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The IT Freelancer Power Up - EP. 41

This episode of Conversations with Tech Experts features Scott Fell, Web Developer and EE Fellow. He joins Experts Exchange  Director of Operations Thomas Bernal to discuss his perspective as a moderator on EE and the future of the technology world. The conversation begins with Scott telling the story of how he discovered EE & why it has been so beneficial to him as someone who works for himself. They go on to discuss the future of the platform and the technology industry as a whole.

About the Expert

Scott FellDeveloper & Coffee Roaster
From Scott:

We all have our childhood tech stories. I grew up during the time of the Apollo Program. When we used the word Computer, the first thing that would come to mind is a large rectangular box with large spinning tape reels and flashing square lights. You would ask the Computer a question, and it would magically spit out an answer. At least it was probably the science fiction version.

In grade school, we had a class field trip to one of the auto manufacturing plants in Chicago at the time. I don't remember much about the factory other than I remember it looking like what you would expect an old Chicago factory to look like. They kept talking about how much they relied on the Computer to control things moving around the plant and inventory. Towards the end of the tour, we got to see the computer room. It was just like science fiction. The computer room was behind a big glass wall with large metal, rectangular cabinets with the spinning tape reels and some hard drives containing the old 14" platters stored in what looked like a cake storage container. And, of course, the men in the computer room were decked out in white lab coats.  

One thing that stuck in my mind is that they explained that the Computer could take in information from "all over" and help determine what consumers would want, from the type of car to the color. Today we would call this AI, but back in the late 60's/early 70's, it was probably just statistics. That statement of being able to predict future needs always intrigued me.

In 7th grade, I was introduced to BASIC programming that started with flow charts. We had our green plastic templates used to create shapes that showed our program's process and flow. Learning to flow chart was a big eye-opener in getting thoughts organized.

From flow charts, we moved to write code on special coding paper. The next step was to use our #2 pencils and fill in punch cards, later processed and returned in two or three days. After the first time getting a printout of card reading errors, you learned to be extra careful in filling out punch cards because of the turnaround time to get them back.

In College, I took a couple of COBAL and data processing classes. It was again writing out code on coding paper. This time it was made for COBAL and helped plan out how to print out data. As underclassmen, we were not allowed to get on any keyboard. Like in grade school, we had to turn our programming sheets in and wait for somebody else to convert our code to punch cards. When we got the cards back, it was standing in line to hand the cards to somebody to run them through. 10 to 30 minutes later, you would get your printout. Figure out what you did wrong. Pull out one punch card that needs to be updated and replace it with the one you punched by hand only to stand in line again to have your program run.

The process was painful, and you got writers cramp having to handwrite all of that code. It did give you an appreciation for spending a reasonable amount of time setting up your flow chart and converting that to code. The more time you spent on your setup, the faster you could finish and run near bug-free on the first run-through.

After College, I went to work in the family retail business. At that time, we had about 10,000' house accounts' where we allowed people to charge their purchases. Each month we would send out monthly billing statements.  In the 80's we were paying the Robert F White company about $1,500 each month to spit out the billing statements from our receipts.

That was significant money back then. And worse, there was no transactional data saved. If we wanted a report like our top 100 customers, it would cost a one-time $1,500 plus extra each time it ran.  The time was in the early 1980s, and there was a lot of buzz about one-to-one marketing through technology. Basically, personalized form letters to show we knew about our customers without reaching that creep factor.

One of the first computers we looked at to purchase for our own was a desk unit that included a printer, monitor, CPU, and keyboard and boasted 10 megabytes of hard drive space. "More than we would ever need in a lifetime."

The Computer we looked at was priced at $13,000 back then. In addition, the software had some type of upfront cost in the $2,000 range plus a monthly maintenance fee. The retail software was a program that was geared more for a much larger operation. Plus, it required tracking inventory which would have been a nightmare for a small operation. So the search continued.

By the late '80s, prices for computers and software became not only more affordable but better geared for small businesses. I ended up buying the IBM PS/2 P70, complete with a plasma monochrome screen.  I had an Osborne in College, and this was a big step up.  I chose the luggable so I could work from home in the evening.

For software, I selected an accounting package called SBA, and it ran on top of FoxPro. The software package boasted as being customizable, and this is what started to push me into programming. The software came with three or four three-ring binders. One was a user's manual, and two were complete record layouts. They outlined all the tables, fields, field types, and relationships. You would not find something that complete today. It was well documented, and reading how they put all of this together is what I believe helped me better understand how relational databases worked.

I mentioned I had the Osborne/1 Computer that came with Wordstar, SuperCalc, and DBase2. The spreadsheet software was fascinating in that you could create different models and have everything update based on changing just one cell.

What I loved was playing around with DBase. I wrote a small point of sale program with no hard drive, just dual 5.25 disks and 64k of ram. The language was used for DBase was very similar to FoxPro, which was based on the Dbase language.

That made for an easy transition to understand how the SBA accounting system worked and create custom programming.

It took me about a month to get the accounts receivable side of things up and running. It was very important to have all the data hand-typed within the month while also keeping up with the new sales to transition from paying Robert White to process our statements. It was a lot of work and late nights and weekends to make the deadline. It only took three months of not paying a service provider a monthly fee to pay off the $5K in Computer and software. It also saved time in accounts payable because some statements would have 30+ invoices and writing a check for each was very time-consuming.

In 1995 we ended up closing the business. I worked for one of the Chicago newspaper groups as a co-op advertising manager for two properties. The first two weeks were all training. I was always fascinated by newspapers about how everything has to come together each day to print out all that information.  It didn't take long to fully understand how complex the entire operation was, from Circulation to Production to Sales and Editorial. We were one big disorganized family that didn't talk to each other, but somehow, the paper made it to the street each morning.

In my two-week training period, I had one day with the marketing department. That would end up being another piece of the puzzle that would change the course of my carrier path. What I found out is that we had a vast amount of different types of research data. We spent six figures on a consumer study for the MSA that included readership. We subscribed to a national consumer segmentation system called Prism from Claritas. We also did some in-house phone surveys. All of this data was used for acquisition and retention. After understanding what we had, I knew we could use this for our advertising clients.

Within a month after my training, I wrote up a two-page memo on using all of this data for advertising and direct mail performing one-to-one marketing.  Like the secret of my success, the memo found its way to the president.  The timing turned out to be spot on because it was not long after my boss's boss called me into his office and explained they were going to shut down the co-op department.  They liked what I outlined and wanted me to pursue this as new business development.

As co-op manager, my job was to make four-legged calls with the sales reps and use co-op advertising to upsell. I changed my title to Strategic Marketing Manager and continued to make four-legged calls, but now it was to leverage our data and research to increase sales. Having already been in a small family business for ten years gave me the credibility to work with hundreds of small businesses and be able to talk on their level.

I was producing about a million dollars in revenue by working with our advertisers, analyzing their database, creating a profile of what their best customers looked like, and finding more of their best prospect through database marketing.

At that time, the new home market was exploding, and I worked with most of the more prominent new home builders analyzing their traffic data (where people sign in to view their models).  Part of my service was to profile their data. I would append the basics like age, income and wealth. We also would append segmentation data from Prizm as well as what I used to call the, 'fun' data, which was supposed to let you know if they had a propensity to boat or hunt or like crafting.  The 'fun' data was actually the worst indicator, although it was what everybody wanted to know.  Geography, as it would turn out, was the leading indicator.

I would later merge with our "Internet" department. We had a webmaster, two web developers, two data analysts, and we shared two research analysts at the peak. At that time, the websites were static. I had a friend call me asking about creating a search engine for beer yeast. I knew how to do this in access and understood that access could somehow be used on a web server but had no clue about HTML. Our webmaster at the time was no designer but had the technical ability to make the search work on a 'white' page. It was a matter of having the designers do their part to make the pieces of HTML that we could replace with the dynamic content we programmed.

What made this enjoyable for me is Classic ASP used VBScript, and that was very close to the same language FoxPro used and that I understood.  

Each new project had it's own challenge. My main source for writing ASP code at the time was I remember searching for problems and running into but couldn't get the company to pay for a subscription. I remember cursing at the screen every time I found a search result I needed, and EE blocked it.

One of my direct mail clients showed me a web-based program that one of their suppliers used to provide leads. They wanted to know if we could do the same for them but not rely on this one vendor as they had many. Working on this would turn out to be one of our most ambitious web projects. The system allowed one marketing manager to send out leads via the web to thirty sales agents and get automated follow-up tracking.    

I would eventually go off on my own taking on these types of projects. I didn't learn HTML right away. Instead, I would job the design and layout to the web designers I worked with in the past. It didn't take long to catch on to HTML, then CSS, and a little longer for javascript by making my updates.

In 2010 I knew I needed more help than what I could read and turned to EE. With the knowledge I had already, I started answering questions to pay my way to access EE. What I found out is I learned more from answering questions than asking and caught the EE bug to continue answering questions.

Answering questions meant researching to make sure I had things right, leading to more learning and seeing how my peers worked. Participating here has helped me tremendously in many ways. I am grateful I have been allowed to take on increased volunteer roles here at EE as Topic Advisor, Cleanup Volunteer and Moderator for 5 years.

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Conversations with Tech Experts is a monthly podcast where we discuss timely industry topics with the people on the front line. In this series, we talk to developers, consultants, CTOs, and more to give you exclusive insights from the best of the best. We'll bring you emerging trends, tips for success, and relatable anecdotes from industry experts who know their stuff.