We tech professionals usually cringe at Cousin Ed’s "I’m having a problem with my computer…" conversation. It’s not that we don’t want to help; it’s that helping is often difficult to do verbally and impossible to do for people who won’t take our advice.
So when someone asks me to fix their slow or broken computer while they are stuffing themselves with Grandma’s Green Salad Tuna Jell-O mould and oyster stuffing, I first start with my list 5 things they must agree to do before I’ll help. These conditions are mandatory; any hesitation and I point them to their NerdFixSquad at their local retailer. Let retailers make money off bad computing practices. It’s good for the economy.
Knowing how painful the fix and the conditions can be, I also require liquid refreshments to help me along. I thought I’d share my Fix + Pairings advice with you to help you through the holidays.
These are in no particular order; depending on Cousin Ed’s issues, you may want to focus on them based on 1) how messed up his computer is, 2) how thirsty you are or 3) how messed up you already are when he asks.
1. Install a dependable anti-virus/anti-malware application
There are plenty available, some free. Installing is not enough, though. It must be configured to download and run updates automatically. Sure, I don’t apply updates automatically on my work machines, but a a regular non-IT user isn’t going to have the type of background to judge when is the right time. Now is the right time for most.
I often find that the "anti-virus" they have installed is actually some malware they downloaded from a questionable website. Or Norton. Either way, that has to be replaced with something reliable.
When I visit the computer in the future to help again, if the antivirus has been disabled or is out of date, they need book an appointment with their local retailer.
Pairing: Since this is the first course, and we are with the family for a while, I’d normally recommend starting with heroin. Unfortunately the US has oppressive drug laws, so while you are downloading and cleaning, I recommend a very dry Martini to cleanse the palate. In my case, straight from the Grey Goose bottle.
If this step takes more than 5 hours to complete due to multiple infections, I recommend Gran Patrón Burdeos, a $650 bottle of tequila that does not taste like gasoline. By the way, "burdeos" means from Bordeaux. That’s doubly pretentious. This is mostly about the price, but why not feel a comfortably numb and like a high-priced consultant at the same time?
2. Uninstall all the applications they have no idea what they are or when they installed them
It’s likely these applications were installed as "helper" applications to some free and useless photo editing software that was recommend during a late night commercial or came free in a box of Breeze. If I’m lucky, they actually come with a functional uninstaller.
I have a 10 second rule: if Cousin Ed can’t tell me what the application is or when he last used it in 10 seconds, it needs to go. Application Hoarders may be the next TLC program, but not on this machine.
Pairing: This is a slow, painful negotiation and process. It deserves a great drink, but mostly just just needs alcohol. I hope the family is at least on Windows 7, but if they aren’t, this task will likely involve several hours of control panel and registry editing, followed by actual deletion of files. I recommend a German Riesling or a Moscato as the alcohol is low enough that you can drink the whole bottle and still be functional.
If Cousin Ed is still rocking Windows Me, I suggest Arrogant Bastard ale by Stone Breweries. Because that’s how you are going to feel doing this task.
3. Uninstall the multitude of toolbars, plugins and widgets they don’t use
Chances are Cousin Ed’s browsers (and he will have all of them installed, even if he only uses one to surf the Information Super Highway) will have so many toolbars and plugins installed that he only sees a fraction of the web as he surfs on by. These also have to go and I have no 10 second rule here. If he really needs one, he’ll find a way to install it again. Trust me.
Pairings: Since most browsers support just turning these off, this activity works well with Everclear Jell-O shots, one for each toolbar. By now you need a bit of sustenance to maintain your blood sugar and to ward of the pending coma from all the work yet to be done. If things have been going well, a nice session beer in the 3-5% range might work. However, if things are extra rough, I recommend the wonderful 9.5% Péché Mortel as the strong dark espresso flavour will help you feel like you are drinking for work.
If things are really terrible, go with a nice Pinot Noir. Buy it on the family credit card, and go to France to drink it.
4. Install and configure offsite, automatic backups.
The key to this is that the backup service must run with no intervention from the user. Even seasoned IT pros have been burnt by not having proper backups. Sure, they meant to run that script that copied their photos up to a cloud service, but they never did. Or they had it automated, and turned it off for testing something else. Another key is that the backup must be offsite. Yes, that wonderful 4TB NAS they bought at Costco for a real deal is wonderful. But it’s parked right next to their computer. Where a thief or blazing inferno can destroy all those bits in seconds. In one breath. I’m saddened to read on a regular basis about people losing their thesis, all their baby pictures or all their work because they failed to do proper backups.
I use Carbonite and Iron Mountain for these things. There are many such services, some for as little pennies a day. I use these in addition to syncing stuff to a local server and the cloud. And yet I still pay redundant services to store my important stuff someplace else, automatically. I do this because copying is not backing up. Also, I test restores from these services from time to time.
Remember, automatic and offsite are the keys. All the other stuff is nice-to-haves. Another drive or computer in your home is not a backup. Heck, another computer in your city may not be enough.
Pairings: Offsite backups take time, often days. If you make it this far, and one usually doesn’t, it’s time to go big. I suggest a glass of Laphroaig 25 Year Old scotch to be savoured as you watch the blinky lights on the modem count out the number of times you’ve told yourself you’d never ever do this type of family tech support again. At least the scotch will be peaty and pleasant. Cousin Ed’s keyboard will most likely be slightly peaty, too, so this pairing may complement your environmental conditions better.
5. Install Updates
Usually when I get to the machine in question, I find that there are 300+ operating system and application updates waiting to be downloaded and applied. I configure updates to automatically download, but not to automatically install. I’m not that uptight. But I make this a condition of my next visit that if I return and there are more than 10 days old updates to be applied, Eddie will have to head off to BestStapleMax to get his PC fixed.
Pairings: Since updates haven’t been run on this machine since Bill Gates worked at Microsoft, this will take a while. The end is near, though, so it’s time to celebrate — with vintage Champagne. If you are billing by the hour (and who are we kidding, Cousin Ed won’t even bother to thank you when you are done) choose Krug Vintage. If you are only doing this because Mom asked you to, ask her for some of her little helpers and a Milwaukee’s Best . It won’t matter at this point anyway. Oh, and if you are in Washington or Colorado, you might just see if Ed’s slacker kid Eddie Jr. can hook you up with something nice for dessert.
If you’ve made it this far without just walking 7 miles to Wal-Mart (remember, don’t fix+pair and drive) to just buy Cousin Ed a brand new $200 PC, you deserve a major award and another drink. Congratulations. And you might want to get some rest. Dad also needs help with his WiFi Router and the new printer he bought on Black Friday.
Courage and Happy Holidays.
A few nights ago I went out to have a look at a logistical marvel. There were 6 very large beer fermentation tanks working their way to a Molson brewery location on the streets in and around Toronto. First, you might not think that this was any big deal except that each tank holds about 1 million bottles of beer and couldn’t be taken through any normal routes. Second, you might ask why I would go out at midnight on a really cold night to see this, but the engineer in me had to see it up close to see just how big these things were and how complicated this was. The planned move and the progress were profiled through many news outlets and it was an interesting story.
What struck me about all of this when I was watching was just how complicated and involved this was from a project planning and logistics perspective. There were also key lessons in project management tat can be gleaned from this:
NOTHING Impossible Ever Is
When someone comes to you and says “we want to do this….can it be done?” The answer should never be a simple no. There may be reasons why it can’t be done, but everything can be done given enough time, effort and money. The key is to figure out how badly they want it done and if they are willing to pay for it. The impossible part of it might be that the cost is too much for what it is, but you won’t necessarily be the judge of that. As Jerry Weinberg says in The Secrets of Consulting, you should always frame it as “I can do that, but this is what it is going to cost”.
With the beer tanks, Molson’s knew they wanted to increase their production and they needed these tanks. The trick was to figure out the manufacturing, logistics and installation. Given the size of the tanks, building them somewhere else and shipping them to the site seemed impossible. But building them on site would have been cost prohibitive so they looked at other options and figured out that they could have the tanks manufactured in Germany and shipped to Toronto.
Find The Right Expertise
You might think that you are the experts and only your company or department can do the project you’re thinking about, but trust me when I say that’s not true. Unless you are on the bleeding edge of some new technology, everything has been done before by someone. Find them and either hire them or glean the information you need from them.
In the case of the beer tanks, Molson Breweries hired Challenger Motor Freight to figure out how to get the tanks from Point A to Point B. Challenger has experience with moving very large freight and could provide the logistics necessary to make it happen.
Think Outside The Box
As I said in the first point above, nothing is impossible. But in order to see the solution sometimes you have to think about the problem differently. You can’t just have a narrow focus and think in terms of how it’s always been done or you’ll never see the answer. The other point here is that if you are just looking at a problem from you’re own little world, or department, you might miss the bigger solution and end up with something that is sub-optimal.
To ship the beer tanks and get them to the brewery they wouldn’t fit on any planes so they had to come on a boat. Then there were all the logistical issues of getting them to the brewery. If you looked at this simply from bringing them to the port in Toronto you would think it’s impossible given the infrastructure and bridges and everything in the way. Instead, the tanks were shipped to Hamilton which is farther from the brewery, but it made it possible for the land portion of the shipping. From Hamilton it became a huge puzzle of taking the right combination of streets to avoid all underpasses and bridges where the tanks wouldn’t fit and dealing with the utilities and infrastructure that was in the way. For example, on the last night of the move, the convoy was on the same street that the brewery was on, but they had to turn off that street and take a number of others just to avoid an underpass before getting back on line to the brewery.
You might have the best plan in the world, but sometimes stuff happens. You have to be ready to adjust your plans and have contingencies in place in case it doesn’t work according to the plan.
The key to project management is being able to see the holes and risks in your plan and be prepared to take action or adjust when it does go off the rails. The best project managers aren’t the ones that never have any problems with their plans, but the ones that adapt and adjust quickly and cohesively when things do happen.
The shipping and installation of the beer tanks was behind schedule. Even before they left Hamilton they were behind. The tanks got to Hamilton in November, but with delays and the holiday season they didn’t leave for Toronto until January 7th. The move itself from Hamilton to Toronto was supposed to take 4 nights. In reality it took 10. The weather played a factor as well as the time involved in moving the electricity, cable and telephone lines. The convoy had to be prepared to stop at different locations and adjust their plans as they went. On the night I watched, there were three sets of wires the tanks had to go over/under in a very short stretch and these all had to be moved out of the way. In some cases the wires were taken down and laid along the ground and in others they were lifted up out of the way.
The Entire Team Has To Work Together
On any project it isn’t just one person that has to do all the work on the problem, there is a team of people. The team can include internal people, contractors, consultants, suppliers, etc. Even in your own companies there may be other departments and people that you must rely on to complete your projects. The point here is that everyone must have the goal in sight and be working together to get there.
For the beer convoy there were trucks, drivers, spotters, supervisors, utility workers, police, etc. all working in concert to get the freight delivered. There were a number of different companies and organizations represented, but everyone knew the goal and what they were contributing to the project. While I watched, I could see the coordination in action and the way everyone was working together to get the trucks through their next obstacle.
There are a lot of things happening in the world around us that we can look at and study to learn about how it applies to our work and what we do. This project was a lot more complicated than most, but when it is broken down it really is just a bunch of steps put together to get a tank another 50 meters down the road. If you do enough of those 50 meter long tasks eventually you get the full 108 kilometers covered. You might be a few days late, but you’ll get there…
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