If you've been keeping up with the news, you're probably aware that people of all ages are currently exploring this new marketplace of computer software.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Mark Jordan suggests if you're interested in personal computers and paid "homework" you should consider making money programming and marketing computer software.
The Age of the Home Computer has burst upon the 1980's with
all the hoopla of a video game arcade. What with the
appropriate shelves in libraries and bookstores groaning
under the continuing influx of new material on the subject
(and publishers are still hard pressed to keep pace with
the rapidly developing technology), plus the increasingly
familiar sight of computer retail stores at shopping
centers everywhere, it apparently won't be long until
home-sized electronic brains—like television sets
before them—become the focal points of living rooms
across North America.
Because of the rapidly spreading popularity of these
"mini-minds", a number of subsidiary industries have sprung
up. And one of these new markets presents opportunities for
computer enthusiasts (or people with the potential to
become proficient with the electronic wonders) who have a
yen for program journalism to start freelancing by programming and marketing computer software for profit!
As you probably know, a personal computer has to have a
program to run: Without this software (a term which is
"computerese" for the list of instructions the machine is
supposed to follow), it'd be about as valuable as a stereo
without a record. And although anyone with a "microthinker"
should be able to write problems for it, most folks don't
have the time or the inclination to create their own
software . . . they'd really rather buy what they need from
someone else. So as the price of home units continues to
come down (as is currently the trend), microcomputers are
going to be more accessible to a greater number of
consumers than ever before . . . and the demand for
software just might skyrocket! Already, the need for new
programs far exceeds the available supply.
If you've been keeping up with the news, you're probably
aware that people of all ages are currently exploring this
new marketplace. And when you realize that a lot of folks
are getting paid anywhere from $2.00 to $200 apiece for
simple games—and $500 or more for business-related
packages—it's certainly not hard to see why computer
program writing for profit is an attractive field!
Many individuals have likely shied away from creating
programs because they assumed that success was beyond the
reach of anyone except "whiz kids" such as Daniel Bricklin
and Robert Franstan, who—in 1978—pooled $16,000
to found the highly successful software company they called
VisiCalc (it's now referred to as VisiCorp and earns over
$2,000,000 a year!) . . . or the 16-year-old enthusiast in
California who wrote a game program that has brought him
over $100,000 in earnings.
However, fear not . . . plenty of hardworking folks have
found that program freelancing is a fine way to supplement
a regular income . . . even though the big-money sales may be
few and far between.
Take Bob Dallman, for instance . . . a high school physics
teacher from Indiana who first became intrigued with
computers when his school bought four for classroom use.
After only a week of instruction from the hardware
salesperson, Bob sat down and wrote out four simple
programs for student use . . . and before he knew it, he
was hooked! He just couldn't get enough borrowed time at
the school computers to suit his needs, so Dallman went out
and invested $2,200 in a home system for himself.
Then, in order to justify his new obsession, Bob submitted
his programs to a software company he saw advertised in a
computer magazine. He figured that—just may
be—he'd be able to sell one or two . . . but instead,
the firm bought them all! And so far (over the course of a
year), the teacher has earned about $750 in royalties, with
more coming in . . . not bad when you consider that he
spent a total of only about 12 hours on writing the four
COMPUTER SOFTWARE PROGRAMMING: FOR MEN ONLY?
As another example, consider North Carolina's Linda Brown,
who's the wife of an IBM employee and the mother of two
daughters. Since she'd been trained in computer programming
during a previous job in research, it was only natural
that—when the family budget needed
boosting—Linda decided to call upon her
program-writing skill to help out. She purchased an IBM
personal computer . . . and now (just six months later)
she's an avid, well-paid freelancer, working out of her own
Ms. Brown's specialty is creating business packages, which
she prepares for companies (including a leading soft-drink
producer) who commission her to tailor-make programs for
their specific needs. Usually, her payment is agreed upon
beforehand, as is the case with most contracted work. Once
a buyer tells Linda the sort of package required, she
figures up how much time she thinks it'll take to do the
job . . . and quotes a price. If the company is happy with
her estimate, she's off and writing!
Although many programmers can command $30 to $50 an hour
for the kind of writing Linda tackles, she's still making a
name for herself in what she feels is a male-dominated
field, and asks only about $20 per hour for her services.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is not to imply that most female
programmers offer "bargain" rates. It's merely to point out
that this one woman has found it necessary to undercut the
going fee in order to keep herself in business.) However,
even at that rate, Linda figures she's doing just fine . .
. since preparing an average company package will take
anywhere from three weeks to six months of six-hour days,
working five days a week.
STARTING OUT IN COMPUTER PROGRAMMING
As you can see, then, a market for freelancers does exist.
But don't be blinded quite yet by dreams of huge dollar
signs flashing on and off in computer-graphic color! Before
you can be a success at this freelancing business, you've
got to put in some learning time. First off, obviously, you
must have access to a home computer, and your best bet is
to go ahead and buy one if you can afford to.
But that's only the beginning. Don't assume that you'll be
able to sit down with the instruction book and "talk" to
your new machine immediately. Far from it! The sort of
knowledge required to operate a microcomputer is best
learned through hands-on experience, gained under the
guidance of a qualified instructor. So find a competent
friend to help . . . or enroll in a course, either at the
store where you purchased your hardware or at a local
college. The few extra dollars that it'll cost you to learn
proper and effective programming will be more than paid
back (in avoided frustration, at the very least) over the
MAXIMUM SOFTWARE MARKETING
Once you've learned to communicate with your computer, and
after you've run off several practice programs, you can
decide just what sort of software you want to create for
sale. Current programs are generally classified according
to five categories: personal and home . . . games . . .
educational . . . business . . . and graphics. In the
beginning, at least, it's best to select an area that
you're fairly familiar with, and then research the market
before you actually set to work. (After all, there's no
point in creating a program that duplicates one already
When choosing a subject area, though, you might want to
keep in mind that thousands of video games are born every
day, and—unless you're ready to buck some stiff
competition—you're likely better off working up
something other than games . . . a good practical home
budget program, for instance. (Surprisingly enough, there's
still a dearth of this type of software.)
Since a program is simply a detailed set of instructions
that tell a computer what to do, you must be extremely
careful—when writing one—to document every step
of the instructions . . . in a manual for the potential
computerite, and in either cassette tape or floppy disk
form for the "micromind" it self. Don't skip from Point A
to Point C under the assumption that Point B is too obvious
to mention . . . it may not be equally clear to someone
else. You can be sure that many of your potential customers
will be less proficient than you . . . and the simple
omission of a single procedure could make your entire
program inoperable in the hands of a beginner.
There's another factor to consider in choosing your slice
of the software business pie: There is no
universal computer language. Now most programs are
written in some form of BASIC (which is currently the most
commonly used and easy-to-learn computer lingo, although
others are already catching on) . . . but BASIC varies from
one firm's computer to another. For instance, if you write
a program in Apple BASIC, the same program
won't—without some revision—run in a TRS-80 . .
. because even though that TRS-80 computes BASIC, it
computes only TRS-80 BASIC. This fact is unfortunate in
some ways, but it does mean that you can broaden your base
of operations by learning to translate from one sort of
BASIC to another and selling that service as well.
ALL DRESSED UP AND NOWHERE TO GO . . .
When your program is documented and recorded (it's a good
idea to photocopy a practice printout to show a buyer . . .
as proof that your system works), you're ready to
try to sell the package. And if you keep up—as any
freelance program writer should—with computer
magazines (Personal Computing, Popular Computing,
Byte, and others), you'll probably be able to locate a
lot of software markets by simply perusing the ads in such
In fact, you might want to take out an advertisement in one
of these magazines yourself, and try to sell your product
directly to users through the mail. The cost for ad space
varies with the different publications, so be sure to
Of course, if you do choose to take the mail order route,
you'll be responsible not only for copyrighting your work
(if you decide to attempt to protect it . . . something
fewer and fewer programmers are bothering to do), but also
for making as many copies of the manuals and tapes or disks
as you think you'll need to fill your order. Still, if you
don't mind the small financial risk and the
trouble—and if you're patient and
persistent—selling firsthand (with no middleman
except the post office) could be the way to go.
If, however, you'd rather not handle individual orders, you
could attempt to market your computerware either to
software companies (new ones are springing up daily) or to
computer manufacturers (they're constantly trying to keep
their hardware customers supplied with new software). Both
of these potential groups of buyers advertise in computer
magazines . . . so leaf through a few issues to find the
names and addresses of companies you might like to deal
with. Then contact the firms to inquire about their rates
It might pay to check with hardware retailers in your area,
too, to see whether they know of anyone who needs a
programmer locally. Many times these stores are clearinghouses for information of this sort, and the folks who
manage them would probably be more than happy to help you
out. Since they frequently offer classes in programming,
some might even be interested in hiring you as an
instructor! Anyway, it's worth a visit just to let them
know who you are . . . what sort of programming you can do
. . . and how they can get in touch with you if they need to.
RAINBOW CHASING OR INCOME EARNING?
Whether you decide to sell your wares outright or market
them wholesale through someone else, you're likely to
discover that the Age of Home Computers is rich with
potential for the innovative go-getter. And even if you
don't strike pay dirt by writing programs, you're
sure to have a heck of a lot of fun—and pick up a
good bit of knowledge—exploring the BASIC
possibilities of program journalism!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Here are the approximate starting prices
for some of the more popular models available, as listed in
William Barden, Jr.'s Guidebook to Small Computers
(published by Howard W. Sams, 1982, $6.95): Radio Shack
TRS-80 Model 11, $3,500 . . . Apple II and Atari, $1,000 .
. . Pet, $600 . . . TRS-80 Model 1, $500 . . . and Timex
If you can't find enough reading material at
bookstores, newsstands, or libraries near you, you might
want to write to Dilithium Press, Dept. TMEN, Beaverton, Oregon—and ask for the firm's excellent
(free) Brainfood Catalog of books on this