Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 47 / APRIL 1984 / PAGE 34

How COMPUTE! Readers Use Personal Computers In Their Businesses

Bernie Ghiselin

Home computers have their place in business, too. In our latest reader survey, subscribers tell how they use their computers to save lives, increase personal productivity on the job, help with farm chores, and more.

Eight miles off the coast of Texas a fire breaks out on an oil rig. By 2:30 a.m. workers have lost control and begin piling into standby boats. Some are burned. Others have suffered fractures and need to be lifted to a hospital.

When the call comes into Rockport, near Corpus Christi, Jerry Evans goes through a well-practiced routine. He checks for a weather briefing. Checks a map of the gulf. Calls a doctor. Files a flight plan with the FCC. He's ready to scramble.

But just before he runs out the door, he punches a few keys on his Commodore 64. Between Grand Island, Louisiana, and Corpus Christi there might be 1000 oil or gas platforms. A sequential file in his disk drive gives him the exact distance and time to any pickup point.

Saving Precious Time

As he fires up the helicopter, he also switches the LORAN (Long Distance Radio Navigation), which gives him time and destination coordinates. But Evans doesn't have to wait for the LORAN. He's already steering the course. Long hours programming his own computer have paid off. He has shaved a few precious minutes off an emergency flight. And 75 percent of Evans' missions are medical emergencies.

"My normal reaction time is 20 minutes or less," he said. "If I already know the coordinates, then I can tell instantly if the LORAN is working."

Now, Professional Helicopters, Inc. doesn't require its pilots to be programmers and Evans doesn't have to bring his own computer to work. It gives him a professional edge. "Maybe I'm looking for a little bit shorter shortcut. I pride myself on being a professional and being prepared," he said from his home in San Antonio.

This is not to suggest the business uses of a home computer are always as dramatic as helicopter rescue flights at sea in the dark of night. But telephone interviews with several dozen people suggest that all kinds of COMPUTE! subscribers are finding very creative business uses for their home computers. There are salesmen and accountants, engineers and professors, sergeants, seamen, and comic book collectors, all of whom have other uses for a computer besides Star Raiders or teaching Johnny how to spell.

Meat Packing And Hairdressing

In Norman, Oklahoma, Richard Adkins, a student at Oklahoma State University Technical Institute, has written business software for a meat packing firm. His wife, Tina, works full time as a hairdresser and uses a data base management program on their VIC-20 to list clients, services, and various mixtures for permanents. "She's virtually the breadwinner right now," said Adkins.

In Garden City, New York, a publishing company executive bought a computer for his children, but also wrote a personnel program to keep track of his staff, their performance, salary history, and attendance. A systems analyst in Mesa, Arizona, bought a home computer just out of curiosity. But his wife also uses it to keep track of expenses in her sideline businesses—distributing cosmetics and selling flower arrangements. And in Brooklyn, New York, Jim McQuade, an accountant in private practice who's been hacking with computers for 20 years, is very up-to-date. On his home computer the various packages—such as accounts payable and accounts receivable—are all integrated; that is, "they all feed into the general ledger without having to go through manual entries."

Taking The Computer To Work

In several respects, though, Evans is typical of the home computer user who works for a large company, perhaps the military, that cannot customize programs for each individual or manager. This kind of user takes pride in his work, sees a better way to do things or make money, and enjoys programming, regardless of previous experience.

Like Evans, David Loomis takes his computer to work. A master sergeant with 22 years in the Air Force, Loomis can't wait for the mainframe at Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire, to do his work. Among other things, Loomis must keep track of retraining in nuclear safety for 80 to 100 airmen each year. "It's not popular training. It's like flu shots," he said from his home in Somersworth. "They're supposed to help you. But that doesn't mean you have to like it."

Decentralizing The Paperwork

As it happens, the Air Force has no system to keep Loomis abreast of who has undergone which stage of training. "Everything used to be done by a central computer some place on the base. More and more they're realizing this is not the most modern way of doing things," he added. "But the Air Force does not want to decentralize too much."

So Loomis trots out his own computer and does it himself. "The work I do is cut out for my use and comes on a whistle," he said. "Otherwise, it would take me a couple of months to find out where someone is and when they would be available for retraining."

A Machine For Repetitious Work

Since the Air Force is obviously not paying Loomis for this work, why does he agonize? "I spent a year at a remote island in the Aleutians doing punch cards to put into a busy file system." He was listing test equipment on 5×8 cards. "About 98 percent of the work I did on that program could have been done in a tenth of the time using a microcomputer," he said. "I hate dull, boring, repetitious work and if I can get a machine to do it, I will."

Again and again it's the same story. Time. Money. Convenience. And the use of a home computer for business tasks has led a few COMPUTE! subscribers into the world of telecommuting:

They don't have to go to the office.

Of course, not all work can be done at home. Steel must be forged in blast furnaces. Autos come off assembly lines. But the U.S. economy is changing, depending less on heavy industry and more on information. John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, estimates that around 60 percent of American jobs now involve handling information.

Where information is the product, telecommuting comes into its own. And the father of telecommuting, the microcomputer, is growing smarter and cheaper. Another boost for telecommuting has been the rapid growth of organized, easy-to-access data bases, the semifinished materials against which many telecommuters apply their computers and energy.

"I've probably tripled my business in a year," said Charlie Seyffer of Albany, New York, a sales engineer for Eastern Heating and Cooling. Seyffer's task is to design heating and cooling systems. With a modem attached to a Commodore 64, he taps into computers at large firms like Carrier or York. He feeds in the dimensions—square footage, types of windows, perhaps 15 inputs for homes, 100 for office buildings. And then Seyffer gets a full load analysis on his terminal: the cheapest fuel, all the costs.

But it doesn't stop there. Seyffer and his fellow salesmen also manage their inventories and track each job much more closely, the costs, taxes, profits. "We have a much more in-depth look at each job," he said. "We're even writing some of our own programs now."

The use by salesmen of computers at home has been so successful the company is paying for them. "We're knocking the heck out of the other businesses in this area," said Seyffer.

Customized Farming Software

On the farm, computers are keeping track of hogs and soybeans. According to a recent study by Frost & Sullivan, a marketing research firm, farmers will spend $428 million on microcomputers and data processing between 1983 and 1987. More than 94,000 systems will be purchased during this period, with unit sales increasing an average of 35 percent annually during the four years.

In Arlington, Texas, Bill Asher set out on his own, selling agricultural products during a recession year. "It's been sort of a tough year on all of us," he said. "Some 30 percent of the acreage has been knocked out. This killed chemical sales." To diversify, Asher is writing agriculture-related programs he hopes to sell. For example, nutritional and feed conversion programs are needed in swine operations. "My program lets you keep a herd record on the rate of gain," he said.

Stan Dibbet owns a 240-acre farm near Maurice, Iowa. He grows mainly corn and soybeans, sometimes breeds livestock, and currently has some hogs. To help keep his farming operations competitive, Dibbet bought a Commodore 64.

Each year a consultant from the Northwest Iowa Farm Business Association drops by to help Dibbet with his books and do his taxes. Dibbet gets a tax return from this, but the service costs him $400 each year. However, now that Dibbet has software customized for farm business, he can program his own inventory, depreciation, and figure his own taxes. He's not only saved $400, he says, he's also having fun learning about computers, "just [enjoying] the fact that you can take a relatively dumb machine and make it do what you want it to do."

Unlike people who buy a home computer for games or education, people who use their microcomputers in their work often watch the bottom line. By and large, they seek a return on their investment, either in hard cash, greater efficiency on the job, or both.

Accountants, bookkeepers, and financial and stock market wizards are especially interested in return on investment. Andy Larson of Jupiter, Florida, first bought a VIC-20, then a Commodore 64, mainly for his son. But Larson tracks about ten stocks and has put his entire system on a spreadsheet "primarily to tell me when to sell and buy," he said. He tracks the stock's moving average over a three-week period. He watches the cash positions of mutual funds, the advance-decline line, the Standard & Poor 500, and other barometers.

Stock Profits Pay For Computer

James Welker, a professor of finance and management information systems at the Indiana campus of the University of Pennsylvania, goes even deeper. Aside from his teaching, Welker does private accounting for small businesses, some financial consulting and systems design. One of his more creative projects last year was to compile evidence needed in a court case on mail fraud. A dealer had allegedly made unauthorized trades in options on IBM stock in "discretionary" accounts. There were six indictments.

Since the dealer had never matched the trades, someone needed to pore through the books and match each buy and sell. That's when they called on Welker. "You have to go through, find out when he opened a position and when he covered it. It took about three months. I worked from copies of brokerage statements.

"I had to design a program especially for the option transactions, compute the profit; those over 20 percent, those over 60 percent, and so on," he said. "It took a little while."

Computers can trace people as easily as they trace money. And increasingly, managers, supervisors, or administrators are using home computers to do personnel work. There is a bundle of personnel software on the market.

Nearly everyone interviewed found uses for word processing. In the last few months, though, perhaps no one has had greater use for it than Richard Carls of Racine, Wisconsin. A partner in an insurance agency, Carls also prepares taxes for about 950 clients. He's been running his own show for about 25 years, and the tax business has gotten so large Carls' daughter pitches in to help. Using a service bureau, Carls became discouraged after his first attempt to computerize and went back to figuring all those taxes by hand. But last October he bought a 64, a printer, and a disk drive, and began building a data file on all his clients.

"We will start on a limited scale on the computer at first, just to get our feet wet. No business returns at first. There are too many carry-over figures from one schedule to another, too much chance of missing some information."

And how does Carls stay in touch with those 950 clients? Word processing. There are 11 different tax classifications and 11 different letters. For example, Carls' letter to a person who is single, does not own a home, and does not itemize deductions will be different from his letter to a couple making mortgage payments and itemizing. And so on.

Mailing Lists In 22 Categories

If he chooses, Carls can segregate his mailing list by any of 22 categories, for example, by phone exchange, by zip code, month of birth, social security number, and so on.

Here again is a man looking at the bottom line as he plugs away at his home computer. But there is something else on that bottom line besides money, profits, efficiency, and clean data guiding logical decisions.

Regardless of age, geographical location, or profession, there is also plain, old-fashioned enjoyment.

Take D. Anthony Valentine, an engineer for TVA and in the naval reserve for Uncle Sam. Lieutenant Commander Valentine collects all kinds of books, including comic books. He has so many that his hobby is almost becoming a sideline business.

Keeping Track Of Collections

"When you get about 10,000 comic books, they're a little hard to keep track of," he said. Valentine has them packed in plastic bags, lined along four shelves 15 feet wide. A few date back to the 40s, but most are from the 60s and 70s.

"I enjoy them, for one thing. I like the art work. And I've been collecting for quite a while, for speculation. The value goes up and down."

Valentine paid 12 cents for the first issue of Conan and today the issue sells for about $65. But his prize is the first issue of Fantastic Four, a Marvel Publication which came out in 1962. Valentine paid five cents for the comic at a flea market. The catalogue value is now between $900 and $1000. "That's the one I keep in my safe deposit box," he said.

To cope with Conan, The Fantastic Four, the science fiction, the hardbacks, the paperbacks, the coins and stamps and what-all, Valentine realizes, "They need to be catalogued. I'm trying to come up with a program to catalogue all that."

For Valentine, the fun far outweighs the profits.

"I Just Enjoy The Thing"

Late one night last October, Jerry Evans was already airborne on a routine flight when the radio alerted him. Two drilling platforms joined by a catwalk were in trouble. "They were both ablaze when we got there," he said. "We carried 83 people to the beach. No one was injured."

In this case, Evans' flight navigation program wouldn't have done any good because his computer is not on the helicopter and the LORAN was doing its job. In other words, there will not always be a payoff for his long hours programming his Commodore.

"But it doesn't matter if it pays or not," said Evans (and many others interviewed). "I just enjoy the thing."