A Mild Interest…Part One

What I believe is a COSMAC ELF clone from my vintage computer collection. Recently acquired, I have not powered it up yet.

I am part of an informal little tech group that meets occasionally, usually in twos and threes. It is a mixed bag of people, consisting at this point of myself, another I.T./Broadcast professional who works in television, an employee of the local telcom, a fellow collector of vintage computers, and an electronics engineer, amongst others. While several of us come from different backgrounds, we share a common interest. Computers and technology.

We talk tech. It may sound incredibly dry to some (including my wife) but everyone has their passions and I look forward to every coffee I have with any of these people. We cover a wide swath of content…though it centers around computers, networking, programming, and electronics, it could turn to almost anything. Sometimes it evolves into something completely off topic, such carpentry or cooking.

One evening the talk turned as it often does to dealing with our respective clients or users, and how much of a challenge that can sometimes be. Of course, this is a commonality that is shared amongst almost any job that in some way services or provides a service for other people whether they be customers or employees. The thing that stuck in my head from that night a few years ago and has stayed with me since, was one statement from my fellow I.T. professional. He said “If users would just take a mild interest in what is going on…just a MILD interest, that’s all I ask…”

“Ahhh” some users may say to themselves at this point ”this is going to be a grumble session about incompetent users…well, I’m a user, and I don’t want to know how it works…I just want it to work!! Its your job to make it so tech person!!”

I promise this won’t be a grumble session…not exactly. I’m going to provide some analogies that might encourage some of the users out there to compromise a bit and consider the mild interest I mentioned above. I will share a couple of stories. I’m also going to give some reasons why in my opinion users should NOT go too far and take too great an interest in things as well. As in so many things, moderation is key.

I remember a few years ago, a fellow broadcast engineer of mine walked into the office shaking his head. I asked him what was wrong, and he related the following.

He had just come from a remote broadcast we had set up at a client’s business. He had been called by the on air personality doing the broadcast because the tuner that she was using to monitor our station had been knocked off frequency when she had accidentally pushed a button. Though she could still go live to air, she had nothing but static to go by now when determining when she should start and stop her live segment. In a panic, she called engineering with a rather incoherent tale of how nothing was working.

My co-worker promptly spent fifteen minutes getting there, less than ten seconds adjusting the tuner back to the proper station, and another 15 minutes back. Let us consider this — if that same user was driving home from work that same day, and accidentally knocked their car stereo off station, what would they do? I assume they would reach down and adjust the station. Yes, they are probably more familiar with their car stereo controls than the tuner used at their remote, but that is where my fellow techie’s words come in…’A mild interest’. That particular announcer did remotes on a regular basis with that equipment. Would you not consider basic familiarity with the tools you use regularly to be…reasonable?

I wouldn’t ask a user to sit down and study a manual on the unit. That isn’t their job, and can’t be expected. When the headphone jack on said tuner comes loose on the circuit board inside and starts cutting out, I would be the one heat up the soldering iron and pull the case open. However….just a mild interest in your surroundings, and the tools you use almost every day in your job can empower you a great deal, make you more confident and more efficient. Understanding and a cool head would have allowed her to realize she could also call the control room with her cell phone, be put on hold (which played the station air feed while you waited) and as a temporary measure listen to the station and her cues using that method. Even if she was not willing or able to actually troubleshoot herself, a basic understanding would have allowed her to communicate with her support staff more clearly and quickly, and probably would have resulted in the issue being resolved much more quickly — without someone making a trip.

These days, we are using digital audio codecs that connect via IP to the station. The station cue feed is on that IP connection so transmission and monitoring are in a single unit, negating the need for that tuner. However, when a user accidentally ‘hangs up’ their IP connection to the station and panics…a mild interest and some training can make a difference.

The props may change, but the issues stay pretty darned similar.

There are two responses I normally hear to the idea of a user taking a mild interest in the technology they utilize. The first one is the classic

My response to this is a question…do they own a car? If yes, I assume they know how to drive. So again, I think it is reasonable to assume that if you own or use a piece of equipment, you should understand the basic functions and use of it. I think as technical people many of us often have a bit of an advantage in this as we are in a line of work where we are used to being confronted by issues we need to troubleshoot and research. I know I apply whatever problem solving skills I do have to other areas of my life, whether it is carpentry, cooking, home maintenance, or my martial arts practice.

As many people are prone to state, we are in the 21st century…a basic knowledge of the devices you use isn’t an extra anymore in my estimation — if you want to use all the technology, conveniences and toys, I believe as a responsible employee you should have a basic level of understanding. However, what that level of understanding should be will probably always be open to debate.

Another response from users is fear or uncertainty

‘I don’t understand it, and I’m afraid I’m going to really muck something up’

People are often instinctively afraid of what they do not know, especially with regards to technology. At that point, it is up to the technician to help the user feel more comfortable with the basic functions of their smartphone, tablet, time machine, nuclear reactor, and so forth. I believe it is an essential part of our job to help educate our users to a certain degree and encourage them to take, yes, a mild interest in their gadgets. Enough to be able to utilize it, enough to be able to perform basic functions and to communicate their issues with confidence. We need to do a good job of teaching because it will help our users, and ultimately will make our lives just a little easier.

Patience and understanding is required on both sides of the equation. As ‘tech people’ we need to remember that this is our focus, so knowledge we may take for granted is not necessarily common. With regards to depth of knowledge, there is only one thing I know for sure — that the things I don’t know outweigh the things I do know so heavily it would take a couple lifetimes to come close to balancing the scales. In this line of work it is a forgone conclusion that I will be a lifelong student, but I am cool with that.

The image at the beginning of the article has nothing to do with anything other than as a conversation piece from my collection…though to relate it to users of tech, feel fortunate you are not programming it in hexidecimal, using the LEDS to determine what memory address and data value you are inputting :)

I work with technology, both old and new. I like heavy music. I practice martial arts.