thick base of cheap bastards which nobody wants as a client on the bottom, and money-is-no-object Richie Riches at the pinnacle. Our target as individuals offering freelance technical support is somewhere just above the cheap bastards up to about the lower end of the middle one-third of the pyramid. The larger tech support companies are only capable of acquiring clients in the middle one-third up to the pinnacle with very little overlap of our strata of the pyramid.
What we're doing, then, is taking advantage of the higher volume of lower-paying clients. We can do that. As individuals with little overhead, we can support ourselves with clients who are willing to pay $50 to $100 an hour, while a larger company simply cannot survive on that.
Do the math for a minute: Let's say you work 20 hours a week and charge $50 an hour. That's a $1000 a week. That's $52,000 a year. Now, you'll pay taxes out of that, perhaps up to 40% depending upon where you live, and your own insurance, and other costs, but it's still a respectable income. If you itemize your deductions and hire a sharp tax advisor, you can avoid an unnecessary tax burden. Even in New York City, one of the most expensive towns on the planet, you can live decently on that money.
And the truth is, you'll probably charge more than that and work more than that. But don't get greedy. Don't burn out.
Another reason why we as freelance technical support consultants are distinguishable from the third-party companies is that we are more capable of developing a personal relationship with the client. Our clients get the same tech person every time. There are no layers of bureaucracy for a support request to go through: when they call, they get us, not a receptionist or a first-level help desk staffer.
A couple summers ago, during a break from university, I took a job with a third-party firm. They were a Windows-oriented company with four million dollars in venture capital, looking to tap into the Macintosh technical support market. The pay was dismally low, but since it was a summer job, and a new company, I figured it might be the perfect three-month opportunity.
It was a disaster. The company was run by two MBA types. They spewed jargon. They sounded like Dilbert: The Reality Show. They lied about many things, such as about how many current and prospective clients they had. That was fine. They were transparent liars, anyway, so it was the same as if they hadn't lied, since I knew the truth.
Our business relationship didn't last long. The three of us went to a small design shop in an outer neighborhood. It was run out of a beautiful old house on a wealthy street. There were seven employees, all using Macs, with a Canon Fiery system and a small server setup on an iMac. They had a nice client list of some high-profile clothing brands.
My two MBA geniuses went full-frontal Wall Street. "You don't have a firewall! Viruses! Hackers! Bubonic plague! You don't check your logs! Errors! Crashes! Updates! What! Ten base tee? No! Switches! RAID! Tee one! Fiber!" It was an ugly chorus of fear, uncertainty, doubt and money.
While they were supposedly getting to know the boss and to make a pitch for general services, my job was to assess the current technology in preparation for writing a detailed proposal.
It looked like a pretty standard artist's shop. Nice people, in that arty way, using Macs with all the standard design packages. While my two bosses and the owner of the art shop talked, the creative director and I chatted and wandered into another room where he showed me some font problems he was having. I recognized the problem, we cleaned it up, downloaded a free patch, and he was pleased to have everything working as it should. We also discussed a good way of indexing the contents of his compact disc data archive.
We went back in the other room. Death and Destruction were finishing their prophecy of doom by promising to return with a proposal for new equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars, which would put in place a firewall, a level-five RAID file-sharing system on a four-thousand-dollar server, and new network switches. It would also allow us to remotely check the logs, alone for which they were going to charge hundreds of dollars a month.
Hey, the creative director told his boss, we just solved that font problem! It works great. Plus, I think we have a good plan to find old files on the compact discs.
I got weird looks from the MBA geeks.
We shook hands all around and the Gecko Brothers and I went out to the car.
"What're you giving away work for?" one of them said.
You've got to be kidding me, I said. They weren't.
Look. Let me be frank. You don't know what they hell you're doing. That's not how you treat these kinds of people. They have seven employees! Seven! How in God's name do you think you'll ever get them to agree to thousands of dollars of new equipment? New equipment they don't need. It's a bigger burden than a small company like this would ever want to bear for the thin reasons you gave. Not to mention hundreds of dollars a month in vague services. Log-checking for them? Please.
"We know what we're doing. We didn't get the VC money for nothing."
No, sorry. I elaborated.
They were targeting the wrong businesses. Creative businesses like that don't respond to those tactics. They just don't. I did more good with the art director than they did with their threatening and bluffing with the office manager over a conference table. She wasn't even the true decision-maker; the creative director was. And how could they propose all this new equipment when they hadn't even read my report yet?
They were ganging up on me, trying to interrupt, turning red and nearly shouting. "Report, then! What do they need?"
I said, Nothing. Nothing but hand-holding. There's nothing wrong with their current setup. I might spec a higher-end file server, but there are no immediate needs. You'll land this client because they trust you, not because you make them afraid. You'll make money because they trust you over years, not because you gouge them on the first visit.
That's still how I perceive most third-party technical support firms: they target companies below their viable target market and try to coerce technically deficient decision-makers into expensive and unnecessary solutions, because the tech support firm has to support its unnecessarily high overhead. It's no coincidence that a lot of these third-party companies also are hardware dealers. They spec completely inappropriate equipment, convince the client they need it when they don't, and they tack a premium onto the equipment, a premium forced by unnecessarily high overhead. I have a thousand such stories I could tell. Here's one:
I got a call from a small clothing store, a referral from a mutual friend. They have three computers and a little wireless network hooked up to a DSL network. Very simple.
"I called you because I just wanted to get a second opinion. Our current company is recommending we replace this computer because it's about to die. But it's a lot of money so I thought we should get a second opinion."
It was a lot of money: the replacement setup was top-of-the-line, more than seven thousand dollars, including more than 200 GB of hard drive space and large LCD screen.
"What did they say was the problem?" I asked.
"He said there were inches of dust on the motherboard and that it could go at any moment."
I silently opened the case and looked in. Nothing scary. Okay, there was a light dusting in all the expected places, but not inches of dust. Certainly not enough to be a problem. And there was no indication it had ever been cleaned: if it had been, it would have been within the last week, and in that instance it should have been pristine inside. But it looked like just the amount of dust which would have normally accumulated over the life of the machine.
So she was lied to. I let her draw the conclusion for herself. I showed her the inside of the case. It took her a second to comprehend. "So it's not going to die," she stated flatly.
I shook my head.
"Then why would they tell me that?"
"Well," I said, "I couldn't say for sure, but who were you going to buy the new equipment from?"
"They also sell computers, they said..." She trailed off. The clothing store has been a client ever since, and years later, that "about to die" computer is still chugging merrily along.
By Grant Barrett @ World New York
This is the second article concerning why and how technically oriented but unemployed individuals should consider offering freelance technical support. The first part is here.
A few years ago I left my job as IT Director (rather, my job as the entire IT department) of a 65-person advertising agency to return for an undergraduate degree at Columbia University. Doing that job had been the end result of years of second-hand computer experience gained as a journalist, radio announcer, desktop publisher, art director, technical support contractor and a staff tech manager.
My intention was to lay a foundation for a fresh start outside of the tech world. At Columbia I took a French degree, using the humanities to balance my geek aspect and giving me a good reason to spend a year in Paris. But during the years I was in school, good paying jobs in my preferred non-tech fields seemed to disappear. We were back to where we had been in 1993: high unemployment, a weak economy and a fragile employment framework.
As graduation approached, I sent dozens of resumes a week in application for non-tech jobs, with custom cover letters for each one, each document carefully edited and looked over with a pedantic eye. I applied to jobs in non-tech fields for which I was capable and qualified. My resumes were solid, but nobody was biting.
So I went back to applying for tech work, and re-wrote the resumes for full-time tech jobs.
Still nothing. Well, one response: an American gaming company with offices in France sent me a very polite thank-you note of refusal. That was it. The rest didn't even fire off a "bite it, loser" form letter.
To tide me over the weak period, I put out a feelers to my friends, former coworkers and past clients. My network of professional acquaintances had grown moribund for the three years I was in school and in France, so it took a couple of months to revive. Lunches. Coffee chats. Office drop-bys. Parties. Lots of "What's up?" emails to old employers and remote acquaintances.
I ordered a stack of really cheesy business cards from an online service, which, no matter how cheesy, were also really cheap and had all my contact information on them. "Freelance Computer Support" they said. I gave them out like toothpicks in a diner.
Clients seemed to like the cheesy cards: they weren't too slick. They were functional, and utilitarian, and sober. They didn't look like the work of someone who really wanted to be a graphic designer but was only settling for doing computer support.
A former boss used to toss me a few hours here and there while I was in school, so I called him, hoping for a project or two. But the company he worked for had suffered massive hemorrhaging: layoffs of more than 50 percent of the 300-person staff, the IT department reduced from a high of nine employees to three. Two satellite offices were closed and a hiring freeze was put into place. He said he had nothing for me, but promised to ask around.
Through him, I landed a temporary gig as a fill-in head of IT (with a staff of one intern) at a small company of about sixty employees. My job was to put the shop ship-shape, streamlining the systems and regularizing everything after the departure of the sixth such IT head in three years.
For three months after that ended, I barely worked. I would spend hours a day trolling the job sites, reading the job alert emails--as many as seventy automated agents reported to my email box each day, passing along hundreds of help-wanted postings which matched my keywords, featuring jobs from two continents, in three languages, and nineteen different fields. I customized cover letters, resumes and emails, printed and enveloped and labeled and stamped, then tramped off to the post office to send the product off into the void with a pat and a kiss, or crossed fingers as I pressed the "return" key to send the queued email messages of application.
My outgoing email box glowed white-hot with over-use. The "responses received" folder was a desert.
My situation slowly changed through seeds I had planted months before. One of my networking attempts had been to call up an old client to shoot the breeze and ask how were they fixed for technical support. He called me much later: As a matter of fact, he said, they were shopping around. They had appreciated the work I had done for them in the past, and so after a lunch with the partner responsible for technology, we renewed our relationship. Ten hours a week, fixed. It was a start.
So that was how it was going to be, I decided. If I couldn't find a whole job at one company, I'd have to piece one together out of whatever hours were available at multiple companies.
It turned out to be just the answer.
What I do for a living is private computer consulting. This is a highfalutin way of saying "freelance tech support." I help small businesses with their computer problems. I'm a generalist: I tackle just about anything, although I shy away from cable pulls and down-and-dirty hardware repairs that require soldering guns or ohm meters. I specialize in end-user support. I target small businesses, usually with fewer than 25 people. I have more than twenty-four clients. I work from 50 to 70 hours a week. I handle all my own client acquisitions, marketing, billing and the support work itself.
While others around me are un- or under-employed, I had a great year in 2002. This is part two of my proposal explaining what I believe it takes for you to achieve the same thing.
In the last article, I basically cheer-leaded the dispirited by trying to convince them that there was an opportunity to be had, that, with only slightly better-than-average computer skills, out-of-work folks could take a shot at building a freelance technical support business. I also talked about the available market segments, home users and small businesses. I also talked about why third-party tech support companies are not serious competition.
In this second part, I will talk about knowing if this work is right for you, marketing yourself, learning on the job, handling and educating clients, managing the business, the temperament required, and the negative aspects of the work.
Thanks to a good and proper Slashdotting (which is somewhere between a reaming and someone tossing your salad, although the traffic was still less than when World New York was mentioned on the television show Martha Stewart Living) and the traffic resulting from links to this article from dozens of other sites, I know that people are very interested in learning more about doing freelance technical support for a living.
There were several pieces of good advice I had not considered on Slashdot, so I've added them into sections of this document which were already written, with proper credit and links where necessary and appropriate.
One of the questions most-asked by people who read the first article in this series was, "How good do I have to be?" Another was, "How do I get better?" These two are linked, so I will treat them together.
At the start, to be good enough is to be better than the client. But being good also has plenty to do with a way of thinking and working. I've covered some of the working issues later in this article, but there are a few other characteristics I think a good tech should have.
You need to be able to agree with a lot of these questions:
— I almost always solve my own computer problems on my own, or as the result of my own research.
— I talk with colleagues all the time so we can share ideas, about tech and non-tech matters alike.
— My friends, coworkers and family often turn to me for help with their computers and peripherals.
— My own computer probably would work very well if I didn't keep installing alpha, beta, development and trial software on it all the time.
— I've totally hosed my own computer a number of times because I just wanted to see what would happen when I...
— I have been known to spend hours on solving a problem, non-tech and tech alike, without growing bored.
— My home is littered with electronic gadgets and computer-related devices.
— I spend as much or more time on the Internet than I do watching television, and very little of that time is spent on chat.
— I can usually quickly find what I'm looking for on the Internet.
— I read constantly, and just about everything.
— I rarely have a problem explaining myself.
— I am somewhat sociable, but I can work for long periods on my own, too.
— I'm friendly but not garrulous.
— Although I hate the term "self-starter," that's what I am.
— I believe all computer peripherals and devices are hot-swappable unless someone else is around.
— I have never impersonated someone of the opposite sex in an AOL forum.
— I only keep my AOL account so I can more easily get my email from any web browser anywhere.
— I get a lot of spam, but I block or filter most of it, so it's not an issue for me anymore.
— I never read the manuals when setting up new electronic toys, but only later, when I'm sitting around bored with the toy, just to amuse myself.
— Unix is like a lover to me: I don't understand it very well, and it makes me angry sometimes, but I am still in love with it.
— I have some computer books on the shelf, but I only use them as references, not as literature.
— I see nothing wrong with strapping a wireless PDA with GPS to the dog so that we can log his roaming patterns through the neighborhood.
Are you satisfied with your number of "yes" responses? Do you feel like you have a strong inclination towards discovery and investigation? If so, carry on.
One down side of being a freelance tech is that you have to create your own support network. You don't have coworkers to turn to if you need another brain on a problem. Many of your answers are online: consider the Internet the online lobe of your brain.
It's up to you to decide if you're ready to learn more. Building on what you know is the key to making this work, and the Internet is one of the methods.
— You should be reading the tech sites appropriate to your specialty every day. There's nothing quite like that uncomfortable feeling you get when a client says, "What do you think of the new XYZ?" and you don't know what they're talking about. Ask your tech-oriented peers and colleagues what tech sites they're reading and take them up yourself. It may seem like a cinch to include Slashdot on this list, but you'd be surprised how many techs don't read it, or aren't even registered. Sure, there are a lot of bozos and doofuses hanging out there, but if you keep your comment-viewing level at least two points or higher (I use three points), many of the comments are loaded with new ideas and insightful analysis.
— Keep up to date on system patches, updates, new releases, common problems with new releases and hardware, etc. Just know they exist. You do this by trolling the discussion forums for major vendors, and by checking other sites which specialize in collating this information. This is crucial: it's easy to fall into the trap of learning only what you need to solve the problem at hand, but then you leave yourself with spotty, unsystematic knowledge. Sometimes just knowing that other people are having a similar problem is enough to give you hope that a problem is resolvable. And it makes proposal writing much easier if you've got a general idea of what kinds of products the market is pushing.
— You need to master the art of the search, and then put that mastery to use on Google and other huge search engines. Too many people don't know how to exclude unwanted search results, leaving them with hundreds of thousands of useless pages. If you're good, you never have to look beyond the first page or two of results. Knowing about phrase searches is useful, too: just type any vaguely unique portion of an error message inside of quotes, hit search, and you're bound to get pages where other folks have dealt with that error.
— The tech magazines are largely a waste of money, so don't bother with them unless you get free subscriptions.
— Discussion forums and email lists. Many discussion forums and email lists are not indexed by Google or other search engines, so it's up to you to find the best forums where the newbies don't seem to dominate. You can usually tell if the newbies are ruling because there will be hundreds of questions posted but no answers, except for a endless variations on "me too!!!". You need to find forums where the long-timers and the pros don't respond with "RTFM, newb!", where answers appear to be thoughtful and generous, giving more help than the questioner needed. The best forums are usually heavy with posts which start, "I just solved a problem and want to share the answer in case anyone else has the issue" and "This one is for the record." Once you find sites like that, hang on to them. That's where you'll get your questions answered when you've exhausted all other options.
— Flip through the computer catalogs you get in the mail. Just read what catches your eye. That little bit of information gathering is gold when it comes to talking casually to clients about upgrades or proposed new purchases: many of them will buy what you recommend on the spot without any extra research or a written proposal. This means you should really have your act together, or else you'll be installing and supporting a sub-standard solution you yourself just happened to mention.
— Learn to string solutions and results together. One BSD project I worked on had a very small problem which required me to consult more than 40 web pages, and it was the conjunction of answers found on many of these which solved it. There's no single secret magic site with all of the answers. You have to find the bits of knowledge piece by piece. And by God, don't just bookmark the sites: Save the text to your hard drive if the content is static. Even the Google cache expires eventually, and content drops off the Internet every day, like ships off the edge of the Earth. How many times I've lamented not saving a page as text...
But the number one question from all direct respondents to the first article was, "How do I go about getting clients?" The answers are easy and obvious, so at first guess, you might dismiss them as too easy or too obvious. But the easy ways work.
If any of these marketing methods strike you as cheesy, you need to put that cheese on crackers and carry on. The cheese works. One client here, one client there, before you know it, you've got a full roster. Then you can pull back on the self-marketing. In the meantime, you need to take every opportunity to push your business.
You must have business cards. Make them simple. Don't do them on your home printer, unless you're really, really good at it. They need to look and feel professional: opaque, clean inks on heavy stock. Make them memorable: they need the words "COMPUTER SUPPORT" in huge letters somewhere, with all your phone numbers and contact information. Don't disguise the business card as a calling card. It's a business solicitation and people need to remember that. Forget logos: you're not IBM and you never will be. No slogans: "computer support" is all the client needs to remember about you. You're not Nike; as a one-man operation, you don't need to do branding.
Black text on a white background is fine. You're not meeting the Queen, you're getting business. Nobody ever said, "Wow! Vellum! Indigo ink! Hire him immediately!"
I recommend against raised lettering, but some people like it. To me, it's like super-sized fries: only 39 cents more, but do you really need that extra?
Most of my early clients came from plumbing my personal network, as described above. Contact absolutely everyone you know or have ever known. I'm serious. Friends, family, coworkers, ex-coworkers, bosses, ex-bosses, ex-wives, in-laws, and ask them, kind of demurely, sheepishly and apologetically, "Do you have need of computer tech support? Do you know someone who does?" It's that simple. Don't be a used car salesman about it: you can't make someone need your services; either they do or they don't, and they'll know for sure.
Of course, some of your first calls will be from family members who are trying to help you out. They'll probably say something like, "Is there any way you can speed up my computer?" or "There are a lot of files everywhere. Can you straighten everything up?" or "I just want a checkup."
After a while, the personal networks run dry; any Amway dealer can tell you exactly how limited friends and family are as a network for sales. But if you do well on these first few calls, other people will start selling your services for you by giving out your name as a referral.
Don't forget that your personal network isn't just people who you would have over to the house for dinner: it's absolutely everyone you meet. When you meet new people and they ask what you do for a living, have business cards at the ready. Don't be pushy, but get them on your side. Be a little hesitant and say something like, "I don't want to be a glad-handing weasel, but I'm striking out on my own in computer support and trying to land a few more clients. Do you know anyone who needs some help?"
People will take your cards: either they'll feel sorry for you, or they'll need the service themselves, or they'll want to seem helpful, or they want to shut you up, or they'll see you as someone yanking on your own bootstraps, an action which calls to the deep-seated belief of most Americans that someone who is working hard and attempting to be a self-made success is admirable.
Any way it goes, give those cards out, a half-dozen at a time. Try to run out of cards: they're doing you no good in the box. Get them out the door and into the wallets and pocketbooks of other people. Then, when somebody has a computer problem, as they inevitably will, your card will be at hand. It really does work that way: happens to me all the time that I get a call from someone who has a card I put in their hand six months ago.
Since networking is about making sure that everyone knows you're available, change the sig file on your email to include your business identity, even on those emails you send to friends and family. Include the same sig on posts to discussion forums and bulletin boards.
Change your answering machine and cell phone voice mail answering messages: Don't pretend to be a company, but say something like, "Hey, this is Monkey Boy. I'm probably out handling a computer support call right now, but leave a message and I'll ring you from the field as soon as possible."
Everyone, absolutely everyone, needs to know you're building a business, and they need to be reminded regularly.
To further increase business when I first got started, I took out an advertisement in a local alternative weekly, about $300 for five lines and three weeks. It read more or less like this:
Small Business Computer Technical Support
Mac, Windows, DSL, Upgrades
Networks, Small Office, Home Office
Excellent references, suitable rates
Not the best ad ever, but not bad: it covered the themes I felt were important.
There were just five responses: one from a potential client, one from someone who wanted me to hire him, and three from other newspapers asking me if I would also place my classified in their papers. Fortunately, the potential client became an actual client, and the first week's revenues from it paid for the advertisement. But despite this, I couldn't help but feeling that the advertisement was a failure.
[This bothers me a great deal, actually. Many of my past years have been spent working in various capacities for newspapers and advertising agencies. While I have no doubt that advertising helps promote a product or cause, it's always been a burr under the saddle of clients to quantify the response to their ads. It's one of the reasons why novice advertisers like coupons: they think that will help them gauge the effectiveness of their advertising dollar. And it's one of the reasons newspapers and advertising agencies hate coupons: people who send in coupons are but a small sub-set of people who read and/or respond to an advertisement without clipping on the dotted line, and branding and image-building are not taken into consideration at all if one considers only a coupon return rate. Coupons are really just a testament to the ability of the staff of the newspaper or ad agency to use scissors, write with different pens in different handwriting, and mail the coupons from the homes of their in-laws.]
The classified ad seemed like a wasted effort, but I did get a client out of it, one which ended up being one of the $30,000-a-year clients I mentioned in the first article. So as a larger part of promoting your new business, classified ads must be considered. Longer runs in the back of alternative weeklies will likely pay off more often than short runs in expensive dailies, and, depending on your budget, should be a part of your marketing campaign.
I also put numerous ads online on free classified sites, but they returned absolutely zero response. Perhaps you might have better luck, but it seems like a gross waste of energy to me.
At the time I was building my client roster I had a domain name which I've owned for more than four years and have played around with as a weblog. Since I was paying the hosting bill anyway, I decided to post an advertisement about my services on the site. The page listed my skill set, companies for which I had worked, the services I hoped to perform for potential clients, and the answers to a few questions which visitors might be asking themselves when looking for a tech support person.
I double-checked my spelling and grammar, and made sure it did not look like it was designed in 1994 by a 12-year-old. Few graphics and browser compatibility were my watchwords. It had virtually no MBA- or marketing-speak. Only the skill set was jargonized, by necessity, so that more advanced clients searching for specifics would be more likely to have my page turn up.
The end result is that after the site was indexed by the major search engines, I received, on average, three calls a week from potential clients, translating into about four new long-term clients a month. For a company, three calls a week is nothing. For a one-man operation, it's more than enough. My site, selling only my skills, effectively made a profit, and has long since paid for all the hosting fees I've ever spent for the site and the domain name.
Those calls come in because my page tended to come up higher on search engines than any of the larger more full-service tech companies in town. ( I write "tended" because I have since taken down the page, as I am no longer accepting new clients). You might think that big companies would take some care with their web sites, but they don't.
A large part of this is due to inattention on the part of the large companies' web designers. Some of the sites are all Flash. Some are mostly graphics. ALT tags are missing. They have lame TITLE tags, and lamer link names. Metatags, now out of fashion but perhaps still useful, are missing. Some of these tech company's sites don't even appear to be listed at all in the Yahoo directory, which I would consider a fundamental place to appear.
I hesitate to point this out here, for fear that those larger companies will fix this problem, but, frankly, since I'm currently turning business away, I don't really mind. And, as I've said elsewhere, I don't consider us in competition. My clients have different needs and, more often than not, cannot afford the services of those larger companies. Even more, I think the market is so untapped as to make it irrelevant as to whether the tech support companies get their act together.
Take a look at a few of the tech company web sites in your city. See what's astonishing about them? Many of them don't even include the word "computer." They use euphemisms like "technology." How many Google hits are they missing out on because of that one absent word? Most of them are lame attempts to look like much bigger businesses than they are. In writing nothing but jargonized mumbo-jumbo gobbledygook, they neglect to include true descriptions of their work, which should contain the very sorts of words and concepts for which potential new clients will be searching. It's as if every site about dogs used Canis familiaris (which gets fewer than 20,000 results in a Google search), instead of the more common "dog" (which gets more than 18 million).
You don't need a web site. You need a web page. The tech support promotional page was not the main feature of my site, but just an addition to my weblog.
Since my weblog is legitimately linked to by hundreds of other sites, the network of trust is put into play. Thus, any search engine which uses an algorithm based upon number of external inks to judge the popularity of a site will list my site high on the search results. It's as legitimate as you can get. Also, given a chance on tech support forums and comment sections of web sites, I always include the URL of my tech support web page with my posts, so it's on oodles of legitimate, non-spam tech posts all over the Internet.
I should note: many of you reading this are scumbags. You'll think this is a recommendation to spam your web site link everywhere, or to use those lame paid-links sites, or worse, those pathetic "top sites" directories. Don't bother reading the rest of this. Do everyone a favor and stab yourself in the throat now, because you're never going to make it. Anyway, the important search engines know this trick and filter for it.
The weird thing about my web page being successful at getting business is that it sounds a little like the pie-in-the-sky predictions people were making eight years ago. "You can make money on the Internet!" Turns out, it's true: not millions of dollars, but enough. Funny, though, how few people seem to believe it: they have business web sites which cannot conceivably return any real business. They built the web sites, but they make little effort to attract potential new clients towards them.
A nice side-benefit of getting clients through the web site is that they're self-selected as being at least minimally technically adept and as having an Internet connection. You will be getting few calls from potential clients saying, "Now what's all this about an interwebnet cyberhighway thingy?"
In the responses to the first part of this series, some of the readers at Slashdot made comments about the number of bozos who post fliers offering computer tech support help. There are a lot of them. You know why? Because fliers work.
I posted fliers in the Flatiron District of New York City, an area with a lot of advertising and creative businesses. I put up just 15 fliers and got 12 calls. One of those calls was from a photography service bureau. The guy in charge said he was tired of helping his clients with their computer problems. That's not what he was in business for, so he wanted someone to refer the business to. He chose me, and I landed three clients from him alone.
One of the clients I landed fired his current tech, who was doubly pissed off when he discovered the client found about me via a flier with tear-tags posted on a telephone pole. Seems kind of, well, cheap, doesn't it? Yeah, but what're you gonna do? Starve? Have you been getting any response from your resumes? I didn't think so.
But in general, the comments on Slashdot were right: most of street fliers promoting freelance tech support are lame. One Slashdot user posted the following excellent advice, and I quote it partially here, edited and with my own additions:
"If you have applicable certifications, explain them genuinely. If you don't, describe your actual knowledge instead. This sign I saw in the store said they offered 'computer detailing' service, anti-virus and OS installation... and that was about it. If this person knew more, they'd have said it."
Exactly: The best potential clients will see through your baloney immediately. List only what you know and what you want to do.
Just like your Internet page, your flier needs to have keywords. You need to catch the eyes of your potential clients. What are your strengths? Put them down. What services are you getting the most requests for? Put those down: many requests for a certain type of service are indicators of a larger body of other clients who will want the same services. Are you targeting home users or small businesses? Choose appropriate words.
Cut the jargon. I'd even recommend dropping "PC" in favor of "computer." In other cases, if you have to explain it to people outside of the tech business, then it's jargon.
[If potential clients call and ask you to do work you're not sure you can accomplish, offer a rate discount. "I've never encountered this before, but I'm sure I can figure it out. Why don't I cut my rate in half, since I'm learning as I go, and we'll have you up and running in no time." For problems which I have really enjoyed solving but had never encountered before, I've even given the work away for free. My pay was learning how to do the task.]
Nobody you're targeting really gives a damn about your certifications. They might ask about them, but that's only because they can't think of any other way off gauging your abilities and credibility, and in truth, most people outside of the tech business don't know what the certifications mean, anyway. The kind of street smarts and MacGuyver-like solutions required of a good freelance tech don't come with a signed certificate, so offer clients professional references instead. Have them at the ready so you can rattle them off to callers or hand out in person.
The Slashdot user also wrote, "Let the prospective customer know you stand behind your work, but at the same time, don't put yourself in a bad position to be liable. Say that your liability is limited to one free hour of additional service, should you determine that an oversight on the initial visit wasn't sufficient."
Alternately, consider a flat rate per project. If the client wants to network three computers to her DSL connection, then say, "That will be $150 for as long as it takes me to finish for that service only." See below for more about billing and managing the business.
Legal liability is another issue, and one which I am not qualified to address. I recommend consulting a good small business advisor, many of which are available through government programs.
"If you have a logo... don't use stock clip-art. This sign used the lined-pyramid default image on every default MS Publisher template as his logo. Depressing."
For most techs, I'd recommend that unless you're an advertising or graphics expert, you drop any attempt to create a slogan or logo. I guarantee you your graphic design efforts are pathetic and doing you more harm than good.
Make it readable. It should look more like prose than a bad yellow pages advertisement.
Spell- and grammar-check the bloody thing. You are not free of errors. You are fallible. Good clients are heavily correlated to having good educations: they'll see any errors you make, and feel less inclined to call you for business, leaving you with the witless clucks who don't know its from it's. When in doubt, take it out or look it up.
Another important way of getting new business is through referrals, which I briefly mentioned above in the discussion of networking. I've sectioned this topic out from networking because it's so crucial to growing your business and knowing how to manage your clients.
How do you get referrals? By being reliable, good at your work, and personable. I'm at the point now where I'm getting referrals from clients who were referrals of referrals. That comes later, after you get your first clients and prove your value to their operations.
You also get referrals by asking for them. I sometimes do work for free. Usually small piddly one-offs over the phone or for a friend, or a friend of a friend, the kind of thing where I might feel uncomfortable about asking for money. Instead, when they half-heartedly offer some kind of compensation (half-heartedly because although the work is good, everyone has a cheap bastard inside of them somewhere), I decline and say, "Why don't you just take down my information or have a couple of my business cards and refer me to anyone else you know who may need my services, then we'll call it even?" They always brighten at this form of barter, and the referrals keep coming in.
I can't over-stress how much business can come from referrals. Not just from clients and friends, but from other techs whom you encounter along the way. Even if a tech is fired by a client, it doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with the tech. There are plenty of bad clients, too. It pays to strike up good relationships with other techs, because if it's obvious you're good at your work, they will give you clients they don't want or can't take or don't get along with, or hire you to cover for them when they go on vacation, or to help them with a large rollout or other substantial project. I've got a small network of friends who do what I do for a living, and each of us passes business back and forth to the others.
That's why you should be careful about which bridges you burn.
[I do believe in burning bridges: too many bridges, and the river is just another concrete-covered sewer. The river's charm comes from having places suitable for crossing, bathing, drinking, fishing and shitting.]
There's no greater delight I take in my work than having business to give away and knowing I will not be giving it to nasty people. Crypto-schadenfreude: delight in the misfortunes of people who don't know they have them.
Also, you'll just have to see, but my impression is, even in a town where there seems to be an infinite number of people offering their computer skills, the perceived market seems bottomless because there are a lot of stupid techs. If you're good, the business is yours for the taking. Many of my referrals are from people who currently have techs but are dissatisfied.
Some time ago I took over an entertainment agent's office from another tech. There are about thirty employees, a terminal server, a large file sharing RAID system (for press releases, mailing lists, databases and photos) and a healthy mix of Windows and Macintosh. The transition meetings with the outgoing tech, though not warm, were at least civil, with he and I talking geek while the chief operating officer looked on in confusion. The outgoing tech, all round-eyed and scouts-honor, said, "Of course I'll be available for questions. Just send me an email any time."
His list of master passwords lacked a couple of crucial items, so as I performed a security audit over the course of a couple of days, I fired off an email asking for the appropriate information. "The password for the root account on the secondary mail server doesn't work. Is that an error on the sheet? Can you give me any suggestions for what it might be?"
His response was to send me nothing but a link to the sales page of a book covering Unix for beginners. No password. So I rebuilt the server (using a newer version of Exim, and plugging in SpamAssassin, Razor and webmail while I was at it), and let the matter drop.
The next time I asked him for information, this time for a password related to backup, he sent along 20 megabytes of user manuals for the tape autoloader. No password. He was being intentionally offensive.
So I bounced that message, with enclosures, back to all five of his email accounts, including the one for his PDA, and never communicated with him again.
In the months since, I have come across at least five solid pieces of business I haven't been able to take that would have been right in his line. I didn't recommend him for any of them, but gave them away to other techs who are polite and civil. He lost the original client to me, and he lost the referrals, because of his manners. He probably still doesn't know it.
I want to state plainly: I am not perfect. I don't know everything. I make mistakes on the job all the time. I sometimes act unprofessionally. I behave badly.
Like, accidentally erasing the very backup tape from which I was about to recover important year-old data.
Like, not getting it in writing from the phone company that, yes, we could keep our current phone numbers when the client moved to the new office.
Like, barking madly into the phone at the fifteenth call in a day from a client who, while very sweet, is as bright as the dark side of the moon.
Like, overbooking myself so that I have to bump clients scheduled for the end of the day.
I tell you this in order to be somewhat forgiven as I further dish on bad techs and bad clients.
In the spring I met another fellow at another party. He, too, specializes in small business technical support. We talked geek for a while and sniffed tech tails to suss out the other's geek level. He thought he had me with his MCSE, but I trumped him with my low Slashdot ID.
Turns out, he's having problems. Business is dismal. The phone's not ringing. Lost a client. But I knew his would be a tale of woe before he told me. I knew the second he pulled out his two-year-old laptop.
It still had the promotional stickers on it. Brightly colored triangular patches on the wrist-rests which bragged about processor speed and options and warranties and the like. Those stickers are red flags, and they say, "I am an idiot. I am too stupid to recognize what is part of the product and what is not. Also, there's a chance I think these stickers look good. All those pretty colors. If they were made of shiny foil, I'd like them even more."
I'll tell you more about him: He's the kind of tech who never applies service packs to the operating system on his own computer. He's never run Windows Update on it once. Even though he connects to dozens of different networks over the course of a month, his email (and its passwords) are sent in the clear no matter how he's connected to the Internet. His own virus definitions are outdated. He has, however, installed a custom cursor package (he likes the propeller best) and his desktop picture changes every five minutes. He never puts his laptop to sleep, but shuts it down, because he doesn't know he can put it to sleep by just closing the lid. So he sometimes carries the laptop around like a book, holding it with his hand cupped around the spine. He rarely reads the tech support forums. He's more likely to wipe a drive and reinstall everything or to call Microsoft tech support than to research the problem on the Internet.
A year ago I resumed working for a client that I let go when I went back to school. It was an uncomfortable transition: the fired outgoing tech was the long-time boyfriend of another employee. The transition meetings were icy. I knew that one of the reasons they were letting him go was because he was inattentive and difficult. How inattentive became clear.
First, I discovered that the mail server was an open relay and had been spewing tens of thousands of spam messages a day, unbeknownst to anyone in the office. It was listed in three blackhole databases. A single check box in the mail server application and a few relay-only-from-these-hosts settings on the mail server software closed it. It took about ten minutes to change the settings, and a few days to get off the blackhole lists.
Second, he had discarded an appropriate and perfectly good 10bTX network hub to purchase a new 100bTX network switch. Why? Well, so he could set up a multiplayer game server with low latency and fast ping times. Never mind that the client had very low data transport needs; they never came close to clogging the old network. But although the mail server was running on a five-year-old box, and their file server was woefully short on brute power and storage space, the game server was one of the finest, newest machines in the office. He had confidently explained to me during one of our transition meetings how proud he was, how people all around the world were logging in. "You mean, in through the firewall, right?" Yes, he replied. In through the firewall, through the ports he had opened: all of them. He didn't even have the sense to put it in the network DMZ.
Third, in the three years since I had last worked for the client, not a single administrative password had been changed. But he had made the effort to change the names of the printers to some infantile 133t-speak mumbo-jumbo.
Ph33r me, indeed.
These are not the causes of his unworthiness as a tech, but the symptoms. If it had been a football match, he would have been red-carded in the first minutes of the first half. It's a common story, unfortunately. Only the details change.
There are several things to learn from techs like this and the one with the stickers:
One, that's business waiting to be taken away. Any tech who makes those kinds of mistakes or shows a high level of inattention to the basics most likely has clients who would be open to a polite business overture from another freelance tech. Bad techs give bad service.
Two, techs can get too familiar with clients. They lose sight of their goals. Here, the game-server guy forgot that, as much fun as he was having with the servers and the network, it wasn't his. You can see the evidence of forgotten goals in techs who commingle client resources: a cable from this one to that one soon becomes a computer from one to the other. A client's office is not a home.
Third, such techs make the price of entry harder for others—the clients have been soured on the last guy, so you've got to be careful not to make any mistakes the first couple months. All the trust has been depleted until you restore it. Anyone who replaces a bad egg like the ones described above has to work harder and longer and better in order to make sure that the client not only trusts the tech, but the technology as well. The kind of business you take from bad techs is tainted, even poisoned, so tread lightly.
Bad techs are everywhere. There's a reason some techs' appointment calendars are full, and those of techs like those described above, are not.
There's another kind of red flag to be on the lookout for, too: burn-out, and you should be looking for it in yourself.
I recently saw signs of burnout in myself, so in March I resigned 14 clients, mainly those who where giving only intermittent business, those who were treating me poorly, those who abused the free email and phone support by calling for the same issues repeatedly, and those who seemed to take more of my administrative time (asking for many proposals or reports, for example) than other clients.
Burnout is caused by taking on more business than you can handle. If you're a good tech, the pool of available clients seems practically bottomless. It's so tempting to try to fit in one more client visit per day, to try to make a little more money each week. One more dollar, then you'll go.
A lot of burnout is your fault, but you can fix that by not taking on more than you can reasonably manage. If you begin to see the signs below, step back. Resign those clients who are making you work the most for the least return. That return is not just money, but knowledge: a client which keeps you busy learning new things on interesting projects may be more worth keeping than a client which pays you well to teach someone how to build PowerPoint decks, as that low-paying-but-learning gig adds to your skill set and makes you more marketable to other clients.
What are the signs of taking on too much business?
— Constantly having to reschedule appointments.
— You are late for nearly every appointment.
— No free time for yourself.
— You work every Saturday and Sunday, rather than just the occasional weekend day.
— You are constantly on the phone with clients, even while servicing other clients.
— You work many evenings and early mornings and are often in the clients' offices when no-one else is there, because that's the only time you could fit the client into your schedule.
— When people call you, you ask them to call you back, rather than handling the call right then.
— When they do call back, you sometimes ask them to send you an email instead.
— You frequently underestimate the amount of time required to handle a service call properly.
— Your friends, lovers or family comment about how they never see you any more.
— You become unusually impatient with even basic questions.
— You are easy to anger.
— You forget things: discs, passwords, appointments, names.
— You take a long time to respond to email or phone calls.
— You neglect to do invoicing, reports or proposals.
— You don't sleep or eat well.
— You are too tired to do anything but go to bed or zone off in front of the television once you get home.
Clients don't help, either. They all want special service. "I'm more important" they all seem to say, one way or another. Even if you've left two or so hours free every day to handle same-day or emergency calls from people who can't or won't wait, you still might find it's not enough. Clients want breaks, exceptions, waivers, favors, that extra mile. Sure, they'd be glad to wait in the office until 6:30 p.m. when you're done with your last client of the day, if you could just squeeze one more in, and, oh, by the way, since you're the last one here, would you lock up when you go?
Clients also have a "one more thing" syndrome, and its not the good kind of "one more thing" like Steve Jobs'. They're not lying, exactly. They call you to move a computer, and it turns out, they didn't mean move a computer, they meant swap a computer, and that means copying 23GB of data from one machine to another, making sure the preferences are intact, and setting up the old computer for a new user. Suddenly 30 minutes of work has become two hours.
Or, they call to have you add new users to the email system, and then they say, "While you're here..."
Some clients are completely incapable of discerning what merits emergency support and what doesn't. I had one who was zero for three when I resigned the business. The first "emergency" phone call involved a computer that wouldn't boot. It turned out the power cable was slightly unplugged; my contact claimed to have checked it. The second emergency phone call involved email which had been "deleted." It turned out the outbox of the user's mail program was selected rather than the in box. No mail in the outbox, usually, is there? The third emergency involved a Palm Pilot modem that wouldn't work. Its batteries needed to be replaced.
The client I mentioned earlier who is very sweet but not very bright was one of those clients who refused to learn, and a client I had to let go. She's very young, too, in her early twenties. I believe she was perfectly capable of learning what she needed to know, with a little bit of effort, but she constantly called on the same issues. And I constantly had to recite the same solutions over and over. She refused to be educated (see below for more about client- and self-education). She's one of those people who are used to relying too much on others, and are happy with being told there are no stupid questions.
There are such animals as stupid questions: it's okay to have to ask them once, but twice is once too often.
A good amount of tech support is nothing but hand-holding. Clients just want to feel protected. They want attention.
If you tell a client you're going to be out of town for a week and to only call if there's an emergency, I guarantee that emergency will materialize. If, however, you leave town without giving them any special notice, the phone will ring hardly at all.
There are clients whom you do not want to permit to freely call you. These are the kinds of clients who don't understand that your time is valuable and that you have other business to attend to. You should arrange regular visits with such clients rather than permit them to call when they have a problem.
One client had the habit of calling me several times a day. Every time, he had to do the "Hi, it's Mr. Client. Are you busy? How are you? Everything's alright here. Can I ask you a question? I've got a small problem here." On and on he goes without ever getting to the point. His closings are just as bad: "Okay, that's it then. Looks good. Thanks a lot. Talk to you later. Have a good day. Nice talking to you..." Every kind of goodbye he uses.
And then he would call a half-hour later with the exact same litany of greetings and salutations. Oh you mean, how am I now, compared to a half-hour ago? Well, in the last few seconds my life has suddenly taken a turn for the worse.
[Maybe it's just the New Yorker in me, but I see no need for that level of small talk: If I just spoke to you ten minutes ago and said, "Call me back when you get that bit of information," it doesn't really require salutations and politeness when you do call back. Say hi (once), spit it out, say bye, then hang up. Pretend we're standing next to each other. A small thing, but it would show a bit more respect for my time. All those wasted minutes add up.]
How do you prevent clients demanding more than their share of your time? Even better, how do you moderate your work load?
— When you schedule appointments, tell the client how long you plan to be on site. "I've got you penciled in at 3 on Thursday for 90 minutes." Then, if they try to give you the ol' "one more thing" routine, you can say , "I only slotted you for 90 minutes. I'll have to do that next time."
— Learn to say "No." Couch it in politer terms without using the actual word "no." Try any one of these: "I'm already over-extended." "I wouldn't be able to give you the quality of service you deserve if I tried to squeeze you in." "I think your business won't collapse if we schedule this for Thursday instead of Monday." "I can't do it for you, or else I'd have to do it for everyone." "Is it on fire? Well, then it's not an emergency, is it?" "We both know that when you say it should only take 15 minutes, what you really mean is that you hope it only takes 15 minutes because that's all you're willing to pay for, and when it ends up taking two hours you'll be trying to dicker me down, right?"
— Once you have a strong client roster, start being firm on your rates when people try to dicker you down. High rates are good for keeping a client roster at just the right size. Newspapers do it all the time: they don't necessarily raise the cover price because they want more revenue, but because they want fewer readers, because too many readers means more costly newsprint and more wages to press and delivery personnel, which can wipe out any profits from advertising because ad rates tend not to correlate perfectly with increased readership, and represent a largely fixed income source. But be careful not to let a good client get away. Sometimes a pleasant and intelligent client (not to mention a good-looking or an exceptionally friendly one) is worth a 25 percent rate cut.
— Learn to delay clients who are not suffering true emergencies. Consider booking their false emergencies a few days down the road, even if you have time free before that. It teaches the client that you are in demand, that this sort of truly non-emergency work must be scheduled, and not called for at the last minute due to bad planning on their part. It also gives the clients an opportunity to figure out the problem on their own. Use this method lightly: it's easy to get on a power trip and to begin abusing clients, some who seem to ask for it.
— Manage your time, don't let it manage you. Always pad your travel time with extra minutes to account for delays. Schedule time for billing, report- and proposal-writing, the same way you would for a client call. Leave blocks of time open each day for emergencies. Schedule your client calls in the same neighborhood to reduce travel time. Schedule lunch. Schedule a few personal errands or a few minutes in the park. Be flexible: set a specific appointment time for yourself, but tell the client, "I'll be there around 2." Unless they're a home user, they won't mind much if you arrive at 2:15.
Some clients are just rotten eggs. You have the right to refuse clients. You'll know when they're irredeemable. I recommend resigning the business before it sours you on the rest of your work. Then spend your new free time trying to land better.
Some bad clients I have had, besides the ones mentioned above:
One who stood behind me as I worked, with his hand on my shoulder. The whole time. He wasn't coming on to me, just asserting his authority in the only way he knew how, since he felt at a power disadvantage because he had to ask me, someone half his age and half his income, for help.
One who, as I was working on the mail server, would keep trying to send mail, and then say, "It's still not working." And I would say, "Yes, I know. I'm not done yet." Two minutes later: "It's still not working." Repeat, ad infinitum.
One hired me to replace another tech, and then would constantly challenge my appraisals and recommendations by saying, "I don't think so. That's not the way our old computer guy did it." Umm, didn't you fire him?
One with the main office on the west coast, where the corporate-wide IT strategy was managed by lead techs who spoke and thought at about ten words a minute. They were all about management, and not at all about doing the actual tech work. I asked that authenticated sending be turned on in the corporate mail server there and not one, but two of the West Coast techs sent long messages about how that would constitute an open relay. This is the same client for which every purchase over $40 had to be approved. The approval process took ages. This is also the client which, although it had a pathetically small tech budget, authorized thousands on a new Exchange server for a 15-person office. About $4,400 in hardware and software. For email only. They had no plans to use the shared calendar or contacts. This was to make up for the fact that the home Exchange server on the West Coast would crash once a week and not be rebooted until someone showed up at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time, 1:30 p.m. Eastern, leaving the New York office without email for four and a half hours. This was the same office in which the worst email forwarders were, of course, the lead techs on the West Coast. Every stupid forward, chain letter, scrap of false piety mit jingoism ("Fwd: >>Fwd: Re: Pray for America!!!!!!!!!!") would be sent to the administrative email list.
When I returned to university, many of the other students in my category were old: some of them would have been receiving the silver savings discount at movie theaters before I was out of short pants, if I had worn short pants. The traditionally younger students, aged 18 through 22, were generally accepting of their elders, as long as they didn't have to sit close enough to sense the decay, but there was an undercurrent from a few younger students who, while they generally approved of education, didn't understand what possible use a seventy-year-old might have for a degree in urban planning or physics.
One kid, smart, but not one who ever advanced much beyond repeated amazement at being able to issue sounds from his own mouth, put it this way:
"I mean," Raymond went on,"they'll be dead soon. What a waste of money. They should be doing something else. Traveling or something."
I replied, "How do you know they'll be dead? They might have another 20 years to go. That's longer than you've been alive. What have you done with your 20 years?"
Raymond's perspective of a fellow student is similar to that of many techs towards their clients, and towards themselves, and represents an attitude not all that unusual in the States.
My opinions: "I'll never use this" is a self-fulfilling-prediction. "The client will not understand it" is another. The proper answer to "Why do I need to know this?" is always, "Because."
People forget that they got where they are by education, education, education, because against the background of effective mass literacy, it's not so apparent where the gains came from. Techs forget how they know what they know, and that at one point, they knew nothing.
A lot of my beginning tech skills came from when I went to university the first time. I worked at the student radio station, where there were a couple of older Macs. I must have destroyed those computers every week with one stupid mistake after another. The lifetime engineering student who took care of them would get pissed off but ultimately he would explain what I had done wrong. He was an educator. (Thanks, Ian!).
Computers are not easy to learn to use. Most people have to be taught because it's faster than self-learning. You will have learn for yourself and then teach your clients what you know. Some techs master a bit of technology, hire themselves out to perform based upon that skill, and stop cold. Little new knowledge is acquired. Some people stop in high school, some at university.
There's another sort of tech support person who refuses to divulge solutions to clients in order keep control, like a Mesoamerican priest from eight centuries ago keeping a stranglehold on writing or astronomy in order to secure a position of authority. It's supposed strength enforced by knowledge.
But look where they are now: their civilization is dead and everyone's eating tamales on their graves.
My perspective is that tech support is half education and half service. Most techs fail on the education half. A tech who withholds knowledge as if it were a finite resource, as if to impart facts is to eat the seed corn or spend the investment capital, is doomed to failure. Others who offer only obfuscated, over-simplified, misleading answers, will not gain the trust of their clients. Giving the impression of being helpful without actually equipping the client to handle the problem should it reoccur is a hollow experience for a client.
I predict this response to the above paragraph: "Like they'd ever understand <$task>! Not bloody likely! Lusers!"
[The preceding sentence was written before the first article in the series ever appeared on Slashdot; so nice to be right, but I wish I had been wrong].
Others feel like giving away the answers to tech solutions, or even how to get into the tech support business, would eventually deprive themselves of a job. These are the same people who would call me foolish for writing this document. I'm cutting my own throat, they say. Creating my own competition, they sneer. So be it. I care nothing for them and their backward ways.
You may even find that techs who withhold knowledge also hold the completely contradictory belief that it is impossible to keep up with the rapidly changing technologies. But throwing up your hands in despair is not an appropriate response to fast-changing technology. Learning is.
My response to such thinking is, "My ultimate goal is to be so good at my work that my clients never have to call me." I strive for that by teaching my clients, though no matter how well I do, they always call. That's because the work, and I say it again, is limitless. There is always some new task, some new challenge, some new information to grok.
I believe that the best way to maintain your position as someone who is being paid and as an educator (which you are) is to pass on knowledge to your clients freely. Give it away. Learn more, filter it so it can be applied to your client's enterprise, and educate the client.
Knowledge is crack cocaine. You become your client's dealer. As the conduit for new information, you are invaluable. Every information transaction reinforces the pathway between you and the client. You maintain your position through sharing, rather than through withholding. They become dependent on you for new information, new ideas, solutions. In effect, you become the client's mentor, and the client becomes the mentee. While there are certainly many instances of this sort of relationship collapsing (see the relationship between V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux; Sir Vidia's Shadow, by Theroux, is greatly informative on such pairs), for its duration a mentoring relationship can be fruitful, productive, and greater than the sum of its parts. It's a flowering, a redoubling of strength, the invigorating of the ignorant.
There should be an almost evangelical cast to your client relationships, not to promote to a particular brand or product, but to encourage a healthy respect for the technology. All that should be repressed is the underlying complexities. These should be mastered by the tech to such a degree that its tricks appear trivial, even petty, and no longer are they mysterious, but can be easily explained.
Of course, dependency can be taken too far. It's like the supposed Chinese proverb: Once you are responsible for a user's computer, it seems you are always responsible for it. The correct approach, though, is that clients should be dependent upon you for new information, with the understanding that this new information will allow them to care for their computers themselves. They won't remember how to do everything, but they will remember that it can be done, and that's almost as important.
One of the many kinds of clients I pick up is small Macintosh-based departments in companies which are otherwise Windows-centric. The Mac users are usually feeling neglected and desperate for someone with Mac knowledge to come in and help them out, preferably someone who understands art direction, color control and output, Photoshop, Illustrator, Quark, massive data storage needs, as well as the larger Windows network and servers. It's a large niche here in New York City and one I specialize in.
When I talk with the PC support people for such companies, they have two strange things to tell me. One, Macs are basically toys. Two, they don't know how to use them. So these toys, they're so simple they're impossible to learn? What?
They're doubly afraid of OS X. And triply afraid of the Unices and Linuxes.
It's not just the PC techs. I've got compatriots in the Mac support side who are still stubbornly holding onto OS 9, as if OS X will go away. It's been here for three years. It's time to learn it. They also usually have a Windows-based finance machine or two under their purview of which they are mortally afraid. They refuse to learn.
I could understand if the techs would just say, "I just don't have the time to learn that operating system, but if you'll get me up to speed, I'll take it from there," or, "What book would you recommend to understanding this strange OS?" But they usually don't.
Part of the problem in educating clients is their reluctance to stray beyond the surface of the technology. They do not, for example, necessarily know the names of the parts of the interface. For them, the mouse and the cursor are the same thing. A window is, well, pretty much any squarish thing on the screen and the screen itself. A toolbar is a row of buttons is a bunch of little pictures. A file is a folder is a document is a program is an application is a page is a thingy. They misuse the jargon, and you'll find yourself correcting them.
I usually modify Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law like this: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable." Period.
What does this misuse of the jargon tell us? Well, for one, your clients are productive without having mastered details. You might tell them that if they learned keyboard commands they'd be a good deal more productive than if they used the mouse for everything. But their jobs can be done without keyboard commands. They accomplish, usually, what they set out to do.
None of us ever reaches absolute productivity: even those who know computers from the bit level up to the least GUI widget seem to master high levels of productivity only to create more time to waste. That ten minutes saved every day because you know all the Word keyboard commands is in contrast to all the time you spend sending instant messages full of trash talk to the rest of your fantasy football league.
The lesson to be learned from those who do not know the details of the programs is that the technology is masked for them. They are unconcerned with its subtleties. Ultimate productivity is only the province of managers and employers, and particularly in a home environment, lingering slowly over a task is akin to mulling over the lines of a poem. Inefficiency can be useful. It puts the work back into the head of the user, and pulls the task away from the tools. The result becomes more important than the process.
Few are the writers who can sit before a blank page, either virtual or physical, and in one pass, without editing, compose text that is error-free and suitable for immediate publishing. The same goes for computer tasks: it cannot all be done or learned in a single pass.
What you are imparting to your clients is not necessarily how to become better computer users, but how to do their work with skill and quality. That requires a different kind of teaching.
Avoid turning education and learning into tyranny. There are benefits to the slow route.
Some techs have a nickel-and-dime mindset that's hard to shake. The way I see it, that nickel-and-diming is doom for a tech support freelancer.
Here's my advice:
Don't bill for travel time. In a city like New York, even with the high density of businesses, you can spend up to a third of your work day traveling from client to client. I'm sure it's similar elsewhere. It's kind of painful to accept that most of your day is spent on non-billable tasks.
I know there are people who do bill for travel time, but I disagree with the practice. This is another whole level of work: we are not dealing with the EDSs of the world. We are dealing with small businesses who will not pay for forty-five minutes you spent on the subway, or traversing country roads behind a tractor, or inching along the cloverleaf exchange.
Travel time should be silently accounted for in your agreed-upon billable rate, not separated out, because clients only want to pay for what you do when you're on-site. It takes a whole chunk of potential distrust out of the picture, because clients don't have to drum up the faith to believe there really was an accident on the autobahn which made your commute a half-hour longer than it should have been, an accident for which you intend that they compensate you. It's better never to have to have that discussion about which parts of travel time you will and will not bill for.
I also say, don't charge for phone and email support. For one thing, if you can solve a problem over the phone or via email, it saves you from having to visit an office. That's commuting time saved, thus your money saved, and gives the impression of responsiveness. Time you don't spend traveling is time you can give to another client, and for which you may be able to bill.
Solving a fifteen-minute problem on the phone beats traveling for twenty minutes each way to solve a fifteen-minute problem and billing for your hour minimum, and not including it on your bill looks great to the client. Clients accept that you have a minimum billing time of an hour or two, but they don't like it. If an invoice is crowded with 20-minute jobs which are billed at a full hour each, then more trust has drained away, because it looks like maybe those jobs could have been consolidated. You need to have the client trust you, and you do this by removing all the possible ways they can distrust you.
Giving away free telephone and email support also allows you to handle more than one client at a time. A good deal of tech time involves waiting for something to finish: an installer, a boot process, a disk check, a format, a phone call for warranty support. If you're not giving the phone and email work away free, clients feel like you're cheating them by double-timing with another client. And do you think you'll be able to get away with saying, "This call I will charge for, but that one I won't"? It's all or none because you who do the billing cannot be trusted to track and log all your phone calls. That's just the way it is.
On the other hand, if you give support away free to one client while sitting in the office of another, the client whose office you are sitting in knows she can have the same service in return. That kind of multitasking goes some way to giving you sense of presence in more than one place at a time. Your clients have the impression that you are readily available, even if you're not present. You also reduce the perceived response time. Even for the largest problem, just returning a phone call is often enough to give an a client the impression that the problem is on the way to being handled.
Of course, you've got to be a good judge of when a problem cannot be handled over the phone.
Some techs charge for phone and travel time in order to prevent clients from calling for useless requests or idle questions. I think this barrier is best put in place by having a minimum charge for each on-site service call: a one-hour minimum charge, a two-hour minimum charge, whatever you think the market will bear. Others set a flat rate each month for phone and email support, a kind of all-you-can-eat plan in which, say, 100 minutes cost $100. This sort of avoids the trust issue, but it causes another problem: Clients will be less inclined to call you.
An additional advantage to not charging for email and phone support is that it strengthens the ties between you and the client. You may want them to feel like they can call you for anything, at just about any time, without worrying about a running meter; that's how you get more office visits and thus billable hours. If they feel like they can call you for just about anything, then they'll be more likely to call you to have you come in to look at a problem. Of course, as mentioned, some clients don't know when to call and when not to call, so you have to open that "call me anytime" window on a client-by-client basis.
Having free phone and email support also lets you keep in touch with the daily problems you might not otherwise hear about, and it lets you inside the working patterns of the office. This makes up for one of the weaknesses of having a freelance tech rather than someone on staff. As someone who is not always present to watch the company's machinery churn, you are less capable than you might be at heading off problems before they occur, recognizing when preventive maintenance should be done, and developing long-term strategies. Phone calls from clients remedy some of that.
And you become the hero: so often problems are resolvable over the phone that you seem to be a magician who can wave her wand from afar. It's nice. Even better, it's faster. If the client has the patience to be walked through twenty minutes of troubleshooting, and the problem is resolved, it's faster than waiting for you to visit in person.
That's not to say that you should always work this way. Handling support remotely is a double-edged sword, and more often than you might expect, you'll be wounded.
I recently, as often happens, took over a client from another freelance tech support person. He was technically capable. A bit of a social misfit, but he knew his hardware and software, and had a solid in-depth understanding of Windows-based file, web and email servers.
But his weakness was that he stretched himself too thin. He installed PCAnywhere on all the office machines, opened up a port on the router, setup a VPN connection, and handled a good deal of his tasks remotely. He charged for his remote time.
The network was fairly solid. The client machines were stable. There were a few niggling but recurrent problems, but all in all, he was doing a pretty good job behind the scenes, handling most issues remotely.
But he was fired. Let go, if you prefer. Why? Because the client never saw him. They couldn't connect the decent reliability of the systems with the work he was doing off-site, and when he sent in his monthly bills, they had a hard time with the itemized hours. Sure, he could say he did those things, and spent that time, but it required a level of trust that they didn't quite have. Now, it's true: if he'd done the exact same work on-site, they'd have just about the same level of disconnection between his performance and the results. They didn't know what he was doing, no matter where he did it.
But the key was that when they saw him, they knew he was working, even if they didn't know the exact details. This is not particular to this client; this is the way human beings work. It's one of the biggest pitfalls of telecommuting: people need to see you. They need to be reminded of your presence. When reminded of your presence, they are reminded of what you do for them.
This fired fellow might not have been let go if he'd have changed his way of working. For one, he often used his remote access for preventative maintenance. It was the kind of thing the client didn't ask him to do. On the bill line items it would show up as "purged log files" or "optimized drives," but only when the work was reactive and responsive to a problem did the client feel it was "authorized." That is, although they would not put it in these words, exactly, they felt he was doing make-work and then billing for it.
A better way of handling it might have been to include such maintenance as part of a standard schedule, or better, to do it when called in on some other matter, preferably one that was mundane. When you say, "I went ahead and updated the virus definitions while I took care of that other problem; you should be all set for the next month" it sounds like a bonus. Added value, as the buzzwords have it. Like so many other things, it's a matter of presentation.
Another way he might have changed his way of working would be to send informative email updates to all relevant people every time he did something remotely. Not, "You should be all better now," or worse, an email with only the word "FIXED" in it, but, "I re-enabled your account as requested, disabled the automatic password expiration, and raised the number of allowed login attempts to six from three. Let me know if you have any other problems."
A few items I recommend having:
— It's better if you have your own laptop to take with you. That's suddenly raised the bar, hasn't it? But you don't have to have one to start. It just helps. Odds are you're going to keep a stock of updaters and installers on there, and if the client's computer is down, it's nice to be able to connect to the Internet on your own to do research. One with a built-in CD-ROM burner is useful, too, so you can do on-the-fly burning when you're about to wipe a drive, or when you've recovered files, or when you need to create a custom boot CD.
— A decent selection of boot and repair compact discs and floppy disks is absolutely necessary, whether or not you have a laptop. System install discs couldn't hurt either, but it's hard to know exactly what you'll need (particularly since many clients not only don't know what operating system they run, but can't figure it out even if you tell them how to find out).
— A basic tool kit with strong screwdrivers. You don't want to strip screw heads, so make sure the ridges are sharp. Tiny screwdrivers are also essential, as are hex or Torx wrenches.
— A mini-switch or mini-hub and at least two Ethernet cables. This allows you to split off of any Ethernet connection you can get ahold of without depriving the primary jack-user of service, and it allows for easy machine-to-machine data transfers when no faster option is available.
In closing I should point out that these articles have not addressed how to manage your taxes, whether you should incorporate, or how to deal with health and liability insurance. I do not have expertise in those areas. You should seek a professional tax and financial advisor, preferably one who specializes in freelancers, and who knows the struggles of young businesses. These are not issues which should be left to chance.
I also want to reiterate what should be clear by now: this is not a path strewn with roses. Yet, the price of entry is low, and in certain ways, you can feel like a rock star: everyone will want a piece of you, but they will also laud you. You can become known as the person who does a certain thing, and does it well.
5 August 2003 [an error occurred while processing this directive]