A day in the life of a Computer Expert

(Julie linked to this article, which made me remember that I actually wrote something similar in 1989 or thereabouts, when I was running user support for the Norwegian Business School)

Report from the trenches: Scenes from the life of a computer expert

The onslaught of user-friendly personal computers, where the user points and clicks his or her way to computational satisfaction, is hailed by many as the beginning to the end of the in-house computer expert (also known as the Local Guru). As this field report will show, there is no reason to look at the classifieds yet. Relax, guys.

The dominant source of computer problems is finger trouble. Finger trouble is the term computer experts (loosely defined as anyone who knows the approximate location of the power switch) have coined for problems inexperienced users get themselves into by way of the keyboard. While this source of job security and discretionary income may be reduced due to graphical user interfaces, there are still plenty of hardware errors to keep us occupied. Hardware errors are part of the everyday life of all computer experts, and show no sign of abating.

Let us examine a typical case, in order to gain an appreciation of the current state of things: The setting is a medium-sized company with high ambitions, a ubiquity of PCs and a Computer Expert (hereafter called E.). E. is sitting in his office, consumed with the difficulty of reaching level 42 in the 486 version of the “The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” when the telephone rings. Having recently cleared his office, E. manages to find the telephone before the caller gives up. The voice in the other end informs him, with audible consternation, how that darned printer, again, won’t do what it’s supposed to. Can E., with his long-standing reputation as a technical wizard, do something about it? The Voice (hereafter dubbed V.) assures E. that the matter isn’t pressing – but if he has the time…. (Somehow V. manages to convey a message of great need, sort of “you just take your time, we don’t mind sitting here rolling our thumbs and wasting the company’s money etc.”). E., when airing a suspicion that the equipment in question probably isn’t switched on, is informed by V. (with audible consternation) that they have in fact been using computers for several years now etc.

The setting 10 minutes later: E. arrives in the manner and style of a 20th century doctor making a house call on a farm far away from civilization (or like a veterinarian in Yorkshire). From every nook and cranny the office personnel come running to witness an Expert’s modus operandi (please bear with me if I’m carried away a bit here). E. eyes the printer and sees that the cable between it and the PC is present – and that the switch, indeed, is turned to ON. Still, the thing is as dead as a post- Format C: hard disk.

With a supreme air of confidence E. grasps the power cord and begins to pull. A veritable birds’ nest of cables appears (the premises were constructed long before information technology made its cheerful appearance in organizational life). Dangling inside the cable web is a power plug, its prongs conspicuously devoid of physical contact with anything electric. E., with an air of quiet achievement, lifts it high in the air for examination in a gesture reminiscent of a surgeon in a 1950’s war movie (the scene where the bullet has just been removed from the young soldier’s chest).

The reaction of V. and colleagues at this point depends on a number of variables, chief among them their rank in the organizational hierarchy. The range of reactions varies from “how could I be so stupid (again)” to “who the hell loosened that plug”. Suddenly the preferred topic of conversation is anything but office automation – frantic discussion of the quality of the local cafeteria coffee ensues, accompanied with a noticeable rise in body temperature above the 6th vertebrae.

E.’s reaction depends mainly on the tone of the initial telephone conversation, the distance covered in order to reach the culprit, and what he could have done instead. (The number of times this has happened before might also have some effect, but as V. normally has a choice between several E.s it is not likely that the scene will repeat itself with the same E. very often.).

If E. is a really experienced technical wizard, he will refrain from sarcastic comments, quietly lay down the power plug, and disappear into the sunset. The lonely hero has done it again. He has for the nth time shown who is the boss – who is in command of this omnipresent technology, incomprehensible to mere mortals.

But he knows this cannot last. There will come a day when the users will check for loose power plugs – a day when no carefully choreographed searches beneath desks will be enough to sustain his reputation as a technological superhero.

That will be the day he will have to learn how to change printer paper.

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