Getting The Feel

I know I mentioned that last time I would discuss the virtues of working for corporate vs retail, but this is much more important and could be helpful. Today I’m going to be talking about getting the feel for working with technology and troubleshooting in general.

When in doubt…

Troubleshooting is a skill that can be learned but the best troubleshooters have an innate ability to fix things. Very frequently I’m asked “How did you know how to fix that?” to which I normally just shrug and say “Iunno…” Sometimes I’m not very confidence-inspring. The reality is that I really don’t KNOW how I knew how to fix that. It just comes to me. My brain sometimes works a little faster than my comprehension of a situation. I’ve frequently found that I fixed something without even knowing it. At work, I’m constantly tasked with sharing my knowledge with my fellow employees. I enjoy doing this, but it is a challenge because everyone thinks differently. I would love to explain how my brain gets from point A to point B when troubleshooting, but I don’t understand quantum mechanics enough to make any sense of how/why it works. I just assume *magic* and leave it as is. So for those that don’t have the magic quantum troubleshooting brain, let’s dive right in.

Troubleshooting

No, seriously… I have this printed at my desk and pinned to my wall only SEMI facetiously.

Seriously, Google it. I can’t emphasize this enough. Having a problem? There’s a 98% chance someone else is ALSO having this problem and that it’s been resolved and documented. Leverage that existing knowledge and use it! There’s no shame in following a documented procedure and fixing it. I do it all the time. Even things I’ve taken apart and put back together a billion times, I still keep the instructions nearby. It’s extremely important to do research and know what you’re doing before you do it. Confidence is built by doing the same thing over and over. Confidence is also built by taking chances though. Take a chance and try fixing things yourself. Sure, you might make it worse or break stuff, but you’ll learn from it!

Learn to Google the right way too. Google is a very powerful querying tool if used properly. Sometimes you can get away with properly worded questions like “How do I make a table of contents in Word 2013”. But there are other ways to do this that help the query engine make a better match. Google has a list of items called Search Operators and an Advanced Search feature that can help narrow your results. Here’s another way to search for the above question: add table of contents word 2013. The less text you have, the more information you’ll get. Read the Search Operators page and see how to use all these functions.

Troubleshooting without documentation is all about taking chances and visualizing the variables that could happen BEFORE you make the decision to execute it. If I do this, these are the expected results. There may be a few expected results, but think them out first. Execute your decision and prepare that the result may be UNEXPECTED. If it’s expected, plan and execute your next step. Continue on until you get to a finished result. Don’t be afraid to undo something you did or even start ALL OVER. Always leave room to go back if you can. Sometimes you can’t and you have to forge ahead, but don’t let it sideline you.

Software

Software troubleshooting is probably one of the most difficult types of troubleshooting to accomplish for people because it relies on the understanding of how software talks with hardware and other software. Most software troubleshooting is simply a matter of reading the manual though. Many times it’s simply lack of understanding of the program and its functions. Read the manual (or the Help file)… seriously. You’ll learn something. I still find new things in Microsoft Office programs just by hitting F1 and punching in some text about what I want to do.

I love resource monitor… it’s so fetch.
STOP TRYING TO MAKE FETCH HAPPEN!

Another awesome tool included in Windows 7 and 8 is the Resource Monitor. This tool is INVALUABLE when trying to find out why your PC is constantly hanging. If you are prompted with a program saying Not Responding, open Resource Monitor and it should be RIGHT AT THE TOP in BRIGHT RED. Right click the red process and click Analyze Wait Chain. This is a new magic tool that will tell you WHY it’s hanging. Sometimes it’s not cut and dry and it won’t have any data in there. Sometimes it will show you a tree of applications that are causing the program not to execute. Frequently I find that SPLWOW64 or SPOOLER.EXE is a stuck application on WORD.EXE or EXCEL.EXE, causing Word and Excel to hang and run slowly. SPLWOW64 and SPOOLER.EXE is the windows printer application that tells the printer what to print (basically…). This can be caused by a bad driver or a bad installation of the printer. Normally what I do to fix these is close all the apps and the remove and re-add the printer. This fixes it about 90% of the time. Sometimes you need to fully uninstall the printer and its driver package. Another link to Resource Monitor related info.

Sometimes, things just don’t seem to be running right at ALL. Let’s assume you aren’t the best at browsing the internet and you installed some kind of malware unbeknownst to you. Step 1: scan your PC. I HIGHLY recommend MalwareBytes Anti-Malware. Start off with the free version and update and scan your PC. Even I get malware sometimes. Sometimes hackers slip in malicious code into legit sites and hide them in banner ads. It happens… MalwareBytes is great at fixing it. If you’re looking for realtime virus and malware protection, buy the Premium version for $25. It gives you a license for 3 PCs. It’s a great deal. I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials as well (it’s baked into Windows 8 as Windows Defender, so don’t bother with it if you have Windows 8, but do consider MalwareBytes).

Beyond those two things, software troubleshooting is all about making sure your applications are up to date and compatible. Software is a beast and can go wild. There’s not much the average user can do to force it to work. Even most technicians can’t force things to work unless you really mess with the registry (which I don’t recommend doing at all unless you have an understanding of how the registry works). If in doubt, uninstall the application and reinstall it. Try CCleaner (the first C stands for Crap… seriously) for complete uninstalls if the standard uninstall/reinstall doesn’t work for you. CCleaner can go one step further and remove the application and it’s assorted application data and registry settings that the standard uninstall might miss.

Hardware

Trendy Members Only jacket: Optional. Also, it helps to put the desktop horizontally when working on desktops. Just sayin’.

Ah, hardware… my favorite thing to work on. Hardware can be anything from your laptop/desktop to your phone, your car… whatever is actually physical. Can you grab it and manipulate it with your hands? Then it’s hardware. This is where getting a feel for thing comes in handy. LEGO is great for learning the feel. First, build a LEGO model. Now, take it apart in the exact reverse order you made it and put it back together again, but really get a feel for how much effort it takes to remove the pieces and see how you can’t remove some pieces because they’re locked in because of other pieces. Now that you’ve assembled it that second time, let’s take it apart the WRONG way. Just go at it. Try yanking a locked out piece out. See how much more effort it might take to pry it loose? The good thing about LEGO is that it’s REALLY hard to BREAK them. I’m talking like full-on snapping a LEGO in half. One thing you may also notice is that you can break a LEGO down in sections while doing this. Congratulations, this is how nearly every piece of hardware is constructed and how you break it down.

Let’s move on to something bigger: a computer. If you’re like me, you have 15 laptops and 4 or 5 desktops in your house… You’re not like me, are you? Ok… well, maybe you have an old laptop or know someone that does. Something that’s gathering dust or is just broken already. Go get it, I’ll wait.

I love iFixit. They make awesome tools and provide some of the best teardowns and repair guides out there.

Ok, so, you’ve got your dissection project? Good. Let’s assemble a workspace and tools required. If you have a regular laptop, you’ll generally need a few Phillips head screw drivers in size #00, #0 and #1. I recommend this driver kit from iFixit. The main reason is because it includes nearly every bit you’ll ever need to get into ANYTHING… including those godforsaken MacBooks with their Pentalobe and TriWing screws… I would recommend this tool kit from iFixit as well. It comes with that driver kit and a bunch of other things that come in handy. I have this on my person whenever you see me with a backpack. I would also suggest getting one of these magnetic work pads… but just be ready with something to put your loose screws in, preferably something that can separate screws of different sizes. Laptop screws are tiny and roll away and are impossible to find. If you are working on a desktop, you’re in luck: most are tool-less now and the ones that aren’t normally can be disassembled with a regular #1 Phillips head screw driver and MOST of the screws are the same size (nearly always a 6-32 screw for the case and most of the larger internals. Occasionally they’re an M3 screw with a finer pitch for small 2.5” drives and CD/DVD drives).

Ok, let’s dig in. Did you google it yet? No? Ok, what are you working on? Punch the manufacturer and model number of the computer into google and add the word manual or disassembly. If your computer has a really long model number (like a Toshiba or Sony) the model is generally the first part of it and then has a dash followed by a sub model. For example: The Toshiba Satelilite C50-AST3NX1, you would google Toshiba Satellite C50 Manual. If you have a Dell, you’re in luck. Dell provides really good service manuals. One of the most common laptops I would deal with was the Dell Latitude D630. Here’s the service manual for that. Read through it first. Look at all the pictures. When you’re ready, start in on it. Assuming you’re working on a trashed laptop, really tear into it. Don’t be afraid to break things but get a feel for everything. You should be able to feel when a component isn’t ready to come out. Perhaps there’s a screw you missed but sometimes it could be a tight plastic fitting. Plastic fittings are the worst… Lots of laptops are press assembled and then screwed together. There’s little spring clips that are molded into the computer chassis. If you snap them, they’re done. You’ll have a loose computer (normally along the palmrests and around the screen bezel). Feel how these feel when releasing them. A lot of time it feels like it’s going to break and doesn’t… sometimes it does, and that sucks. Sometimes you can glue or epoxy those fittings back in, but it’s rarely worth it.

So get comfortable with the feel of all the parts as they come apart. Get used to sorting your screws and taking note of their length, size and thread pitch. Feel how the cables pull out of their connectors and how much force you had to exert. Careful with the little ribbon cables on laptops, most have a little plastic lock on them that hold them in place. Once you’ve taken it apart and hopefully not broken much, put it all back together.

Now that you’ve disassembled a broken computer and put it back together, let’s discuss troubleshooting it. Let’s say your computer won’t turn on at all. You hit the power button and nothing happens. This could be the power supply, the motherboard OR it could just be unplugged.  Check those cables first, then go from there. For a power supply, there’s generally a light on the power supply that lets you know that it’s getting power. If that’s on, there’s a light on the motherboard sometimes that lets you know it’s getting power. The one without the light is the broken bit most of the time.

Let’s say your PC turn on but just beeps at you or gives an error in ‘that black screen’. Beeps are normally caused by a failure in an internal card or memory. If you have an actual error, google it with the brand of your PC. If it’s beeping, google beep codes and the manufacturer. The beep codes generally are a short-long sequence that explain the problem.

I could go on and on about how to troubleshoot hardware, but the end result is that you gain confidence in your ability to work on your equipment and to be proficient with searching for answers and applying them to the best of your ability. And if you can’t get it done, give me a ring. Google hasn’t replaced me entirely yet.

How to solve the 10 most common tech support problems yourself.

Feel free to hit me up with questions and I’ll try to make a more concise and coherent post next time!

The Retail Service Industry.

I’ve been in the IT service industry for 15 years, officially. I’ve worked for the Red Scourge (CompUSA) as a service writer, a service technician and a service manager. I’ve seen the ins and outs of the retail service industry and I can tell you it is easily built on margins. HUGE margins. Your average retail service technician makes $11/hr. When I was working as a service technician back in 2003, I was making $10/hr and I was one of the top earners for the company. When I moved up to part-time service manager I made a whopping $11/hr. Compare that to what we were charging people for their repairs. It was all flat rate, so it made sense for us to flip the work over as quick as possible to get more money out of your technicians.

After this comic, we made a Customer Appreciation Bat… with this comic taped to it.

During my tenure at CompUSA (1999-2006) it cost $99 for desktop repairs and $129 for laptop repairs. I always thought this was weird because I can understand that repairing laptops is a little more fiddly, but the majority of the cases were simply a matter of software repair and it was always easier to do software repair on a laptop because it took up less workspace. I would generally work on 4 laptops at a time while working on 2 desktops. This would take up my 4 workspaces and I’d have $456 worth of service working. I am all about efficiency. When I’m working, I don’t like to wait. The biggest issue with software is updates. Updates take a while to run and at one point, CompUSA made running updates and stuff a ‘tune up’ charge of $10. On top of that they eventually added a service called a ‘Power Clean’ for another $10. The Power Clean was a HUGE margin maker. It literally meant that we blew the dust out of your computer with compressed air (from an air compressor we paid like $100 for). It was an upsell we were practically forced to make and we got kickbacks on them.

We also charged $70 for virus removal. This was another issue. If you brought your PC in for ‘virus removal’ and it required a complete rebuild (as most viruses did back in the day) you’d be charged an additional $99 or $129 for desktop or laptop repair, respectively. So, we fail to remove the virus and now we’re not refunding you the $70 and then charging you ANOTHER $100-130? As a manager I waived the virus fee and worked as an upcharge to the appropriate level of desktop/laptop repair. Data backups were $60 on top of any work and your data was not always ensured. And let me tell you about your data: techs look through your stuff… not all of them, but in my time in IT, I’ve met a lot of slimeballs. Sometimes it was simple stuff: copying your music and videos for our own use or sharing (most of this was before DRM and during the heyday of Napster). Sometimes it was really awful stuff: one guy I worked with used to sift through photos, occasionally finding explicit material which he would then share with all the others in the company. You have to remember, most of these guys are under the age of 25. I never personally saw anyone digging through things like documents for your financial stuff, but I figure those guys were smart enough not to brag about it. I also know that I caught two of our managers running bad checks through the company and pocketing the money. These managers fired me before I caught them (they were running bogus service charges through my shops and I couldn’t account for the missing money) then they were caught and I was rehired.

And let’s talk about the technicians as a whole. Most of the technicians I worked with were book techs. These are the guys that crammed for their A+ and Network+ certs to get moved up to $10/hr but had no actual repair or troubleshooting skills. These are also guys that have no ‘feel’ for the art of repair. When I talk of ‘the feel’, some of you will know what I’m talking about but others will need an explanation. When I’m working on a computer (especially when working on a physical part) I give each part a touch to understand how it works, how it comes apart and how it goes back together. Simply feeling your way into the machine is an important troubleshooting step. When working with the physical, it’s important to have ‘the touch': the ability to take things apart without breaking them and to put them back together WITHOUT BREAKING IT! Common mistakes I would see would be losing screws, breaking plastic bits, overtightening screws, stripping screw heads out or not tracking where all your pieces go. Sometimes this can be attributed to experience, rushing through the job and sometimes just general laziness. I’m not perfect. I’ve stripped a screw, I’ve overtightened a screw and broken a fastener and I’ve had ‘leftovers’ upon completion, but I always went back and fixed it or admitted fault to the customer. I rarely make these mistakes now as I’ve been building and repairing computers since 1988 starting with a Commodore 1541 floppy drive. Confidence is another thing I find lacking at the retail level. Most of these guys are afraid to stray from the book and try things on their own. They’re not confident in their abilities yet. I wasn’t confident at first either. I broke a LOT of things before I got good. I broke a lot of my own stuff. I took chances with my own gear for years before working on others things. Retail techs tend to be first timers. There’s also a distinct lack of upper level techs in retail, and for good reason: it’s not sustainable. If you’re a good technician, you move on to better paying gigs for private companies or you start your own shop (or, in my case… both). There’s the occasional grizzled veteran at these shops, but most that I’ve worked with weren’t that much better than the freshmen techs. There’s a ‘feel’ for software too. It take a lot of practice to get that and it takes some tools (mostly available free) like the resource monitor in Windows 7. It takes some research and understanding of how processes, services, handles and modules work together, but a little Googling is all you need to learn that. I’ll go over this more in a future post.

Now, to those that work in the retail service industry: all is not lost! This is a GREAT learning experience for you. You get paid to learn things that you wouldn’t learn in school thanks to the variable that is a true user problem. Push yourself to be better and be a true technician. I work with another CompUSA guy here in my job and we’re both high level engineers now (and both in our early 30s). But for those that utilize the retail service industry, know this: you’re paying FAR too much for inexperienced hands to work on your problem. Geeksquad is the primary company I find now that does repairs. I think I’ve seen some Staples with tech repair centers as well. Geeksquad is very wishy washy about their pricing. I found this rates list from 2011. I’m floored by the costs of something as simple as a virus removal. $200!? Hardware repairs ‘vary’. Now granted, parts cost is a big issue. Parts can be cheap, parts can be REALLY expensive. But the labor rate should remain the same, in my opinion. I can completely disassemble and reassemble an entire desktop in less than an hour. I can do the same for a laptop in the same amount of time. In fact, I prefer working on laptops because it takes up less work space and there’s no cable management to deal with. FACT: Anytime you can buy the item in the same place you can get it serviced is simply a means for an upsell to buy a new one. It goes for cars and it goes for technology. Best Buy wants you to see that it’s $200-300 to fix your computer so that you spend $200-300 more to just get something new. If you decide to get it repaired, it’s an even bigger win for them because the margins for the repair are so high. Assuming you’re paying your service tech $11/hr, it would take him 18 hours of work to get to $200. The average repair time for a novice is 2 hours. That means it was $22 of technician time. $178 goes to Best Buy. Parts are always extra and always marked up (normally at 8%). I’m going to charge you a lot less because I have no overhead and all that money goes into my pocket. Most jobs are done within a day and I stand by my work.

Having never worked for GeekSquad I can’t say exactly what they do, but this guy can. They are sending your computer out for depot repairs (off site) for most anything beyond simple repairs. Turnaround time at depots is HORRIBLE. There’s little to no communication with the depot until the company gets your laptop back or is sent a tracking number. Depot repairs happen mostly when items are under warranty. At CompUSA we had to send things out to the HP or Compaq depot for repairs (at no charge to you). We would then charge back HP or Compaq for our diagnostic time, but it would be 7-10 days before we had ANYTHING to tell you. We’d take the brunt of the customer dissatisfaction when it was 2 months along and we have no word from the depot and then suddenly we’d get your laptop back with no warning and call you to tell you ‘they fixed it’ and struggle to explain what happened because the depot techs notes were HORRIBLE. The unfortunate thing is that I cannot repair your computer for free under warranty. I no longer keep credentials with HP or IBM or Apple to be reimbursed for warranty work. I can assist you with getting your laptop properly diagnosed for warranty depot repairs for a small fee (or some bacon or cider or something).

Diagnostics are a key component that is overcharged for or simply charged the full repair price whether you want to go forward with it. For a long time, CompUSA had no diagnostics charge. It was $100 to look at your desktop. If you didn’t want to pay for parts, here’s your busted computer back… no refund. When I became manager I instituted a diagnostics fee of $25 (by charging 2 power cleans @ $12.50 each). If you wanted to get the full service of repair, we’d charge you the $100 and do a power clean AND a tune up afterwards. If you didn’t want it, you were only out $25 but you were given a FULL written report of what the problem is, the parts required and the cost of those parts. I still offer this same service. $25 gets you a full report of what’s wrong with your computer. Also, if during the time I’m diagnosing it I find that it’s something EXTREMELY simple that takes me less than a half hour to fix, that’s your cost for repair: $25. I don’t see charging my clients a full $100 just because I fixed a tiny thing. Another thing I will always do as part of your repair or diagnostics is run updates and do a general ‘tune up’. This normally involves installing, updating and running MalwareBytes Anti-Malware, installing Microsoft Security Essentials if you have no virus protection program (it’s free) and seeing if there’s anything causing your computer to run slower than normal.

I haven’t seen what other local shops are charging, but I’ve seen some of the Yelp reviews and people complain of overcharging, poor service and lack of communication with some of them. I’m hoping to remedy this. I hate to see someone fleeced over at a shop and bring it to me and tell them they were ripped off. I’d like to help you get back in order as soon as possible and I appreciate your feedback to what you want from your service provider. Let me know in the comments below. I could keep going but I’m up  over 2000 words and I figure some of you may have tapped out by now.

Next time I’ll discuss bits of the corporate industry.

FIX ALL THE THINGS!!!

Fix2

YES! Laptops, desktops, servers, networks, iPhones, Exchange, data recovery, websites, maybe even your car! You name it, I’ll fix it.

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I offer no BS technical services for home and business. With over 25 years of hands on experience, I can help fix your problem, no matter what it is.

Tired of getting the runaround from tech service providers that just read the script or go by the book? Sick of paying exorbitant fees for repairs because nothing is advertised up front? Don’t want to deal with a repair place that’s just trying to upsell you to buy a new PC? I was too.

There’s not a technical problem I’ve run into that I can’t fix and if it’s a new problem, I won’t pass that research and testing time onto your bill. Want to get constant and heavily detailed updates on your problem? I do that too. I have nothing to hide and love for my clients to be well informed, even if it costs me. I’d rather you be able to fix your own problem then rely on me or any other technical service provider. Are you a novice and you just want it fixed right the first time and you don’t need your bones rattled with technobabble? I’ll do that too.

Tired of tech service providers with pages full of stock photos of random people pointing at monitors and people wearing headsets! ME TOO!

So, how much?

*Shameless memegenerator images sourced from hyperboleandahalf (Allie Brosh). Go to her site and buy alot of stuff.