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Technology a boon to small firms

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Question - I work for a tiny firm that has big organizations as its customers. How can a small firm such as ours, that has fewer than 10 employees but a good product, succeed in reaching the thousands of firms that are our potential customers? Stephane Colin, France (stephane@hal5.com)

Answer - Small companies have big opportunities, bigger now than ever.

The evolving communications infrastructure makes it easier for modest-size companies to work cooperatively with each other and with larger companies. This contributes to a trend toward specialization, as companies focus on their core competencies and turn over other tasks to specialists.

While this trend doesn't assure success for any particular company, of course, it provides a climate in which small companies that do something well can thrive.

I have three suggestions for small companies that want to take advantage of evolving technology in the evolving economy.

First, get help if you need it. Few small businesses have internal expertise in information technology.

In the United States, for example, it is estimated that only 15 percent of small businesses have a full-time, dedicated in-house support staff to deal with technology issues. But this doesn't mean that your company should forgo expert assistance.

Find a qualified, local partner or value-added provider to help you define a technology strategy and implementation plan. This person or firm may sell computer software and hardware, but they can also add value by getting a computer system up and running, designing customized software solutions for a particular business and serving as a technical support center.

It won't be hard to locate help because increased demand has provoked a tremendous surge in the number of computer consultants and value-added providers that service small businesses.

Second, get networked. Big companies already take advantage of the tremendous potential of computer networks, but most small companies have yet to use local-area networks (LANs).

Once you get a LAN working, you can use internal electronic mail, share data or hardware resources and even provide remote access to employees so that they can access their e-mail and files at night or on the road. Paperless invoicing, electronic collaboration and other productive technologies are as available to small companies as they are to large ones.

Third, get on the Internet. Small businesses can use e-mail to communicate with the outside world, and the Internet's World Wide Web offers strong opportunities for research, marketing and sales. The Internet represents the future of computing and communications, and you don't want to be left out.

Just being on the Internet won't assure success. You have to offer something that differentiates you from competitors, a specialization or track record that makes you attractive to prospective customers.

The Web is a magnifier that makes it easy for people to find you and interact with you. You can use it to share references or to document the projects you've done. Still, the heart of your value proposition to customers has to be something unique, something you do better or less expensively than your competitors.

The benefits of being good at something are much higher when marketplace information is communicated efficiently. The Internet offers a dramatic improvement in communication, which is why it will amplify the opportunities for the best companies.

At the same time, the Internet may diminish opportunities for companies that have their weaknesses exposed.

Question - Does the constant criticism from some sections of the media and industry ever get you down? Bobby (Elliott@email.msn.com)

Answer - Yes.

Question - Is it absolutely necessary to have math proficiency in order to do software development or programming? Yura (cassiel2@juno.com)

Answer - To be really good at software development, you have to think in a very logical way, which happens to be the way you have to think about things to understand mathematics. So it's very helpful to learn and enjoy mathematics.

If somebody very young wants to be a great programmer, I'd certainly encourage him or her to spend a lot of time on mathematics.

The world of high-level mathematics is diverse, and only discrete algebra maps directly onto programming constructs. Many people who program don't understand how trigonometric functions work or how floating-point libraries work.

So is it absolutely necessary to have math proficiency to be a good software engineer? No, not absolutely. We do find some people who are incredibly good programmers who never took much mathematics. But if you learn math, you'll be a better programmer.