What to do When Your Boss is an IT Scrooge

by Steve Windhaus

Broadband? Bah humbug! This month our 'Small Business Advisor' helps a frustrated office manager connect with 21st Century computer technologies. Learn how to get you boss to loosen the ties that bind employee productivity in a small office.

I'm an Office Manager with a small direct-to-consumer company in the New York area. We've got about 20 employees and we are in the Dark Ages when it comes to IT. Currently, we have five computers with individual dial-up accounts on each, and old operating systems — Windows 98/ME. None of the computers are networked, our printers are outdated and we don't have voicemail.

The guys who pay our salaries are not into technology. Our best efforts to convince them that we need to join the 21st Century have been written off as unnecessary and expensive, not to mention the security concerns involved.

I'm hoping to change this. However, with no IT person on staff, to say that this is a challenge is slightly understated. And while I'm a reasonably intelligent person, some of these things are admittedly beyond my understanding.

The high-speed options ¡ DSL and Cable modem — certainly sound way more appealing than our current condition, but from what these providers have told me, setup and installation only goes so far, and we'd be left to our own devices when it comes to security, networking and additional hardware — if needed.

So what's a small business to do? Where do we turn for how-to information? Do we hire an IT consultant? Do we even need to? If so, how do find a trustworthy and knowledgeable one who understands our business and what we are trying to accomplish? Any help is greatly appreciated.

You have all my sympathies. I remember when pagers were all the rage with teenagers five years ago. Today you can walk around any neighborhood and every kid is packing a cell phone where I used to holster my Roy Rogers six-shooters. As a parent to two teenage daughters, I still have trouble adjusting, even though my office is equipped with software and hardware once restricted to major corporate settings.

Let's consider your challenges. The owners think IT is the capitalization of a pronoun. Six computers compete to get online, unless you have six individual lines for each computer. Either way, this is a waste of time and money. You maintain an operating system that will be supported until June 2006. And you have DSL and broadband sales reps apparently demonstrating ineptitude. That's lots of IT trouble, but there are solutions.

The owners apparently could care less if the operating systems are Windows, Linux or Mac. For all they know Mac is short for Big Mac, and Linux is a misspelling for Linus the piano player from the Snoopy comic strips. If the company generates a profit their attitude is likely "why fix it if it ain't broken?" But what if they could reduce costs, increase sales orders, employee productivity and make more money? This is the key to solving your first problem, the owners' indifference.

However, we need to deal with you, first. You indicate there is no in-house IT staff. Wrong. You are the IT staff person. As office manager, I have no doubt it is your responsibility to insure the computers, telephone systems, fax machines, vending machines and electric pencil sharpeners are always operating as needed. Forget the vending machines and pencil sharpeners. I only wanted to bring a smile to your face. However, as office manager, IT is your responsibility.

Remember to put 'Question for the Small Business Advisor' in the subject line of your e-mailYou Can Do This
I have installed, tested and implemented hundreds of software applications and peripherals over the years. I didn't have any IT person standing over my shoulder. There are no IT diplomas on my wall. I "bit the bullet," overcame the fears inherent of traversing the twilight zone, and learned the procedure of Ctrl-Alt-Del to bail out of a blue-screen jam. I didn't like reading those mundane user's manuals written by IT folks who seemed completely unattached to my world and my language. Someone must have gotten to them, nowadays many user manuals are much more user-friendly.

OK, let's go to the meat and potatoes of your technical problems.

Five computers or five separate dial-up accounts potentially translates to unnecessary expenses. Assuming there is a monthly fee of $25 per account that translates to $125 a month and $1,500 a year just to get online. Broadband and DSL are the ideal options for change and saving money in the long term.

In this we will focus on DSL. In most regions of the U.S. DSL access represents the more economical option to cable modem access when incorporating a network of computer workstations. A recent study released by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) indicates the average, monthly unit costs for dial-up, DSL, cable and T-1 Internet access per month are $23.44, $55.40, $38.34 and $419.71 respectively.

However, according to my online research, when incorporating the costs of a workstation network, the unit costs for DSL are dramatically reduced when using a single phone line. For example, with three workstations, I paid approximately $90 for cable and now pay $55 for DSL. Though some will likely disagree with me, I find more stability in speed and less downtime with DSL. Another factor influencing cost comparisons is local competition and promotions among the competition.

For the benefit of other readers, many of whom I suspect are still using dial-up modems, DSL is a filtering process that separates telephone line frequencies to allow for simultaneous voice and data communication. You can talk on the phone and still go online at the same time. The easiest way, in my opinion, to access DSL for multiple computers is to incorporate an external modem connected to a NIC (define) installed inside one (main) computer. The modem is then connected to a dual filter in your phone outlet. This dual filter allows you to connect the telephone and computer to the same outlet. The NIC card is as easy to install as a modem card. If you don't have the confidence to install the NIC card then have a computer technician come to the office and do it for you.

Next, connect a DSL filter to the phone line outlets for the other computers. Make sure the phone lines are for the same telephone number as your main computer. Otherwise, you will pay the standard rate for each telephone number accessing the Internet, or your phone company will have to come out and realign the phone jacks to insure the same phone line is accessible to all the computers.

The software that comes with your modem and the filters allow for easy installation and synchronization between the main and other computers. Suddenly, you have simultaneous DSL Internet access for all computers. Phone lines are freed up to allow telephone communications and Internet access simultaneously at all times. If the owners cannot envision the time and money saved from this setup then nothing will work.

If you still feel uncertain about your ability to install some of the hardware and software, the one-time cost of a computer technician can ease those fears.

Go to Page 2: Feel Secure About Your Decision >

Feel Secure About Your Decision
As for security issues, I admit to being somewhat bewildered. I don't know the DSL providers you contacted, but most include a firewall application in their packages. Honestly, any DSL provider worthy of consideration has a firewall application included in the basic package. You are able to access the firewall settings online for all computers on the network. It is not a complicated process. Besides, I suspect you may have a firewall installed at this time. If not, here are some of your options:

  • ZoneAlarm: Offers a free download you can install on all the computers. It may be the only reliable, free download available at this time.
  • Norton: One of the mainstays for securing Windows operating systems. They even offer a five-license package that could cut your software costs.
  • McAfee: Considered by many to be equal to or better than Norton, offers a 10-license package that may prove financially competitive to using Norton.

Competition for DSL service is very intense. You are certain to find a DSL provider that will satisfy your budget. I conducted a search, on the beta site of Google's new local search engine for DSL service providers in a 15-mile radius of downtown New York and secured 93 listings.

Any initial investment in modems and other equipment and monthly fees for DSL service will likely not exceed the company's present annual online budget, assuming you get competitive bids.

Assuming the boss lets you go with DSL, I suspect there may be many immediate and noticeable differences:

  • Much quicker online access

  • Simultaneous access by all computers

  • Simultaneous phone conversations and online access

  • Increased productivity

  • Improved employee morale

  • Increased volume of online communication with customers, if it doesn't already exist

You do have some work ahead of you, but I really don't doubt your ability. In the first place, I am confident you are a competent manager. I also believe you fail to give yourself due credit for the ability to deal with computer hardware and software issues. However, be careful with sales people. Remember, you are the customer in this case. You should demand that each sales representative does the very best to be the one who wins the sale. It is your company's money. If a DSL provider really wants your business it will "shake a leg" to meet your needs.

One last item ... when you succeed in becoming a hero with the bosses, then you may want to request an upgrade from Windows 98 and ME. Of course, Windows XP is the rage, and I have noticed the retail price on the personal and professional editions has dropped since they were introduced. If you don't want all the "bells and whistles," Windows 2000 Pro is still available and provides a very stable platform.

I wish you the best, and do let me know the good news when DSL is installed in your place of work.

Additional Resources
A Survey of Small Businesses' Telecommunications Use & Spending. Written by Stephen B. Pociask, TeleNomic Research, for the SBA Office of Advocacy, March 2004. [PDF]

For a good perspective on what others think about DSL and cable modem high-speed access check the feedback on the forums at BroadbandReports.com.

In case you have trouble understanding some of this terminology go to Webopedia. It is an invaluable online dictionary of tech terminology, which is also part of internet.com's Small Business Channel.

Steve Windhaus is principal of Windhaus Associates, a business plan consulting firm serving small, existing and startup ventures throughout the United States and overseas. His clients range from technology-based firms in software development, e-commerce and telecommunications to retailers of ATV's and watercraft and a variety of service firms. Steve is a published author who also conducts training in business plan development and participates as a judge in business plan competitions. Steve can relate to small biz environments relying on computer technology. His skills and use of many related technologies are all self-taught. If you have a question your would like to see Steve address in a future article, send it to us today.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Apr 1st 2004
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