Mike Gunderloy, editor of developer central asks Garry a number of questions that should be of interest to anyone trying to make it as an independant IT consultant.
Published in the 1990's "Still mostly applies in 2012 thanks to the resiliance of MS Access" Garry
•So OK, what IS your strategy for enjoying life on the beach as a developer?
I confess, I live and work 5 minutes walk from a beach where a snorkel will allow me to see lots of fish, the occasional blue groper (nearly a yard long), the odd stingray and not get too cold even in the middle of winter. This is not something that every developer in the world gets to do so my business plan is to ensure that I remain my own boss so that I can have an occasional swim (and don’t have to iron a shirt too often).
The strategy sort of goes like this “you must work a lot harder when you haven’t got paying work than when have” or another way of putting it “there is no such thing as a successful part time consultant”.
If you read through the rest of my answers to Mikes questions, you will gain an insight as to how l have survived 8 years is metropolitan Sydney without pulling out the ironing board too often.
•What payback do you see from publishing a newsletter?
Five years ago I was sitting around wondering how I could drum up some new business when I decided to write a newsletter and send it to 200 or so email addresses that I had in my database. As I really was a technology person, I decided that what I did and discovered whilst working would be my content. As this newsletter first went out in the days before spam, I was lucky enough that 50 people opted into the list. More important than that, one of my clients who had been quiet for a while asked me to come in and guess what the email paid for itself, I had some work.
Since then, I have continued to prepare a newsletter every month or so that now goes out to 4000 programmers and other hardy soles. Surprisingly the emails are still a useful tool for generating custom programming work even from my less technical savy clients. Given that I am the worlds worst tele-phone-marketer, the newsletter has proved to be a marketing strategy that puts my name back into the consciousness of people who pay for programming.
The second reason that I write my newsletter is that it actually sells my software and it seems to improve the Amazon rankings of my Access book. Unfortunately it doesn’t sell thousands of dollars worth but it does generate a $100 or $200 dollars in sales and given that I try to write the newsletter when I haven’t got any work on, this is $100 more than I would have made if I hadn’t written the newsletter.
Reason three is probably one that you wouldn’t pick until you had been writing a newsletter for a while. As soon as I send out a newsletter, I setup a new one (its no more than a Word document) and I start adding content to the newsletter about what I learn as I work. Included in this content is a list of Good Reading web pages that are actually like a list of favourites. If I stumble across a web page of greater value, then I might write more on the topic. This list actually then becomes my knowledge base and I generally find that I can remember that important web page by refer back to the newsletter chronologically. As I also post this newsletter to my web site, I now can use Google to search my web site to find those little gems that I wrote up in the newsletter many issues ago. I also find that by using this approach that I actually save time because I don’t spend the half hour reading that important article that I discovered on the web. Instead I just save the chronological/searchable “bookmark” in my newsletter for a later date.
•Why do you keep working with Access?
The reason that I keep working with Access is that the clients keep coming back for more and more clients keep turning up. Maybe it is the fact that I am known as an Access guru but I hardly ever get asked to do other things so why not stick to a good thing.
But what is special about the clients that make them want Access development in the first place? In my experience, my skills are required because prospective clients have either built a bit of the system in Access or they have had a dabble in Access and think that it would be the logical improvement for managing their hellishly complex Excel spreadsheet monster. My most important clients are generally not IT department managers, just people in reasonably big companies that need to have a system that will happily run 2-5 users and do a lot of really tricky things little calculations just like their spreadsheets. Because I know the workings of Access, I generally seem to be able to come up with a simple systems that actually meets a business need. Return work and referals ensue.
•What's the first computer you ever worked with?
I actually entered computing during a Masters Degree in Land Surveying. I undertook this work with a Vax 730 using some early 3D visualizations software called Movie BYU. When I landed my first job (with a mining company), we owned a PDP 11 that ran Fortran. An interesting twist in this mix was this massive Huston plotter that weighed a tonne and used to take 4 hours to draw a fairly modest map. Looking back on those good old days, every piece of technical software that we wrote seemed to read a text file, do a few things and then spit out another text file. We would then write a new program to process the second file and produce another text report or text plot file and maybe even another text file. When we made the switch to Informix 4GL running on PC’s, our life improved dramatically compared to the “good old days”.
•Is there still room for a one-man shop to profitably develop and sell products instead of services?
I believe that if you intend going out on your own as a software developer that you must have a project. My project was developing software and an associated web site but your project could well be to write good computer articles or contribute heavily to a popular programmers web site.
When I started my company off 8 years ago, I had just just one client. I was able to bill about $8,000 for work in the first 6 months and luckily my wife had a real job because we weren’t going anywhere fast. In the lull (after I spent a day ringing everyone I knew), I devoted an enormous amount of time to writing a data mining application in Access. This then managed to get some publicity in the Smart Access magazine, the software got a little bit of boost and I made some sales. During the development process I was forced to learn all sorts of things about the internals of Access and I emerged from that with a good understanding of the product. If I had spent the 6 months just experimenting and reading a book or two, I would never have had the skills to adapt Access to a client requirements.
Fortunately for the bank balance, an Aussie IT manager in a big trucking company found out about the data mining program and asked me to come in and demonstrate it. After the demonstration, they asked me to come in and customise the data mining software so that they could graph their data. I went to the site and spent 6 weeks writing custom reports and graph in Access and the data mining software sat “unused” on my laptop. What the software did for me in this instance was to provide a good reason to have a good long chat with the customer and subsequently my first meaningful job. From that job, other people started to hear about my work and my business was finally of and racing (slowly). I have since expanded my project approach to three other products and a detailed web site. I find that development of those products is not only good for sales but it makes me and my offsider(s) more productive. Oh I could go on but the reality is that I now have work coming in from a good variety of clients and I feel confident that I can head down to the beach without the burden of worrying about the next mortgage payment.