Building your business
Dec 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Kirk Harnack
Radio stations need qualified technical help. Most need it right now; many needed it yesterday. Radio stations in more than 100 markets are trying to hire engineers and technicians, and enterprising contract engineers can provide a lot of the expertise needed. Such a large number of stations are actively seeking qualified technical help that contract engineers should have all the business they can handle. It doesn't matter if you're a contractor in a rural area, medium market or a large market; there's work to be done.
Last year this column discussed how to shed undesirable work from your schedule and concentrate on the engineering tasks you enjoy doing. Since there's no shortage of radio engineering work available, let's examine building your business from the inside. That is, working on your own business, technical and relationship skills, making yourself even more valuable to your regular and prospective clients. We'll highlight a few important qualities of successful contract engineers.
How many technical problems are actually caused by operator errors? Careless handling, misuse, poor operating technique and misapplication of equipment are frequent underlying causes of equipment trouble. However justified we, as engineers, are in pointing out the ignorance of the operators, we're much better served by acting as kind educators. Work to teach your radio co-workers that proper and prudent use of the technical tools we have will make everyone's life easier. Exposing the ignorance of the staff doesn't further your agenda.
Knowing how to answer questions from co-workers is a critical skill that's been mastered by many of the best engineers in our industry. If you've ever avoided asking someone what time it was because you knew he would tell you how to build a watch, then you know how important this skill is. When asked, "Why are we off the air?" or, "Why can't I receive the station in Smithville?" or, "Why are we buying more nitrogen?" be sure to consider who is asking the question. Consider your answer in terms the inquirer can use. Your reply should be formulated to the understanding of the person asking.
Have you ever committed to doing more work than could reasonably be accomplished? Have you seriously underestimated the cost or time required for a project? Have your efforts then been thwarted by unforeseen hurdles or delays? As engineers, we tend to be very good at visualizing a finished project. But, sometimes we don't consider all the steps required in getting to the finish line, nor can we foresee all the difficulties we may encounter along the way. Be careful what you promise to management and other staff members. While we take pride in our own abilities and want to use our knowledge and talent, our efforts are frequently hindered by events or conditions beyond our control. It's usually better to under-promise, then over-deliver if possible.
Sometimes, as contract engineers or consultants, we develop what is called the savior syndrome. It's not unusual that self-employed consultants in a variety of fields succumb to this condition. We walk into a client's facility, put them back on the air and are treated to mountains of praise that border on adoration. This is good for the most part, but if allowed to swell the ego, it is bad for relations with other staff members. Keep your ego in check, treat others with the respect you like, and present the attitude that you're there to serve.
Read the manual Before you complain about some piece of equipment, or misadjust it, or call tech support, or open it up and fiddle with the sealed controls, read the manual. Once you've read the manual and followed its instructions, feel free to do all of the above. Once you've actually read the manual, however, you likely will find that the equipment's problem is actually a feature, and the operators will just have to use it that way.
Big capacitors and power supplies, RF fields, blower motors, or any devices using more than 24 volts are serious components. Too many broadcast engineers have died alone at transmitter sites. Take someone with you. Insist that someone goes with you. Behave responsibly with equipment that can kill or injure. Put the equipment in local control. Disconnect the AC power. Short all transmitter power supplies to ground. Take your time. Explain what you're doing to the person with you. It's more important that you leave the transmitter site unhurt and alive than is it to repair the problem quickly.
At some point, eventually, someone will be paid to do the job right. It might as well be you, and it might as well be the first time. There certainly are times when a project or repair can't be completed with the best of care. Work diligently to reduce these occurrences. This often involves educating your client on the importance and prudence of not cutting corners. As a contract engineer or consultant, you have a responsibility not only to perform good work, but to inform, protect and educate your clients. Doing a job twice is never cheaper than doing it right.
Know your limitations and work within them. As contract engineers, we're quite often called to perform or consult in areas we may actually know little about. Full-time station engineers suffer this same problem and, perhaps, feel even greater pressure to accomplish tasks outside their expertise. If you're not particularly qualified to consult on a particular issue, recommend or hire someone who is. Internet newsgroups and listservers abound with practical advice and information. Network with other engineers and consultants and use their services whenever the client's best interests are best served.
New leads to interesting work The 1990s witnessed an explosion in the number of consultants working for themselves, often from an office at home. Consider the Internet's rise to popularity during the same time period, and the two were bound to cross paths.
Internet sites such as guru.com and freeagent.com can be quite useful to independent consultants and engineers. These sites match your unique talents and expertise with those needing the same. Other sites like monster.com, dice.com, and hotjobs.com are geared more toward those looking for full-time employment. Posting your talents and capabilities on such sites, however, can still lead to interesting and challenging assignments.
The work is out there - and lots of it. As you pursue the work and challenges you desire, be sure to spend some time and effort on yourself. Increasing your skills, learning from other engineers and building your network of experts will all pay off in building your business.