CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Best-selling Author and Top-ranking A+ Authority
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally regarded A+ certification expert, Craig Landes.
Craig Landes has been working in the information systems industry for more than twenty years, following a career in the entertainment world. Starting in healthcare information systems, he designed database management systems, training seminars, and systems integration solutions. He then left the healthcare industry to become a consultant, providing liaison services between corporate executives and systems developers. Over the years, he continued to pursue a lifelong interest in creative and technical writing, publishing many articles and columns for various computer magazines and newsletters.
In 1998, Craig, together with James G. Jones, wrote their first concise review, or "cram" book, designed to help candidates pass the CompTIA A+ certification exam. The exam, divided into both a hardware and operating system module, is a comprehensive knowledge assessment for first-tier tech support personnel in the PC and Windows arena of information technology. The Exam Cram book gathered everything about PCs and operating systems into a single source.
Over the ensuing years, "A+ Exam Cram" has become a best-selling review book, with over 150,000 copies sold. In the fourth quarter of 2003, CompTIA released a periodic revision to the exam. The subsequent revision of the “A+ Exam Cram 2” title is receiving considerable attention—continuing the “best-selling” tradition of the previous editions. The book covers everything having to do with PC hardware and Windows operating systems, from DOS through Windows XP.
Craig continues to write, presently developing an innovative new approach to teaching MS Office applications. His upcoming book teaches the practical application of spreadsheets, with a focus on Microsoft Excel. Future projects include similar books for MS Word and PowerPoint, a fictional novel, and a self-help guide to life for teenagers.
Q: Craig, you are a well-respected expert in information systems and A+ certification. Thank you for taking the time out of your demanding schedule to speak with us.
A: Thank you for your interest in the book.
Q: Describe your days in the entertainment field. How has it helped you in your career in computing?
A: Well, I started out—I guess like most kids—playing in bands for fun, and to pick up girls. I’m a keyboard player, and back in the 60s, electric organs were just starting to become popular. Keyboard players tend to end up, many times, being the sort of musical director, so it wasn’t all that long before I started putting together and running my own bands. I remember the first time I had to fire someone, and I went through all the psychological anxieties you see in movies and stories. But I came to understand many of the management principles of any business, through running those bands. I remember my father once telling me that either I could be everyone’s friend, or I could manage the band. I never forgot that. It taught me how to make a distinction between being a professional as opposed to being just someone playing music every so often.
The second thing I learned was based on the immediacy of the entertainment world. In corporate business, whatever anyone does tends, for the most part, to take a fairly long time before there are consequences. Playing in front of an audience has immediate consequences. If the audience doesn't like what you’re doing, they leave. That taught me a whole lot about the marketplace, products, advertising, and so on. Not only that, but working with musicians is very different from working with traditional business employees. When you fire someone in the regular workplace, there's a level of restraint. But when you fire a musician, nobody knows what sort of reaction might take place.
Finally, music works on many levels. For instance, there's a melody line and at least three or four accompaniment lines. Each of those "threads" is managed by a completely independent person and mind. Underneath that, there're also things like the rhythm track, the time signature (like a motherboard clock), and the complexities of other aspects of music theory. Everything in a song has to come together perfectly. You can't have the bass player end the song at a different time than the guitar player, for instance. To manage the multiple lines and threads of even a simple blues song is a lot more complex than making sure a report ends up on a manager's desk by closing time on a given day. Eventually I realized a sort of rule of thumb, where managing one musician is about the same level of complexity as managing four traditional employees in the workplace.
Essentially, playing a synthesizer or playing a computer amounts to the same thing. They're both electronic gadgets, but one puts out music and the other puts out words and pictures. Either way, the audience (or reader) responds to the output in many dimensions. It not only has to be recognizable, but must also be pleasing to the mind (or the ear). Then it has to be something someone can respond to on an emotional level, and also something someone can imagine, or visualize. I think without having been on stage, I'd never have really understood the interaction between someone creating something, and the people who want to respond to that creation. I never have really understood that a computer is only a machine—like a synthesizer, organ, or piano—and it isn't the technology that matters. It's what someone can do with that technology.
Q: What factors triggered your interest in computing?
A: Mostly, it was my being disheartened with the music business. CDs had come out, and live music was increasingly more difficult to play for an audience accustomed to the perfection of the final, recorded product. I was tired of being in a business where fewer people had the basic education to understand the difference in quality between various types of music. I wanted to be someplace where "good and bad," "working and broken," were self-evident. I hadn't really thought about computers, but I needed a job, so I got into the office temping business. Obviously, I had to learn something about computers right away. It turned out I had an immediate and intuitive understanding of DOS. It was never a mystery to me, probably because of my history with synthesizers, and I just understood DOS right from the beginning. It took me awhile to understand that most people don't understand operating systems that easily.
Q: Profile three key projects from your days in healthcare information systems, database management systems, and designing system integration solutions. What lessons can you pass onto our audience?
A: I think the first thing to understand is that I didn't have what people would call a formal education in computer technology. As I've said, understanding DOS was, for me, intuitive. As a result, I was able to pick up other software very much like "playing by ear." I quickly became very proficient at whatever were the applications that had the biggest market-share: MultiMate, WordPerfect, Quattro, or whatever. When I started at a local hospital, it was to help with a crisis in marketing. A competing hospital was trying to take over an area of the county.
One of the biggest problems in that crisis had to do with the hospital's minicomputer. I think they were using a VAX (Digital Equipment Corp. computer system). My boss couldn't get any useful information from the IT department, and was going crazy with that. Secondly, they were using an expensive industry-specific database system, designed to quickly manipulate marketing statistics. However, my boss couldn't get the information from the hospital Accounting department. I learned how that database worked, in general, and saw the problem.
At the time, "PC File" was the first shareware application to come out. There's a lot of history there, but the bottom line is that it was a $30 database that was very easy to use. All I really needed was either a comma-delimited, or fixed-space ASCII file. I could get a "print report" out of the VAX, so I asked the IT department to run a query on their master database, for the fields my boss wanted. Then I found another very elegant program ("Monarch") that specialized in taking a print file (PRN file) and parsing it into individual fields, in a dBase format (.DBF files).
When I'd downloaded the print file, then parsed it, I was able to import it into PC File and have a useful database. I told my boss about it, and she wondered if it'd be possible to get a report for the entire patient history, based on ZIP codes. Twenty minutes later, I'd produced that report, sorted on ZIP codes. She was stunned, given that nobody had been able to do anything like that. I was then able to import the same dBase file into her expensive application, and from there, we were in business. Competition, after all, mostly rests on information and rapid access to that information, and the entire healthcare industry was mostly crippled with very expensive, too complex, unwieldy, proprietary systems and applications.
My boss was very concerned about how much it would cost for us to buy the database I was using. When I told her it was thirty dollars, she about fell into a coma. Fortunately, we had emergency medical attention readily at hand. When she recovered, she decided whatever it was I was doing, was magic, and pretty much gave me a free hand.
I did the same thing with Symantec's "Q&A," another DOS-based database that to this day, remains one of the most sophisticated PC databases ever invented. (Q&A eventually fell into disuse, but continues to hold a very large international user community. A 32-bit Windows replacement was finally developed and released by a company called Lantica, www.lantica.com.) Anyway, I'd worked with some consultants I knew, to completely restructure the physician credentialing system. That's where a hospital periodically reviews any doctor's credentials so as to grant them privileges to practice medicine in that hospital. Prior to the Q&A system, it was taking a 5-person department about two months to run the annual credential process.
I developed a proposal for a new system, based on Q&A, which would likely cut the entire process down to about a day and a half. When I met with the IT department, Marketing, and Physician Credentialling departments, they were very interested and wondered how much it would all cost. Understand that a typical healthcare information system often starts at around $100,000. The hospital was considering an upgrade to their main system, which would cost somewhere in the $1-million range.
The consultants had made their cost analysis, and it would be around $8,000. That included all licensed copies of the $200 database, installing a small Ethernet network in the department, and the labor to build the database. There was a very long silence as all the head honchos pondered a number that amounted to one hour's work in the surgical suites. Finally, although the IT people were deeply skeptical, the CEO and my boss decided to give it the go-ahead. A month later, the Q&A system was in place—on time, on budget, with several included change-requests. It worked perfectly. That month, the credentially process happened so fast that the department had a new problem: trying to figure out what to do with the now "extra" two months worth of time.
I was considered a master magician, and soon was given the job of heading up the information systems for an innovative new healthcare project—a subsidiary company of the hospital. Because healthcare technology is at least ten years behind the rest of the world, I mostly just went to the library, whenever I encountered a "new" problem, and looked up old copies of PC Magazine to see how the rest of the world had long-ago solved that same problem. Very quickly, the subsidiary company, charged with taking on management of the global hospital financials, began doing just that.
I had installed Artisoft's LANtastic, as the main network, and it never went down; never had problems; never interfered with business; and practically had no network management issues. Our subsidiary was like the British navy in opposition to the Spanish armada. The main hospital IT department (the Spanish, in the analogy) was so big and slow, they couldn't manage even a fraction of their data. We, on the other hand, using PCs and PC-based applications, routinely out-performed anything the hospital departments could do, with more accuracy, faster turnaround time, and new types of organized information nobody in the healthcare industry was using or able to generate.
Politics eventually shut down the entire subsidiary. The Finance department, IT people, and even the CEO couldn't afford to have a small subsidiary group demonstrate every few days how badly incompetent they were. Rather than change the overall philosophy of information management, they chose to shut down the company and sweep the results under the carpet. It's one of the reasons healthcare in America is so expensive—obsolete technology, politics, ignorance, and the incapability of most healthcare administrators to understand modern technology.
Q: You have a varied background with many successes. Can you provide two stories with a humorous slant?
A: Well, I eventually left the hospital, having built yet another very small, very fast, and very inexpensive Q&A database [for] some of my people. I went into consulting for one of the third-party insurance payers. About six months later, I got a call from a friend of mine at the hospital, asking if I'd come in to talk about a possible consulting project. They were still using my "simple" database, and nobody could figure out how to reproduce it. So I put on a suit, and went over to talk with my friend. I couldn't have been in the building more than about half an hour before our meeting was interrupted with a phone call.
It turned out to be a call from Security, telling my friend—now the head of Marketing—that I was to be escorted out of the building. I had visions of announcements going throughout the public address system, "Craig Landes has entered the premises. Danger, danger! Please evacuate the building! Craig Landes is on the premises!"
My friend was very embarrassed, but couldn't do much about it. It turned out that the head of IT had found out I was having this meeting. The head of the department was still furious about how within 1 year, our little subsidiary had almost taken over complete management of the entire hospital corporate structure. That just wouldn't do, and there was no way they'd allow me any further access at all to the business. After all, careers were on the line. I laughed; shook hands with my friend, and left. If you want to know why your healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, first consider Federal regulations and lack of competition. But secondly, understand the unbelievable bureaucracy and egotism of the entire administrative side of the business.
The other thing I think has a lot of humor potential, has to do with my working for Arthur Andersen. Remember them? They used to be one of the Big Six accounting firms in the world. Anyway, I was hired in as a temp, working in their publishing division to put together the many training manuals about things like mergers and acquisitions, legal and tax issues, and so on. Everyone was always having a crisis because there was never enough time to get everything done by some deadline.
I took time, up front, to begin developing a couple of macros in Word, along with some customization of the toolbars in all the MS Office products. Then I started flying through my parts in the projects. Very soon, I was getting about five times as much work done as any of the full-time employees. I reconfigured Windows, added in some freeware products, and generally fine-tuned my computer so as to get the work done. At one point, when I had some down time, I even changed the Windows "Start" button to say "Craig." None of this impacted their network at all, and was all simple configuration changes to the local PC.
I never thought about politics or personalities, mostly assuming that it was a good thing for such a large corporation to get as much work done in the least amount of time possible. Sure enough, I was soon moved out of the company, for showing up all the high-priced Andersen MBAs. A week or so later, the IT department called, and asked that I come in for an hour, to "put my computer back to the way it was supposed to be." Apparently, nobody could figure out how I'd changed the "Start" button. As a result, they started telling the division managers that I'd "reprogrammed" Microsoft Word in some way, and that's why it looked as if I was able to do that much more work than any of the full-time employees. They wanted me to "un-program" the Office products.
If it weren't so pathetic, I would've laughed. The problem is that all I ever did was read the reference manuals, configured each application to an optimal setting for whatever work was required, and used completely standard, built-in features and capabilities. However, I learned that the vast majority of IT people don't have time to learn any applications; they're too busy installing hardware. I also learned that most employees have no idea how to use any of their applications; they're too busy handling make-believe crises. Large corporations have probably reached the end of the line, and small businesses with a Web presence and e-commerce will probably wipe them out in the not-too-distant future. All because of technology, and the fact that small businesses don't use committees for anything.
Q: Can you provide additional details about A+ certification?
A: A+ certification is really a great idea. A computer, after all, has become probably one of the most powerful and important tools for doing business since the credit card was invented. The problem is that lots of young people grow up with whatever current technology and software happens to be available at home. Most of today's technicians developed an interest in computers through playing games, and wanting their machine to be faster, hotter, and more powerful than their friends' machines. They don't really understand the underlying technology, but they know how to tinker with their own machine to boost its performance.
It's not all that different from how kids used to mess with old cars, back in the 1950s. They'd use all sort of risky, and even illegal add-ons, to build a hot rod and do street racing. That's all well and good for your own machine, but it isn't at all a good idea when you then move on to be a technician for a large business. When you're working as a mechanic, to follow the analog, you're dealing with family cars that carry husbands and wives, and children. Although you might personally know how to make the car a whole lot faster, what's the point if someone doesn't know how to drive it? That, and people can get killed.
To follow the analogy even farther, it doesn't help to make a single machine a super-duper machine, when the whole point of having the computer in a multibillion-dollar business, is to keep accurate business records. There has to be a way to first discover those technicians who know how to hot-wire a computer, but don't know how to keep it safe. Then there must also be a way to teach those extremely talented technicians how to apply their skills in a more conservative fashion. A+ certification primarily brings the upcoming "Top Guns" of computer technology, back down to earth, so to speak.
Secondly, the certification helps produce a set of standards in terms of what a PC technician ought to know. Although it's true that DOS isn't the basis for Windows XP, so what? There are still a tremendous number of legacy applications in the world, all based on DOS, 16-bit Windows, Windows 9x, and older versions of databases and spreadsheets. Those applications are absolutely critical to the banks, corporations, industries, schools, or other institutions that use them. A+ certification goes a long way to making sure that a new technician won't accidentally wreck a system that's controlling hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. Certification helps put some guidelines in place, and puts us all on the same page, so to speak.
Q: How will the A+ certification evolve in the future?
A: Unfortunately, I think A+ certification may be coming to a limit point. It used to be that a technician could visualize a computer at the other end of a phone conversation. Windows 9x changed that, introducing so much customization that each PC has become almost unique, unless it's just an out-of-the-box machine. Windows XP, wide-area networking, security, and globalization of the economy have made PC management far more sophisticated than it was in the past. Again, with the car analogy, it used to be that some kid could work on a car in his or her own garage. Nowadays, with all the microprocessors built into a typical car, that's almost impossible.
A+ certification begins with the assumption that there's a "standard" kind of PC, and a "basic" operating system. That's not really true anymore. It's one of the reasons our book went from 450 pages, originally, to 800 pages today. I don't know how much longer a group like CompTIA will be able to put together a test of some kind, that will adequately cover the concept of "basic" knowledge about PCs, operating systems, and simple networking.
Q: There are so many books available on A+ certification. How do you differentiate your book from others in the market?
A: Jim and I looked at many of the books on the market. First, you should know that CompTIA publishes what they call "objectives" for any given exam. Those objectives are the specifics of what the candidate can be tested on. Most of the books about A+ certification take a list of all the objectives, then go down that list and produce a very short summary of what they mean. In other words, most A+ preparation books make an assumption that the reader is highly experienced with PCs and Windows, and only needs to know how to answer whatever questions the author(s) thinks might be on the exam.
When we first thought about our own book, we realized that nobody is discussing the conceptual foundation of computer technology. I think it's because nobody really has a grasp of those concepts. It's true that individual people know a whole lot about individual components of a system, but there isn't anyone putting it all together in one place. For instance, we all "know" that a computer can make a True/False decision. And we know it happens using electricity and transistors. But how does a computer know that 2 is greater than 1, or that 23 is less than 85?
I've had a life-long interest in both philosophy and psychology, along with a fascination with biology and medicine. At one point I'd thought of getting into either the law, or neurology, and although I decided against it, I've kept a strong interest in how the mind works. The philosophy has to do with how does our mind understand information and reality. By the time I got around to writing a book, I'd developed a complicated and integrated system of understanding how knowledge happens, how we store information, and how we retrieve that information. I saw that none of the books on the market teach technology, using any of those principles.
What Jim and I decided to do was to take all of Jim's technical background and history, and combine it with my view of how people learn. Then we took both of our backgrounds in how tests work, and started writing a book designed to do two things. The first was to build a visual image of how a pulse of electricity forms somewhere in a system and eventually becomes useful data. The second was to bring to light the psychological principles involved in handling questions on an exam of any kind.
One of the things I really like about this latest revision, is that Que gave us enough room that we could include a lot more of the psychological reasoning a person can use to figure out a correct response—even if they can't quite remember the underlying information. None of the books I've seen, do this. They all expect the reader to rely on rote memory: to remember a whole pile of facts. We wanted to produce a book that readers could hang onto, after the exam, as a consolidated reference to "how things work."
I guess what I'm saying, is that although the ears hear and the eyes read words, our brain stores information in pictures. It takes about seven days for new information to enter our long-term memory. The reason for the delay is that our brain has to convert sensory information into a picture, or image of some kind. Then that image has to add in the additional dimensions of remembered sound, smell, taste, and the associated emotions. Although rote memory might get someone through an exam, it'll only happen if they have a very good short-term memory, to store a lot of words.
Our book, to the best of our ability, anyway, is based on the idea of building images. We try to create an integrated image, or concept of hardware, operating systems, and the various CompTIA objectives, so that the reader doesn't have to use short-term memory to pass the exam. We try to stimulate the long-term memory instead, which is a whole lot easier to use in terms of information retrieval. Plus, the information we explain stays with the reader, long after they've passed the exam.
Q: Please share ten tips about A+ certification from your book.
A: 1) Above all, read each question carefully! Many of them use convoluted language to try and mess you up.
2) Secondly, read each question again, backwards, if possible.
3) Third; take a look at the possible responses, to get a sense of what you're being asked.
4) Finally, read each question again.
5) Don't worry about all the unbelievably complicated numbers and speed ratings. In very few questions will you be asked the throughput rating difference between SCSI and Ultra SCSI. However, the widely-known ratings are important. For instance, the three USB throughputs.
6) Don't get lost in the real world, and what's going on in the latest, greatest computer. CompTIA is a few years behind the technology curve.
7) Don't over-analyze the questions. Always remember that the exam is looking for standardized knowledge—what "everyone" ought to know.
8) Plenty of books get into the massive body of knowledge about hardware. But don't forget that the operating system module is half the exam.
9) Learn DOS! At least the most basic concepts. The Windows XP Recovery Console is basically the same as DOS, with most of the same commands.
10) The Exam Cram series is filled with "Exam Alerts," which are as close as we can legally go to telling you specific questions that are definitely going to be on the exam.
Q: Describe how hardware, operating systems, and software will evolve over the next five years.
A: I had a problem understanding why CPUs were becoming as powerful as they are. Then I read some white papers from Intel, talking about how one objective for the business community is real-time language translation. In other words, we want a system where someone in New York can pick up the phone to Hong Kong, and speak in English. The "phone" will automatically translate to Chinese, and an electronic voice will produce the conversation at the other end of the connection in real time, with intonation and nuances.
Computers are too hard. They're ridiculous, when you compare them to MIDI and the music industry. Long ago, the music industry realized that hardware is inconsequential to the musicians. Nobody…nobody at all…cares what goes into a synthesizer. All that matters is the music, and making cool sounds. Whatever someone has to learn, they want to port that knowledge over to newer and more expensive instruments. As a result, I can spend a long time learning one synthesizer, then use the MIDI interface to play almost any other synthesizer on the market. I'm not interested in how the synthesizer works; I just want to play the music I hear in my head.
Computers have gone in the opposite direction. The researchers, inventors, manufacturers, and software developers have gotten totally lost in the beauty of machinery. Nobody cares. That's why we've reached a saturation point in computer sales. Nobody has any interest at all in how their car works. They just want to get in and drive somewhere. As long as it starts and moves, it works. Until technical developers understand that simple concept, computers and applications will be frozen in the limbo of "too much technology."
PCs have become commodity items. Nobody really wants to, or cares about repairing a computer. If it really breaks, they just buy a new one. Electronic information isn't at all that easy to work with, since it requires an electrical power source. That's why we all of us have pieces of paper all over the place. Paper stores information without having to use a battery or a wall socket. It's a lot easier for me to look in a paper notebook for a phone number, than it is to go to the bother of turning on the computer.
That's another one of my rants, by the way. I had a small PDA that used AA batteries. If the batteries die, I can go to just about any 24-hour drugstore, anywhere on the planet, and get replacement batteries. Now, for some unknown reason, PDAs tend to only use rechargeable batteries. If my unit runs down, I now have to have a charging cradle, cables, and a wall socket. What if I'm out camping? Or on a boat? What conceivable reason is there to only use rechargeable batteries for the power source? I'll bet it has to do with how cool the technology seems, and marketing costs. But the bottom line is I won't rely on a PDA anymore. I go too many places where a wall socket isn't convenient. So there goes one lost sale. Multiply that by all the other people in America who think about the real world, and you'll see why the PDA industry sort of "dried up" for "no apparent reason."
In spite of Microsoft's belief that "everyone" will have an always-on Internet connection, they're lost in a technological delusion. Perhaps with "instant-on" power systems and wireless connectivity, that might happen some day, but not before then. I think the next "big thing" we're waiting for is a robotic interface with machines, like science fiction has understood for years. Voice recognition and visual pattern recognition are the two main things holding up computer technology. Of course that has nothing to do with A+ certification, but again, nobody really wants to learn how to repair non-standard machines. It'd be like each car in every garage being configured and built in a completely different way.
I think Microsoft has come to the end of the line. Their need to continually increase profits has led to schemes for charging people money for their own information. Longhorn (the next XP) looks like it'll be so tied to the Web that people won't even store their files on their own machines. Instead, they'll store "shortcuts" or links to those files, and keep the actual files on a Microsoft site, where they'll lease space on a server by the month. IBM tried that with hardware, and it failed. I think Linux or some other open system is the wave of the future. "Give away the razors, but charge people for the replacement blades." That's an old marketing strategy, and Linux tends to follow that principle.
An operating system is a one-time purchase. So give it away. Yes, it takes creative effort and personal ingenuity to develop that operating system, but that's not where the money is. In the same way, writing a song is a personal event. However, I make money on the song through the distribution process, and with live concerts. Linux is "out there." But making it easy to use is a distribution event. So are the applications and interfaces. Either way, today is all about the applications and operating systems, and they're not where the money is.
Microsoft is right, trying to make money from the information itself. But nobody's going to go for their scheme of renting storage space on an Internet server. Instead, I think the next version(s) of XP will probably be the end of the line for Microsoft. Already too many people are fed up with the "activation" feature, locking a machine (and even software) to a single box. Symantec and Intuit think that's the future, and I think they'll go bust with it. Again, the MIDI interface and music industry understand that open architecture and portability are the driving forces; not proprietary, and frozen, static systems.
What if you could have all the energy, food, clothing, and merchandise you wanted for free? Then what would you do for the rest of your life? Right now, computers are far too caught up in the "Oh Wow!" of gizmos, technology, and glittering shiny things. Nobody cares. What people want is a way to email their friends, IM their friends, watch someone take off their clothes via WebCam, and shop without having to stand in line. E-commerce, Internet gaming, the sex industry, and streamed video are already driving the industry. Whichever companies or industries are moving in those directions, that's where the machines and operating systems will go.
Q: Share your top ten certification study tips.
A: These all assume you've decided to do a self-study system, rather than taking an instructor-led course.
1) Read only enough pages that you don't find yourself having to go back and re-read something. If you're re-reading a paragraph, you're too tired. Stop.
2) After you've read about a topic, or maybe even a chapter, go do something completely different. Take a shower, wash the dishes, go fishing, clean something. It'll keep your body busy, but allow your mind to go back and visualize, then integrate what you've studied.
3) Don't have any other information flow while you're studying. No matter how expert you may be with computers, they're mostly numbers. We don't know how to store number information in our heads, only pictures. Any other information, like a radio, music, TV, or people doing things around you, will distort the incoming information flow, and you won't remember it well.
4) Analyze all practice questions you have access to. Always remember that knowing something is one thing, but answering questions is usually a completely different idea.
5) Don't try to learn how to pass the exam in a week. It's way too complicated, confusing, and the questions are designed to mess with your head.
6) If you're a Mac user, definitely take an instructor-led, classroom course. You absolutely must have a lot of hands-on experience with PCs and Windows.
7) A+ certification is not for entry-level computer technicians! It's for first-tier tech support. It isn't about beginners, but rather, for intermediate users.
8) Always spend time in a text-based, command-line environment. There are way too many questions about DOS for you to give them up because you don't know what a DIR or ATTRIB command is.
9) Try to avoid using the mouse for at least a half an hour, each day you use your computer, before taking the exam. It'll force you to pay highly-focused attention to the navigational pathways to fundamental areas of Windows. Whether you need to or don't, each time you sit down at the computer, while you're in your study phase, use keyboard menu selections to go into the Control Panel, Device Manager, and Display Properties, along with Accessories, Printer Configuration, and Taskbar management. Do it at least once, and go around each area as if you were trying to discover someone else's computer's configuration.
10) Open up a PC and remove all the attached devices. Re-attach them, then format the hard drive and reinstall the machine.
Q: Please provide more details about your new books on MS Office applications.
A: I've asked everyone I encounter, "Do you think you know Excel?" Without fail, almost everyone says they don't know it, but they wish they did know it better. "Why?" I ask them. They don't know, but they think they ought to know it better. So I asked myself why it's so hard to learn Excel. It turns out that everyone thinks spreadsheets are about numbers. But in fact, they're not.
Excel (my topic only because it has the leading market share) is actually seven extremely sophisticated concepts, intertwined with each other. As silly as it may sound, I could make a very good case that Excel is as complex as an integrated philosophy of reality. When I began approaching my own expertise in Excel from the philosophic perspective, I "suddenly" realized not only how sophisticated is the program, but the fact that nobody is explaining any of it from that perspective.
I was building a very complex spreadsheet for Arthur Andersen (as it sank beneath the waves), and I needed one single piece of help on a particular function. So I stopped in at Borders on my way home from work, and sat down on the floor as I went through all 30 books they had on Excel. What I found was that every book on the market pretty much prints out the online Help, and rephrases each topic in some nominal fashion. Not only didn't I find what I needed, but I also found that not a single book was something I would buy if I wanted to learn the program.
I believe people need to learn Excel in two simultaneous ways. First, they need help from the absolute ground up, all the way down to "remembering" the difference between a positive and negative number. For example, we never subtract anything. Instead, we add a negative number to a positive number. People need help understanding even that basic concept. Secondly, they want a very fast way to learn how to actually accomplish a specific task.
My book on Excel is based on what a temp needs to know in the office environment. They have to hit the ground running, so to speak, and very quickly figure out how to do lots of things they don't know how to do. To accomplish that, the book should also be "task-oriented," in that it lists the most common tasks in most real-world situations. All the years I spent temping have given me a comprehensive background of what make up those tasks. And very few of them have to do with the standard sales and inventory examples you'll find in every other book about Excel. The same concepts apply to Word and PowerPoint, and there isn't a single book I've found that address what a real person needs in order to solve real problems.
Q: Your book for teenagers sounds compelling. Can you share more details?
A: That's one of my real passions. It began with my niece, who's now 23. She was having serious problems in her life, when she was 16. Soon after, she ran away from home, abandoning her son. Everyone in the family wanted to cut her loose, but since I was a thousand miles away, I said I'd stand for her. I'd be her support system, and her point of reference to reality. Over the next year, she would call me (collect) when she had another crisis, and I'd help her understand what was going on and how to get through it. I helped with money, too, but more often with advice, understanding, and emotional support.
At one point, she said, "You should write these conversations down," and that gave me the idea for "Phone Calls with Cassie." Many people are writing about the collapse of our society, and the moral decline taking place. But although there's lots of anecdotal evidence, nobody seems to be discussing why all this is happening. Our kids are taking the hit. Today's teenagers have no philosophic education at all. As a result, they've lost the ability to do critical thinking, and have no "authorities" to help them with the many crises they go through. Those problems are very complex, and far more dangerous today than they were even thirty years ago.
I've applied my philosophy and psychological help to not only my niece, but to many of the teens and kids I meet. In every case, the one thing that really helps is for them to know that there are judgements! There is an objective right and wrong, and we not only can, but must make moral judgements and decisions every day. Today's adult society has almost completely abdicated all responsibility for making those judgements, and for teaching our children how to reason out analytic and emotional problems. It's one reason why Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil have such popularity.
"Phone Calls with Cassie" is something like that book, "Hello God? It's Me, Margaret," by Judy Blume. It goes further into the philosophic principles of navigating life, but at about an 8th-grade reading level. It's like a reference manual for life, based on principles of philosophy that have nothing to do with personal opinion, or some moral code developed by individual societies. Rather, it's about global principles that apply to all human beings, explained in terms of a sort of composite teenager, based on what my niece went through.
Q: What are the ten most compelling issues facing technology professionals today and in the future? How can they be resolved?
A: 1) Lack of standardization in all things PC: That's the thing that's really hurting the IT business.
2) An almost complete failure to understand the needs of the end-user. Remember that IBM commercial, where the young kid is building a Web site? He sits next to an older, gray-haired guy, talking about moving this, animated that, flames and fire. The old guy has glazed eyes, but listens. Finally, at the end of the commercial, the old guy says, "That's all well and good. But I'd like a way to subtract an item from my inventory whenever a customer buys that item." The kid pauses, gets a nervous look, and responds that he doesn't know how to do that.
3) I was onstage for 20 years, and thought that the quality of the music, the sound of the speakers, and the "flash" of technique, mattered. When I left the business, I became part of the audience. Only then did I understand that music is "background" to most people. Only the singer and the words matter, excepting in certain special cases. IT professionals are like me, onstage: they're so caught up in how cool the latest feature and hardware are, they've completely lost sight of the fact that technology and machines are "background" to everyone else.
4) I think every applications developer should have to first work in a real-world business environment, trying to solve whatever problem it is they think they want to develop as an application. In the vast majority of cases, developers produce something that looks pretty on the screen but has almost no practical application to a real person in the real world. After all, how many people actually use the hyperlinking features in MS Word? Sure it might be useful, but it's a whole lot more a waste of time; a problem for people to learn; and an interference. There are much better Web authoring applications in the market place.
5) Being all things to all people is another major destructive course in technology. Excel is a spreadsheet, not a database. But because Microsoft made Access too complicated for 99.9% of humanity, anyone who wants just a simple database ends up having to use Excel. Although it manages simple lists, it isn't a database. End-users now have no easy way to manage, develop, or use a database. Let's all try and get back to the place where a single application does a single thing, perfectly, simply, and elegantly.
6) Destructive competition, profiteering, and a belief in a zero-sum economy are another catastrophic failure in paradigm. There's plenty of room for competing products without one company trying to destroy another. Without competition, everyone loses. Microsoft's destructive competition with Netscape has ended up with a mediocre browser, filled with security holes, and not a single innovative change to how we use the Web. (ActiveX, for all everyone thinks it's fabulous, is really just a bunch of fire and flames. It doesn't do anything useful, for the most part.)
7) Ultimately, technology is just junk in a box. There's a fundamental principle of engineering: Form follows Function. How does a computer follow function? It isn't natural for someone to use a keyboard to input information. We interact with voice, sound, touch, and vision. Sometime soon, computers and robotics will merge, At that point, almost every IT professional today will be out of business—unless they're involved in systems implementation, and using technology to do things! Not just being a mechanic.
8) Another great anecdote has to do with the CEO who wants to know what strategies his VPs have come up with in a business situation. All the managers run off to their spreadsheets and come back with "the numbers." They spew out their scenarios, and say that's what the numbers show and the computers show. But the CEO isn't at all interested. He wants to know, based on those numbers, what the people think! IT professionals have lost almost all sense of context. We all of us need to really sit back and think about how whatever it is we're doing has any meaning or bearing at all on the real world.
9) When Microsoft finally collapses, it's going to send a tidal wave through the entire industry. Intel might likely follow, having bet the farm on their Itanium chips and limit of only two processors. AMD and IBM are forming up on the horizon, and there's Linux out there, along with the entire Open Source movement. Windows XP is one of the worst "kludge" operating systems, but Microsoft has use monopolistic strategies to force it on people who don't have the time or energy to work out something else. It's a house of cards, just about ready to come tumbling down. Anyone in the IT business who's counting on a future based on the present is probably going to be in for distress. Focus on the underlying principles of information theory, not on the specific applications of today's technology. We're in the infancy of computer technology, poised to make the next evolutionary leap. That'll happen, hopefully within the next 5-10 years, well within our lifetimes, and anyone who's not prepared for it, may as well open a buggy-whip manufacturing plant.
10) The entire field of IT is going to have to get around to portable knowledge. It's common knowledge that the lifetime for a technical person is around 10 years before they get totally burnt out. The reason for the burn out is that nothing they learn at one point, transfers to the next "thing" that comes out. Almost none of my training in Windows 3x means anything in terms of XP. Nothing I know about an AT machine translates to a modern Pentium. No other field in the world is organized that way, for the most part. Airplanes may be very different today from 100 years ago, but the principles of air, flight, propulsion, fuel, landing and taking off, are still the same. We need to begin developing technical tools that carry forward underlying principles from previous knowledge, and try to cut back on the whole concept of "obsolete" technology.
Q: List the 5 best resources for technology and business professionals.
A: 1) I'd say that hands-on experience is still the very best resource for anyone.
2) Books are also still a very good, reliable, easily-accessible resource. The Reference Manual being the best of all. I believe RTFM is still a fairly well-known acronym, for most tech people.
3) The workplace: I can't even begin to count the number of times I've thought something was impossible. It's only when a non-technical person asked me to put something together for them, that I came to understand the maxim: There's always a workaround!" And I learned all kinds of things I never would've attempted to learn, knowing, as I did, that they were "impossible."
4) The Internet. There's no question that a world-wide resource is an incredible resource. The problem is: why should anyone bother to go through all that effort to put up a Web site with white papers, explanations, or whatever, for free? We're still trying to work that out, but for the moment, search engines and the Web are invaluable.
5) Gamers! Anyone who's older than around 40, began with computers back when PC Magazine was the top source for innovative technology. But just as the entire industry is in quick-speed evolution, so too does that mean that we become "The Establishment" much faster. Today's creative minds have been almost frozen out of the established business by old, staid, rest-on-their-laurels sources left over from 10 years ago. That's not where it's at, to use a 60s expression. Listen to the hackers, gamers, and over-clockers. That's where the future lies.
That's about it, in terms of resources. Understanding technology isn't something you do by just going to the library. Either you have a facility for it—a passion—or you don't. If you've got that passion, then you'll take the time to ask "Why?" all the time. Then ask "How?" Technology isn't for parrots, or monkeys pushing buttons in a predefined sequence that someone else laid down on paper. We're still at only the most simplistic level of the blend between the human mind and the mechanical machine. Whatever develops your imagination: that's a superb resource. It isn't the box that matters: it's coming up with things to do with that box that counts.
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: Hah! I have an old Micron, with a Pentium 133 and 4GB hard drive. Until recently, that was all I needed to write books, surf the Web, email my friends, and do business. Now I'd like to get into an idea I have for an animated video about computers, and that old 133MHz seems a bit slow for video editing. Actually, I'm just tired of the never-ending stream of "new" this or that. I've been far more busy doing things, living my life, and putting ideas into effect. Now that I'm going to have to upgrade, I guess I'll set aside the waste of time it'll take to reinstall everything and get it to where I like it. I'm looking at an Athlon, probably with a fairly large hard drive, and probably a DVD-RW of some kind. But I probably won't spend more than about $400 for the whole thing. I already have a video card, and a 19" LCD panel.
Q: Craig, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.
A: You're very welcome. I hope it helps someone, somewhere along the line. And of course, I'd be pleased if everyone who reads this, also buys the “A+ Exam Cram 2”, available in fine book stores, everywhere. By the way, Que has included a nifty CD in the back cover, with some video lectures by Scott Mueller, one of the great hardware guys in the industry. His book about upgrading and repairing PCs, is a standard, also published by Que.