Building your own computer is a lot like raising chickens

Is it worth the trouble for a school to build their own computers to save a few bucks? Maybe. It's worth the trouble for me to raise my own chickens. And yes, there is a connection.

No...seriously.

I started raising my own chickens this spring and they've finally begun laying eggs. So have our ducks, for that matter, but not as copiously. We started out with 12 chickens from the local feed store, lost one to a neighbor's cat, lost another to a different neighbor's dog, and sent a third on its merry way to a new home when it turned out to be a rooster. I really thought that it was just an especially pretty, big-boned chicken until it started cock-a-doodle-doo-ing and chasing my 8-year old every time he tried to feed the hens. A neighboring farmer was happy to take him, though, to help protect his flock from marauding coyotes (yes, I really do live in the sticks, and yes, I really do have a point...Bear with me).

Those 9 remaining hens, however, give us about 7 eggs a day. A few duck eggs get thrown in each week for good measure. With a couple of vegetarians at home (fortunately they aren't vegan, so eggs are a really easy way to get them protein), generally picky eaters all around, and a ZDNet blogger who likes to bake, we go through a lot of eggs. Not 50 eggs a week, but since we always used to buy the good free-range organics, it's easy to justify the cost of organic feed. The rest make nice thank you's and gifts because fresh eggs are just so darned tasty. And if anyone would like to buy some fresh eggs, they're $3 a dozen at the end of my driveway. A young boy will be out there hustling you to earn money for a Nintendo 3DS.

Better yet, I know precisely where the eggs came from since one of my kids snagged them out of the coop that morning. I know just what went into them since I've been feeding the chickens for months and watching them eat countless bugs (and snakes and frogs and mice) from my fertilizer-free lawn. I really do love having my own chickens.

You know what else I really love? Building a computer to my specifications from parts. Whether my goal is to build the cheapest system I can or to see just how much performance I can squeeze out of a given budget, TigerDirect is my favorite toy store on the planet. Armed with Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' regular roundups of computer kit, I can't think of a way I'd rather geek out. A lot of our students feel the same way. After all, there's something particularly rewarding about building a computer, doing it cheaper than Dell can, and actually having it work.

One of my kids goes to the local voc-tech high school and just started in their information technology program. He looks at the giant A+ book they use as a text and grimaces and struggles to find any value in worksheets where he deals with the ins and outs of SCSI vs. SATA. But when his computer went down in school and his teacher told him to take it apart and figure out the problem, he told me all about it that night.

Next: Way back in the fall of '03... »

When I first started teaching high school, the technology program was a complete disaster. Computers were ancient, in disrepair, and unused. With no budget to speak of, I managed to get a bunch more surplus computers (which weren't quite as ancient and only half as broken) and turned a class loose rebuilding and refurbishing machines. We made one heck of a mess, but the students learned a lot, looked forward to class, and walked away knowing not only how a computer worked but how to maintain and troubleshoot a PC and install the OS of their choice.

The surplus machines are long gone and recycled, but the temptation for cash-strapped schools is often to start building their own computers. When you have a large, eager, free labor force and TigerDirect takes purchase orders, you can definitely save some cash and engage students. You know precisely what you're getting and suddenly that free, untrained labor force that you guided through building and setting up a lab or two of PCs can now maintain those PCs since they literally know them inside and out.

It isn't all butterflies and unicorns, though. Or free eggs if we're going to get back to the allegory with which we started. Remember how two of our chickens met with an untimely demise? And one ended up being a mean-spirited rooster? That's saying nothing of the bloodied ducks who nearly bought the farm (so to speak) defending their chicken brethren from a fisher cat. Or the skunks I've had to chase out of the coop.

The same goes for computers that you and a school's resident geek squad build to save some cash and build those geek skills. When you roll your own, there aren't many opportunities for great lease deals or extended support (said geek squad eventually graduates, or at least needs to go to class). When things go wrong, you will hear the dreaded words "We should have just bought Dells."

Is it worth the money you'll save your school by building your own computers? Especially when computers can be had so cheaply from Tier One OEMs? Or when refurbs are so inexpensive? One could ask the same about my chickens. Even organic, jumbo, cage-free eggs are readily available at the grocery store and I don't need to fend off skunks and fisher cats to buy them. And yet my chickens have far more value than just the eggs they lay. I can do everything from teach my 8-year old math as we collect eggs and sell our surplus to make killer compost from the droppings to make crepes with fresh eggs that just need to be tasted to be believed. I can teach my kids about lifecycles, sustainability, and market forces in wonderfully hands-on ways. And schools can teach students about lifecycle management, developing requirements, project management, and hardware and software in constructivist ways that would make even Nicholas Negroponte proud.

Building your own computers is about far more than saving money. By the time all is said and done, you often don't save all that much given the economies of scale that Dell or HP can leverage. I don't save much over buying my expensive eggs at the store given how much I pay for organic feed, bedding, chicken wire, and other supplies. Building your own computers and raising your own chickens isn't for everyone. But they're options worth considering as you look to future rollouts. Or to future omelettes.