The tagline on the home page of the Toastmasters International website reads, “Looking to improve your speaking and leadership skills? Ignite your career? Win that job interview?”
This group is all about public speaking. Join, and you’ll be subjected to some seriously bad speeches from other members. In turn, they’ll sit though your stuttering and awkward pauses. Except you’ll find that after a while you don’t stutter and you pause less, and less awkwardly, almost every time you get up in front of the group.
Think of a writers’ group where you read and critique each other’s work, except for talkers.
They mention job interviews. Toastmasters will help you get over the nervousness that causes you to freeze when a prospective employer asks you questions.
Plus, as I’ve mentioned before in Climbing the It Ladder, presenting at industry conferences is a great way to establish yourself as an expert in your field.
Rotary International is a give-back group that is based on community do-gooding. Even if you can’t afford to donate as much cash to worthy causes as Bill Gates does, you can afford to give a little time. This will make you feel good, and it will introduce you to other good-hearted business people in your community.
Wait. Did I just say you’d meet other good-hearted business people? As in, the kind of people you need to know if you go into business for yourself? The kind of people who might hear about an IT job opening at a local business that hasn’t been listed on the big Internet job boards? The kind of people who might need an IT consultant with your skills — but don’t know one?
Ah, yes. Rotary is a wonderful way to do well by doing good. It may be a little “hale fellow well met” older WASP-ish for some, but even if you don’t fit that mold yourself, give Rotary a try. You might fit in better than you expect.
There are many other service clubs and groups out there worth joining. A lot depends on where you live. Toastmasters is great almost everywhere (and is almost everywhere), so it’s definitely worth a look. Rotary is one of many service clubs, and since your time is undoubtedly limited, you’ll only want to join one, so check out a bunch of them and select carefully — balancing, of course, how you can contribute to their mission against how much good they can do for you in finding useful business contacts.]]>
Aside from risk, military service demands conformity. You wear clothes chosen by others. Your hairstyle and grooming choices are limited. If, one morning, you don’t feel like getting up at 5 a.m. and running five miles before your workday starts, too bad. You will make formation. And you will exercise by the numbers two… three… four… and yes, you will roll the socks in your locker or drawer exactly the way you are told or you will do extra pushups or run laps or do something else you’d rather not do.
And guns. You will shoot a rifle and probably a handgun and, at least in the Army and Marines, you will both throw hand grenades and learn how to shoot them with a grenade launcher. If you have a strong aversion to firearms or are morally opposed to war, you do not belong in the military.
In return for all these annoyances, though, you will go to school without paying a dime in tuition, and if you choose your school wisely (my Army experience is too far out of date for me to give useful advice on this choice) you will learn a lot more, a lot faster, than you would in a civilian junior college or the first two years of a four-year college.
Looking for a civilian job as a veteran gives you several advantages over people who have no military experience. Chief among them is that an employer can see, just because you have an honorable discharge, that you can be trusted to show up on time, dress appropriately, and take orders without a lot of fuss — and if you manage to make E-5 (Sergeant in the Army) they have solid proof that you can lead people, too.
Other Veterans’ benefits include house-buying help (low/no down financing) and V.A. medical, which may not sound like a big deal when you’re 28 but is — trust me on this — a very big deal when you’re 58 and self-employed.
The military isn’t for everyone. But if you are (or can become) physically fit enough to handle it, you can get a pretty decent education, all the way through to a PhD or MD if you want to stay in long enough.
Again, something I’m not current on, but “back in the day” the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Ft. Devens (USAISD) was an accredited college, which meant the credits I earned there were instantly transferrable to just about any college or university. Ft. Devens is no more, but the Army now has a similar school at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, and there are other Army schools scattered here and there.
All in all, serving your country while you learn and gain college credits is not a bad deal. I’m glad I did it, even though when I did the military was not held in nearly as high regard as it is now.
And the V.A. medical? I’m extremely glad I have it today. Without V.A. health care, I don’t think I’d be able to maintain my freelance independence — and that means a lot to me.]]>
Jeff Trotman, President of Westglenn Software:
I’d say the most important thing is not to make the people you are dealing with feel stupid because…
Using jargon instead of English is another variant of this. If you can’t make “non-geeks” understand what you’re talking about, you’re not going to advance very far.
Bruce Campbell, VP Marketing, Clare Computer Solutions:
When someone calls for help with IT, chances are they’ve already tried a bunch of stuff which either didn’t work or maybe even made things worse. So they call for help in a state of high anxiety and/or embarrassment. Lower-level users tend to worry they’ll get in trouble for what they’ve tried, and higher-level users are frustrated that their usual regal authority has no effect on recalcitrant computers.
The first few seconds of the call are crucial. Techs that have the ability to soothe as they ask for help will do well, and techs that (purposefully or accidentally) give off a “What did you do now?” vibe will always have trouble. Even if both techs can solve the problem, the tech who soothed the client will have a grateful client, while the haughty one will have a client who is still angry even AFTER the issue is resolved. In fact, that client will probably transfer the earlier anger over the IT issue into anger over being humiliated by the tech.
I have taken classes over the years in “dealing with difficult people,” and they espoused a form of “verbal jujitsu,” where the first moments of the interaction with the client are spent creating empathy. Instead of getting defensive (“What did you do to break it?” “There’s no way our products would do this”), they say things like “Wow, that sounds really frustrating – let’s see what we can do!” and quickly, an adversarial relationship becomes a partnership with the exact same goals.
Russell Henry, independent IT consultant, Washington D.C.:
A psychologist friend of mine once said, “Sociology, Psychology, and the other ‘people sciences’ are far harder than physics, math, and the other so-called ‘hard sciences’ because humans are so incredibly complex.”
Time spent learning how to get along with coworkers or clients can be just valuable as the same amount of time put into improving your technical skills. In fact, it may even prove to be more valuable in the long run.]]>
Frank, who is a stalwart member of his local Linux User Group, recommends Linux-based solutions to his clients whenever they’re practical.
But even though he prefers Linux in most cases, he knows that it isn’t the perfect answer to all IT problems, and that he needs to work with customers’ likes and needs rather than his own. In fact, he mentions Windows ahead of Unix and Linux on his small business services page.
Frank gets work through a mix of referrals, social networking, and people who see his blog. Plus, while he has enough work to live fairly well, he’s about to try a direct mail campaign targeting local businesses.
And yes, he does install Linux on PCs for plenty of home and small business users. He says many of his neighbors are “elderly people who only make light use of their computers, mostly Web and email,” and that once he puts Linux on their PCs, “you never hear from them again. Everything just works. It’s like the Maytag repairman.”
Frank’s fax server
One of Frank’s employers had three fax machines in rotation, with one always out for repair. “They sucked up toner,” he says, “and used tons of paper. I put in a fax server – all it did was receive – basically two US Robotics modems and a hard drive on a simple motherboard, HylaFAX software, and a heavy-duty printer. And I wrote a little script to tell someone when the printer was out of paper.”
Yes, Frank knows it’s now 2011 and fax started to go away in the 1980s, and has since been replaced by email. Except it hasn’t really been replaced by email, especially in the medical business; many doctors, medical labs, and pharmacies still send and receive hundreds of faxes every day.
There’s an article on Frank’s website titled, Does Your Office Need A Fax Server? For an awful lot of small business people, the answer is “yes.” And Frank obliges them — with a fax server controlled through a super-simple GUI that anyone can learn to use in a few minutes.
Learning all the time
Frank says he is still trying to find his niche, and that sales is still hard for him because he’s spent “most of my life in management, not sales.” He doesn’t consider himself good at writing contracts, and often has trouble pricing his services. “I don’t even know what others in the business charge,” he says.
One niche he’s fallen into is health care, a business segment with a strong and growing need for IT services.
My March 15 IT Ladder post was all about health care IT, which is a wide-open, booming field — not just for Joanne Rohde, my interview subject on March 15, and Frank Sfalanga, but possibly for you, too.
Joanne noted that this year, doctors are investigating new software and hardware for their offices, and that next year is when they’ll probably start buying big-time.
When I told Frank what Joanne had said about doctors, he laughed. “Ah, yes. Doctors. Some of the ones who need IT help the most don’t even know how bad they need IT help.”
Doctors, lawyers, small manufacturers…. even smaller towns and cities like Ft. Myers, where Frank lives, have enough professional practices and businesses using enough computers (and having enough computer and network problems) to keep more than a few independent IT consultants busy.
One thing that drove Frank into starting his own business, he says, is that he’s 45 year old, “and used to a salary high enough that a company can hire two 25-year-olds for what I’d want.”
There’s also a financial safety factor in working for yourself. If you have a full-time job, and they fire you or lay you off, your income stops and you are in trouble. If you work freelance or as a consultant for six or eight or 20 clients, and one or two of them suddenly decide they don’t need your services, you may have to do a little belt-tightening, but it’s not going to ruin your life.]]>