Are you a computer nerd? A geek?

When I was teaching, my college lighting design students were all on Facebook. All of them, of course, still participate in one form or another in instant messaging, and nearly all of them have a laptop of some caliber in which to keep up with these sites online. They read email while they’re sitting in the library or theatre and have something to do to occupy their free time. Few of them use their laptops or desktops to the limit of their extents by any means, but most know the basic concepts of things like networking and applications.

The concept of teaching technology proficiency, of course, applies to students in any area of design; I am a lighting designer and teach lighting and sound design. If we can use our existing technology to make our working-busy-designer, multitasking-70-things-at-one-time lives less complicated (which we can), why not make this a priority?

Again, lighting student-specific, there’s a definite split between using CAD software in our business. There are AutoCAD people, there are Wysiwyg people, and there are Vectorworks people. There’s also a group of people who use programs like SoftPlot. It’s a difficult principle for the “Entitlement Generation” to understand, but why not choose one, and at a minimum know how to open, manipulate a document, print some or all of its layers specifically, alter and insert some plot information? You’re instantly more marketable. Being able to fluently manipulate multiple software platforms to accomplish the same thing and building some redundancy into your brain is not a bad thing.

I’m a Windows user, and I build my own PCs for purposes that I find I need: a machine built for audio recording specific tasks, one to render Wysiwyg, or an FTP fileserver to keep backup copies of show files and production documents when I’m offsite. But in the spirit of redundancy, I can perform some intermediate skills on a Mac too, if needed. What if I’m working with a Catalyst media server? It’s on a Mac G5. Learning these “geek skills” can help students organize work better and give them the ability to make themselves more marketable. If you understand how one concept in the information technology field works, you can expand that information upon other facets of geek-dom. Being a “geek” in this market isn’t a bad thing; it’s a smart thing.

I often ask my students about relating the real world to their current lives. These may seem elementary to many of you. Do you know how to connect your laptop to the Wi-Fi at an airport or in a convention center? Can you remote desktop into that computer? Can you compress that WAV file to a 320K MP3? What’s DHCP, and do you understand the concept? Can you upload those files to my FTP server? Can you use the search function to comb our drives for versions of this plot before this date? Can you convert that TIFF to a JPEG? Can you crop out and resize?

This is a sample of the many questions that students need to be able to answer efficiently. It’s very seldom that we can just focus on our single specialty. I can recount many occasions where, in addition to lighting designer, I have acted as network administrator, graphic artist, technical support specialist, database administrator, video editor, etc., all to get one single production up and running.

My wife is a web developer and CSS ninja. When it comes to code, I cannot reach her level of understanding, but before I met her, I was able to build a website in either FrontPage or Dreamweaver, figure out some of the intricacies of HTML, and alter code in Notepad. Now, however, the code for my blog and website are flawless and obsessively-compulsively neat (thanks, honey!). Design students should be able, at least by the time they reach graduation, to display their design work online in a presentable format. This skill will allow them even more marketability and less time in between gigs.

When I was teaching at the University of Texas at Arlington, I had a very intelligent student named Roger. Roger was the proud pinnacle of student geek-dom and could manipulate his computer well. I named Roger as my assistant sound and lighting designer for a production of Bury the Dead. One of the challenges of the show was having both of us at rehearsals every time we needed to view for design’s sake, along with sharing information. Earlier in that semester, I purchased and built a sound recording and playback PC for use by our design students. We used this computer to run Stage Research SFX software for productions, and we had it connected to the university network. Roger and I were in contact with each other via instant messenger clients, and we decided to do some remote work together on this show.

Using Remote Desktop, we were able to each take turns with editing SFX live. Either I was at school, and Roger was home building effects, or vice versa. We were able to log on one at a time to the sound machine remotely and share a large number of files via IM transfer, using a client program called Trillian. Small bits under about 10MB were IM’ed, which we could then discuss via IM as we built the soundscape for the show. Anything larger than that we would upload to the FTP server using a free FTP client called FileZilla that I set up for our large audio file storage. By keeping accurate date and version information in a log, we were able to make sure that no accidental stupid overwrites took place during the preproduction process.

Am I a geek? Is Roger a geek? Yes. But we’re both geeks with an income.

Jim Hutchinson is a lighting designer and member of United Scenic Artists Local 829. He writes a blog called JimOnLight.com, a site about light, lighting design, and the various lighting industries.