Ah, the joy of finding the right program for the right job.

What do marathon races and company cafeterias have in common? They both generate a lot of red tape! And these days, red tape relief is spelled C O M P U T E R . . . but only if you know how to find the program that does what you want.For instance, we wonder how many people who set up competition races know about Race-Trac. It's a program for IBM or compatible PCs that automates all the timing, scoring, and other record-keeping. There's a similar program for Macintosh computers.

When the starting gun goes off, just push a button attached to the official computer, and Race-Trac clocks the event. It works because even a simple IBM or compatible has a built-in stopwatch that records down to the hundredths of a second (although the runner who wrote the program told us it balks at AT&T clocks). As each racer crosses the finish line, click the button again and keyboard in the entry number or other identifier. The computer figures time and placing.

Since Race-Trac can calculate and sort while race data is being entered, results are ready to be printed within minutes after the last straggler jogs across the finish line. You can immediately give out prizes or trophies. No more losing winners who fade away as they get tired of waiting for official results.

At the punch of a button, you can categorize results by sex, age group, or whatever. To automate the race even further, Race-Trac's maker sells a bar code reader that can scan bar codes pasted on racers' uniforms.

Nearly as many specialized programs have been written, and are for sale, as there are special uses you can think of. But most of them are nearly invisible because small makers spend few bucks on ads.

One way to find them, as many readers have discovered, is to send a stamped self-addressed envelope and request our help. Cries for software help make up almost one-third of our daily mailbag. (Most of the other two-thirds is from companies that want to make sure that we, at least, know about their software.) If you can write in plain English what you hope to get done, we can often find you software that does it.

Another way is to look up programs in a software directory. Major libraries often have copies, but . . . some write-ups are woefully subjective. Some listings lack the best programs. Some are misleading, such as the DataPro Software Directory, which accepts paid ads and runs them right in with the editorial write-ups, looking just like them. And most directories are out of date by the time they're compiled, typeset, printed, and sold.

A third, even better method depends on access to a modem and a subscription to Dialog Information Services. Dialog carries Business Software Database, an old, large, frequently updated online directory. If you can put your needs into one or two key words, such as civil engineering or metals industry, your search through this database will be inexpensive and rewarding. But note that it doesn't list games or educational software.

A fourth method, and often the best, is to read carefully several issues of the newspapers, newsletters, or magazines that cater to people who're most likely to buy what you need. For instance, we hope that the maker of Race-Trac gets his program mentioned in runners' magazines and non-profit organizations' newsletters.

If you want software that helps your accounting department comply with this year's tax laws, where would you look? The answer: accounting publications.

One new tax law, for instance, is a doozy in its paperwork demands. It requires firms of all sizes to document that their benefit plans don't discriminate in favor of the bosses, and that employee contributions to the plans are kept separate from company funds. Like most red tape, it's a natural for computerizing.

Sure enough, the newsletter we produce for computerized accountants told our readers about two programs that already automate this record-keeping. One, Section 89 Analyzer, was written by a Kansas City CPA firm. It helps businesses guard against anything the IRS could call a discriminatory benefits plan.

Another, Cafeteria Compensation Management System Benefits Administrator, was written by a Minnesota group. It automates all the paperwork in setting up and administering this type of plan. Although the new tax law took effect less than a month ago, we've already had both programs shipped to us for testing.

But unless you read our newsletter or one like it, you might never hear of either program. When it comes to going out and hustling up customers, neither firm burns up the racetrack.

Do you know a lawyer who takes bankruptcy cases? Watch her reaction when you tell her that for around $800, her computer can fill out all the forms involved. Collier's Topform Bankruptcy Filing Program does all the paperwork for Chapter 7, 11, and 13 bankruptcies. All the fill-in-the-blank forms are there. She just types in the particulars and sends a bill.

Forget her reaction. Think about yours. At the $100 an hour most attorneys charge nowadays, how much of your money could her investment in the right software save?

As a service to readers, the columnists answer questions and send a checklist of back issues if you enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope. Comparative chart of spreadsheet features is included in a 4,000-word special report, `Spreadsheet Buyer's and User's Guide.' For your copy send a $3.50 check and stamped self-addressed envelope for Report FP03 to TBC, 4343 W. Beltline Hwy, Madison, WI 53711. (C)1988 P/K Associates, Inc.