There’s a certain irony in the fact that computer wizard Stephen Crawford never touched a keyboard until 1985 when he was in his early 30s.
“I came into the industry right at the fledgling stage of the birth of the computer age,” says the owner of Crawford Computer Consulting.
Now the former systems analyst for IBM has a stable of small business clients who rely on Crawford to get them organized and keep their computer systems working.
“I see my job as rescuing people from their computers. I don’t want to be entangled in business bureaucracy — I just want to solve technical difficulties. I like to arrive at a problem site, figure out what the problem is, fix it and I’m gone — problem, solution, bam-bam-bam, and I move on,” he said.
There’s been a learning curve from computer novice to Big Blue to independent contractor.
“I worked in a pharmaceutical lab doing manual inventory control with spreadsheets until IBM announced a need for people in inventory control and by virtue of my inventory experience — even non-computer based I was hired,” he said. “When I showed up for work, I thought everybody there must be a computer genius and was prepared for that environment. Then I discovered, like anyplace else, most people didn’t know much about computer systems and how they worked.”
He recalled the arrival of a PC in his department at IBM, complete with a floppy disk drive and a bit of random access memory and what he called “the killer app of its time,” the Lotus spread sheet. After researching the background of Lotus and writing about it, he got noticed by higher ups.
“It’s a success story about being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to solve an existing problem,” Crawford said. “Each time there was a new program and a certification, I went for it. It’s a lot easier to build on previous knowledge than it is to step in to handle a complex situation without background experience.”
That was the start of what is the Stephen Crawford philosophy: Spend three months at a specific job doing the background research and you can become an expert and people will rely on you. It’s called job security. The plan worked until IBM wanted to move Crawford elsewhere and he chose not to relocate.
“I took the buyout money, got my education as a programmer analyst, and became an entrepreneur by placing an ad in the paper for computer service,” he remembers. “I got enough work to start my business and 20 years later, I’m still wondering what I’ll be doing tomorrow. But every day something happens. I start each morning with a mission to accomplish a limited number of projects.”
He said it was “a leap of faith to leave IBM, the most secure job in the world, and jump into the deep end of the pool, but I’m glad I took that path.”
Crawford says he makes a comfortable living doing what he enjoys.
“I do the kind of work I enjoy and for the most part, it’s predictable, although each time the phone rings, the problem-solving scenario can take a 90 degree turn. That’s the fun part of it, however, not knowing what the next problem will be and having to come up with a creative solution,” he said.
Crawford Computer Consulting clients range from an office with a computer or two up to businesses with 50 terminals.
“I have about three dozen servers I routinely take care of as well as 400 to 500 PCs that are routinely under my supervision. I don’t want to take on more than I can handle. The biggest problem independent business people like me get into is they try to take on too many clients and get tied up at one location, taking them out of service and unable to respond to other ‘help me’ calls,” Crawford said.
Instead, he said he prefers to rely on just a briefcase and his brainpower to fix what’s wrong.
“I’d be a bad employee for someone else because I enjoy showing up and taking control of a situation,” he said.
In the 1970s, when people were afraid automation would put people out of work, Crawford’s father predicted the change would result in an economic boom.
“Then came the Information Age, so Dad was right, and it’s kept me busy for my career,” Crawford says.