Five Ways to Put the I in I.T.

geeks at workstation

So, here we are, in our home office. And we like it, we really do. We like the fact that we can pretty much do what we want, whenever we want to. We like the fact that there's no boss breathing down our necks (good oral hygiene or not). That we can stroll into the kitchen and make ourselves cups and cups of tea. What we wear on the job--or what we don't wear, naturism fans. When we work. But what we don't like--and I think I can speak for all of us here, is when tech goes bad, when all your base are belong to the nasty little gizmo gremlin and it seems that nothing can fix it. And these moments make me long for the days when I.T. support was just a four-digit extension away.

A long, long time ago, when I was a rookie feature writer, I had a job on a teenage magazine. The publication--let's call it Grope! or Vampire CrushMonthly, shall we?--was one of around 10 publications owned by a local newspaper group with aspirations on the consumer-mag front, and the office was situated in a building just behind the National Portrait Gallery in London. As well as the individual magazine offices and the scary marketing department, where expensively-dressed women with suck-a-lemon faces and an expensive habit in flip charts sat, we had an I.T. department, whose job it was to keep the technical show on the road. Let's face it, out of the 200 or so employees, I would say that 170 of them used the computer as a very expensive typewriter substitute, while the remaining 30 used their machine to draw pretty pictures on.

If I remember rightly, there were three guys who ran it. Or should that be I.T.? One was a chiseled beefcake who fancied himself rotten but lacked the social skills to communicate with anyone who couldn't speak binary. Another was a cycling obsessed father of two whose default setting was Grumpy Bastard. (One longed to find his Restore Factory Settings button, and then punch it. Hard.) If you've ever seen British comedy The I.T. Crowd, you'll know exactly what I am talking about. Its writer, Graham Linehan, worked for the same company as I did. I wonder where he got the idea from.

The third man was an amiable, long-haired guy called Jon who was, quite simply, the nicest guy in the whole building. No problem was too small for him to bother with, any self-made disaster such as the god awful, yet all too commonplace, tea-keyboard interface, was met with an amused look and an invitation to descend to the I.T. lair, where there was a shelf full of spare keyboards for anyone clumsy enough to up-end a cup on their desk. He had a hairdryer on his desk--more about that in a bit. Any time a piece of office tech needed mending, he'd amble into the office, sort it out--all the while chatting to everyone--and then disappear back into the basement--probably to tinker about with his Star Wars figures.

Ah, memories.

The reason I have returned to my telecommute-free past is to show just how much office workers take tech support for granted. If something breaks down, there is always someone just a floor or so away who can sort it out or replace it. When you work from home, the person in the Geek Squad overalls bent over a pile of cable spaghetti, reading aloud the same sentence three times from the instruction manual, well, that's you, that is. While no one expects you to be an expert, you've got to familiarize yourself with the workings of your home set up. It's a bore, but it's all part of earning a crust chez toi. And the upside of it all? First of all, it's free. And secondly, no freaky geekies in your house.

There are five basic rules that I adhere to to make I.T. as easy as possible.

1. Keep it simple, kiddos.
My home office is pretty basic. One iMac, a MacBook for when I'm on the road, a spare MacBook battery, a wireless router, a Canon printer-scanner, an Apple iFi speaker, and a back-up hard drive. That last one is an absolute must-have. They're tiny, cheap, and the most important thing anyone who works from home can have. A photographer friend of mine has one for every year he's been in business--a simple and very intelligent way of storing all the work he's ever done. There's no point treating yourself to a bunch of spank-tastic equipment if you're going to cry yourself a river (and thus bugger up your keyboard) each time something goes wrong.

2. Develop a mild case of O.C.D.
The bottom drawer of my desk is filled with cables, installation CDs, and all the instruction manuals for every single piece of hardware in my house. That includes the boiler, washing machine, dishwasher, telephone, TV, and Blu-Ray DVD player. Does that make me sad, or just uber-organized? Probably a bit of both, really. One could argue that, thanks to the Internet, my mini-mountain of paper is pretty much obsolete, and a judicious use of Google to find out how to disable the backlight function on my Lumix point-and-shoot is all I really need.

3. Stick to what you know.
Don't make the mistake that I did, about seven years ago, of switching from Macs to a PC when I needed a new computer. Reader, the rage. The stress. The Blue Screen of Death. That sodding dancing paperclip. It didn't take me long to switch back to Apple products, because I was just fed up with my Fujitsu lappy crashing, day in, day out.

4. Cover your ass.
Apple fanboys (and girls) are lucky because there just aren't that many viruses to hit the Mac's OS. PC users, on the other hand, should make sure they've got a top-notch security package--think Norton or Symantec--to keep trojan horses and other malware at bay. And keep it up-to-date. Hackers are like the rats of the tech world--they grow resistant to whatever form of vermin control you use pretty damn quick, and they are well aware that small businesses will be less protected than megacorps.

5. Stay sugar-free.
Just like sugar rots kids' teeth, sugar in tea or coffee will kill your keyboard. If you spill your drink on yours, this is what you have to do: First, unplug it. Press every single button on the keyboard about fifteen times. Think Liberace (or Richard Clayderman, if you're a little less flamboyant than I am.) Work that mutha-sugar keyboard for about three minutes. Then turn upside down for quarter of an hour while you clean up the rest of the apocalypse on your desk. Finally, release your inner Warren Beatty in Shampoo, and get that hair dryer out. Keeping it on a cool setting, and blast it at your keyboard. After all that, if it's still not working, then I suggest you go to the place you bought it, wearing something that accentuates all your best bits--and more--and lie through your teeth when they ask you if you spilt something on it.

Even I have to admit that technology these days is pretty easy. I may have spent the past three years writing about gadgets, but it doesn't mean that I am the kind of person who ate, stroked and lay with computers from a very early age, and who thus has the kind of knowledge that makes Bill Gates look like a Luddite. Thanks to the Internet, both Microsoft and Macintosh have automatic software updates that mean you don't have to get a techie in. And anyone reading this who uses Linux, well, you don't need me to tell you what to do. The Apple tech support hotline is fast and effective--unlike that of my ISP. I have a nephew who's a complete and utter geek and will, in return for a hot meal and a beer, sort out anything that is beyond my capabilities. Failing that, there's the Apple Store, a ten minute bike ride from my house. And failing that? I go outside and kick the wall until I either break a toe or chip the mortar--whichever comes first. Then I sit down and try again, fantasizing that, if all fails, I'll ring up Jon and, with a bottle of ultra-silky hair conditioner, I'll bribe him to come over and tell me which piece of hardware will give off the most sparks when I smash it up with a skillet.

Oh, and by the way, my computer crashed while I was re-writing this piece. Bastard. They're obviously cleverer than you think.

Read more of The (Home) Office: Telecommuter? You Barely Know Her! Meet Our Home Office Columnist

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3 Comments

  • Chris Gandolfo

    Even if you're using a Mac I recommend a good antivirus/firewall program. Intego has some great software.

    I keep multiple backups of all my files from different dates going back 2 months. That way if I get a corrupted file or a virus I still have a clean copy somewhere that I can restore from. If you're serious about backups get a NAS, home media server or build yourself a beefy file server with RAID capabilities, if you're so inclined! I'll be going the last route early in the new year.

  • NoahRobischon

    Backup drives are so tiny and compact now - they don't even require a separate power cord. There is just no reason not to get one.

    @addy do you really have four screens on your desktop? I have two, but your set makes me envious!

  • Kit Eaton

    @Addy. Ah... the ol' sugar problem. I had a unique version of this when my toddler upset a sugar bowl on the table (and into my MacBook) recently. The "f" key didn't work for a whole day. Which was a shame (or perhaps a blessing), as it prevented me venting my anger with the perfect Tweeted swear word.
    Can't stress enough how important the backup drives are too. In fact, you should have two and run 'em as a RAID array for extra safety.