Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Manuals (your e-mail)

In response to the manuals post I made last week, Jim Riegel sent in a wonderful e-mail that he was kind enough to allow me to share with you.

I work primarily as a network engineer for a small business. We’re a shop with 8 folks – half are administrative personnel and the other half are technicians.  It’s tough to run a company at a certain size because you’re too small for one person to handle all the dispatch, phones and accounting, while dealing with client meetings, etc.  As a result, the techs mostly just wear the technician hat and the rest get to wear many hats.  On the technical side, it’s a very lean operation. We have a rough ratio of 250 to 1. That’s 250 machines being supported for each engineer.  Given that our customers are spread over an area that covers a circle centered on Washington DC and goes out in an 80 mile radius, not counting the Georgia, California and Ohio branches of a couple of companies, that’s a lot of ground to cover and a small number of folks.

The reason it works is a combination of remote access software, automation, and a policy of only hiring the best available technicians. We need people who can solve things, quickly, accurately, and with a minimum of headache.  One of the hats I wear is hiring. Screening candidates and technicians, finding people capable of doing the work, etc.  There’s a very interesting and frankly alarming trend.  Only people in a certain age range are capable of performing the work.  People older than 50 or so came to computers too late in in life. People younger than 30 came to computers when they were far, far too easy. The best age for technicians and engineers are the folks born right in the early to mid 70s who got into computers because they were gamers in the days of DOS, EMM, rewriting batch files to get specific games to play, fighting with drivers, and manuals that were insanely long.  You’re right that it created a different relationship with the game and the manuals were often required because a picture paints a thousand words and a pixel paints about two.  The suspension of disbelief needed to think that you were controlling a starship in the game Star Command when you were looking at Dwarf Fortress style graphics was pretty high. The manual (and commands to operate your ship) were highly complex and demanding. 

In ’86 I was living in England (Air Force kid) and my father bought a Kaypro XT machine.  Replete with a 4.7Mhz processor. It was a massive step up from the TRS-80 Model III I cut my teeth on or the Tandy CoCo that came next.  I played Gunship on that thing and loved the fact that there were cardstock keyboard overlays to help you remember the 70+ keys used to control the helicopter and its weapon systems.  But it led to a great dissatisfaction in one other regard. The color was only CGA.  The video card, according to the manual, was capable of EGA. This was in the days before VGA, so going from 4 colors to 16 was a HUGE upgrade in visual fidelity and I was very, very unhappy that the little Sears TV that we were using as a computer monitor via some RGB connector proprietary to Sears wasn’t getting the job done. In TV mode, it was clearly capable of cranking out tons of colors, so it wasn’t a limitation of the TV. Therefore it had to be a hardware configuration problem.  The Video card had two input jacks on it.  Moving the 15 pin video connector from one port to the other changed the color scheme but still only produced four colors.  The solution? The manuals.  The Kaypro itself came with a ring bound 300 page manual that broke down everything about the guts of the machine, up to and including electrical diagrams showing how the capacitors and circuits connected.  One of the things it included was detailed pinouts for the two video connectors on the card.  The Sears TV came with a very similar manual. Shorter, but still including circuit diagrams and pinouts for all the connectors.  A bit of studying and not ten minutes later my fearless (and determined to see more colors damnit) self chopped the end off of the video cable. I then took the individual strands of wire and based on which wire strand (color+stripe) went into which pin on the connector, I quickly mapped out what color the 15 pins were on the cable, stripped a ¼” of insulation off each of the 14 wires to get connection and manually inserted the wires one by one into the correct pin out.  

It was horribly unsafe from an electrical standpoint but by studying the manuals, not caring (or knowing) about the cost, and with the unbound guts of a fifteen year old, I got my sixteen colors in about 30 minutes.  My dad got home and was simultaneously shocked, delighted, impressed and horrified.  All of it in equal measure. He was a bit of a tech head (and a career pilot) who had built a HAM radio from a kit and knew a fair amount about wiring, electronics, etc. It never occurred to him to simply rewire the cable. It did absolutely occur to him that I put a couple thousand dollars of hardware at risk because I wanted more color for a game. He promptly ordered a custom build it yourself connector kit from Radio Shack and when it arrived a few days later from the States, he taught me how to build the connector properly, get the cables secured, etc. and do what I did safely and properly.  Good lesson, good bonding moment.

Bottom line though, I support a family of five, without a college degree, in the Washington DC metro area (which ain’t cheap) with a solid lifestyle all because of those manuals. Because they taught me to learn the machines inside and out.  It’s more than just a love of the games – which you’re absolutely right came with those days – it’s a skill set that existed only for a short window and it’s gone now. There are some brilliant engineers working for companies such as Microsoft and Samsung, but the pool for people who actually get their hands dirty in an on-the-scene, save the small business, help restore the server so we make payroll kind of a tech?  Those are vanishingly rare.  

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