Hip To Be Square

The only thing better than being a computer geek is picking the brain of one.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the October 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Every business could use a computer geek on its payroll. Unfortunately, not every company can afford one. For answers to some of the more common computer dilemmas, we consulted Robert Stephens, owner (and chief inspector) of The Geek Squad, a Minneapolis computer consulting firm, and co-author of The Geek Squad Guide To Solving Any Computer Glitch (Fireside Press). Stephens and his 30 "special agents" regularly advise entrepreneurs on a variety of computer-related issues, from installing hardware and software to trouble-shooting and playing computer games. Here, Stephens shares some of his best tricks for solving--and preventing--troublesome computer glitches.

Heather Page is a former technology editor for Entrepreneur.

Here Comes Trouble

Is your printer having a tantrum or floppy drive throwing fits? If so, fear not: Stephens offers plenty of problem-solving techniques.

Your printer won't print: For this problem, Stephens recommends the "Vulcan nerve pinch," the process of pushing a series of buttons on your printer to get it to print a test page. You can often get this info from the printer's instruction manual. If it prints, that means the printer's just fine. (If not, you'll need to consult the manufacturer's Web site or tech support for help.) To isolate the cause of the problem, try printing something in another program--if it doesn't print, it's a software problem, and you'll probably need to reinstall the printer driver. Check your printer cable to make sure it's connected properly as well.

Your printer prints garbage: In his book, Stephens writes, "If your printer appears to be printing secret coded messages from space, do not alert the authorities. No one will believe you. (Remember Roswell?) Simply reinstall the printer software from the original disks or CD-ROM. If the aliens still attempt to communicate, the problem may be the printer cable. A bad one could cause cross-signals that create this problem. Bring your cable to the computer store and have them test it; if it's faulty, buy a new one (about $10)."

Your computer won't boot up: Chances are, you've performed one of the four most common "stupid human tricks," Stephens says. Make sure it's plugged in (duh!), check the power source and power strip, and make sure the monitor is turned on.

Your computer is frozen: If nothing happens on the screen but your mouse responds, wait 20 to 30 seconds to react. A program may just be taking longer than normal. If your mouse doesn't work, press the Caps Lock or Num Lock key, and see if the keyboard light turns on and off. If it doesn't, it's probably a hardware lockup; restart the computer and see if it works. If the light does turn on and off, unplug the mouse and plug it back in. This will probably fix things. (If not, read the manual!)

Troubleshooting typically involves isolating the problem through a series of logical steps like these, Stephens says. When things aren't working properly, a simplistic--yet sensible--approach is best.

Installations Made Easy

Installing hardware and software can be a daunting task. Before going to all the trouble, Stephens recommends having an expert do it. Sometimes, on-site set-up is included with your computer or peripherals purchase (or offered for a fee). Even for a nominal charge (usually under $100), it's worth it to have everything working properly from the get-go.

On-site installation also gives you the chance to meet a computer geek up close and personal. "The fact that you can get someone who's very knowledgeable and ask them all sorts of [tech] questions for 15 or 25 minutes can be really valuable to your business," Stephens says.

If you're intent on installing your hardware or software yourself, Stephens advises keeping the following in mind:

  • Do it yourself. Stephens isn't a big fan of install/uninstall programs (most software comes with install/uninstall features that work just fine) or "quick fix" software. "These are all just tonics that take advantage of people's ignorance," Stephens says. If you have questions or problems, the best solution is to go straight to the source: the manufacturer.
  • Keep personal finance programs off your business computers. Leave computer games like Quake II at home, too. "Games are a different breed of software," Stephens says. "They tend to install pieces all over the place that often conflict with business software."
  • Be wary of installing old software on a new computer system. The software might be an older version that won't run on your new computer and can wreak havoc on your system.
  • Know your hardware and software manufacturers' Web sites. These sites often post information regarding software bugs, incompatibility issues and FAQs. They may provide tech support or answer tech questions via e-mail as well.

Don't Sweat the NET

The Internet can save you incredible amounts of time. But when things aren't working well, it can also wind up becoming a royal time-waster. It's all about "making the modem mind you," Stephens says.

Do you find yourself surfing the Internet at what seems like 5 Kbps? Remember, Web traffic has a lot to do with connection speed. In fact, Stephens says, Mondays and Tuesdays are usually the most heavily trafficked days online, bogged down by workers catching up on e-mail and other tasks. Consider your specific situation first.

Sticking with well-known ISPs (which usually offer better service) is another key to boosting your speed. If you're using a decent modem (56 Kbps or higher) and still getting sluggish speeds, check the phone cord, Stephens says. Swapping an old cord for a new one may decrease the line's "noise," speeding up the connection. Stay away from phone-line splitters; these also degrade connection quality.

If the main line of your dial-up account is constantly busy, most providers have alternate numbers, Stephens says. They don't typically volunteer these numbers but will provide them on request. If the line is constantly busy, it's an indication that your provider is overloaded. Consider another ISP.

Worried about viruses spread over the Web? Many entrepreneurs are concerned about whether they can get viruses from e-mail attachments (answer: not unless you open them). Unless you're expecting a file, after receiving an attachment, click "reply" and ask the sender if they sent it, what it is and if they ran a virus scan, Stephens says. Do this even for people you know. Before you open it, scan for viruses anyway.

Having difficulty sending attachments? Not all e-mail services allow you to attach files, so check with your ISP. To control the spread of spam, many providers have programs that automatically strip file attachments, particularly if you're sending something to multiple recipients. Should this occur, contact your ISP and ask for a workaround.

When all is said and done, it's really about learning how to best approach your technical problems--and whom to consult when you're in a jam. Moreover, it's about getting the most information you can. When undertaking new computer-based projects, go down to your local bookstore and pick up a book on the subject to get up to speed. Seek out your peers regarding their experiences and finest advice. And when all else fails, ask a computer geek.

Fast Track

Names and ages: Aaron Fessler, 26, president and CEO; Angel Fessler, 30, CFO; and Andrew Fessler, 22, chief technology officer

Company name and description: Allegro, an Internet and Intranet messaging solution company based in Dayton, Ohio

Starting Point: $5,000 in 1995

1999 sales projections: $7 million

Do-it-yourself man: Working as an administrator at a Washington, DC, law firm, Aaron was saddled with the project of hooking up the firm's e-mail system to the Internet. After much research, he concluded the costs were too high for implementing the system in-house--and realized there must be a sharp demand for a service-based company to provide this expertise to companies for just a few hundred dollars per month. Aaron posted his business idea on an online newsgroup--and got over 200 responses from interested customers within days.

Raise the roof: With little start-up cash on-hand, Aaron chose to save money on rent by setting up shop on the top floor of his father's barn. It was then that his siblings, Angel and Andrew, came on board. Nine months later, the trio knew they'd outgrown the space when they couldn't get any more phone lines running into their digs. "In rural Ohio, there were only so many wires," Aaron laments.

E-mail mania: Today, Allegro provides e-mail solutions to over 1,200 fast-growing ventures, including Mercedes Benz, the U.S. Olympic Committee and several New York City law firms. Keeping up with the times, the company has expanded into the areas of virus protection, content filtering, e-mail management and security.

Next Step

Special Bulletin: Got a nagging computer question for The Geek Squad? E-mail your inquiries to info@geeksquad.com, and a special agent will answer it, free of charge, within 48 hours.

Contact Source

Allegro, (937) 264-7000, http://www.allegro.net

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