Tricks and Tools of the Tech Trade

A few days ago I was in a Costco and I came across a display of solar portable panels with a company representative giving demonstrations to whomever would stop long enough to speak to him. Me, being always curious about the current state of various technologies, stopped to speak with him. After discussing the power output per panel, how many it would take to power my laptop (4) and how the system worked, he asked what sort of engineer I am. I admitted to him I wasn’t an engineer (at least in the sense that he was thinking), but I knew a bit about pretty much anything with electrons running through it.

Last week, Dice’s Mark Feffer sent an email to me asking what my specialty is. Meanwhile, I have met at least 3 other people in the IT field this past week and a half. All of them eventually asked what my specialty is. The thing is, my specialty is actually the opposite of a specialist: I know most if not all of technology available, what is coming and what is possible now to integrate them. This allows me to do my job of recommending electronics and computer technology pretty well.

How do I do it? Read on to learn what resources I tap every time it is time to buy any electronics…

“How do you do it?”

The most recent person I met, Joe, was also a self-described “Jack of all computer trades” specializing in Electronic Medical Records. (I hear it is a booming business, especially with government giving incentives to hospitals and other healthcare organizations to go digital.) He asked me something in which I replied, “I’m always learning something new.” He told me he knew I was “worth my salt” because I admitted that I am still learning.

At the Costco, the solar power representative asked me, “Where do you get your information from?” after I told him I try to keep up with both the current research and products coming to market. I replied, “I don’t have any one source, I use various news outlets,” both established and up-and-coming. Just keeping up with technology and science could be a full time job though. If I wanted to I could spend 8 hours a day reading product reviews, specifications sheet, white papers, and news. My Instapaper has at least 100 bookmarked articles in the “to read” section at any one time as a result. I try to divvy up my time between learning, staying current, writing and working on projects in addition to a managing few clients’ electronics and technology needs.

Buying & Research Resources Galore!

I use aggregators such as Digg.com, and listen to the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Tech Report podcast on Stitcher as I get ready in the morning. I frequently visit Mashable.com, cnn.com/tech, Gizmodo.com, bbc.com/future and AppleInsider.com for the latest science and tech rumors and news. I even check out reddit.com—and not just for “teh LOLZ.” As far as twitter feeds go, ArsTechnica.com tweets are worth it considering at least 70% of their article tweets interest me. Thinkgeek.com has interesting things in their twitter feed on occasion. O’Reilly Publishing’s founder, Tim O’Reilly, is the gold standard of personal, primarily of informational twitter feeds. I follow a few friends’ feeds who work in the tech fields.

But in addition to new, I also have a few sites and programs I use all the time when it comes time to spend my clients’ or my own money. Yesterday, I walked out of a local Fry’s with product worth $150 retail for $78: a 48% discount. After tax the discount was ~44%. My personal commission would have been 30% of what I saved my client, if I was charging him. If you want to see what I used to get the discount, check out my dice article on iOS apps to Save You Time and Money. While I was there I “jammed up” (to use Des’ phrase) a few salespeople about their speaker offerings.

I also use sites such as dealnews.comnextag.com, pricespider.com (although they tend to favor Amazon) to look for deals. Thanks to brick and mortar stores trying to  compete with the Web, Fry’s Electronics will match web prices plus tax  as long as the item isn’t from Amazon marketplace or a private seller. Just be sure to bring a print-out of the web page with the item price & model number on it. Print the headers too so the precise URL & date is on it. This will make getting the discount easier.

I Could Have Saved him 25%

While I was waiting to get my discount, another customer was purchasing 5 Polk Audio TL1 satellite speakers. (They sound pretty good for the $80/speaker price Fry’s charges.) The thing is, they wouldn’t give him the Internet discount ($60/speaker) which would have saved him $100. The salesperson stated to him that Polk sets the price, and the listing he had was not an authorized dealer. Frankly, he should have walked out, but he rolled over and took the hit. Had he walked away, they might have felt compelled to give him that price considering the invoice is less than the sale price, and they would have gotten the customer’s positive mindshare.

Shop Local, Leverage Global

These days it sucks to be a brick and mortar operation, but considering the big box stores such as Wal*Mart and Best Buy, have driven mid-range boutique audio/video stores out of business, it is just payback. And as my friend Bryan always says, “Payback’s a bitch.”

But for my money, I try to support local small chain stores* (*not so local since they are now in 3 states.) such as Video Only which relocated to San Mateo after their Cathedral Hill location had to shut down. (The Cathedral Hill hotel still sits unoccupied to this day.) At Video Only, the salesperson probably could have answered my question I jammed up the Fry’s audio salesperson with: What is the frequency of drop off on this Sub? Is it 40Hz? 32Hz? (Turns out it was 27Hz.)

Reference Sources

Speaking of specs. I usually turn to the manufacturers’ sites for spec, but find it easier to learn about products by downloading their manuals. Retrevo.com for manuals when the OEM site is un-acceptably bad. Retrevo also has a helpful product 2D matrix and aggregates reviews. But don’t bother reading Retrevo’s blog articles. They are written for people who know little to nothing about technology. That’s not bad if you do not know much. The problem is they are not fact checked. So, the information in the articles can be misleading, which in turn would lead to making bad technology choices. In fact, the best intro articles I have found about AV products are on B&H Photo’s In Depth, believe it or not. They are accurate and write about all the choices in a category, and what is important about as objectively as possible. Given my many years of evaluating technology, you would think I wouldn’t refer to these reference articles, but every time a new technology comes out, I have to learn what the heck A2DP is, and how good it is. (I am listening to my music on a pair of in-expensive Bluetooth A2DP headphones {that I got for 30% off by price matching at Best Buy} as I type this. “Mmmmm Skinny Puppy!”)

Why? And Why Share?

Why do I do this? Well (1) I am a consultant who needs to know this stuff so my clients: individuals and small businesses can allocate their resources wisely, (2) Time and money are usually at opposite sides of the limited resources equation. I don’t have a large of income, but with research, it is like I make 20%–25% more than I actually do.

I started personal electronics shopping for people earlier this year after I got a friend 40% off  and iPad case  on the spot, having never looked for iPad cases. Up until then I was just working short-term contracts for various companies. I considered the “wisdom” of sharing my resources with anyone who comes across this blog: after all, if anyone can do this stuff, my side business disappears right? Wrong.

I work on a philosophy of raising the technological literacy platform for everyone, so I can go on and do new and interesting things. My ultimate mission is to drag the world kicking and screaming into a future where biased information and deceptive advertising no longer work on the computing public. I don’t want everyone to work harder, I want everyone to be able to work smarter. I have turned down potentially lucrative jobs building sites I thought were unethical and ran counter to my beliefs. I’m not in it for the money: I’m in it for society. Besides, who needs a 6-digit income when I can accomplish the same thing on the 5-digit income? Spread the wealth and keep the economy going by keeping the economic sawmill’s water wheel turning.

Also, I want to divorce technology from an isolating influence: you see couples at restaurants both checking their iPhones and not talking to each other. I would rather create a system that takes care of the things that interrupt us during dinner, and set aside time to manage them and guide the computers at doing what they do best. My ultimate goal is to realize all the promises of technology and dump all the inconveniences, and truly advance this world into one where truth and wisdom guide our society for everyone’s benefit: lifting the platform, destroying inefficiencies, protect our privacy in this increasingly SoNet world, and making us the masters of technology instead of the reverse.

At best I probably have just 30 years to do it. So, I better get back to work.

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