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Tag: Computers

One Year into Web Conferencing during a Pandemic

It. Has. Been. A. Year.

One year since I left the government contract I was supporting and took a job with an events company as a Web Conferencing Platforms Administrator. That basically means I make Webex and Zoom play nicely with our software platform.

Let’s set the stage.

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom
March 2020.
Unsuspecting Carl leaves his last job supporting Webex/VTC/video streaming to accept a new position at an events company. The job is to oversee Webex and Zoom. Both keeping up on the changes across both platforms and how to improve the company's offerings using them with its own events management platform.

Within a month, the global pandemic has hit. I’ve been sent home to work remotely and I struggle to learn my job, learn the people I’m working with, learn what exactly the scope of my new role is and field questions coming at me from all angles about how and what and how many and do you thinkā€¦

…all the while praying to the tech gods that Zoom and Webex stay up and running…

This past year has been a massive learning experience. Taking this job was the second hardest time I’ve had start a new job. But that’s a story for another time.

But how does Zoom look in different browsers and platforms?

I’ve been the entire world change from under me. I’ve seen the business reinvent itself and respond to requests and demands from all sides. I’ve seen the team I got hired into completely change. (I’m the only one left on the team from one year ago.) I’ve learned how to build a product. How to plan and write developer tickets and think about scope of work. I’ve learned scrum and agile processes. I’ve learned so many new terms and systems and ways of working I can’t even try to remember them all now.

It’s been a year. I’ve still never met in person many of the folks I work with everyday. I’ve largely worked remotely, living in instant messaging, Zoom meetings, and Webex meetings. I’ve stared at myself for countless hours trying to document specific functions or answer questions from our team.

I’ve learned how to not only read but interact with APIs. I can speak to Zoom and Webex fairly fluently. I’ve been reminded how I could never be a programmer, but can read bits of code and generally understand the parts of it.

The value of having a supportive, positive, encouraging team who unfailingly has your back as I have theirs cannot be overstated. It has been an absolutely exhausting year. But a challenging one full of failure, success and growth in all the right ways.

I could not be more proud of the work we’ve done and successes we’ve shared this past year. My timing could not have been worse but my decision could not have been better. The team that’s been built around me is unparalleled.

I work in a a positive, supportive environment. I joked this past week that we were working holding a Mutual Admiration Society because we’ve all been thankful for the work our teammates have done these past few months. But this week particularly, as things were coming to a head and crushing us all in different ways. The ability to ask for help and not only receive that help but no where is no risk taken in making that ask.

We’re here to learn together, fail together and succeed together. This has been the most stressful year of my life. I look back and it’s an absolute blur. Even now, it’s been nearly two months since it was a year. I wrote a short post on Linkedin around the actual anniversary to express my thanks to the team and the company.

March to March. And here we are on the cusp of May. Things haven’t slowed down, they’ve only changed. I’m still on a marathon. I’m still sprinting towards a never-ending finish line. But I’ve got good people with me. A phenomenal support network. The best friends I could ask for. And a marriage that has only grown stronger after this storm we weathered together.

I’ve grown extremely fond of Mourning Doves this year. We share a certain lack of preparation but determination.

Lessons from last year

  • It’s OK to say you’re wrong.
  • It’s OK to admit something failed.
  • It’s OK to start over when something doesn’t work.
  • Sometimes, the week of work you put in towards a project just doesn’t work in the end.
  • Document the failures and move on.
  • Take notes.
  • Save those notes in a place you can easily search later.
  • Give Future You a chance to see what Current You is thinking and working on.
  • Rely on your team and they will rely on you.
  • Give Praise.
  • Praise good work publicly. In front of others. Especially your manager.
  • Give Thanks.
Keep your hear up. Look around. Take a breath.

Reminders to myself

  • Nothing is as big a deal outside of your own head.
  • When you’re exhausted, everything feels worse.
  • Take breaks.
  • Eat lunch.
  • Step away from the computer.
  • Walk outside.
  • Breathe.

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.