How to pick out a good computer technician.

Thanks to Y2K and the need for automation to cut costs, almost all of you have found the need for a good computer company to support your computing needs.

Unfortunately, now that you have the need, you have the problem of finding a decent company to support you. What puts you all in an even more desperate need is that I cannot support you all - sorry. This column will dig into the traps to be wary of when looking for computer support for your business, and the clues to look for when dealing with a good computing company.

First, here are the traps.

Trap I - Software Piracy

If you read nothing else in this column, read this part. Software piracy is very common, and some of the worst offenders are your local computer companies. How can you tell if you are the victim of a pirate? The answer is very simple: When you get the invoice, ask to see every piece of software you have purchased.

Here is the common law of software: For every software program installed on a computer, there should be an appropriate software package and license. For large corporations, they will buy a software program and 50 licenses, which enables the program to be legally installed 51 times.

Computer resellers who engage in piracy may cover up their crime through "leasing" the software to you when you purchase the computer (they retain ownership), or by simply never giving it to you. Why is this an issue? It simply boils down to integrity. When a computer company sells you a pirated software program, they are lying to and stealing from you, their vendor, and the software manufacturer. Do you really want to do business with a liar and thief?

Now, if that isn't bad enough, here is where the rubber meets the road for you: If you are caught using pirated software, you are subject to both civil and criminal law. Civil law can direct you to stop using the illegal programs and pay up to a $100,000 fine for each illegal copy of software.

On the criminal side, the government can seek to prosecute you for copyright infringement. If you are found guilty, you may be fined up to $250,000, given up to five years in jail, or both. If that isn't bad enough, software companies will make an example out of you by advertising the bust in every way they can.

Software piracy cost U.S. businesses $4.5 million in fines and legal fees in 1998, with estimates showing, worldwide, more than 38 percent of all software in use is illegally copied. (For more information about software piracy, visit the Business Software Alliance at

Trap II - The Buddy

I am sorry if this part may offend some of you, but the reality is that I do a heck of a lot of clean-up jobs after a friend or someone at work who "knows a lot" about computers has botched things up. I cannot count the number of times I have heard gripes, jokes and moans about the do-it-yourselfer who takes on plumbing part time. Computers are the same way - when it comes to your business system, don't let a DIYer tinker with your systems. Pay the computer professional, who does this full time, to take care of you.

Trap III - Lack Of Experience

Let me briefly digress into an ongoing debate in the computer field - certification vs. experience. I am sure you know of a person who is incredibly book smart when it comes to plumbing, but you wouldn't trust him to measure and cut a pipe. Unfortunately the computing industry is ripe with people I wouldn't trust to touch a computer. While these people may have lots of letters after their names because of the certifications they hold, the question is what experience do they have?

Another issue that is racking the computing industry is the lack of qualified people. Local, growing companies cannot afford to hire qualified technicians with both the knowledge and experience, because they can't match the salaries being offered by the big companies in the industry. This has forced them to hire a lot of part-time, young employees.

I do admire this aspect about the plumbing industry and bemoan it in ours - these young employees with little experience are not supervised or apprenticed, while yours are.

When dealing with a computer company, do not hesitate to ask how long it has been in business, and how long it has been using computers. For the record: Three years, and since 1982 when I bought my first computer - a Radio Shack Color Computer!

Enough traps for now. Let's look at some of the clues for finding a good computer company.

Clue I - Lack Of Nerdese

"Nerdese" is the language my wife hears when the technicians on our staff and I get together and start talking about the seven layers of TCP/IP and how that could be affecting the message transfer agent. A good company will emphasize that its technicians use nontechnical language to explain procedures to clients. Some technicians will drop into Nerdese to cover up a lack of knowledge.

If you hang around me long enough, you will find I use a lot of analogies to explain things to my clients. I have gotten to this point by being observant of the glaze-over effect Nerdese has on clients. When their eyes turn glassy and their mouths drop, I know it is time to try another tactic and re-explain the issue.

The bottom line, if you are getting an earful of Nerdese, ask the technician to re-explain - this time in English.

Clue II - Service

I am not sure what more I can say here. Like the plumbing industry, the computer industry is really about reselling services with parts along for the ride. A computer company that excels in giving good service will thrive and face the normal growth issues that any plumbing company would also face.

The hard part is that if you want good service, then sometimes you have to pay for it. Here is an example:

I work with a local Internet service provider that has an exceptional service attitude toward its clients. It is the most expensive local provider in the area, but I can page someone 24 hours a day if I am having a problem.

Clue III - Reputation

This naturally follows service. Computer companies that are avoiding the traps and excelling in the clues above will develop a good reputation because their clients are satisfied. If you are not sure of a local company, ask for references.

How do you find these companies? Ask around. Call your accounting firm, local chamber of commerce, or ask your business clients whom they use. You will find an interesting outlay of the local computing companies based on their reputation and how satisfied their clients are.

My final suggestion is to use your Yellow Pages as a last resort when it comes to finding a computer company to support you. Our ad is for name recognition only as we look to grow our business by word-of-mouth sales.

Next month we'll get into the great computing debate É Macintoshes vs. PCs - which is right for your business.