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08 Carla the Country Geek

My Brilliant Computing Career
by Carla Schroder

The bulk of my work these days is free-lance technical writing, with a chunk
of freelance sysadminning for variety. I work from home, which is a little
horse ranch out in the middle of nowhere. No commute and a minimum of
annoyances. Heaven on earth. Like most writers, I got here via a roundabout
path.

Prehistoric Era

Starting way back in the misty dawn of time, I barely made it through high
school. School was a nightmare and a horror, and if it weren't for alcohol
and other abusable substances I would not have made it. So don't ask me to
warn your kids about the badness of substance abuse. After high school I
tried a number of the usual nothing jobs: telephone solicitor, fast food,
production line in a pill-packing factory. We took boxes of bulk vitamins and
bottled them under various labels. That's right, exact same pills shipping
out under both inexpensive and expensive labels.

That got boring and didn't pay much, so I went to work as a janitor. It was a
union shop, so it paid decently and had full benefits. Working nights was all
right, and snooping in people's stuff was fun. Oh the secret things people
bring to work that have nothing to do with work. What is it with folks who
can't get through a workday without porn?

Meanwhile I had a couple of sidelines going as an auto mechanic and
landscaper. I had a real mechanic's job in a shop for a short while, but
dealing with dingaling customers was too much. My boss and co-workers were
pretty good, though I suspect the novelty never wore off.

So I struck out on my own doing housecleaning and landscaping. My girlfriend
at the time was also my business partner. We had some hired staff, and I
learned two great lessons from that: 1. Don't go into business with a
romantic partner. Taking time off was almost impossible. I didn't mind
watching the business while GF took some time off, or having some off time to
myself, but she wouldn't go anywhere without me. 2. Managing employees is not
something I enjoy.

So after a few years of that both the GF and business went away. So for a
complete change of pace I went to massage school to learn to be a
professional massage therapist. It was an intensive year of anatomy,
physiology, and learning to treat for different problems, like sports
injuries, stress management, and pregnancy massage. That was all right; I
built up a great clientele and had a lot of fun. That lasted only a few
years, because I messed up my wrists. That is an occupational hazard for
massage therapists unfortunately.

First Computer

Back in the Windows 3.1 days I picked up a computer to use in my business. I
kept client records, printed business cards, did my bookkeeping- the usual
stuff. Of course I had way more fun tinkering with the hardware, logging on
to bulletin board services, playing MUDs, and downloading and trying out all
kinds of shareware. Netscape 1.0, Trumpet Winsock, 2400bps modem, "surfing
the Web" was all brand-new.

I started picking up computer-fixing jobs, they just sort of floated in and
found me. My first writing sale was to Computer Bits Magazine in 1995, a
whopping $50 I got. Even better than money was editorial freedom, I pretty
much got to write about whatever I wanted. (Computer Bits is still alive and
kicking, which is quite amazing for an independent regional publication.) I
wrote about computer-related health issues, such as repetitive strain
injuries and chronic headaches. That evolved into a regular column "Happy
Healthy Computering."

Which then evolved into a computer column, "Basic Computing" in 1997.
Somewhere in there I discovered Red Hat Linux, and knew I had really found a
home. Then that evolved into "Business Linux."

The main thing that set me apart from other geeks and writers was two things:
1. I sysadminned both Windows and Linux systems, and 2. I had a knack for
addressing real-world problems and issues that were interesting to wide range
of readers.

So I putted along doing a lot of training on Windows: MS Word, Excel, and
Quickbooks were the big three. It's rather amusing when folks complain about
the Linux learning curve- they are blind to the thousands of Windows-related
training centers, courses, books, and certifications. The biggest lie of all
time is "Windows is easy."

I moved to a different city in 1998 and took a full-time job with a large
online computer publisher, at a branch office. That was 18 months of pure
hell; there were unsavory things going on behind the scenes that finally
resulted in me and another person leaving, and finally the whole office was
shut down a few months later. The unsavory stuff had nothing to do with me, I
was just an appalled bystander. So I moved yet again and back to freelancing
I went.

Big Writing Money

Early in 2000, I got a taste of the Big Writing Money. Yahoo Internet Life,
one of those useless, flashy "lifestyle" rags, hired a friend of mine to
write a regular column. $2500 for 250 snotty words. I toiled as uncredited
ghostwriter, and got 40%. That didn't last long, because we were both
disgusted with the blatant pandering to advertisers, and we didn't work well
together. What I really wanted to do was write nice in-depth howtos.

So I started looking for publications to pitch article ideas to. Then one job
dropped in my lap. The manager of one of Intel's "micro-sites", as they
called them, wanted me to do a series of Linux compiler/RAD reviews. gcc,
Intel compiler for linux, QT, and Kylix. A series of six at $1500 each. She
liked my Computer Bits articles, 'cause they had sass. So I said yes.

Well that was interesting. I was hired because of my "sass." But the editorial
staff devoted most of their energies to removing all traces of personality.
And larding the articles with trademark notices, disclaimers, and pointers to
Intel products. I swear Intel is the most paranoid company on Earth.

Then I discovered IBM Developerworks. I pitched a few articles to them, and
some were accepted. They paid $1500 for an article, $2500 for a tutorial,
which is simply an article formatted in the most annoying way possible,
forcing the reader to click a million times to read it. They are really good
to write for. No paranoia, no stuffing marketing messages into your articles.

Then I saw a posting on a LUG list asking for authors. I followed up, and that
turned out to be Crossnodes.com, which is now Enterprise Networking Planet,
http://www.enterprisenetworkingplanet.com/ I've been writing regular columns
for them since early 2002. They pay me $500 per thousand-word column. Not
riches, but not bad.

Linux Cookbook Is Born

Then summer of 2003 I lost my mind and made a book proposal to O'Reilly. They
accepted it, curse them, and I spent a year working harder than I ever worked
in my life. The book is out now and selling well, yay. I negotiated a $10,000
advance, which was paid out in four chunks, against a 10% royalty. (I'm
telling you these things because it's in their interest for authors to not
know what the other ones are getting.) I may hire an attorney to negotiate my
next book deal. My uncle is a retired agent, and he says "A lawyer you pay
per job. An agent you pay forever."

If I had to do it over again, I would have gotten more formal network
administration training. And I would have built my team of support
professionals- business lawyer, certified public accountant, and Service
Corps of Retired Executives counselor- a lot sooner. If I could go back in
time and really do things differently, I would have gone to college and
gotten a liberal arts degree.

Overall I have few regrets. I love being independent and working on my own. I
like being in charge, and targeting who I want to do work for. Working for
other people is itchy and galling. I decided at a young age that I was not
going to work at something I did not enjoy and wait until retirement to have
fun. Sure, my income varies a lot, but as far as financial security goes I'm
in a better position than all the folks who thought their employers were
going to take care of them. Best of all, I enjoy my work.

--
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Carla Schroder
http://www.tuxcomputing.com
check out my new book, the "Linux Cookbook", the ultimate Linux user's
and sysadmin's guide! http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/linuxckbk/
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