Careers: Interviews
Celebrated IT Expert and Author Shares Her Views

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Susan Harkins.

Susan Sales Harkins is an independent consultant and the author of numerous articles and books on database and Web technologies. Her most recent books are: “Upgrader's Guide to Microsoft Office System 2003,” “ICDL Practice Questions Exam Cram ,” “ICDL Exam Cram 2,” “Absolute Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Access 2003,” and “Absolute Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Access 2002,” with Mike Gunderloy by Que, “Mastering Dreamweaver MX Databases,” by Sybex and “SQL: Access to SQL Server,” by Apress. You can reach Susan at ssharkins@bellsouth.net. Currently, Susan volunteers as the Publications Director for Database Advisors at http://www.databaseadvisors.com.

Discussion:

Q: Susan, you are a noted author and IT expert so we are fortunate to have you do this interview—thank you.

A: Thanks for asking!

Q: Describe your journey into computers, writing, and the lessons learned along the way?

A: It began as an act of desperation. After a few years of marital bliss, I found myself single with two kids to support. One of my first jobs was with an accounting firm in the early 80’s. While there, they purchased a PC and trained everyone in the company—everyone except me that is. They told me I didn’t need to know how to use it, so I taught myself during lunch. They weren’t impressed by my initiative or interested in what I learned, so I found a new job where they were interested, and I just continued that trend.

My interest in computers was initiated by survival, but I genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to exercise my brain. Personal computing was a new field and computer science (as a study) didn’t really exist yet. I filled the niche and finally worked myself into freelance consulting in Lotus 1-2-3. The opportunities were endless because everything was new and totally open to anyone willing to put in the time. No one cared what my college major was or how many years experience I had. All they cared about was could I help them—and so that’s what I did. I helped people use their software more efficiently. In those days, it was called “applications development,” and I guess it still is but it is just so much larger than it was then. Then, projects took hours or days to complete, not months. The goals were much smaller.   

Q: Can you detail your work with Database Advisors?

A: Database Advisors is a Web-based support group that’s owned and operated by volunteers. The group consists of about 350 members—developers, consultants, and users. Originally, the emphasis was on MS Access, but the group now supports a number of areas. There are now a number of technical listservs, each dedicated to specific technical areas. I volunteer as the Publications Director, and we try to publish a bimonthly newsletter when the content’s sufficient.

Q: Describe your most surprising experience?

A: This interview—no kidding. I’m not making decisions that shape tomorrow; I’m helping people do their work. So, frankly—the idea that anyone would be interested in my thoughts regarding the industry surprises me. I’m excited, but I’m still surprised.

Q: Do have any humorous stories to share?

A: Are you implying that developers and IT personnel have a sense of humor???  Well, I do have one fateful story. In 1992, I became an Editor-in-chief of a new spreadsheet journal (Quattro Pro) for The Cobb Group, which use to be based here in Kentucky. I was a spreadsheet developer at the time. A year or so later, the guy in the office next to me launched a journal on a new MS product—MS Access. I didn’t have a clue what it was and didn’t care. Another year or so later, my boss comes in, sits down and lists several journals that are up for grabs and wants to know if I’ll take the MS Access journal. “No” was my response. Three times we had that conversation. The third time I finally said, “You’re not really asking are you?” It was finally his turn to say “No.”  He spent a little bit of time giving me the normal boss strokes, “You’re the only one that can really take this on right now…” nonsense, but that decision did change my life in a way I couldn’t  possibly anticipate at the time. 

The desktop database was a brand new field to me and I wrote some pretty bad stuff back then. Considering some of the discussions prompted by my articles at TechRepublic.com and Builder.com, some might argue that I still write some bad stuff, but I like to think it’s just a difference of opinions.

Q: Detail your current work? 

A: Right now, I’m working with Mike Gunderloy on an Access/VBA book for Que, Automating Microsoft Access with VBA. In between chapters, I still supply articles for ElementK Journals, Access Advisor, TechRepublic.com and others. Interested publishers might want to know that my schedule opens up in June. 

Q: Can you describe the ICDL program and share your most important best practices?

A: I can best describe the ICDL program by telling you what it is not. The ICDL program is not an assessment tool for developers or advanced skill sets. The ICDL exams assess one’s basic computer competency. An employer knows that the accredited person is familiar with the computer, its basic components, the file structure, and the more common software applications. My recommendation to anyone considering accreditation is to find a computer and actually work through the exercises in the book. There’s just no substitute for actual hands-on experience.

Q: Can you share your ten most valuable guidelines on the ICDL from your book, Exam Cram 2 ICDL? 

A: 1) Hands on practice
2) Hands on practice
3) Hands on practice
4) Hands on practice
5) Hands on practice
6) Hands on practice
7) Hands on practice
8) Hands on practice
9) Hands on practice
10) Review, review, review

I’m not trying to be facetious—that’s just the honest truth.

Q: What future books, columns, and articles can we expect from you?

A: There’s a companion to the ICDL Exam Cram book, ICDL Practice Questions Exam Cram 2, with Mike Gunderloy by Que. In addition, Upgrader’s Guide to Microsoft Office System 2003, and Automating Microsoft Access 2003 with VBA, both with Mike Gunderloy, by Que will be out soon.

Q: What’s in the future for Microsoft and the Open Source movement?

A: Resistance is futile. Open source does seem to be a major trend and MS will adjust to the market demands. The door’s open and even MS can’t shut it. In the end, Microsoft will use open source to its own advantage and those predicting that open source will be the beginning of Microsoft’s end, will be disappointed.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: Running Microsoft’s PR department?
Seriously, in five years, I’ll be doing less technical writing and publishing more stories and books in children’s literature. I don’t see myself ever leaving the technical field, but I want to spend less time in it. 

Q: What are the most important trends to watch, and please provide some detailed recommendations?

A: I can’t give one specific trend. Microsoft and Sun are collaborating—that’s something I predicted would happen months and months ago. The venture will accomplish little but appease many.

The truth is, there are just too many options, too many choices, too many paths. Your guess is as good as mine anymore. Apologies all around if I sound negative because I don’t mean to, but where we are today is so far from where we were 20 years ago that I can’t even begin to get my head around where we might be in twenty more. Some innovative technology will make its way to the forefront and we’ll all have to adjust—that’s been the trend of the last 20 years and I predict that’ll be the trend for the next 20.

The one thing we do have now that we didn’t have then is choices. You know, when I go to the grocery I pull my favorites from the shelves and I don’t even look at the competitors. You can’t do that in the computer industry—doing that will make you obsolete. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m about ready to become obsolete. The alternative is mind-boggling to me. Frankly, I’m weary of all the choices and all the growth. I’m ready to retire under a tree and watch birds and play with my grandkids.

Q: List the best resources for technology and business professionals.

A: 1)My favorite resource is database advisors (http://www.databaseadvisors.com). The truth is, if someone on one of those lists can’t answer your question, there probably isn’t a solution.
2)http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0972262903/inktomi-bkasin-20/ref%3Dnosim/104-7219111-5950365 -- “The Hod Carrier: Leadership Lessons Learned on a Ladder,” Absolutely the best book on business philosophy I’ve read.
3) http://www.ittoolbox.com
4) http://www.sqlteam.com/
5) http://www.mvps.org/access/
6) http://www.helenfeddema.com
7) http://www.wopr.com/
8) http://www.experts-exchange.com/Databases/MS_Access/

Q: Who/what do you think are the winners and losers in IT in next five years and why?

A: The winners are anyone with a little initiative and a little time. However, I don’t see much of a future for the individual IT consultant. Individuals are going to have to form groups—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is impossible to stay abreast of all the technology and give clients the best advice, day after day. Who can be an expert at everything? I no longer consider myself an IT consultant in the big scheme of things and most of the time I pass along leads to others. I don’t intend to work that hard anymore. 

Q: You pick five topic areas and then provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.

A: 1) Area 1: MS Access
I don’t know everything there is to know and I never will.
2) Area 2: MS Office
I don’t know everything there is to know and I never will.
3) Area 3: VBA
I don’t know everything there is to know and I never will.
4) Area 4: SQL
I don’t know everything there is to know and I never will.
5) Area 5:ADO/DAO
I don’t know everything there is to know and I never will.

Again, I apologize if I sound facetious, but there is absolutely nothing I could share that someone else out there doesn’t already know. There are no unpublished gems—unless you’re discussing a brand new topic. Like all literature, the stories have all been told, we just keep changing the names and places. My talent is in showing the ordinary user how to use the software better and more efficiently. I help, I don’t discover.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: I have a networked system of three development systems and two spares. All of the systems run on Win 98 or later. None of them are used as a server – I leave that to others. It’s totally unimpressive.

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

A: Q1: Do you have enough work?
A1: Absolutely. If there were more hours in the day, I could easily fill them up.

Q2: Do you plan to change your focus anytime in the near future?
A2: Yes.

Q3: If so, why?
A3: The industry is growing faster than I can assimilate it. I’m tired and I want to take a real vacation.

Q4: What do you see as your major challenge in the coming year(s)?
A4: Keeping up with the changing technology.

Q5: What do you plan to do about it?
A5: Hire or retire.

Q: Susan, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: Thank you for asking me. My peers constantly astound and surprise me with their accomplishments. It’s been a fun ride.

Copyright Network Professional Association® 1994-2017. All Rights Reserved.
NPA Privacy Statement