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How to Select a CAT System

By James M. Mizanin, RDR, CRI, CMRS

Well, I thought this was going to be an easy article to write. My philosophy on students purchasing CAT equipment has always been very straightforward - Don't. So I wrote the article.

After reading it over and over, something just seemed wrong with the message. I was confident in my opinion, but my opinion was just that, a personal opinion. At this point I should probably confess that some of my opinions are based on historic experience, and not on future expectations, and most of my experiences are limited to the "employee" environment rather than the "independent contractor" environment. With that in mind, I scheduled a meeting with a CAT vendor to review the content of my article before submitting it.

I walked away from the meeting with a much clearer picture of what this article should reveal. Yes, the vendor slapped some sense into me. In fairness to all CAT vendors, this article will discuss CAT systems in general, and not highlight one system over another. For that reason, I will refer to my vendor as Lynn.

I explained to Lynn the following:
I had taught court reporting for more than 25 years, and witnessed many guest speakers explaining CAT systems and writing machines to students. I had sat through very informative, energetic, heart-warming presentations on how to select a CAT system, how the student version can be upgraded to the professional version, and why this system is better than that system. I really couldn't call these events hard-core sales pitches, but the ultimate goal was to enlighten the student to give them the confidence to purchase the speaker's equipment. I understood that and had no real problem with it.

My System vs. Your System

Most new graduates will enter the freelance court reporting market, and most new freelancers will be independent contractors as opposed to employees. As an independent contractor, the company cannot insist that you purchase a particular CAT system because of IRS ramifications, but the firm may have a preference. Sounds like a pretty good argument for not purchasing software while you're still in school.

If the firm hires you as an employee, consistency in equipment will be more important. If one reporter is having their machine overhauled, they can use an office machine or another reporter's machine. If one reporter is out of the office when a rush order comes in, the office can edit the job for them. But that only works if the reporters and everyone else on staff understand the equipment, the writer, and the CAT system.

The reporters in my office are employees. They go through a training process where they learn the next level of transcript production and dictionary maintenance. I've always felt they need to be on our system for us to help them. We've had some reporters come to our office with software other than ours, and when that last-minute rush came in and the reporter was on a job, our hands were tied. Oh, and did I mention that the CAT system in our office is free to our employees? Sounds like another pretty good argument for not purchasing software while you're still in school.

My reporting firm's first CAT system was an easy choice since there was very little competition 25 years ago. I purchased my second CAT system five years later when PCs were available and affordable. Price was a major consideration in my decision, and the system I purchased still works to this day. My office knows the program inside out. Had I chosen a different system, I doubt if I would be more or less successful today. What mattered was that I was on a CAT system, any CAT system. Once there, you learn and improve.

I am a consultant to a court reporting program. The school committed to a CAT system more than 20 years ago. Price was a consideration in the decision, and they chose a system different from mine. Our students are taught this system (a newer version, of course), and the graduates have a pretty good working knowledge of transcript production and dictionary building.

Here's where my "attitude adjustment" occurred. All NCRA-approved court reporting programs teach CAT. The students learn a particular system. Naturally, many want to continue using that system on the job. In reality, the students learn the functions necessary to enable them to work on any CAT system. Minor adjustments and modifications, and new reporters are just as comfortable on another CAT system. All CAT systems I know of work just fine. They may have different bells and whistles, different pricing, and different levels of sophistication, but they all do the basic job of transcript production. That much I knew. What I couldn't understand was why a student would even consider spending money for software that was free at school.

Lynn educated me. If a student purchases a CAT system while in school, they can practice their realtime writing, and work on dictionary building/maintenance at home at their convenience. The student version of CAT software is incredibly affordable, and students are purchasing it, getting comfortable with it, and entering the job market truly realtime ready. It's pretty impressive seeing a new grad entering the real workplace running instead of crawling, because they've become so familiar with a CAT system. There is so much to learn when starting out as a new reporter, limited CAT experience will be just that much more of a burden.

When Should YouPurchase/Lease?

If you're going to purchase a CAT system, I would suggest doing so at 180 wam or higher. The end should be in sight. That's about the time you should be considering your career path choice -- judicial reporting, CART, or captioning. This would be the time to start talking it up with family. Christmas, your birthday, and your anniversary are great opportunities to receive your equipment from loved ones. If he wants new golf clubs, you ask for a professional Stentura or a realtime-ready laptop.

How To Shop For A CAT System

You have to do your homework. I've seen single-page comparative worksheets listing CAT vendors down the side and the functions they perform or advantages listed across the top, so you can see at a glance which vendors offer what. You can attend an NCRA convention and create your own comparison sheet while visiting the vendors' booths and asking questions.

Call the local freelance and official reporters in your area and secure information about the CAT systems they use. Get the inside scoop on what you are expected to provide, and what is provided for you. Talk to the head of their computer department. Ask if you can come in and see the equipment in operation. See if you can bring the whole class in for a field trip.

How about asking your CAT representative for a one-on-one demonstration? This is your career we're talking about here.

What To Look For In a CAT System

First, is there a student version available, and if so, here are some things to look for:

  1. Affordability
  2. Windows
  3. Free updates
  4. Support calls
  5. Choice of dictionaries or dictionary conversion
  6. Training tutorial/manual
  7. Ability to do complete transcript production
  8. Ability to practice captioning
  9. Ability to practice CART reporting
  10. Ability to write and practice realtime
  11. Ability to write to the Internet

Your Employer's Perspective

Two new grads seek employment at the same reporting firm. Both have passed their 225s and have completed the supplement courses. Attitude and appearance play a large part in who gets the job, but what about equipment? If one graduate has a professional writer and CAT system, the employer has one less thing to worry about, your training is minimized, and you can accept your first reporting assignment "on the run." You've made a financial commitment to your career, and it calls attention to your professional determination. There's a good chance you'll get the job.