There was a long period of time in my life when I was a computer hardware repairman. I started as a simple printer repairman and worked my way up.
Along the way up that ladder I encountered many strange people who had many strange problems, some of which were computer related. I sometimes pull out these stories while sitting around the fire on cold winter nights to amuse the children.
The anecdotes you are about to read are all true. I know they’re true because they happened to me and now, for the first time, I will document them on my blog.
Gather around now and listen to…
Tales of the Computer Hardware Repairman
During my time of being a printer repairman I was going to begin work on a new (yes, new) dot matrix printer. The first thing I had to do was remove the power supply.
I touched the screwdriver to the screw and sparks flew, a loud bang was heard, and the lights went out. My boss stormed into the work room demanding to know what happened. I explained that I touched a screw with a screwdriver. He looked at the printer and saw that it was still plugged in; a stupid mistake on my part, to be sure.
After yelling at me and flipping the circuit breaker (or possibly changing the fuse) he came back and loudly explained that one has to be very careful when working with electricity and power supplies. One must always make sure a unit is not plugged in before working on it. He grabbed the screwdriver from me so he could properly remove the power supply.
He touched the screwdriver to the screw and sparks flew everywhere, a loud bang was heard, and the lights went out. The tip of the screwdriver was also melted. My boss had forgotten to check to make sure the printer was unplugged.
I received a call for an HP LaserJet II or III that was having chronic paper jams. When I arrived at the cubicle I saw that the printer was kept on the floor, which wasn’t all that strange back then.
The woman explained that when she tried to print the printer would feed in part way and then jam. She showed me; it did jam. I got down on the floor and opened up the lid and pulled the paper out and started digging around to see if I could find the problem.
“By the way,” I said, “Did you ever find your other earring?”
She looked at me oddly because, at this point, she had never seen me before. “What?” she asked.
“You lost an earring. Gold with a pearl?”
She just looked at me. I could tell she was trying to figure out when she had told me even though she knew she couldn’t have. Perhaps she thought I was psychic. I lifted my hand and showed her the gold earring with a pearl I had pulled out from between the broken transfer wires.
She was overjoyed; a working printer and a recovered earring.
A call came in for a broken keyboard. This was during a period of time when, for some reason, everyone was dumping a beverage into their keyboards.
When I arrived I looked at the keyboard. It looked fine. I picked it up from the desk, keeping it horizontal.
I looked at the woman who made the call. She was very pretty; nearly model material. She had a big blog of cream cheese on her cheek and she was unaware of it. “Did you get any coffee in here?” I asked. It wouldn’t have mattered if she did or not because everyone got the same level of service from me regardless of what happened.
“No,” she said. “It just stopped working.”
I tilted the keyboard so I could wrap the cord around it and about half a cup of coffee came pouring out of it and onto the carpet.
“Maybe I spilled a little bit in there,” she said sheepishly.
I did not tell her about the cream cheese on her cheek because she was untruthful to me.
My consulting company sent me to a new location that would become my temporary permanent spot. My new boss wanted me to show my chops so when a call came in for a malfunctioning monitor he took me down to have a look at it.
I stood at the edge of the man’s cubicle, my boss behind me. The man gestured at his wildly flickering monitor and explained that sometimes it did that and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it flickered badly, and sometimes it was not so bad.
Without moving I asked the man to turn off the little fan he had sitting on top of the monitor.
“Sure,” he said. He turned the fan off. “Hey!” he exclaimed, “It’s working again!”
I took the time to explain that the magnet in the fan messed up the electronics in the monitor. The faster the fan was set to, the worse the flickering would be.
The man was happy; my boss was pleased.
I received a call for a flickering monitor. Normally I suspect a fan to be the culprit but when I arrived at this location there was no fan.
The woman who entered the call gestured to her monitor and said, “See how it flickers?”
I looked at the monitor. It wasn’t flickering.
I looked at her. “Um, no?” I said.
She pointed at the monitor. “You don’t see that flickering?” she demanded.
I looked at the monitor again. It looked fine. I began to wonder if she was just very sensitive to the fluorescent lights. I wondered how I was going to get out of this one.
I looked at the woman and was about to mention the inherent flickering of fluorescent lighting and how she just might be really sensitive to it when I noticed she was chewing gum.
“Could you stop chewing your gum for a moment,” I asked her. She gave me a reproaching look, wondering why I would be that bold. But she did stop. I said, “Now look at your monitor and tell me what you see.”
She turned to the monitor and said, “Hey! It’s not flickering anymore!”
I tried to bump up the refresh rate on the monitor but it was already as high as it would go. I explained to her that her jaw movements were in sync with the refresh rate of the monitor and that’s why it was flickering.
I received a ticket for a mouse that wasn’t working. This was back when mice were new. Back when Microsoft made bus mice, a kind of precursor to the PS2 mouse. Mice were just becoming popular in the Intel world, even though they were already in use on the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga.
I arrived at the desk expecting to clean the ball and rollers. I tried out the mouse; it worked fine.
“Ugh,” she said. “It never works for me.
“Well, show me how it doesn’t work for you.” I said cheerily.
She furiously tapped the right mouse button with her index finger. The mouse pointer drunkenly travelled to the right. Then she furiously tapped the left mouse button with her index finger and the mouse pointer drifted erratically to the left. “See?” she asked.
For a fleeting moment I thought about the story of the person who had thought a mouse was supposed to work as a foot pedal (yes, that story is that old).
I patiently, and kindly, explained to her how to use the mouse and she was satisfied.
It was early in the morning and I received a ticket. Before I had even finished my coffee. The call was for the trading floor; a location that I dreaded.
I arrived at the trouble spot. A trader greeted me by complaining about how loud his computer was and that he was afraid the hard drive was going to crash.
Getting close to the computer I listened for any unusual loudness and, perhaps, some weird hard drive grinding. I heard nothing unusual.
“I came in early today to get some work done,” he agitatedly explained. “Now, I can’t do anything because my computer is really loud and you’re telling me it’s fine. It never sounded like this before!” He was angry.
It was early. Early enough that the floor was fairly empty and the usual trading floor hubbub hadn’t started up yet.
“What time do you normally come in?” I asked.
He had no idea why I asked that. He probably didn’t think it was relevant but he answered anyway. His normal working time was close to when the trading floor opened. When the noise level of the trading floor was pretty high.
“You never heard it before because when you normally come in everyone is already making a lot of background noise. Your computer just blends in with it.”
He started to protest. He stopped. He thought about it. Traders are not dumb people, for the most part. His face turned a slight shade of red. I started the computer back up.
In a last ditch effort he said, “Do you see how long it’s taking to load up? Do you have any idea of how much money I’m losing?”
I didn’t know. More importantly, I didn’t care. “That’s NT, sir. It takes a while to load up.” He waved me away.
I turned around and saw my boss standing behind me. He gave me a smile and a wink and we walked back together. Again, he was pleased.
Sometimes, as a computer hardware repairman, you hear the same things over and over again. Sometimes it’s unintentional and sometimes people think they’re being clever. It’s enough to make you snap.
Showing up at a desk responding to a trouble ticket I was asked, “Are you the computer guy?” one too many times.
“Negative, human! I am as human as you are!”
Riding the elevator to respond to a scheduled trouble ticket a man asked me if I fixed the computers.
“Yes,” I said.
“My laptop modem stopped working. Could you look at it for me, please?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Tell me where you sit and I’ll come by when I’m done with this call.”
“Could you look at mine first? We’re going to the same floor.”
“I’m sorry, but I have an appointment to keep. I can come by as soon as I’m done, but I can’t miss this appointment.”
He begged for a bit more, but I wouldn’t budge. I explained that if he had sent up an appointment then I would not miss it by going to someone else’s desk either. Finally, he relented and gave me his location.
When I finished with my appointment I found the man’s office. It was larger than my apartment. His modem was a Megahertz PCMCIA card with the X-Jack. The two wires in the jack were mangled. Carefully, with the help of a flat bladed screwdriver, I straightened the wires out. Then I scolded him because he would just yank the phone cord out when he was done with it. I showed him the wires and how fragile they were. He thanked me.
I went back to my desk and told my boss the entire story. He asked for the fellows name and I told him. His face blanched. He went totally white. Evidently the man was very high up the managerial food chain. Very high up.
There were no negative repercussions.
I got to work and my boss grabbed me before I could go anywhere.
“We have a problem,” he said, seriously. “There’s a guy on the Xth floor with a printer problem. It keeps jamming. I sent Joe Fakename up there last night but he didn’t fix the problem. This guy is mad.”
What better way to start the day could there be? So we went to the Xth floor and my boss introduced me to the customer. The man was annoyed and, after the initial pleasantries were done, informed me that, “You will not be leaving here until this printer is fixed.”
I was introduced to the printer. It was a rather large form feed dot-matrix job. I knew Joe Fakename did good work; I learned a lot from him when I started out. I trusted his work. For the sake of appearances, though, I double checked everything that he would have done: cleaned the platen, made sure there were no paper bits laying around, the belt on the form feed mechanism. Everything checked out, just as I thought it would.
Many times people think I’m not doing anything because I’ll sit there and stare. The truth is that I’m thinking. Thinking has saved me, and a lot of other people, a lot of problems down the line. So I sat there and I thought. Also, I ran paper through the printer continuously. It never jammed.
I decided to look for a more mundane problem. I investigated where the printer was. It was sitting on a wireframe stand with the paper fed up from a box, behind the printer and up until it was threaded between two of the wires before entering the back of the printer. There was nothing to block the paper’s path.
I went out to where the administrative assistant sat. Joe Fakename had told me earlier that they were using a multipart form as paper. They had given me standard paper to test with.
“Is this the paper you usually print with?” I asked her.
“Oh, no, we use a form with carbons and everything. But I can’t let you use it because it’s very expensive.”
“Well, the printer isn’t jamming with this paper so I won’t be able to fix it unless I have the paper you’re using. It could be that the printer isn’t set for the thickness or something. I don’t need to print anything on it, just run it through the printer.”
Finally she relented and gave me a box of the forms. And it was really thick stuff. It had about five copies with a carbon sheet between each one. I began to think it really was a thickness problem. I threaded the paper through the wire stand the way she had showed me and ran it through the printer. The first few sheets went through okay, so I knew there was enough room between the platen and the print head.
Then, suddenly, it jammed. Great. I investigated the printer, looking to see if part of the form had become bent and was blocking the works. No, that wasn’t it. I re-adjusted the paper and started to feed it through again. No more jam even though I hadn’t really done anything.
I did this for a while. Every once in a while it would jam. I stopped, sat on the floor and did some more thinking.
It occurred to me that there seemed to be a set amount of time that it would feed properly until it jammed. I tested this idea. Sure enough, it would feed a certain amount of pages and then jam. I let it jam again but didn’t touch the printer or the paper. I followed the paper trail back out of the printer looking for something it may be stuck against. Nothing appeared to be stopping the paper.
I was stymied. I followed the paper back further, intending to go all the way to the box looking for why it was stopping. Gently I poked at the paper as I followed it back. Then I realized that the paper didn’t move when I poked it. “Ahhhhhhh,” I thought. There’s problem something on the wireframe that’s stopping it. Maybe they printed labels, too, and some of the glue got on the stand and that was sticking the paper to it. So I removed the paper and checked out the wire frame thing looking for old glue.
There was nothing. Now I was totally flummoxed. I re-threaded the forms and started form feeding the pages through until it jammed again. Then I got my face right up on the paper and tracked it back until I saw what the problem was. After a certain amount of pages were fed through, and because of how the paper was threaded through the wires, at one certain point the fold between the forms would form a ‘V’ and hit one of the wires exactly in the middle. Somehow the tension and thickness of the forms kept it wedged there, even against the force of the printer’s tractor motor. Incredible. I took the paper out and moved it one spot higher than where they were threading it. I ran a bunch of forms through. It didn’t jam. I removed the forms from the printer and went and got the admin assistant.
“Is it fixed?” she asked.
“It sure is. Now, thread those forms for me, please.”
She set the paper up the same way she had shown me before. I held down the Form Feed button on the printer. After the first few pages went through it jammed.
“You said it was fixed,” she told me. “It still jams.”
“Right. See here, where the paper is hitting this part of the printer stand? Take the paper out and re-thread it so it’s one spot higher,” I told her.
She did it and I held down the Form Feed button. Pages passed through without jamming. She was ecstatic. She went to tell her boss. He came back and we demonstrated how the printer was working. He was very pleased and promised me that when he needed his HP LaserJet Classic fixed, he would call me personally. I didn’t know why I was being punished for doing a good job.
My switch from being a computer hardware repairman to a computer software technician came when I got a call that said the site director’s computer needed a new video card.
This guy was the highest up the manager chain that you could get. The high muckity-muck. The software techs had gone over it several times in the last week and now, as a last ditch effort, they brought me in to change the hardware in order to please him.
He wasn’t in that day, which is good because I generally don’t like working on people’s systems when they’re around. My methods could be a little unorthodox and it made people nervous.
I rarely trust what I’m told so I took out my video card test program and booted it up. Then I ran a full suite of tests on the card. Everything passed.
I booted up the computer. Everything went fine until Windows 98 started, then the video became seriously messed up. “How odd,” I thought.
I went through the boot up files and started commenting things out and gave it another reboot. It was fine, except for missing everything I took out. I knew it wasn’t a hardware problem.
A few minutes later I had narrowed it down and had a fully working, booting system with the correct video.
I went to my supervisor.
“Did you replace the video card already?” she asked. She was used to me having to order hardware and waiting a couple of days.
“I didn’t have to. The problem was a VESA driver that his golf game installed. I just took it out and now it works fine. I don’t know if he’ll be able to play the golf game, though.”
She was impressed.