One of the many hats I wear at work (because, really, who doesn’t wear multiple hats?) is as the Department Technical Support. Setting up computers, frozen screens, defective mice – I am the front line. When I’m at a loss, we call ITTS, which for us is one man with a radio. It can be fun, sometimes all I have to do is touch the computer for it to start behaving, and everyone in the department knows to reboot first.
Still, I recently started to wonder how I came to be this person. It wasn’t initially part of the job, as far as I remember. It’s not because I’m the only computer-literate person: roughly half of my department is younger than I am and I believe of a similar socio-economic background, and I know they’re comfortable with computers. Moreover, I’m not spectacularly qualified. I did once work at a retail store for the fruit-logo’d computer company, but I’ve never taken a single computer science course, built my own tower from scratch, or even used Linux. My technical knowledge is almost entirely self-taught; why or when or how, I wondered, did I learn these things that my coworkers have not (yet)?
The best explanation I can come up with is that it has to do with my relationship with computers and their ilk, the basic nature of my attitude towards them. Broadly speaking, I learned to approach technology as something exciting and interesting to be explored and understood, not as a tool to be taken for granted nor yet as something to be cautiously regarded as helpful but unstable.
My father, gadget-lover and early network voyager that he is, obviously played a large role in this. He is the one who brought home the Mac (I think it was a Classic IIe?) that stayed in the house and in the family at least to the end of my high school years. When that computer entered the house, I was old enough to ‘use’ it, but not yet old enough to be in a grade with a number, but I don’t remember it ever being off limits. In fact, somewhere on a floppy disk or on the never-completely-wiped files of that Mac, there’s a MacPaint file with a drawing of my black-and-white cat, Middy. My sister and I had MacPaint, and eventually Cosmic Osmo, Manhole, and other hypercard games, as well as the freedom to use the word processor to write up our stories and poems. Mom and Dad had priority on the computer, but we were implicitly encouraged to make use of it.
I should mention that my mother played a role in all of this as well. She wasn’t, and isn’t, someone to be easily seduced by the latest gadget. Her approach is much more practical, seeing various technologies as a tool which must be understood if they are to be used properly. I laugh that she never learned to program the VCR but has mastered aspects of PowerPoint and Excel that I still don’t get, and she just shrugs and says that she never really felt the need to understand the VCR. She has an excellent point.
With these attitudes – play, explore, understand, master – I survived being thrown off the deep end, by which I mean starting work in an office that only used machines that run Windows. I had used them on occasion in high school and college, but that first office job after graduation was the first time I’d spent extended periods in the company of a pc, trying to get it to do what I wanted. If I needed help, I asked my dad or my friends for help and advice, but mostly I figured it out on my own. I was cautious not to do anything irreversible but not afraid to try a solution that “might work.” I also made the connections between what I knew about the Macintosh interface and this new Windows thing.
Work today continues to throw challenges at me. I’m still trying to understand how to coax the budget code report out of our large networked copier/printer/fax/scanner/envelope-muncher. I’ve decided that the intricacies of the telephone settings are beyond my fathoming, and refer people to the manual for anything more complicated than changing the ring sound or volume. I am exploring and learning on the run, and trying my best to teach what I can to my colleagues. After all, it isn’t fair for me to have all the fun.