Say Hello to Dan, The Digital Gardener
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Meet Dan Seoane. Dan is the Digital Gardener, a Renaissance man of the Internet Age. He is convergence in human form.
Those of you, dear readers, who have followed in these pages the design and development of my home--the Digital Manor--know that I have referred several times to a "digital gardener." I call Dan the digital gardener because he is the digital equivalent of the landscapers who make sure our plants and lawn are in order. Dan makes sure that the "digital" in Digital Manor hums along, by managing the flow of bits around our household and keeping us in a constant state of connection and communication.
I think Dan is a computing trendsetter. Digital gardeners, possessed of the unique ability to manage multiple media in a home, are what will really make networked home computing possible. [Editor's note: for a review of two products that link your home PCs, see "The Dreyfuss Report".] Real convergence requires thousands of Dan Seoanes to smooth our way into the digital future.
I've been futzing with connecting computers for nearly 15 years, starting in 1985, when I ran a small business. Back then I was my own CIO. A larger company, with more than 30 or 40 employees, can afford to hire one or more full-time technology people. But if your business is small, you end up doing it yourself. Why? Because it is nearly impossible to find an individual who can manage more than one technology and make them all work on your behalf.
You can find telephone people who know the difference between a PBX and a key system. You can also find computer people who know the difference between a switch and a router. But try finding someone who knows the difference between a telephone switch and a computer switch! It's almost impossible. Yet that's what you require when you're setting up a small office, because if you don't have your phone wires and your computer wires laid out correctly, your business may be in trouble for a long time.
There are already plenty of techies who take care of small businesses. But almost more important is a class of digital gardeners to create and manage the home network.
Networking a home is especially complicated, because in addition to telephones and computers, you have to work television into the mix. There may be someone out there who still gets his television signal via "rabbit ears," those two antennas that used to sit on top of every television set. But everyone I know gets his television signal via a cable that's either hooked up to a cable company or to a satellite dish on the roof. Those cables have to be routed through the house. And the technology that governs those cables is different from the stuff that directs traffic to telephones and PCs. In fact, TV sets don't even have switches to direct traffic--yet.
So when we renovated the Digital Manor last year, we needed to deal with wiring the telephone system, the computer network, and the television network. And we needed to do it all at the same time, while the walls of the house were open and accessible. Our general contractor suggested a subcontractor who specializes in alarm systems--but that's an entirely different problem from telephones, computers, and televisions.
You can imagine how lucky I feel that we discovered Dan Seoane. Dan works in InfoWorld magazine's Test Center. It just so happens that my wife, Charlotte Ziems, once ran the InfoWorld Test Center. (I used to work at InfoWorld too, and Charlotte and I first met there. Charlotte is no longer my fiancee, as I've been referring to her for the past 18 months. We got married in May, so I guess that makes her the digital wife.) One day, after we bought Digital Manor, she was showing me some changes in the Test Center. (You can take your own tour at www.infoworld.com/testcenter/about.html. The virtual tour was actually created by Dan, which is why you can't see him in the picture.) Charlotte introduced me to Dan, who happened to be wiring up some of the hundreds of computers in the Test Center. And she asked him if he ever did any wiring on the side.
What a fortunate question! It turns out that Dan is the digital Renaissance man. He started playing with electrical appliances when he was 6. He started programming computers when he was 15. He's 35 now. In the intervening 20 years, he has learned how to program telephone systems, how to manage video signals on a data network, how to splice television cables, and how to design control systems for the house, among many other things. He has been an auto mechanic, firefighter, construction worker, Navy technician, and avionics technician. And, he says, about eight years ago he decided he needed to learn how to integrate everything he'd learned so that he could control his television (and the rest of his house) from his computer. He's already figured out how to use his Palm III to control his television and his stereo systems. So he jumped at the chance to wire up Digital Manor.
You should see what a work of art he has created. I recently gave John Huey, the managing editor of FORTUNE, what I call the wire tour of our basement. It is a beautiful thing to behold--all the wires (phone, computer, and television) are neatly tied up in bundles that go off in opposite directions to every room in both wings of the house. The wire bundles are connected to a big black box that contains the computer hub, the patch panel for the telephone extensions, the DSL modem, and all the cable connectors. Right next to the black box is the PBX and the punch-down block for the incoming telephone lines. On the bench below is our new proxy server, a no-name PC running Windows NT and the software to keep digital intruders out of the house and eventually to manage our home Website. Even John was impressed with the beauty of all this gear and how it is laid out. Or at least that's what he told me--you never do know with editors.
Dan has become our key resource for Digital Manor. He has installed a print server so that we can share printers between computers across the network. He backstops Pacific Bell when the company installs something new (like my DSL modem) and doesn't really understand how to integrate it with the network. He diagnoses problems and both recommends solutions and offers new ideas. He got up on the roof to diagnose why the first satellite I got wasn't able to deliver data to one of our PCs. He also reads this column, and he noticed when I started referring to him as the digital gardener. So he registered www.digitalgardener.com. Check it out, and you'll find a lot more on Dan, including all about his new daughter, Tara.
Dan has really begun to take this digital gardener idea to heart. He's even considering establishing his own business, providing digital gardening services to the stars--celebrities, FORTUNE 500 CEOs, the geek elite. If that sounds interesting to you, visit his Website and see if you can connect with him. If you do, you'll be participating in the development of a whole new class of digital innovator--the digital gardeners who are going to make possible networked home computing and the convergence of digital media.
STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Except as noted, neither he nor his partnership has a financial interest in the companies mentioned. Alsop may be reached at email@example.com; the column may be bookmarked at www.fortune.com/technology/alsop/.