Why you need to be a computer expert • 23 October 2011 • The SnowBlog

Why you need to be a computer expert

I'm not unsympathetic to those who struggle with computers and software and the web, but my question to you is this: what are you going to do about it? There's very little in the world of publishing that doesn't directly involve computers - and all of it indirectly does. There's a bit of decision-making that might be done without a computer present but that's about it. Even the arty stuff - like cover design or layouts or writing the books themselves - is done using software. 'Books' are really data files until they reach the printers. E-books are data from start to finish: a Word file meets a Photoshop cover design, becomes an InDesign file, maybe turns into a PDF or an EPUB and then maybe ends up as a Mobi file. Your statutory and management accounts are data files, manipulated using software. Most of your correspondence is e-mail. Your marketing involves lots of e-mail or web-sites or sending off print-ready data files. And increasingly the world only finds out about your books because ONIX files get sent out to all the organisations who need to know. If you can't perform some of those functions because you don't know your way round the right piece of software, you're holding your company back. And what about looking after all those computers and the files they contain? If your hard drive fails, have you got backups? Can you set up a replacement computer with all the software and files you need to keep working? You can pay someone else to do some of these things for you - even most of them. But the time is approaching when you might find yourself paying someone else to do everything for you. And that would be bad, right? I used to see men in their late fifties on the train in the morning, sitting in the first class compartment, using a fountain pen to write replies to e-mails that their secretaries had printed out for them. Those secretaries would presumably type up the responses too. Perhaps a few of those guys just found the feel of a gold nib gliding across paper preferable to a keyboard - and the cost of a secretary was peanuts to them. But most of those men (it appears that most older bosses are still men) I'm pretty sure couldn't type and couldn't work their e-mail programs. Or even if they could, they didn't care to. My dad was like that: computers were for 'computer people'. Which meant that even sending e-mails was something you delegated to a technical person. He wrote large cheques so the IT people could upgrade their systems but he did his best not to actually use any of those systems. I'm sure you're not in that category (few people still are) and you'd agree it's ridiculous to write out e-mail replies in longhand and then pay someone else to type them up. An able-bodied employee who claims they can't work their e-mail program, even after suitable training, would be fired not humoured these days. But how sure are you that you're not just the next iteration of the fountain-pen-e-mail-writer? Do you sometimes find yourself typing the exact same repetitive set of keystrokes over and over again, and then notice someone a bit more tech-savvy staring at you in disbelief? I've written out a bunch of questions here so you can just get a feel for what you know and don't know. I'd expect a comfortably-tech-savvy person to know the answers to about two-thirds of them. You might have to take my word for it that most of them aren't particularly advanced. (And I suppose if enough people are interested I might write answers to the questions just because it's a bit unfair to ask them otherwise - but I won't do that unless there's a fair bit of interest 'cos it would be a load of work to do well): * You need to send some files overseas and they're too big to e-mail. Could you FTP them? Do you know what that means and would you know what software to use and roughly how to go about it? * And could you say why FTP might not be very secure? Similarly, do you know what HTTP and HTTPS are and what the difference is? * If you needed to rename a couple of hundred files to add today's date to their filenames would you be able to write a macro or a script or a little program to do it? Or would you just have to do it by hand or ask someone else? * If you needed to quickly change some text on a webpage, do you think you'd know enough about a typical webserver to find the right file and enough about HTML to add the text without spoiling the page? Could you also dip into the CSS file and make that text green instead of red? What is CSS? * Could you add a vignette to a Photoshop file? Or even just resize a photo? Would you know the pros and cons of GIFs, JPEGs, TIFFs and PNGs and which might be appropriate to send to a printer? * Do you know what RGB and CMYK are? Again, which one might you use when you're sending something to a printer? * If you want to print out an A1 sized poster would you rather start with a small bitmapped image or a small vector graphic? Why? * Could you swap out a broken hard drive from your computer, reinstall the operating system and restore all your files from a backup? Do you have a backup? * When setting up e-mail on your new smartphone do you have any idea what POP3, IMAP and SMTP are for? Any idea what bearing SSL might have on the process? * Could you encrypt an e-mail if you needed to? Do you have any idea why public key encryption might not just keep the contents of an e-mail secure but also help you be sure who it's from? * When trying to get your new laptop to connect to the internet do you have any idea what an IP address is, or a DNS server, or DHCP or subnet masks? * Do you know what a firewall actually does and why you might want one? Have you got one? * What's a NAS? Might you need one? Should it contain a RAID array? What is RAID? * Can you move around a Windows or a Mac or a Unix file system just using a command line? Could you find and rename a file that way? So how did you do? Bear in mind I'm not asking you create an FTP client or design an image format; I'm only asking whether you can use existing ones, so clearly we're not at the advanced end of the spectrum here. I think it's safe to say that a lot of this world runs on software, hardware and networking. Getting good at using it is an investment in your future, not just at work but in the rest of your life too. The pace of change is not going to slow down and you're going to feel marginalised, powerless and foolish if you let it all get away from you. So any time you come across one of these techie challenges, make sure you come away knowing the answers. The easy part is that thanks to these very same technologies, the answers are never more than a quick Google search away.


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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