Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Helpful Hints from your Friendly Neighborhood Geek

Hello, I'm a geek. I don't just mean I like computers. It's my job to fix and support computer systems. It's what I do, and I love it. Usually. Most of the time I enjoy interacting with users and helping them with their issues. But sometimes I just have to close my eyes, lean my forehead on my palm and contemplate just how much damage I might cause were I to smash my head into my keyboard.

So here for you today, for my stress relief, your reading pleasure and maybe even a little education, are some helpful tips from a techie.

1. Anti-virus programs are your friends. There are dozens available. Free ones like AVG, Avast and BitDefender, and paid ones like Norton, McAfee and Kaspersky. Contrary to what you may think, the free ones work quite well, so there's no reason not to have one. Just be careful and stick with one AV program. They often don't play nicely with the other kids.

And do learn a little about them. None of us techies expect you to know everything, otherwise we'd be out of a job. We just like you to know enough to utilize them properly. Learn how to set automatic updates, schedule scans, run manual scans etc. If you don't know how, surely you know some kid around the street who does. Here's a tip: If you ask nicely and offer to buy him pizza, he'll probably help. This is all assuming we're not talking about a company computer. If your company has its own anti-virus, leave it alone and let the guys who get paid to take care of it do so. Still, learn what it looks like so you know what's going on.

And remember, anti-virus programs don't let you do whatever you want with no consequences. Forgive the crude analogy, but think of them like a condom. They work most of the time and keep bad things away from places you don't want them. Sometimes they fail and something gets through. If you don't use one you might get lucky for a while, but eventually you're going to get burned. So please use a good anti-virus and at least know the basics of how it works and looks. Which leads me to the next tip.


2. Fake anti-virus programs are NOT your friends. Remember when I said you should at the very least know what your anti-virus looks like and know its basic functions? This is where that comes in handy. So you see a popup on your computer that says "Internet Antivirus 2011" Does it look like your regular anti-virus program? No? That's because it's not. Do you remember installing it? No? That's because you didn't.

LEAVE IT ALONE. Call that kid you know and get ready to buy him pizza again. While you're waiting for him to arrive, here's the scoop on what you're seeing. It's called malware, and it comes in many forms. You've probably heard many of them before. Spyware, trojans, viruses, worms etc. Your particular variant is called scareware, and it's pretty much what it sounds like. It's a piece of software you stumbled across somehow that tries to impersonate real anti-virus software in order to accomplish several things.

You see that notice that you need to activate the software to remove the infection? Protip: don't click that. They want to steal your credit card information and buy lots of things on your dime. Then it's probably going to install itself even deeper on your computer, mess with your privacy, send a bunch of emails to your friends in your name prompting them to download the same scareware and generally just cause havoc.


3. Only you can prevent forest fi, er, malware. I can hear the wheels turning already. "Isn't that what my anti-virus program is for?", you ask. No. Your anti-virus program is there to try to save your backside when you have an "oops" moment. Your AV program can be rendered completely unnecessary if you play by the rules. Conversely, if you insist on breaking the rules the whole thing can be rendered completely impotent. It can only do so much. "How do I avoid getting malware?", you query. Why, I'm so glad you asked.

I'm no statistician, but I have a lot of experience with removing malware and I'm of the opinion that no less than 80% of malware could be avoided if people would follow a few rules. Rule #1: Be careful on facebook, myspace, friendster, xanga (I know you're out there. I'm staging an intervention) etc. Of course facebook is safe. But do you really think everyone on there is as nice as you are? Avoid everything but the major apps, be extremely wary of every link you click on, especially if it takes you off the official facebook site, and lock down your privacy settings while you're at it. There are thousands and thousands of people willing to take advantage of facebook to further their devious little schemes. Don't let them.

Rule #2: Be careful with email. A while back we had a huge string of PCs infected with malware because users opened Zip files attached to emails that looked like they were from FedEx, UPS etc. Most of the time the Zip file would contain something that looked like "invoice.doc". The problem with this is, they weren't due to receive any shipments, and by default Windows hides known file extensions. So, unbeknownst to them, the users were actually opening files named "invoice.doc.exe". A word to the wise: .exe files are bad juju if you don't know exactly what they are.

Rule #3: Stop. Watching. Porn. No, I'm serious. The people who make porn want money, and they're obviously not the most morally upstanding people you'll ever meet. Is it really such a stretch to believe they would resort to underhanded tactics like installing spyware and adware on your PC to cause more advertisements and try to make more money? Trust me, they do.


4. Don't lie to us, we're not stupid. Two reasons for this really. Number 1: our job is to fix problems. It's a lot easier to fix problems when we know what they are.

Reason number 2 ties in with the first. We either already know what you did, or we will find out. I'll say about 60% of the time we already know what you did and we're just asking to confirm our suspicions. 35% of the time we may not start out with an idea of exactly what's happened, but we will figure it out. 4.9% of the time we just don't care enough to figure out exactly how you broke something. We'll fix it and go back to our windowless basement office. .1% of the time you'll have us completely fooled and we'll never know that you secretly did X to break it.

So if you spill coffee on your keyboard and it stops working, please don't clean it up, then call us and say "I don't know, it just stopped working." Just tell us so that we can grab you a new $10 keyboard out of the stockroom we probably have and call it a day. This saves us time and ends in the same result. If you're getting a fake anti-virus or weird popups, we know you went somewhere you're not supposed to. Despite our relentless campaign to make you a safer user, you did it. Oh well, sometimes it happens. Be more careful.

Porn popups only happen when you go to naughty sites. Don't lie about it, we know. If you visit a shady link on facebook and end up with a fake AV, you call us, we clean it up and go on our way. If you visit naughty sites and get porn popups, you call us, we come, we raise an eyebrow, we clean it up and we tell you to keep that crap at home. Then we make a mental note of who you are in case it happens again.

If you visit naughty sites, then lie to us about it, here's what goes down. We come, we raise an eyebrow and immediately know what you did. You lie and pretend to be innocent. We tell you it's going to take a long time to clean up, why don't you take an early lunch. Before we clean it up we look at your history and other items and take screenshots so we have proof. I have a nifty little program that makes it easy. We save the evidence, then clean the computer up. Before we lock your computer we "accidentally" leave that program up so you see it when you come back. Now you know that I know, and you can safely assume I'm a bit miffed. We don't like being lied to.

So don't lie. Most of us probably aren't going to report you unless it's something heinous like child pornography. If that's the case you're out of luck because I'm locking down your system without cleaning anything up, locking out your user account so you can't access it to cover your tracks and I'm calling the cops. That's pretty rare though. So long story short, if you lie to me, I'm going to get evidence of what you did. Then the next time you do it, I might just be more inclined to report you.


5. Don't argue with us, and don't explain how we should do our job. This sort of goes with the previous one. When you tell me your computer says a network cable is unplugged, the first thing I'm going to tell you to do is reseat (that means unplug and plug back in) both ends of the network cable. Don't tell me that can't be the problem. When your PC says a cable is unplugged there are not many things that it can be. Either one of the closely-monitored, very expensive pieces of networking equipment have gone bad and are only affecting you (I have seen it happen), rats have chewed through the cabling somewhere (also seen it happen actually) or you kicked a cable. Sure there are other possibilities, but which one is more common?

When you get porn popups on your computer and we tell you to stop looking at porn, don't tell us you weren't. We know you were and you know you were. Just hang your head in shame, mumble your understanding and we'll both go our separate ways. Basically when we tell you how something works, why things are the way they are or why something broke, don't argue with us. If you know better than us, why are you paying us money to fix it? The more you argue, the more we consider walking away and telling you to fix it yourself.

And when we're fixing a problem, unless I specifically ask you how you perform an action, the words "Don't you think you should...", "I think you should...", "That's not how you..." etc. should never cross your lips. Sometimes I need you to show me how you do something, I'll admit that. There are several programs clients use that I know how to install, but I'm not intimately familiar with how to use them. For the most part though, if I'm doing something differently than you it's either because I want to achieve a different goal than you think I do, I'm trying a different way to do it for troubleshooting purposes or I just know a better way to do it. You like to click Start > My Computer > Shared Drive > Subfolder, I like to push [Windows key]+R and type \\server\shared\subfolder. Potayto - potahto.


6. Be specific. Details are important. Most of you have never heard of the company I work for, but here's a little idea of what we do. We provide technical support for around 250 clients. Each of our clients has anywhere from a dozen to 100 employees. Our clients all know we serve more than just them, yet occasionally I still get this type of call (paraphrase of an actual call):

"Thank you for calling [technical support], this is Andy, how can I help you?"
"My computer is broken."
"With whom am I speaking?"
"[insert name]"
"And you're with who?"
"[insert client]"
"And what's the problem you're having?"
"My database is disconnected."
"Which program are you in?"
"[insert proprietary program from another company]"
"What were you doing in the program when it gave you the error?"
"Trying to open it."
"To open the program?"
"Was it before or after you logged into it?"
"What was the exact error message you got?"
"[gives message]"

Then I take a number and enter a support ticket, we call back and get it resolved. Please don't make us play 20 questions. I much prefer the calls where I answer and get the following response: "Hi Andy, this is [insert name] with [insert client]. I'm getting an error message that says [insert error] when I try to log into [insert program]." So much nicer for both of us. Unfortunately it doesn't always work that way. Most of the time when I get a call I either hear what the client wants, what's keeping them from getting what they want or a gripe session about how things never work the way they want. Give me the first two together, and leave out the third. If it's a recurring issue just say so in those words. I want to stop it from happening again just as much as you do. Contrary to what you might think, I DO have a supervisor and they don't like it when a supposedly "fixed" problem happens again.


7. Error messages are important. This goes along with the previous tip, but deserves its own spot too. Programs with decent designs give specific error messages. Ever gotten a Blue Screen of Death? Ever see the code in that screen that looks something like 0x000000A3? I can understand it being gibberish to you, but it's important to us. A lot of programs actually give you the error message in plain text. Those are equally important. Error messages are your computer's way of telling you "Well heck, whatever you just tried to do didn't work. Here's why...." So write it down, take a screenshot, memorize it, leave it up for us to see. Whatever it takes to relay that information to us. The faster we figure out exactly what's wrong, the faster you get your machine back.


8. DON'T TYPE IN ALL CAPS. Contrary to what seems to be the popular belief, typing in all caps does not signal the email server to send me that message faster because it's super important. What it does is make your message harder to read. In the world of computers, typing in all caps is like walking to my office/cubicle/front door and screaming at the top of your lungs. Or at least being obnoxiously loud.


9. Upgrade. Seriously, I know you don't like to spend money, but the computer world changes fast. The year is 2011 and Windows XP is 10 years old. There comes a point when I'm not fixing your artifact from 1998 anymore. If you complain to me that your computer is slow, the first thing I look at is the specs. Oh, you're still running a Pentium D with 512MB of RAM? Buy a new computer. If you are using anything that was designed for Windows ME, 98, 95 or anything else older than XP, I'm not even going to try. Hardware starts to fail, operating systems become corrupt, things just break down. There comes a point where it's going to cost you more to pay me to fix it than to upgrade.

Windows XP is the patriarch of the family. He's stable, mature and well-liked. It's a solid operating system, unfortunately you can't buy it anymore. So if you want a new computer, you get the rising star that is Windows 7. Windows 7 might not be as time-proven, but it's been around long enough to be very solid. He's slowly taking up the mantle of leadership from dear ol' dad and making his place in the world. He's stronger, faster, more versatile and just plain cooler. Is he different? Yeah. But change is good.

Windows Vista is the red-headed stepchild of the family. Throw him back in the closet where he belongs.

(No offense to any red-headed stepchildren out there)


10. Two words: canned air. You can clean your computer. It's a good idea even. Blow out the crumbs from in the keyboard, blow the dust off the monitor, blow the dust from inside the computer. Here's a secret I'll let you in on. Opening a computer doesn't require a college degree. It's usually a button or two thumb screws. Just turn it off, take off the side and give the insides a good dusting with the canned air. Just don't touch anything. Blow off the fans and heatsinks especially, they catch dust like crazy and cause the computer to overheat.

Please, please, PLEASE do this more often if you have animals. I once opened a computer from a client who kept dogs in their office (who knows why). As soon as I opened it my bosses eyes got wide and he immediately ordered me to close it and take it outside. I was destroying the computer's data, so I didn't care about what sort of shape it turned out in. I took it outside, opened it up and turned it open side down. When I picked it back up, there on the ground was a basketball-sized lump of pet hair and dust. It was like it formed to the shape of the inside of the computer. Do you know what dust is? It's mostly dead skin and other nasty things. I'm not easily grossed out but I got a little queasy.

Seriously, buy some. This stuff is cheap.


11. Email is awesome. Don't abuse it. Here are a few helpful hints.

  • Don't abuse the "Reply All" button. Does everyone really need to see your reply?

  • If it's bigger than 10MB, seriously consider another method of delivery. Email systems have file size limits for a reason.

  • I don't care how funny that 5MB video is, don't forward it to everyone in the company. Let's say you have 50 people that you forwarded it to. That email is delivered to each of them individually. You now have 250MB trying to make its way through your network.

  • Chain letters suck. Everyone hates them, no one believes them and yet so many people forward them. Stop it.


12. Passwords. We know, we know. You hate having to remember them, you hate having to change them. They really are important though. Please don't make your Gmail password "password". It's just not a good idea. Nor should you make them anything else easy to guess by anyone who knows your kids', pets' or spouse's names or your favorite sports teams etc. I hear you saying it already. It's easier to remember, and it's not like you have anything important in there right? Well let's assume for a minute that your online banking statements aren't coming there. Do your facebook notifications come to that account? If so, now all they have to do to get access to your facebook or other websites is request a password reset and they're in. Even if the only thing that comes to that account is the family reunion pictures from your great aunt Gertrude, you still need a secure password.

Say someone gets access to your Gmail. So you really don't have anything important in there. What you do have is a contact list. Maybe they send a nasty link to great aunt Gertrude or one of your friends who DOES get their online banking statement through email and end up compromising their security. The password reset questions are important too. Do you remember the little bit of a scandal that happened around the last presidential election? Sarah Palin had a wimpy password and easy-to-guess password reset questions and someone got into her account and had a little fun with it. Believe me, you won't realize just how important your email is to you or how violated you can feel until you realize someone has access to everything in there.

A decent password will be at least 6 characters and contain capital and lowercase letters and numbers. An ideal password is at least 8 characters and contains capital and lowercase letter, numbers and symbols like *#@%_(). My email password is over 10 characters long and contains uppercase, lowercase, numbers and symbols. Normally for most relatively unimportant account I use similar passwords that make it easier to remember, but aren't exactly the same. I change these passwords once or twice a year. I've been known to have passwords as long as 14-16 characters for things I really want to keep locked down, like my router at home.

I understand some people feel the need to write passwords down. Some of you have a lot of them to remember, I understand completely. I have dozens. Post-it notes are not your friends. Maybe for a couple days while you memorize the password, but take them down when you're not around and put them someplace safe. I have a tip for you. Get a program called Truecrypt and install it to a thumb drive. With this program you can create a small, encrypted file to store your passwords and other secret items in. It's got a bit of a learning curve, so if you need help you might want to order pizza again. The advantage of this is that you can keep your passwords written down to help you remember them, but in a heavily-encrypted file so if anyone snatches it from you it'll be almost impossible to access them. Instead of remembering 3 dozen passwords of varying lengths, you can remember one longer one.

Don't let your browser remember your passwords. People like me know how to find and access them where the browser stores them, I've done it before. Just don't.


13. We aren't wizards, some of us just play them online. Everything takes time to fix, and some things can't be fixed. Word crashed and you lost your document? I can try to recover it assuming you have auto-save enabled. You accidentally closed your document and hit "Don't save"? Now you're out of luck. When you do that, Word deletes the auto save files because it assumes you really meant it when you hit "Don't save." Did you delete a file from the server accidentally? Sure I can get it back. As soon as you tell me where amongst the 750GB of files your 200K Word doc is.


14. My world doesn't revolve around you. You aren't the only person who needs something fixed. Chances are you aren't the first person in the queue. Sometimes your problem gets bumped by a more important one. You're having trouble opening the pictures your aunt sent you of the family reunion? OK, I'll bite. But only after I'm done fixing the boardroom computer which suddenly crashed so the CEO can have a video conference with a potential million dollar client in 13 minutes. But when I promise I'll try to fix your problem, I will.


15. Common sense. It's back in style, in case you hadn't heard. We got a call from a client from a while back that went a little something like this:

"Thanks for calling [tech support], this is [insert name]. How can I help you?"
"This is [insert name] with [insert client]. I'm having a weird issue with my computer after I turned it on and I just wanted to call you before I did anything." (Notice they at least give a semi-concise description of what's going on. They're trying!)
"OK, what seems to be the issue?"
"Well I turned on my computer this morning and smoke started coming out of the back of it. We weren't sure what to do about that."
"Smoke? Is it still on, is it still smoking?"
"Yes it's still on, and it's smoking a little. It's making a funny noise too."
"OK can you see the back of it? Where that big black cable plugs in? We're looking for the power cable, it won't have screws."
"Yes I see it."
"OK pull that out."
"Should I shut it down first?"
"NO, just pull it out. Right now."
"OK, it's out."
"OK. I'm on my way. Don't touch it until I get there."

Now I understand some people don't understand computers. That's why I have a job. The computer is making a funny noise, it's not booting or just generally acting up, OK, call tech support. But if your computer is smoking? Unplug the power and *then* call me. In this case I would much rather you describe the problem to me afterward than risk the computer erupting into flames while you're explaining it to me.

Email scams. Everyone hates them, most people just delete them. Some people still fall for them. Do you know any Nigerians? If someone walked up to you on the street and told you in broken English that they would give you $1,000,000 USD if you give them your name, bank account numbers and $2,500 cash for fees they'll incur, would you believe them? If you would, we need to have a chat. If you wouldn't, what makes a person in an email any more believable?

Other email scams are a little trickier, I'll admit. There are a fair number of bank-related and PayPal scams out there. The same rule applies though. If some random person called your home claiming to be from a bank and asking for your name, social security number, credit card numbers etc., would you give it to them? If there's ever any question about matters regarding accounts, always contact the business directly by going to their website, not by clicking a link in an email.


16. Learn a little yourself. It does help to at least try to learn something about computers. I don't ask my doctor how medicine works, but sometimes he tells me I need to learn to eat healthier, exercise more or learn to take better care of myself when I'm sick. He's the medical expert, but I can help him by learning a little bit about how to take care of myself. We don't expect you to be experts on computers, but you knowing a little about them helps us both, so don't be afraid to ask questions. I may well tell you something is just complicated, because it'll probably take a lot of time to explain and there's a good chance you still won't get it, but I like being able to show you how better to use that magical device that makes life so much easier, yet so much harder at the same time.

Part of what I do is fix problems that you encounter, but if the problem you're encountering can be prevented by teaching you how to do something, we both win. Teaching a man to fish, so to speak.


17. Finally, trust your tech guy. His livelihood relies on his ability to do his job well, so he probably does. For the most part I think we all enjoy our jobs. I know I do. We are human though. We eat, sleep, have fun and yes, sometimes we make mistakes. Have a little faith in us though. If you ask me how something works and I say "It's complicated" it's not because I don't really know what I'm doing, and it's nothing personal. What I mean is it really is complicated and I think the details are going to either bore you or go over your head. I don't ask my banker to explain finance laws to me and I don't ask my doctor to explain how a particular drug interacts with my body to fix my problem. I just trust they know what they're talking about.

Also understand that we're not out to get you. There are bad apples, as in every job. But for the most part we're here to help you with your problems so you can get back to what you do best with minimal impact to you. If you treat us nice, we're usually pretty likable. I know a few who are socially withdrawn and would rather just fix your problem and get off the phone ASAP, but they really do want to help you. They just don't like dealing with people that much. Most of us do have lives, we like to have fun.

If you treat us nice, you'll almost always get the same in return. There are clients whose voice I know as soon as they pick up the phone. A lot of them I enjoy chatting up while I'm helping them with their issue.

Sometimes we're a little short with people too. Ever called an IT guy the day after a big holiday? He probably didn't sound as chipper as usual. That's because problems still happened over the holiday, but no one was at work to realize it, so they pile on the next day. So the next time you call your company's IT guy or that kid from a block over, be nice to him. Geeks are people too. Oh and by the way, despite my always saying "IT guy", there are some girls in the field too. I've worked with at least two.


There's your insight into the mind of one IT guy. I don't claim to speak for all of us, but I'm probably not too far off-base. We don't hate you, we don't think we're better than you and we don't think you're an idiot. We know there's a reason we have a job, and that's because not everyone can be a computer expert. We're here to help you with your computer the same as your mechanic helps you with your car. I like to think we're nicer than mechanics though. We're also not as greasy and we don't hold your device hostage and keep piling on costs for things you don't need.

So be nice to the geeks in your life, they'll be nice to you too. I hope you enjoyed this article for what it is, a chance to laugh and learn.

This article is from the mind of a self-described geek. It's intended to be a humorous, yet mostly accurate insight into the job we do. Any humor directed at any person or group is entirely in good fun and with no ill will intended.