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Being an accidental tourist

In to the Wind

January 10, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald
MIKE GILCHRIST IN THE TROLEDO CHRONICLE

If last week I was the unwitting tourist, then perhaps this week it is OK to admit at times in my life I have also been the accidental tourist. Many times it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

It seems like a lifetime ago when the Personal Computer first hit the streets. In the newspaper industry we were used to “big iron” computers used for production and business needs. IBM System 360 and System 370 computers ran the business side, while DEC PDP-1170 mainframes ran the production side.

Early in 1983 IBM released the XT, their first computer with a hard drive. I bought one. With the accessories I bought, it was almost $4,000!

I took it home and plugged it in. What I later learned was a DOS prompt blinked at me from the screen. I didn’t have a clue, except that I wanted one and wanted to learn everything about it.

PC Magazine and some publications from Ziff Davis began appearing on the shelves. I bought them all. In a few months I became fairly proficient with that machine. Using Borland Turbo Pascal, which was the first PC programming language for the masses, I taught myself how to program.

I wrote a program which tracked production waste for the newspaper. The program was distributed to all of the other print sites in our Southern District. In the first year, it saved the company over a million dollars in newsprint expense.

I had become something of an accidental tourist. Because they thought I was expert in a new technology, they put me in charge.

By being the “expert” I got to chart the destiny of a large corporation when it came to new technology. We consolidated communications and information services and streamlined them. Since there was no “book” so to speak, we wrote it. We designed and implemented PC support strategies when there were no strategies. We changed “Switchboard” to “Communications.” My staffers became expert at facilitating communications between departments and the staffers.

Anyway, I had to give you at least part of the story in order to introduce you to certain staffers who called upon us regularly for support.

Many of these staffers were part of the old guard. Because I was the head geek, my “customers” were the publishers, directors, and their administrative assistants. Some wanted to embrace the new technologies, while others were completely intimidated by the changes. I believe enough time has passed that I won’t be talking “out of school” by telling you some of the stories.

Before we had networks, each PC was a stand alone device. Files had to be copied onto 5 1/4” floppy disks, and taken to another computer for sharing. We called those networks the “walking floppy network,” or “sneaker nets.” A lot of problems arose from use of those floppies.

One director worked slavishly all night at home on his computer creating a presentation he was supposed to give to an assemblage the next day. I received a frantic call from him shortly after he arrived for work. He told me he had saved his work on floppy, but nothing was on it now, and he needed it.

I retrieved the floppy and took it back to my office. Using those software tools I had learned to use, I soon determined the floppy had damaged sectors and the data was irretrievable. When I got him to talk about the events leading up to the damage, he intimated he had finished working early in the morning and had stuck the floppy to the refrigerator with a magnet so he wouldn’t forget it when he left for work.

Floppy disks used a thin disk of magnetic material which spun inside a slippery envelope. Data was written to the disk using magnetic heads in the floppy drive. What was written in concentric circles on the floppy was damaged by the magnet. His work was lost.

Several users damaged those floppies by using a paper clip to attach a note to the corner of the floppy disk. I had to teach all of them that every paper clip I ever met had spent at least part of its life in one of those magnetic holders. “Keep paper clips and other magnetic things away from disks,” I admonished.

So, they started using sticky notes to attach notes to the floppies. Unfortunately, many times they forgot to remove the sticky note from the disk before inserting it in the drive. All of my staffers were issued hemostats which were used to extract those yellow stickies gumming up the drives.

Another time I retrieved a folded piece of paper from my mail slot. When I unfolded the paper there was a note written on it and a floppy disk stapled, yes stapled, to the upper corner. “Mike, I can’t copy the files from this floppy, can you help,” the user wrote? I probably could have until they damaged the disk with the staple!

A call came in from a particularly technophobic user. “This program is asking me to press the ANY KEY, and I can’t find it anywhere on the keyboard! Can you come over and help me?” I didn’t laugh, but calmly told her the ANY KEY was just any key, not one in particular. I told her to think of the spacebar as her “any key.” She got it, AND the program continued.

We pioneered customer support, which was walking a fine line between laughing hysterically at the end user antics, and offering soothing personal support at a time when the user would just as soon toss the whole thing out the window. It was a fun time, and an experience I’d trade for no other.

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting tamatoledonews.com and clicking on the “Local Columns” button at the bottom of the page.



In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at mike@aweiowa.com via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.

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