Tips from a techie troubleshooter for the masses

Richard Sherman is a geek – a “techie” type who seems to have the knack for quickly solving any computing crisis.

For more than 20 years, he’s made a living out of helping small businesses and home users sort out their computing jams and hang-ups. Mr. Sherman is president of his own private consultancy, Phoenix, Ariz.-based Get-the-Net Inc., and on-line he’s known as Mr. Modem. But Mr. Sherman is not your typical technician.

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In fact, he’s not a technician at all.

And that, he says, is the secret to his success as a troubleshooter for the masses. He’s someone recognizes how frustrating it can be to wade through technical jargon in an effort to fix computing problems. Mr. Sherman is a plain-talking provider of computing help and someone who is passionate about computers. His learning comes from personal experience and mostly through trial-and-error. And he knows what it takes to keep small business and personal systems up and running.

“I’m a people person first and foremost, and I discovered early on that what most computer users want is somebody who will speak to them in plain old English and make it personal, informative, and fun,” he says.

That’s the Mr. Modem credo – keep IT simple. Tell people what they need to know in plain terms in order for them to solve their typical problems, an approach too many techies forget when dealing with non-techie users.

Mr. Sherman was introduced to personal computing some 20 years ago. His curiosity was piqued in 1983 after reading about personal computers in several newspapers and magazines.

“So one fateful Saturday morning, I went to a local appliance store that sold washers, dryers, refrigerators and computers, and purchased a then state-of-the-art, dual five-inch floppy-disk-drive Zenith computer,” he recalls. It had “a nauseatingly yellow-hued monitor that probably emitted more radiation than Three Mile Island on its worst day.”

Among the first on his block to own a computer, Mr. Sherman quickly became the neighbourhood “computer guy,” with a knack for IT and the ability to answer pretty much any basic computer question. A self-described “technological humorist,” helpful advice for an IT-challenged audience quickly became an industry for Mr. Sherman and it led to the penning of how-to advice books – including his latest editions of Ask Mr. Modem and Mr. Modem’s Internet Guide for Seniors – and general information newsletters. He continued to parlay his brand of IT plain speak in newspaper and magazine columns, the Mr. Modem Minute on FOX-TV, and a weekly on-line newsletter offering computer and Internet tips and tricks, as well as virus, hoax, and identity theft alerts, website recommendations and answers to technology questions posed by subscribers.

Not surprisingly, a number of Mr. Modem’s loyal following are home office folks and small businesses. They rely on Mr. Modem for help and guidance in all things computing. And he’s dealt with all kinds – like the small business owner who was concerned that computer viruses might slither onto her computer through an air conditioner, so she unplugged all computers from their outlets every night. Or the fellow with an old 286 processing system who installed Windows XP onto that ancient platform and was befuddled when the operating system would not work.

It’s all in a day’s work for Mr. Modem. And as a result of that work, he has come to the conclusion that there are some basic, fundamental guidelines for small business owners that are using IT.

First, embrace the technology rather than avoiding it, he says. In fact, small business owners need to make a point of, at the very least, possessing a certain set of functional skills and general understanding of IT in order to be competitive these days. Efficiencies and productivity are lost when “the boss” resists it, or doesn’t take the time and effort to understand technology and what it can do.

“I have many office workers [and] support staff personnel subscribers who are compelled to use ancient technology at work,” Mr. Sherman says. “[These] computers regularly malfunction or fail to perform at all, but the boss won’t replace the equipment because he or she doesn’t understand the technology and clearly hasn’t embraced it. In those many instances, productivity and efficiency suffers tremendously, and needlessly.”

It’s essential for business owners to stay current in their understanding of hardware and software developments within small business environments, says Mr. Sherman. New technologies continue to appear – things like dual-core processing and 64-bit technology – and the cost of these continues to plummet, so for many the time may be right to replace aging technology. But as a business owner, you have to be in the know about IT to know when it’s time to upgrade and boost competitiveness, says Mr. Sherman.

“The ability to make informed decisions is predicated on having the knowledge upon which to make those decisions,” he says.

It’s also critical for a small business to ensure IT know-how carries on a legacy within a company.

“I always recommend that within the small business environment, particularly if there is one person charged with the responsibility of doing the computing, that that person, as part of his or her responsibilities, should create a [how-to] manual or guide to doing the various computing-related tasks he or she performs,” Mr. Sherman adds.

That guide should include step-by-step procedures, usernames and passwords, he advises. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked questions by employers who have lost an employee and suddenly discovered that he or she did not know the [former employee’s administrative] password to access a particular program, or in some cases, a computer or the network itself.”

A final piece of advice from Mr. Modem: Adopt technology, but make sure it’s an informed choice. “Despite my passion and enthusiasm for technology, I caution people not to be on the bleeding edge of technology these days,” he says.

“Embracing a more prudent wait-and-see approach has proven itself in the past. Let the early adopters do the consumer-level beta testing.”

It all makes plain sense and it’s the kind sound and simple advice that has become the life’s work of Mr. Modem.

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