Say you need to upgrade a half dozen PCs in your office. Or you'd like to install a network connecting a new computer in your home to an existing one to share its cable modem and printer. You can do it yourself, listening to vendors who want to sell you their products or services, reading whatever you can find on the subject and hunting down advice from those who've undertaken similar projects. Or you can ease your burden by hiring a computer consultant. "Good computer consultants spend years acquiring knowledge in their areas," says Al Cole, president of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA) and a consultant from Windham, N.C. "When you hire a consultant, you get use of this knowledge. You don't have to spend time following the trends and tracking the state of the technology." Computer consultants typically specialize in one or more areas. Areas of specialization include specific categories of hardware and software, specific types of clients such as medical or legal offices, general office automation, networking and Web services. Most consultants target their services to businesses, but some work with home users. How do you know if you need a consultant? Ask yourself these questions, says Leigh Weber, a computer consultant in Maple Glen, Pa., who helps clients reduce paperwork. Are you confused by all the technology choices out there? Do you lack the in-house expertise to install, learn or troubleshoot computer products or services? Have you run into a wall in undertaking a project yourself? The best way to find a computer consultant is through referrals. Alternatively, the ICCA Web site enables you to search for consultants by geographic area and area of expertise. You need to be careful in choosing a consultant, say Cole and Weber. Ideally, you should work with someone who has experience with your type of problem and who has no financial interest in individual products or services. This doesn't mean you should never go with someone who's getting up to speed. You can, in fact, save money by helping a consultant gain experience with a new area. But the consultant should disclose this up front so you know what you're getting into. The consultant also should disclose if he feels someone else may be better suited for your particular project than him. Some consultants also act as resellers on behalf of computer manufacturers, getting a commission for selling the company's products or services. Having financial ties like these doesn't necessarily mean that the consultant will favor these products or services over others that may be more appropriate for you. But consultants should disclose any ties, and this is information you need to weigh. The biggest problem that people run into when working with computer consultants, say Cole and Weber, occurs when what the client wants changes during course of the project from what he wanted initially and what the consultant agreed to do. This can lead to disagreements and uncompleted projects. To prevent this, as a client, make sure you understand the problem you want to solve and that your expectations are realistic. Not all problems can be fixed with technology. You don't necessarily have to know the scope of the project initially, but you should discuss your thinking in detail with the consultant. Before he begins work, you should have an agreement in writing spelling out everything including the timetable, compensation and contingencies -- what happens if you make additional requests before the project is completed? Also, make sure the consultant has a track record of finishing projects by asking for and checking references. Pose probing questions. Many people are reluctant to admit that a project went bad. If possible, interview more than one consultant before choosing. Does he listen? Does he ask questions about your situation and plans? Does he tailor his solution to your problem? Do you understand what he's saying? If all goes well, and it should, you won't regret paying the bill, having saved time or money. Depending on the project, a computer consultant may charge by the hour, presenting a bill each time he reaches a milestone. Alternatively, a consultant may charge by the project, often asking for one-third of the payment up front, one-third when half done, and one-third upon completion. It has been said that a computer lets you make more mistakes more quickly than any other invention in history, with the possible exceptions of handguns and hard liquor. A good computer consultant can help prevent mistakes from happening in the first place. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.