They drive ice cream trucks from 1974, painted black. They wear black suits, white socks, and pant legs three inches too short. They've forgotten more about computers than you'll ever know. They're the Geek Squad, and their advice may be the only line of defense between you and a high-tech presentation nightmare.
Robert Stephens, 27, is the Geek Squad's founder and chief inspector. He leads 12 "special agents" who provide 24-hour, on-site emergency response to computer problems — which means they're often called to rescue high-tech presentations that have crashed. The Geek Squad operates in Minneapolis, but it's planning to expand to Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Plenty of companies hire the Geek Squad to attend their presentations just in case problems develop. "People hire us as an insurance policy," Stephens says, "kind of like the Mafia."
What advice would Stephens give presenters who just can't resist the allure of PowerPoint slides, multimedia graphics, and killer Web sites? He offers five tips:
1. Always bring two of everything — especially laptops and modems. "Assume your equipment will fail," Stephens says, "because it probably will." That doesn't mean you have to own two of everything, Stephens adds. If you're giving an important presentation, simply rent a spare laptop for the day.
2. Back it up! "It's an obvious thing that no one does," Stephens scolds. He offers a set of increasingly elaborate safety strategies. For starters, he counsels, "use something more reliable than floppy disks. I recommend Zip drives. They're great." Better yet, burn your presentation onto a CD-ROM, which costs less than $100. This way, if your Mac crashes, you can run the presentation off the nearest IBM-compatible. "If you're giving a PowerPoint presentation," Stephens adds, "you can videotape it and run the tape if your computer crashes."
3. Never do important presentations without on-site technical support. If it sounds expensive, Stephens says, consider the costs of catastrophic failure — to both your budget and your reputation: "I've seen how much money people spend on computer presentations. A few hundred dollars for a technician is a reasonable expense."
4. Beware the Internet. More and more presenters are trying to wow their audiences with real-time visits to the Net. Stephens's advice: don't do it. "You increase your logistics challenge by a factor of 10," he warns. "Remember, you don't just need a modem. You need a good phone line, an Internet connection, and the site has to be running. It's too complex." If you must visit the Web, Stephens recommends storing the site on your hard drive and using your browser to open that file: "It looks like you're surfing the Web, but you're not."
5. Don't let computers replace creativity. "Too many people use technology as a gimmick," Stephens says. "They use PowerPoint or the Web because it's 'cool.' Sometimes it just distracts people. Don't show your technical savvy. Show your creative savvy."
Finally, Stephens offers a cardinal rule for aspiring Geeks: shower more than once a week. "It's rule number one in our code," he says. "It's our attempt to glamorize an industry that's only two steps up the food chain from plumbing."
Contact the Geek Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.