Saturday, September 17, 2011

computers and me.....finding my inner geek

I saw my first Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I at a friend's house many moons ago.  It was also at that house on the same day that I saw HBO for the first time.  It all seemed so fantastic - a computer that fit on a table top and a commercial free movie on a TV screen.  I'm guessing that was 1977.  I was a newbie selling real estate back then.  The "computer" in our office was a MLS terminal and I can't really remember it having a screen.  It seems in retrospect to have been more like a tele-type machine.

In 1978 I moved into mortgage banking as an originator for a S & L.  We had no computers.  We had no fax machines. We had IBM Selectric typewriters for the processors.  Originators had hand held calculators.  We had P & I books and Reg Zs and GFEs were all manually calculated and hand filled forms.

In 1980 I moved to a private mortgage banker in a super cool building with a heliport.  This was high tech mortgage lending and there were some computer terminals on desks.  I didn't have one.  Originators were still operating in full manual mode.  I had a company car though and that was pretty neat.

Move on to the S & L Crisis and I met the Radio Shack TRS-80 Models II & III. In fact, I became intimately acquainted with these units because I took a one year hiatus from mortgage banking while the world of real estate moved through installment land contracts and seller financing because consumers could not afford double digit interest rates.  I worked at a Radio Shack computer center.  I didn't know it at the time but this one year stint laid a foundation for computer hardware logic that has served me well.  Yes, much has changed but strangely lots of what geeks chat about is basically the same or similar to what I learned back in ye olden days from Tandy.

I used all of that training when in the late 80s and through the 90s - being self-employed - I had to setup technology for my offices - all pre-network independent workstations.  In 2000 when it was time for a network, I let go and hired a pro to set it up and assigned the management of IT to my operations manager.

We had a Windows 2000 server with clients running Windows 98.  We eventually upgraded the clients to Windows XP Pro and tweaked the system here and there, but other than that - as long as it was running and served our purposes, I was happy.

I'm a frugal business person.  I use technology as a tool.  I see no need to constantly upgrade and change unless there is a good reason to do so.  About three years ago I got a good reason to do so.  The local computer guru - when called to fix the server - told me he could no longer get parts for our motherboard.  Though it was working now, I would have to plan for a new server.  I asked for a written estimate.

During these last three years I noticed a slow degradation of the network - oddities that couldn't be explained to me by my IT pro or employee.  I felt vulnerable.  Our local pro was always overworked and not that good at doing things like coming when he said he would or getting me that estimate.

My IT employee needed to move on.  She's a terrific artist and started a gallery.  I decided to take over the network.  I upgraded the backup system on our title archives.  I started working my way around all the workstations - cleaning and defragging and updating.  I still didn't understand the network and planned to take a course.

One day I noticed an anomaly in Displaysoft.  It wasn't updating properly so I called for technical support.  I love Displaysoft and I love their support team.  We tried a fix on two workstations.  She noticed that the network was set up in an odd way and asked if I would give her access at the server.  I did.  While she was remotely connected I heard her say to a co-worker, "Wow, I'm actually inside of a Windows 2000 Server." I realized then what an antique we were using. She didn't even know how it SHOULD be set up - it was so old that she had never been trained on the software but she managed to get our Displaysoft updating properly and I called our local computer pro for that estimate again.  I really didn't push the matter because I still felt like I needed to understand networks before a new one was set up so I took my chances and let it go.

Then, of course, the server failed.  One morning I showed up at the office and slowly heard everyone asking everyone else if they could get in.  We couldn't.  The Internet was functional but we could not access the server.  I called the local pro for emergency service and we started to implement our emergency protocol.

Do you have an emergency protocol?  What's your backup for functionality if systems or the power fails? Depending on the nature of the emergency we have a few emergency low tech tools on hand. We have three old fashioned phones that we plug into lines that bypass our central phone system.  These work without power and give us access to the outside world and allow us to at least answer the incoming calls.  Cell phones can be used for outgoing.   We  have two typewriters to use in a pinch.  Our email is in the cloud so if we have Internet, we have email.  Backup versions of documents also reside in the cloud so we can do some work while the server is down.  We have a single station version of Displaysoft that can be used if we lose our server.  Any data entered into this stand alone must later be entered into the server but in the interim, we can perform and prep closings.

While my staff assessed their tasks in emergency mode, I called our local pro again.  It immediately became clear to me that he wasn't coming.  We had a failure of our server followed by a failure of local tech support.

I called a regional tech service company who did a terrific job of remote troubleshooting and assessment.  I thought it might be the power supply.  He agreed and started for our office with his tool kit in hand - a trip of about 20 miles.

It wasn't the power supply.  This fellow was a good hardware problem solver.  He said what he needed was an old computer with a similar processor.  I gave him access to our retired computers awaiting recycling.  He found one that worked.  He replanted the guts of our server into that little workstation and VOILA we were in business.  I was impressed. My staff was impressed.  Our total downtime was only about three hours.  WHEW.

I asked for an estimate for a new server.  He got it to me the next day.  With some tweaking we bought a system that meets our needs.  It runs on Windows 2008 server.  After he set the system up, we were left with a few problems hanging.  Our HP 5si wasn't working properly.  One of our scanners was offline and the  McAfee software on our old server wouldn't load onto the new server.  He asked that we run the system for a few days, add any problems to this list and he would come back to work through the various fixes.

I made a decision to put my computer hat back on and try to fix all of these problems myself.  I went to Barnes and Noble and spent $120 on three books.  I am happy to say that the days of Radio Shack have connected with the level of expertise I need to run this new system and I was able to call this fellow and say I've got it all running.  We are pleased as punch with the system.  I am slowly improving efficiency of each client - workstation - and the staff reports daily that their computers are running faster than ever.

I may yet take a course - but make that a hardware course.  I'm finding my inner geek.

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