IT consultant turns author to help bridge the country's digital divide

The mere thought of trying to teach a complete novice how to use a PC is a subject that will make many ITers shudder. However,...

The mere thought of trying to teach a complete novice how to use a PC is a subject that will make many ITers shudder. However, that was the task that IT consultant Bill Hall set himself when he decided to write a book that would enable even an 86-year-old Yorkshire farmer to get to grips with modern technology, writes Nathalie Towner.

Hall had harboured a secret ambition to write a book ever since leaving school, but he could never quite find the right subject. His inspiration finally came when he was working as an IT contractor for the Crown Prosecution Service doing Y2K work on a networked PC database application.

"I was implementing and supporting a system across 33 different offices," he explains. "I realised when I was installing the PCs that not many of the employees were actually that comfortable around a computer. They were not used to Windows-based PCs."

When the contract came to an end Hall decided this was his opportunity to get his head down and write the book. "I knew I wanted to write something about using a PC, but I wanted it to be in a different sort of language, in really simple terms," he says.

This is not a simple proposition for someone who has always approached PCs from a very technical angle. When Hall was employed by BT, he was one of the first people to get involved in PC networks back in 1986, and his technical knowledge goes back a lot further.

"When I started out in computing I worked on a SC-MP, one of the very first microprocessors. I also learnt how to design hardware and how to produce a single-board computer," he says. "I came to understand the architecture of the inside of a machine and have a very in-depth technical knowledge."

However, to write his book, Hall needed to be able to see a PC through the eyes of someone who did not even know how to log on. This is where his 86-year-old uncle came in useful.

"My uncle is a retired farmer in East Riding and, along with another farmer who is 64, they became interested in PCs and wanted to know how to use them," Hall explains. "They knew that everyone else was getting into the Internet and that there is a lot of scope for farmers online."

Neither of them had ever had any exposure to PCs so Hall gave them two old computers and enlisted their help to write his book.

A retired school teacher in Hall's village was also roped in, and the three of them were his proof readers. They made sure that the language and terminology he used in the book were understandable to a complete novice.

"I was having to explain what a file is," says Hall. "They had to have it explained that in computing terms a 'file' means something different to the paper folder you find in an office."

The three proof readers went through each chapter and ensured that the book could be understood by the target audience. "If I hadn't used their feedback I would not have been successful. I realised I had to take it really slowly," he says.

"The retired schoolteacher really liked it - she said it never left her guessing at any point. And the farmer has now become quite an expert."

The book took four months to complete. The next challenge was to get it printed.

Hall sent an e-mail out to 200 publishers with a synopsis of the book and got six positive responses. He signed with the publisher that was the first to respond.

"The publisher told me that as he read my book he found he was learning lots of new things even though he had been using a PC for a number of years - simple things like how to back-up work."

The book, titled Using a Computer for the First Time, was launched in February this year. Hall had to undertake a lot of the promotional work himself. Fortunately, an article in his local York newspaper led to a run on his book in the area. "The first print run was for just 600 books, but these all went within two weeks, and so it went into a second run," he says.

Hall was even more astounded when he saw his book appear in the Waterstone's best-seller list. And to top it off it actually got to number one in the non-fiction list, beating tomes by Alan Titchmarsh and Delia Smith.

He has since received an encouraging letter from 10 Downing Street and met up with his local MP to discuss future projects. Hall has found a receptive target audience, and he is now working on his second book, which is about how to use e-mail for the first time.

"I now have a thirst for writing books," he says. "Although being an author can be a very lonely occupation - I do miss the companionship you get in the office." However, this is not enough to put him off and he already has plans for his third book.

Using a Computer for the First Time is published by Management Books 2000.

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