Structural Engineers

Category: General Business

Working From Home Tips From Someone Who Actually Has Worked From Home

Now that we are in this pandemic, a lot of people are working from home.  All of my clients have sent their employees to work from home, and the traffic here in the Atlanta has gone down dramatically.  There are no more rush hour back ups.  I’ve read a lot of different articles about how to work from home, but frankly, after working from home for over 20 years, most of them are not quite right.  Let me share what I’ve learned.

1.  I let my own rythyms determine my hours.  A lot of articles tell you to “keep regular hours”, much the same as in the office.  Start at 8 AM, continue to 5 PM, and one article even suggested going for a walk or something like that during the time you would commute.  That never worked for me.  One of the advantages of working from home is you don’t have to be sleep deprived.  If in your normal work you had to be woken up by an alarm, you probably were getting up earlier than you should have.  If you are worn out after lunch and have a hard time focusing, you probably need more sleep.

Here’s the deal – when you are working from home, no one knows you are waking up at 8 AM, or probably not even 10 AM.  No one knows you’re napping after lunch.  For me, my greatest productivity is between 9 PM and Midnight, the early morning hours, and the late afternoon.  The middle of the day I do nothing.  Judging from the time e-mails come into me from colleagues, I don’t think I am the only one.  The 9 to 5 routine is something left over from factory days, and means little today.  It’s something I dropped a long time ago.

2.  Just because you are at home doesn’t mean your boss can’t tell if you are not working.  This one surprises me.  I’ve had that issue with employees working from home.  They failed to understand, if you aren’t getting any work done, it’s pretty obvious you aren’t doing any work.  In an office you might be found out earlier because you spend too much time in the break room, you always have Facebook up on your computer, or you waste peoples’ time wandering around talking to them.  However, if you are working at home and stuff doesn’t get turnned in, it will be figured out fairly quickly, and you will probably get fired.    I can’t over emphasize how important this is.  Your boss probably doesn’t care if you are working in your underwear, if you are sleeping through lunch period, or your cat is sitting on your desk.  She will care if nothing is getting done.

3.  Set daily goals for yourself.  I would assume most people do this even working in an office.  I’ve always gone to work and mentally figured out in the beginning of the day what I wanted to get done.  A to-do list often helps, and is satisfying as you cross off the items.  This is really important when working from home to stay focused.

4.  Set up a regular work area.  I have an office area that is mine, it’s an unused bedroom in my home.  No one else is allowed in here.  Everything is set up the way I want it.  This is important, because it tells me I am working, and stops me from getting distracted by other stuff.  Once in a while I will work on my laptop in the kitchen, but that’s when I’m tired of being closed off in my office.

5.  Make use of meeting software if you have to coordinate with people.  I have used Go To Meeting (fairly high priced), Google, and Zoom.  Zoom is the best for performance and price.  Get a good webcam, and I have an auxilliary microphone to get better sound.

6.  Cut distractions.  It takes a bit of time for family members to realize you are working.  Speaking for myself, it doesn’t bother me to be on a call with someone and to hear children in the background playing, or dogs barking.  What REALLY is annoying is when you are trying to talk to someone and they have a child clinging to them, or repeatedly interrupting them.  If you can’t get your husband/wife/children to let you work, you are going to be in the situation of #2 above.  I don’t have any good advice on how to do that because I haven’t had that issue with humans in my household.

Something like this might help stopping interruptions.

I can talk a bit about pets.  I’ve had trouble with my dog, my parrot, and my neighbor’s cat bothering me.  The dog paws at me, the parrot jumps on the keyboard, and when I used try to work on the patio the neighbor’s cat kept climbing up on the keyboard.    There’s nothing you can do but get used to it.  Sorry.

Personally, I think working from home is a better deal for everyone.  I remember how I would arrive so irritated to the office from an hour or so commute in heavy traffic, and how at the end of the day I would be so tired and I would dread the long drive home.  That’s gone when you work at home.  From an employer’s standpoint, you don’t have to spend money on square footage of office space, and you don’t have to be concerned if you hire someone that lives a long distance from your location.  Less pollution is generated, there is less traffic, and fewer accidents.  Tax dollars aren’t needed for additional roads or mass transit.  We’ll have to see how this all works out, and if it becomes a more permanent part of life after this crisis ends.


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Job Hunting Advice From An Employer

For as long as I can remember, I have met people who just can’t seem to find a job.  They send out resumes and answer all the want ads, and get nowhere.  They read books on job hunting tips, they go to job fairs, and still they get nowhere.  They spend loads of time polishing their resumes, working out the “right” cover letter, and still nothing… Why is this?  I first started on this problem back in the 90’s when I was writing part time for the Motley Fool Investment Forum.  My job at the time with The Motley Fool was part-time, and to put it mildly, I hated my full time job with every ounce of my being.  I had two priorities, the first was to get out of that job, the second was to avoid getting into an even worse job (which happened to me once before).  I found out with a bit of research that almost everything that I had learned about job hunting from the career development center in college, books, and articles by “experts” was wrong.  A few years later I found myself running my own company, and I can tell you why common wisdom is wrong.

Let’s start with the typical way people look for jobs.  Back before the Internet, you would get the Sunday paper and scan through the classifieds.  You’d find a job that most likely fit, and send in a resume.  Maybe you didn’t have all the requirements, but you would think, “hey, what the heck, maybe they’ll hire me anyway”.  You’d type up your cover letter, copy your resume, and mail it all in and keep your fingers crossed and wait anxiously by the phone like a teenage girl would do back then hoping her latest crush would be calling her for a date.  The problem is what happened on the other end.

The employer doing the advertisement would find themselves snowed with applications.  I advertised a job once in the paper and I got about 100 responses.  Out of those, maybe one or two people were qualified.  A lot of the respondants to the advertisements didn’t meet any of the requirements at all.  Many of them were on a downward spiral in their lives, you could see a pattern of short term jobs that were ever lower paying.  If the employer was dumb enough to list the company name with the advertisement, they would also find themselves flooded with calls by very obnoxious or desperate people.  Generally, if anyone got hired out of that mess, it was the very first few qualified resumes to show up that got interviews.  Everything else went to the slush pile.  So, if you twiddled about for a day before getting your package in the mail, you may have been number 50 resume to show up, and by that time someone else got lucky and was already going through the selection process.  Your resume and cover letter either ended up in a file to be forgotten, or thrown in the trash.

Now we can advertise through job websites like Monster.  That turns out even worse.  I advertised for a part time position that had a few requirements: 1. You had to be studying engineering in college, second year or higher. 2. The job was part time.  3. You needed to commute to Lawrenceville, GA.  Apparently no one read the ad.  I got an application from a PhD in Texas, who I guess thought he could commute to Georgia and make Intern pay for 20 hours a week.  I got loads of applications from people with no education at all.  I got applications from mid-career engineers.  The closest application I got was from a young woman who was studying business at a local college that wanted a part time job.  Too bad I was looking for an engineer intern.  I wasted my time with over 100 worthless applications.

What a lot of employers do, and I will also when the company gets bigger, is use a “headhunter”.  That’s a corporate recruiter that finds and screens the applicants for you, and gives you some suitable people.  I have been contacted by headhunters, and I was lucky enough to be found by one that got me out of my miserable job and moved here to Atlanta.  The problem is headhunters tend to call you when you aren’t looking for a job.  If you manage to find a headhunter on your own, you have to hope they know of a job open that you are qualifed for – they don’t keep business by referring unqualified applicants to potential employers.  So, the othe alternative is to act as your own headhunter.

Here’s a good tip – call potential employers yourself.  If you call me looking for a job, I will talk to you.  It will be a short conversation, but I’ll ask you some specific questions, and if you are potentially qualified, I will ask for your resume.  When I’ve looked for jobs, I’ve gotten the same warm reception mostly.  There are two exceptions, one when I called a very large engineering firm’s personnel department, and the guy hung up on me.  I found out later (surprise) that it was kind of a miserable company.  The other one irritated me a lot.  I knew an executive in a large engineering firm that ran its office near where I lived in New Jersey.  He referred me to the manager of their Washington, DC office, where I was looking for a job. I called the DC office, told the receptionist my name and asked for the guy.  She came back on the phone and asked me why I was calling. I said “I’m looking for a job,and I was referred by xxx”.  She put me on hold, and then came back and said the individual I was calling was out, and she would take my number.  Of course he never called me, and he wasn’t out.  He was obviously a jerk, and I ended up avoiding working for him and having to look for a job AGAIN.

Generally every time I called a company I was called in for an interview.  Not every interview led to a job offer of course, but in every case the people I talked to were very polite, so it does work.  The fact is that many of us don’t advertise for job openings, and in a small business we really don’t even have job openings.  If you come in to see us, and we think we can make use of you, you may get a job.  OR, we may refer you to someone that is looking (that happened to me once).

Is there anything else you can do?  Some people think networking is good, like going to professional society meetings or civic organization meetings.  I got a job offer for repairing doorbells at a Lion’s Club meeting.  I’m not exaggerating, this happened when I was trying to leave the miserable job.  I politely explained to the guy that I was a graduate engineer with something like 15 years experience and a Professional Engineer license, and he went on to tell me what a big mistake I was making….  So, my feeling is that networking events are a waste of time, unless you like that sort of thing.  It’s the same problem with answering the job posting online – you are there with hundreds of other applicants if it is a job fair.  If it is a professional society meeting, you will be lucky to talk to a handful of people who probably have no hand in the hiring process in their companies.  If it is a civic organization, you may end up having your time wasted by someone in a doorbell repair business, some other oddball venture, or a distributed marketing venture.

Should you answer want ads in the paper, or go to online job sites?  The recruiter that got me the job in Atlanta said yes, it is important to get your name out there.  I think it is another waste of time for the most part, but it’s not much time wasted. It’s not like spending an afternoon at a job fair and coming home with a bunch of applications but no job in hand.  It is certainly better than going to some civic organization meeting and getting cornered by some guy who wants to recruit you to sell vitamins or insurance with a promise that you could be a “Regional Vice President” or some silliness like that if you can recruit people under you.  So, I reluctantly agree with the recruiter.  Also, when I was trying to leave the miserable job, I actually got a job offer from posting my resume online.  So, the 5 minutes or so I spent posting my resume wasn’t a waste of time.

What about your resume?  I don’t know what it is, but two guys I hired gave me resumes that were impossible to figure out.  Just give a chronoligical record of your jobs and the responsibilites.  Skip fancy fonts and expensive paper.  NO COLORED PAPER PLEASE!  I get resumes with so many different fonts that they look like ransom notes from the old days.  Also, I don’t really care about your personal interests, like that you garden, read books, or fish. You won’t do any of that at my office, so it matters little to none.  Don’t give any information on your religion or political views.  I really don’t want to know, I want to evaluate you on what you can do. Some people send pictures, don’t do that.  Please don’t do that.  You want the people screening you to be blind to your race, looks and age as much as possible.  Your picture doesn’t help.  To me three things are important – education, professional societies, work experience.  For entry level people, even unrelated work experience helps, I want to know if you’ve ever had a job.

Gaps in employment don’t help on resumes.  Hopefully if you were laid off and out of work for a long time you can fill in the gap with some sort of educational activity.  Maybe explain it with something like caring for a sick relative, or taking a sabbatical to travel or whatever.  Try not to make it look like you were sitting at home staring at the TV set feeling bad about yourself, even if you were.  Also, look at the job titles that you give yourself on the resumes.  I once was hiring an engineer, and I got an applicant that put down his present job as “Industrial Engineer Intern” at a local steel company.  He was out of school for about 4 years. He didn’t get the job.  Why would I hire a graduate engineer that was out of school for 4 years that was just an intern?  I thought about it later, and I would bet that Personnel at the company he worked at would only authorize an “Intern” position, and that’s what he was hired in.  More than likely he was doing real engineer work instead of getting coffee and making copies like interns do.  Now, it is a little tricky to change your job title on your resume if you work for a big company and have a formal job title.  So, he should have put down “Company xxx – Perform Industrial Engineering”.  Don’t let an awful job title kill your chances at another job.

Now, let’s get to the interview.  Some things go without saying.  Don’t drink before you go to an interview.  If an interviewer takes you to lunch and treats you to a glass of wine or a beer, and you have another interview later in the day, you just lost your chance for a job at the later interview.  If you get taken to lunch, don’t drink alchohol.  If the interviewer pushes you, tell him or her you have an important meeting to go to later and you don’t want to smell like alcohol. Dress properly.  Different types of job the dress is different.  If you come to see us, we’ll ask you to wear old clothes because we are going to take you to a jobsite.  Don’t wear revealing clothing, dirty clothes, or worn out clothes.  Show up on time.  Don’t show up super early, then they have to do something with you while you wait and that is not appreciated.

Dressing for job interviews used to be a lot easier.  You wore a suit and that was it.  There was a book called “Dressing for Success” which was good to follow.  Today we are all casual.  We wear shorts and flip flops in my office.  I usually go around in my stocking feet or barefoot, which was unheard of when I got out of college.  I still would wear a suit or a sports jacket if I were a man.  A woman should wear the female equivalent.  If you are older like me, don’t wear “old people clothes”.  That means no slip on orthopedic shoes (it won’t hurt you to wear regular shoes for an hour or two).  NO CARDIGAN SWEATER!  Remember the Dennis the Menace TV show? – if you are old enough to, this definitely applies to you.  Mr. Wilson always wore a cardigan sweater, to make sure you knew he was a crochety old man.  Don’t dress like Mr. Wilson.

Now, for the less obvious stuff.  I’m going to go through my pet peeves of an interview.  Don’t overshare – don’t volunteer about your treatment for Depression, or talk about how you were arrested for DUI at 17.  When you are being interviewed, the interviewer is looking for a reason to turn you down, don’t give him or her that reason.  Show some expression. I am always interviewing people who show a poker face and speak with a monotone all through the interview.  The same corporate recruiter I mentioned earlier found that annoying too – she thought it might be due to nervousness.  I tend to interpret it as you are the type of person who has no interest in anything, and will show no initiative.  Ease up, the interviewer is no better than you.  Smile, show some emotion.  Don’t do the nervous laugh.  This is typical oftentimes of young people, and it is real annoying.  I’ve had bad experiences with people that had this habit, so it will kill your chance of getting a job with me, and I suspect others may feel the same.

Don’t badmouth ANYTHING. I don’t care how much you hate your present job, don’t say it during the interview.  I made the mistake in one interview of telling the interviewer I was having trouble with my boss.  Everyone that knew my boss knew he was a petty tyrant, and so did the interviewer (who was the owner of the company I was interviewing at and knew my boss for years).  He spent two hours pumping me about how bad my boss was and what happened.  It was terribly depressing and I didn’t get the job.  Fortunately, I got a job shortly after, because that conversation could have found its way back to my former boss (actually it did after I left), and as bad as things were, it would have made things much much worse.  I’ve also had interviews where the interviewer badmouthed a former employer that I liked and still had very good relations with.  The best thing in that case is to not comment in any way.  Don’t tell the interviewer about bad experiences you had with other job interviews, the interviewer will be afraid you will do the same wih him or her.

The worst part of any interview for me is the end when they say “any questions?”.  At this point in time I always feel I’ve been trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose, and there really isn’t anything else I want to know.  I always have wanted to say, “I’ve had enough today, can I go home now?”  Even if the interviewer has had it, and would like you to leave too, don’t do that.  Ask something fairly simple like “can I see one of your company’s projects?”  That’s easy, not to painful for anyone, and you can get out.  Don’t ask about pay and benefits until you are offered the job.

If you get offered the job, make sure it is in writing with a start date.  I was once offered a job verbally, and the guy that hired me forgot that he offered me a job.  I quit my job, and went to work at the other place.  No one in the company knew who I was and why I was there when I showed up on the appointed date.  I had to cool my heels to wait for the guy (he was about an hour late).  He showed up, and got an “oh s*$t” look on his face. I ended up with a much lower job than I was originally offered.  A couple months later my former employer took me back, and the guy that hired me cursed me out when I gave him notice.  That was one of my first experiences with what I call a “Stupid Employee”.  That will be another blog post.

Some jobs make you relocate.  My first job out of college was with a major oil company in New Jersey, I lived in Maryland.  I didn’t ask about relocation expenses.  The company’s headquarters was in Cherry Hill, NJ and I was goig to work in Moorestown, NJ.  I went in to see the personnel guy, and told him I was ready for the corporate move.  He said “well, we hired you in Cherry Hill, and you are working in Moorestown, and that is only about 5 miles, so there is no move involved”.  I was horrifed.  I mentioned to him that I lived in Gaithersburg, MD, which was a good 150 miles away.  He told me that it didn’t matter.  Moral of the story – check about the moving benefits if you have to relocate.  I never let that happen again.

I hope this helps you in your job search, and I wish you the best of luck.


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Why We Don’t Do Work in California

We get a lot of requests for engineering in California, and we have turned them all down.  Why are we doing this?  Wouldn’t it be better to make the money?  Turns out it is not so simple.  There are really severe problems that we can’t overcome right now.  Let me go through it:

1. I am not licensed as a Professional Engineer in California.  To get licensed requires a specific Seismic Exam, which I have not had time to take.  I had to first complete my Master’s Degree, and now I am preparing to test for the Structural Engineer license.

2.  I have had people say they could get a Professional Engineer to stamp my drawings in California.  “Plan Stamping”, where an engineer stamps another unlicensed engineer’s work is forbidden in every state. While this restriction is sadly universally ignored, if something happens there can be very severe adverse consequences to my license and my liability.

3. One way we have worked around the “Plan Stamping” is that I have partnered with another engineer in California.  This has caused my costs to go way up because I’m working with another engineer that lacks experience in this type of work and we end up spending a lot more time then budgeted on the project.  Worse, the partnering engineer also spends more time than he or she budgeted, and that runs their costs up too.

4.  The distance.  We are thousands of miles away from California and 3 time zones.  If there are problems with a project, this can be a serious issue.  To fly out to California to deal with an issue will take up 3 days and a significant cost for air fare, car rental, and hotel.

It just doesn’t make sense at this time for us to take up projects in California, so for the foreseeable future we won’t be able to help you in that state.

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Networking the Office to the Cloud

If you have more than one person working in an office, you inevitably run into the need to share files on the computers.  Back in the late 80’s there were networks available, but they were very, very expensive.  In the mid 80’s I was in the Air National Guard, and I did a one year active duty tour at Andrews AFB.  We had a mainframe based network system that included e-mail, and awful word processor, and a spreadsheet application that was not much better than useless – it was the Wang VR system if I remember right.  It had e-mail, but my inbox was mostly invitations to retirement ceremonies for Colonels I never heard of, so I never used it.  I then went to work in the late 80’s for what would become a very large engineering firm (ECS Ltd), but at the time we were pretty small.  We used what my boss called a “sneaker net”.  Our computers had removable hard drives, which the secretaries could remove and move from computer to computer.  They kept them locked in their desks at night for security.  It worked pretty well as long as you could get to the disks and the secretary downstairs didn’t need to use the disk you needed upstairs, and of course as long as you didn’t have a hard disk failure, things were fine.

In the 90s I went on to work full time for the Air National Guard up in Pittsburgh.  This was where I first ran into a network that worked with PCs.  By the mid nineties we had good e-mail, and pretty good applications.  If I have to criticize the system, it was the speed.  I couldn’t use it for CAD files, it was too slow and the IT guys got mad at me for hogging what was then valuable hard drive space.  We kept our files on floppies, which was not real secure.  Again, you had to know where everything was, hope nothing failed, and sharing work was difficult.  However, the network allowed us to easily get to various regulations and references, and provided a level of security for whatever was on it.  The system was still less than perfect.  By the end of the nineties I was writing for the Motley Fool, and we had something called a VPN (Virtual Private Network).  We could access the servers at our main office through the Internet much like you access the server on a network in the office.  However, it was slow, and I discovered that I could see the hard disks on every computer attached to the network.  I never tested to see if I could get in the drives (I wanted to keep my job), but I suspect I could.  That can be a major security flaw, and I hate to think what a really angry disgruntled employee could do to his or her coworkers.

In 2005 I had Runkle Consulting, and we were growing.  We moved to a large office, and we had a decent sized staff.  We installed a server, and it was fast.  The hard drives were inexpensive and it automatically backed up every night to tape and it also backed up online.  I figured how to set up a VPN, which technically would allow me to work from home on stuff on the server.  I could work on a drawing at the office, go home and finish it later that night or the next morning.  I could write letters and reports and save them to the office network from the comfort of my home.  Except I couldn’t.  It was really, really slow.  Not slow in making a microwave meal in 2 minutes instead of 2 and a half minutes, but slow as in waiting 30 seconds for a response every time you hit a key on the keyboard slow.  It just wasn’t practical at all.  There was also the issue of maintenance and security.

If you have a server, everyone has to have passwords.  One of my employees had the ingenious password of 3333.  I didn’t think anything of it until I took a trip to China, and coincidentally when I got home my server got hit with brute force attacks.  Someone would try to hack into my server thousands of times a day with various combinations of user names and passwords.  I tried all sorts of things to stop the attacks, but they continued for a long time.  I don’t think anyone got in my system since I had limited access into the server to only myself and I had a very long and difficult password.  Still, the potential of damage was disturbing.  There of course was the hassle of updating the software on the server, keeping up with its back ups, and taking care of the hardware.  I once had to run into the office late at night because we had a long power outage and my power backup was very limited and if the server went down it could mess things up. Then I ran out of space on my hard drives.  Changing over hard drives on a server is not easy.  Then I had a hard drive failure, which was an annoyance but not a disaster because I had backups.  However, replacing it and getting everything back up was a very BIG annoyance.

Going fast forward the Great Recession hit and “we” became “I” as the business retrenched.  “The Office” became my dining room, and “the network” was one PC.  As a result of the Recession, I began to seek work out of state, and that required a laptop.  I carried my files with me on a thumb drive, and the hassle with that is that I had to remember to download the updated files to the computer when I got home. Then one day I left for a project in Upstate New York, and I had forgotten my thumb drive.  I found I could download the files I needed from my backup service (Carbonite).  That was a revelation – I no longer had to carry around a thumb drive.  I also had subscribed to Google for its cloud drive, so I could simply upload the finished to Google.  Pretty cool.

As all good things have to end, so did the Great Recession.  “I” has become “We” again, and “The Office” is The Office.  However, I kind of liked working from the Dining Room.  If I had to get a project out, I could jump up out of bed and get right to work.  If I had to work late, I was home, and when I got tired I could just stop.  So, how should this be handled?  I looked at the idea of getting a network again and setting  up a VPN.  With faster Internet speeds, it ought to work.  However, there were some issues.

First is security. I hired an employee that didn’t last very long (a few hours actually, but that’s another story).  He chose as his password “Pass2041”.  Well, that would take about 30 seconds longer for a good hacker to figure out than “Password” or Pass2014″.  The damage a hacker could do to my system is phenomenal.  I could protect the files easily enough with them synchronizing to Google Drive and a separate online back up service, and that was the key to my problem, but let me work up to it.  I looked into what it would take to get a server again.  I would have to buy a server, get it fit with the right hard drive configuration, and buy large hard drives.  Then I would have to get the software, which is expensive, and set it up, which is time consuming and/or expensive.  OR, I could skip all that.

Google Drive was pretty good in that it constantly uploaded my files up to the Cloud.  What I didn’t realize was I could set it up to synchronize the files on my computer hard drive with what was on Google Drive.  I can also share certain files on Google Drive with the employees.  I could share the project files, the reference files, and database files with them, and they could have them synchronized to their computers through the magic of Google Drive.  I could synchronize everything to my computer at work and the hard drive at home.  My employees could work from home if they wanted to, a coffee shop, or a hotel room.  No longer are we dependent on “The Office”.  “The Office” became anywhere we were.  This was perfect.  The physical office is now a place to meet and collaborate, not a place have to spend 8 to 12 hours a day of our lives at.  Perfect.

Oh, and for security.  Someone stole my laptop shortly after I set the system up.  I changed the password to Google Drive, and I had a hard password for Windows on the laptop.  My files are safe.  No one got into the system.  As for finance files – we use Quickbooks Online, so there are no finance files on the computer.  If the office burns down, I lose some cheap furniture and maybe my laptop.  It’s a minor annoyance, not a disaster.  If we have an extended power outage I don’t have to run to the office to shut down the server.  If and when we need more drive storage, we sign for more storage from Google.  There is no changing hard drives.  I don’t have network software to keep up, or the need for antivirus software on a server to maintain.  If an employee opens the wrong e-mail it won’t set loose a virus to get across everybody’s computer and destroy everything.

The system still is only as good as the people involved.  If someone has a password of “3333”, there is a good chance that a hacker can get in and mess up the files on your Google Drive. That’s why I also backup with another service.  Also, if I didn’t have a password on my laptop that got stolen, or a weak password, someone could get sensitive information.  That can be an issue.  It is not advisable to have sensitive files up in Google if they are going to be synchronized to a laptop.  Laptops are highly pilferable, and if you travel with one, it will eventually be stolen.  Also, the synchronization takes time, and sometimes stops and has to be restarted.  So, your files may not always be up to date.

However, at the state we are at with technology, this is the best solution for our needs.  Two years from now, there may be a better system, and when it comes about, we’ll switch over to it.

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Building Your Own Computer

Last week we realized we needed a new computer, and after a bit of debate, we ended up building our own.  The old one wasn’t able to properly handle the 3d graphics we are going to, and the processor was outdated.  We use some pretty calculation intensive software for the container design, and more and more we are designing in 3d.  Also, my son in his undergraduate curriculum is studying computer programming and game design, so the stuff he is using pushes the limits of just about everything.  The first idea was to upgrade the processor, and replace the graphics card, but when we went to the computer store (Micro Center), there was a sale on mother boards.  Then, after getting back to the office, we discovered the motherboard didn’t fit in the case of the old computer.  So, it was time for another visit to a computer store down the road to buy a brand new case.

We put everything together, and discovered Microsoft Windows didn’t want to work.  That kind of makes sense, all we had left was the hard drive.  Time for another trip to Micro Center to by Windows 7.  Then there was another discovery – the original plan was to use the hard drives that came off our old server.  They were fairly new, and large (1 Terabyte each) and we had two of them laying around.  However, they were formatted for the old server, a three disk RAID array.  The operating system would not install on them.  So, we had to install the old drive from the computer we had scrapped, install Windows on it, and then format the other two drives.

The end result was an entire weekend spent building a computer from the ground up.  How was the price?  We saved $400.00.  True, the hard drives were cannibalized from other computers, but if we bought a computer off the shelf, those drives would have sat unused.  Given my son and I are technology nerds, the weekend spent building the computer was kind of fun.  Other than the cost, if you build your own computer you can tailor it to exactly what you want and need.  So, if you feel brave, let me outline how you can do it based on my experience.

The computer, almost complete

First, unless you build computers day in and day out, it will take you much longer than you think it should.  It’s like fixing a toilet.  In my early years I worked as a plumber’s helper.  I have rebuilt I don’t know how many toilets.  However, since I don’t do that every day, I always forget something at the hardware store, and I have to make multiple trips.  One time in New Jersey the lady at the hardware store actually got mad at me because I came back twice (go figure?).  It will probably be the same for you if you build your own computer.

Also, if you don’t buy the stuff at the right place, the computer can quickly cost you much more than buying one off the shelf.  I actually was surprised this time, because previously I was able to buy computers already made that were exactly what I wanted that were cheaper.  I found in the Atlanta area that Micro Center in Duluth is very cheap for parts.  However, you may want to see what they have on sale on the floor first if saving money is your object.

Just to illustrate the price issue- we put Windows 7 Professional on the computer, and we bought the OEM version at Micro Center.  The cost?  $135.00.  Checking online, you can buy Windows 7 Professional Full Version at Office Depot for $299.99.  Understand, if you are building a new computer, you CAN’T use a Windows 7 Upgrade version.  What’s the difference between OEM version and “Full Version”?  The packaging is rather plain on the OEM version.  OEM version is to be sold to computer manufacturers.  The “Full Version” is meant to be sold to the public.  For an extra $170.00 or so you get a nice box.

Now, for the technical stuff.  Don’t expect to reuse the case your old computer came in.  Brand name computers tend to have smaller cases.  It’s probably to cut shipping costs down, and they really don’t care if they provide you with the space you might want to add stuff.  Buy a new case, and get a big one.  It will take up space, but it will be easier to work with.  You need at least 500 Watts of power for a computer with high end graphics, and a case that is well ventilated so you don’t overheat.

The next thing is the motherboard.  Don’t recycle an old one – generally motherboards are inexpensive, and the ones you buy are going to be much higher quality than the one that might come with a computer from a retail store.  Make SURE the motherboard is for the processor you are buying.  You don’t want motherboard that is for the Intel I7 processor and you are buying an AMD processor.

Obviously, you need a processor. The difference in prices for different level processors is very little until you get to the top of the line.  Then you might see as much as a thousand dollars jump in price.  It depends on what you are doing that determines the processor speed that is required.  For the most part an Intel I5 processor is good.  The higher speed processors are needed for more intense applications.  If you are using 3d software like Softplan, Revit, or other packages, get the I7.   For engineering applications, most programs will work just fine with an I5 processor, unless you are using a program that does Finite Element analysis.  Then you need an I7, because again your calculations will be intense.  There is a lot of argument about whether to use AMD or Intel.  AMD processors are much cheaper, but many people swear by Intel.  The last computer I bought has an AMD processor and I am happy with it.  My son refuses to consider anything but Intel.

Most motherboards come with graphics chips embedded in them, so you really don’t have to buy a graphics card. unless of course you are using some sort of 3d package.  CAD programs are fine with whatever comes on the motherboard, 2d graphics like you get with AutoCAD are not that intense, so this is one area you can save a lot of money.

You will need memory.  Don’t skimp here.  Even if you are just using your computer for web surfing, word processing, and bookkeeping, get a lot of memory.  Get 16 GB of memory, it will help prevent your computer from crashing if you have too many applications open, and everything will work much more smoothly.

The final thing you need is hard drives.  Generally, I don’t recommend recycling the old hard drives.  Hard drives are mechanical items, they are the one working item on your computer other than the fans that actually move.  There is a spinning platter and a moving arm that goes across the platter.  At some point in time the thing has to fail.  The longer you use the hard drive, the greater the chance it will fail.  I know I recycled older hard drives into the computer I built, but you should probably do as I say and not do as I do.  Hard drives are cheap, so risking data loss to save a few dollars is probably not worth it.  We back all our data up to an online service, so it’s a risk we are willing and able to take.

Now, as you put it all together, you need the right tools.  That means you need a good phillips head screw driver, and… well that’s about it.  You won’t get much in the way of instructions on how to put stuff together, so here are some important items:

1.  There are small brass spacers that come with your case.  They go between the motherboard and the case.  You need to use them to prevent your motherboard from shorting out on the case.

2.  Put the processor on the motherboard before you put the motherboard in the case.  There is a fan that goes on top of the processor, it has plastic connectors that go through the motherboard.  Make sure these are properly seated, otherwise the fan won’t cool the processor properly and your computer will shut itself down.

3.  Put the hard drives in the case before you install the motherboard.  That way you won’t break anything on your motherboard trying to squeeze your hard drive in.

4.  After you put in the hard drives, install your motherboard.  Remember to use the spacers.  Hold off on putting in any accessory or graphics cards, or memory.

5.  Attach the power to your hard drives and motherboard.  Attach cables from the SATA connections on your motherboard to your hard drive.

6.  Now you can put the memory, graphics card, and any expansion cards you have.  Don’t force anything, if you do you will break things and it will probably be a serious problem.  Look out for how the graphics card installs – there is a plastic locking mechanism on the motherboard that holds the card in.  I have successfully broken it on every computer I’ve worked on.  Things will still work, but the card won’t stay in well.

7.  With the computer case you should get some plastic ties.  Use these on the wires after everything is installed to keep them out of the way of fans and other items.  Pepper (my dog) got ahold of mine and I think she ate them.  Fortunately I had spares (I have a drawer of common computer stuff for emergencies).  So, it goes without saying, watch where you put stuff down and keep it away form dogs and small children.  Don’t close up the case yet.  You need to make sure everything works.

8.  When you start up the computer, it probably won’t work.  Expect this, and don’t worry (too much anyway).  You probably connected the power supply cables wrong, you’ll have to experiment on what gets connected where.  The connectors are fairly idiot proof, but there are still a number of ways you can hook power to the motherboard, and only one way will work.  There probably won’t be any documentation to tell you how to do it either.

9.  It’s fine to experiment with the cable connections.  However, disconnect the power from the computer before you change connections.  Otherwise you run the risk of frying everything.

10.  The final step – use the install software for the motherboard and peripherals to get everything working.

This whole process should take about two hours maximum, which means it will take you two days or longer.  Unless you build computers every day, that’s just the way it is.  Is it worth it?  I think it is, but the answer is dependent on how you like to spend your time.

For more information, check this series of videos on You Tube


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