TagComputers

Tech Writer

I am terrible at covering technology. I don’t write reviews. I won’t tell you about the latest gadget and why it’s worth your money. I struggle to prove why anyone should more than one thing that serves the same purpose.

I won’t give you app recommendations nor phone preferences. Technology is a tool to use. It’s not a religion to go to war over. It’s not worth the words spent and tears shed over the cruelties of which brand our plastic and metal shells come from in China.

I won’t tell you Mac or PC. I won’t mention Linux or its variants. I won’t waste your time and mine debating something pointless.

There are a great many people who will tell you all about technology and how you’re using it wrong. They’ll tell you how to use it better, how to make it work for you, how to hack your life and what you need to buy.

I say use what you have. Use the tools you can afford. Use the tools that make you happy. If you don’t need a smart phone, don’t buy one. If you don’t need a Mac, a Chromebook or slim Windows laptops will serve you well.

Technology has become a lifestyle and a fashion symbol. But it’s all branding on the same plastic box. It’s a ruse to get more money from you every year.

To buy the latest and the newest. To have the best all the time.

If that’s what you want and what makes you happy, I’m very happy for you. But it’s not the way I feel. It’s a way to feel.

So many times I see people writing as if their way is The One True Way. Whether it be the writing application they use or the operating system their computer runs or telephone they carry.

Here is my great truth.

There is no One True Way.

There is no single answer. There is no right and wrong. There is only what works for you.

Computers are not predictable

One of the problems with computers is the sheer number of ways to do things. Take for example how to copy a file from one place to another. You can:
– drag and drop
– copy and paste with keyboard shortcuts
– copy and paste with menu items
– cut and paste
– open the file and use save as to save it in another place

That’s just what comes to mind as I sit on the Metro typing this. And that’s the problem. There are any ways to do everything and that’s a major point of confusion.

I am good with computers so I know these ways. I understand the conventions of computing. I understand them because that’s what I’m interested in and where I’ve spent my time. I enjoy computers and what I can do with them.

But not everybody does.

In fact, I’d wager most people don’t enjoy their interactions with computers. They’re confusing. Why? Because they’re unpredictable. Doing the same thing over and over doesn’t always produce the same result.

I’m talking to a mostly tech savvy audience so this can be hard to relate to. So let’s take something I struggle with.

Navigation.

I can’t find my way out of a paper bag. Drop me in a housing development and I may never be seen again. I have absolutely no sense of direction.

I struggle to find my way to the simplest of places. I struggle to remember if I turned right or left into a strip mall. Which direction did I come from and how do I get home from here?

Driving is my computing. I rely on my phone’s GPS. With that bit of tech, I can fearlessly drive anywhere and find my way home.

Why am I talking about my sense of misdirection? Because that’s how computers feel to many people. What?

When I am in a new city, riding with a friend, we will often take different routes in and out of their neighborhood. We will never use the same route twice. This is not to be mean. They know the best routes and will take the best choice as needed.

Because it’s familiar to them, it’s easy and they don’t think about it. But to my already struggling brain, I’m confused beyond belief and without aid of a GPS, I’d never leave the house for fearing of taking the wrong turn at Albuquerque.

That’s how computers are to many people. Remember all of those ways to get a file from one place to another? That’s how everything feels.

There’s many ways to print, open a file, navigate the Internet, access email and move files. And often times different people will use and try to show them a different way.

It’s the never take the same route twice driving problem. How can I be expected to learn the route when it’s different every single time?

And roads are static. They don’t change. And if they do it’s a slow process of construction.

Computers are nothing but change. They’re a box of variables upon variables. Even reproducing the same steps 10 times could produce two or more results.

It’s easy to dismiss questions as being so easy. But think about something you struggle with.

For me it’s driving and navigating. For you maybe it’s something else. We all have something we struggle with. And asking for help can lead to greater confusion. Is it any wonder people give up and just have you do it?

Teaching basic computer skills

Learning to code will not solve all problems. Teaching everyone to code will not solve all problems. Working in Tech, I see people scream the battle cry Learn To Code! It’s not a magic phrase. Sure, if someone has an interest in coding, encourage them. But for most people, that seems like an insurmountable task.

Start Smaller.

1. Teach basic computer skills.

In the course of my jobs, I run into people who lack even the most basic understand in how computers work. Where did that file go? What does this term mean? These people often work on habit. They have one procedure for doing something. And if that one thing does not work or if they have to alter it for any reason, they’re stuck. They cannot continue.

They don’t understand what they’re doing, only what their teacher told them. And they’ve followed the process ever since without variation. Teaching basic computer skills is enabling. It enables the person to know what they’re doing in front of the keyboard and mouse. It takes the power from the computer and restores it to the person. The computer should not hold the power a relationship. The computer is a tool, not a manager.

2. Teach basic troubleshooting skills.

Teach basic troubleshooting skills. Computers are less scary when they’re reduced to their working parts. What are those parts? Where are they? What do they do? We all know the basic jobs and location of our heart, lungs, legs and eyes. Why should hard drives, network adapters, motherboard and optical drives be a vast mystery?

Changing the computer from a black box run by fairies and hope to a machine with parts it’s less scary.

After hardware, move on to software. We don’t need to dive straight into boot records or how a BIOS works. But start with what the BIOS is. At a basic level. It’s a chip on the motherboard that has instructions to start and test the hardware in the system. Once you press the power button the BIOS turns on and tests the hardware. Then the BIOS hands the work off to the operating system software on the hard drive. That’s where you’ll see Windows, Mac OS, or Linux appear. This is where you start doing your work. You can think of it as the BIOS is the computer giving instructions to the computer. The Operating System is when the operator, that’s you, tells the computer what to do.

Was that a lot of information? Sure, especially if it’s foreign to you. But it’s not difficult. The BIOS wakes up the computer then tells the Windows to start. Start with a basic, technical overview of how computers work.

We’re not looking to teach a master class in computer repair. These are the basics.

  • What is it?
  • What does it do?
  • If it’s not doing it, what can happen?
  • How do I fix it?

3. Teach how to find information

No one knows everything. No one can know everything. I don’t know everything. I’ve never worked with anyone who did. We all look up information. We all reference documentation. Teaching someone the answer is great for that one time.

Teaching someone how to find the information is valuable forever. Technical work is all about information gathering. In the course of a day, I live in Google and dive through search results. Crafting a good search query and knowing how to sort through the results is how I fix problems.

Some of this is experience. I know to avoid anything that’s a sponsored listing. I know how to avoid results that look spammy or things I know to be useless. I try different sets of keywords. I always use product names and exact error messages. Official documentation and well-written posts always use the exact of the error message. The exact wording, capitalization and punctuation are important.

When hunting for why something doesn’t work, attention to detail makes or breaks finding a solution. Don’t ignore that period. Make sure the semi-colon is in the right place.

Finding information is not a technical skill. This is a skill that applies to every job in every walk of life. Sorting through piles of information to find exactly what you’re looking for separates you. It can be a way to stand out. Another trick I learned long ago was to make good notes in a place you can find them again.

I’ve kept paper notes and maintained wikis. I kept email folders and lists of links any way I could. Then, when I have time, I document them somewhere. Because I know I will need to find that information again and I will not remember what it was, nor where I found it.

When I’ve spent all day looking for a solution and finally find it, I think I’ll remember it forever. But I won’t. I never do. And in six months, when I see the same problem, or a co-worker asks me to help, I can reference my notes and provide the answer.

It doesn’t matter where you keep your notes. I’ve know people to write them down on paper. Others save them as bookmarks. I have a hybrid system of Evernote, Pinboard and email. The important thing is keeping notes where you can find them. Use what works for you. Armed with these skills, you can not only find technical support work, but keep that work and get better at it. The only difference between someone just starting out and me is a decade of time.

I haven’t worked particularly hard at it. I don’t hold piles of certifications. I don’t even have an advanced degree. I have a Bachelors’ of Science in Mass Communications. I majored in Creative Advertising, not technology.

I’ve gotten good at what I do by doing it over and over and learning ways to get better at it each time. Technology is always changing, but troubleshooting and research skills never go out of style. They’ll serve you well no matter what you do.

Technology Temptation

I love computers. I often prefer their company to people. Before I got married, I had close to a dozen computers in my life. They all worked. Or mostly worked. And when the ding or a NewEgg or TigerDirect email would appear in my mailbox, I would look through it. The same for the paper catalogs. What was on sale? What did I need to complete a machine? What upgrade could I buy?

I threw a lot of money into hardware that I rarely did anything with. Hard drive. Enclosures. Cords. Adapters. I had a mountain of junk that I thought was important.

It wasn’t. I had big plans for what I bought. But I never followed through with much of it. So I bought more and more. I kept looking to see what I could buy. Because it was a deal.

Now, I don’t receive any of their mailings. I’ve long since removed their temptation from my life. I can’t remember the last time I visited either site. I no longer lust for technology.

I’ve done the same with app deals and sales. I don’t get notified. If something goes on sale, it’s usually something I already own. And if it’s not. I don’t need it.

If I did, I would have already bought it.

Adults can’t use computers… and this is why you should worry

This evening I stumbled across an excellent article: Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You

It states:

Adults have worn their computer illiteracy as a badge of pride for many years now so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that their children share their digital inadequacies. Moreover, neither group is even willing to try to solve a problem when they encounter it.

In order to help those of you out there who are confounded by computers on a daily basis, let me provide three simple steps for success.

How to be a “Computer Guy/Gal”

  • Step 1. Read the screen.
    What is going on? What is the message instructing you to do? What action do you need to take? Is it offering you steps to resolve the issue you’re facing? Read. The. Screen. And all will become clear.

  • Step 2. Check cables.
    Is the cable plugged in? Is the other end of the cable also plugged in? Is the thing the cable plugged into on? Having your computer plugged into your power strip and the power strip being off isn’t going to work. This should go without saying, but since I’ve gotten this call…

  • Do you have power in your location?
    If you’re in the middle of a power outage, your computer that requires power will not work. If you’re in the middle of a storm and cell phones are out, your cellular network connection will also not work.

  • Step 3. Search.
    Seriously. Got an error message? Type in the error message to Google and read the first page of results. Don’t know how to do something in Word, Powerpoint, Excel or any other program? Look up “How Do I do the thing I want to do?” and click search. You will find the answers you seek.

If you have gotten through all three of these steps and still need assistance, then reach out to your support technicians. This will save you time, and the inevitable embarrassment when a technician shows up and plugs your mouse back into your computer, flips on your power strip or reads the error message and follows the directions provided.

Most of the people I work with and support have no idea how to use a computer. Reading through the examples in the post I was nodding my head as I’ve seen these same situations or ones nearly identical to them in the course of my work.

‘What anti-virus are you using?’ I ask, only to be told that he didn’t like using anti-virus because he’d heard it slowed his computer down. I hand back the laptop and tell him that it’s infected. He asks what he needs to do, and I suggest he reinstalls Windows. He looks at me blankly. He can’t use a computer.

Anti-virus is vital. If you’re running Windows, you need to be running an anti-virus. It doesn’t even matter which one. Just choose a free one and run it and keep it updated. Microsoft even bundles one with Windows 7 and 8. You are 5.5 times more likely to be infected without anti-virus according to a Microsoft study.

A kid puts her hand up in my lesson. ‘My computer won’t switch on,’ she says, with the air of desperation that implies she’s tried every conceivable way of making the thing work. I reach forward and switch on the monitor, and the screen flickers to life, displaying the Windows login screen. She can’t use a computer.

I have had calls because monitors, power strips and wireless mice and keyboards weren’t turned on. Also, if you use a mouse or keyboard with batteries, check them.

‘Bloody thing won’t connect to the internet.’ she says angrily, as if it were my fault. ‘I had tonnes of work to do last night, but I couldn’t get on-line at all. My husband even tried and he couldn’t figure it out and he’s excellent with computers.’ I take the offending laptop from out of her hands, toggle the wireless switch that resides on the side, and hand it back to her. Neither her nor her husband can use computers.

In her defense, the hardware wireless switch is the single worst idea in all of computer design. I have never come across a legitimate use for it. But I have taken dozens of calls from people in meetings or on travel or both because they had hit the switch and didn’t even know it was there. I’ve frantically searched for diagrams of customer’s computers to find out exactly where their particular switch was located.

I bet you don’t even know your laptop has such a switch. Dell loved to either put them on the front or the right side towards the front. My Lenovo puts it in the front right corner. If you see a weird switch you’ve never noticed before with a tiny antenna icon near it, that’s the wireless switch. It’s what stands between your internet access and nothing at all.

A kid knocks on my office door, complaining that he can’t login. ‘Have you forgotten your password?’ I ask, but he insists he hasn’t. ‘What was the error message?’ I ask, and he shrugs his shoulders. I follow him to the IT suite. I watch him type in his user-name and password. A message box opens up, but the kid clicks OK so quickly that I don’t have time to read the message. He repeats this process three times, as if the computer will suddenly change its mind and allow him access to the network. On his third attempt I manage to get a glimpse of the message. I reach behind his computer and plug-in the Ethernet cable. He can’t use a computer.

Remember the tips for success? Read the screen and check the cable. If you had read the screen you may have been led to the cable. If not, reading the screen to the help desk would have resulted in a fix over the phone.

A teacher brings me her brand new iPhone, the previous one having been destroyed. She’s lost all her contacts and is very upset. I ask if she’d plugged her old iPhone into her computer at any time, but she can’t remember. I ask her to bring in her laptop and iPhone. When she brings them in the next day I restore her phone from the backup that resides on her laptop. She has her contacts back, and her photos as well. She’s happy. She can’t use a computer.

Having setup a dozen new iPhones and Blackberries this week, I can attest that no one has any idea how they work. Where are those priceless photos of your child’s birthday party? On your phone somewhere?

I had a customer call me frantically because she had lost all the pictures of her daughter’s 3rd birthday and she was distraught. She had taken all of them on her Blackberry and now they weren’t showing up.

The problem was her micro SD card had come loose and the phone couldn’t read it. I popped the back of the phone off, inserted the card, and her pictures were returned to her. Then, I immediately showed her how to back up her photos to her computer which she did.

A teacher phones my office, complaining that his laptop has “no internet”. I take a walk down to his classroom. He tells me that the internet was there yesterday, but today it’s gone. His desktop is a solid wall of randomly placed Microsoft office icons. I quickly try to explain that the desktop is not a good place to store files as they’re not backed up on the server, but he doesn’t care; he just wants the internet back. I open the start menu and click on Internet Explorer, and it flashes to life with his homepage displayed. He explains that the Internet used to be on his desktop, but isn’t any more. I close I.E. and scour the desktop, eventually finding the little blue ‘e’ buried among some PowerPoint and Excel icons. I point to it. He points to a different location on the screen, informing me of where it used to be. I drag the icon back to it’s original location. He’s happy. He can’t use a computer.

Shortcuts are not programs. Just because your little blue E is gone from your desktop doesn’t mean your Internet is gone. If an icon is missing from the Dock of your Mac, it doesn’t mean the program is gone.

Programs are stored on a Mac in the Applications folder (or should be). Programs on Windows are stored in the C:\Program Files folder. Or even better, under the Start menu.

I have had calls for applications not being installed when they were, but there was not a desktop shortcut. Or there was not an icon in the Dock. These are both extremely basic concepts of computers that have not changed in a decade.

Whenever I see someone struggle with navigating Windows XP, I just want to say, “It’s been the same since 2001! Nothing has changed!” But I don’t. I calmly and patiently create desktop shortcuts and wish them a good day.

A kid puts his hand up. He tells me he’s got a virus on his computer. I look at his screen. Displayed in his web-browser is what appears to be an XP dialog box warning that his computer is infected and offering free malware scanning and removal tools. He’s on a Windows 7 machine. I close the offending tab. He can’t use a computer.

If you’re on a Mac and you see a Windows error, it’s not real. Close it. If you see an error message that looks absolutely nothing like the rest of your windows, close it.

The same goes for phishing emails. I’ve covered them before.

Not really knowing how to use a computer is deemed acceptable if you’re twenty-five or over. It’s something that some people are even perversely proud of, but the prevailing wisdom is that all under eighteens are technical wizards, and this is simply not true. They can use some software, particularly web-apps. They know how to use Facebook and Twitter. They can use YouTube and Pinterest. They even know how to use Word and PowerPoint and Excel. Ask them to reinstall an operating system and they’re lost. Ask them to upgrade their hard-drive or their RAM and they break out in a cold sweat. Ask them what https means and why it is important and they’ll look at you as if you’re speaking Klingon.

I’ve worked with people ages 20-80 and it’s the same across the board. I’ve had 22 year-old interns in our just our of college that were completely clueless how to use a computer. It wasn’t that they knew how Macs worked and were in front of Windows or vice versa. They had no idea how to maneuver around a computer.

The future is here and it’s computerized. Computers are not going away. They are going to be a bigger and bigger part of life and work. If you’re unable to use a computer, you’re going to be left behind.

I don’t expect everyone to be able to explain to me how the internet works or what the circuits on their motherboard does. However, knowing what a motherboard is, or at least where to find it would be a good start.

Computers have come a long way since the early days. Installing an operating system today is a series of clicks and answering complex questions like what timezone are you in and what language you speak.

I urge you to read Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You as the author, who is an educator in England offers solutions to the problems.

Replace “kids” with “adults” and every example is and statement is just as relevant. I’ve seen that someone holding a higher level degree doesn’t mean they have any better idea how to use a computer than my 5 year-old niece.