Where Have All the Gurus Gone?

January 16, 2008

When I was growing up, computers were these wonderful things that sat at the back of the classroom (usually one, or maybe two if the class was lucky). If the school was lucky, there was a "computer lab" where you could have access to the latest and greatest in government approved hardware.

My favorite of the time was the Apple IIe. Our school district had so many of them, they handed 'em out to classrooms (The school district now uses them as very effective door stops). In fact, I got my start with computers by tinkering with a IIe. My first computer experience was hooking up a printer to a IIe, and the wonder of this experience (plug something in, type a command, and print came out!) completely captured me (I was in first grade), and from that moment on I was completely wrapped up in the wonder of computers.

Anyway, I graduated to PC compatibles and DOS. Trying to get a grasp on this computer thing, I got a copy of DOS for Dummies. Near the beginning of the book, they had a paragraph that had some important words of wisdom. While I don't have the book any more, the message is still with me: "This book will teach you the basics of the computer, what you can do, what you can't do, and what you really shouldn't ever do. However, for anything you don't know, contact your local computer guru."

Computer Guru? What is this "Computer Guru"?

According to Wikipedia, Guru means "Teacher, in a religious or spiritual sense." And as luck would have it, I was able to get into contact with Computer Gurus throughout my life. These were the computer equivalents of the small town mechanic: you pull up for some gas and Harvey the mechanic walks around the corner. "Howdy! I heard you pull up. You've got a bit of a timing issue, and I think one of your spark plugs are bad. I can change 'em out in a few minutes, if you like." It's almost like Harvey has a supernatural connection to vehicles. He can hear issues, he can smell problems... he's one with the Motor Vehicle Force.

The same with the Computer Gurus I knew. You walked in and turned on your machine, they'd make a "Hmm" sound (in computer science, "Hmm" is similar to the Indian sacred syllable "Aum" or "Om". It's ritually chanted by a computer guru whilst contemplating your computer's connection to the Universe), type some sacred symbols into the prompt, then tell you the problem and offer to fix it. Most times they would happily fix your computer in exchange for a pizza; sometimes just getting a cup of coffee from the ever present drip dispenser could net you a small fix. And if you were truly interested in computers, you could even ask to become a follower of the Guru. You'd spend your spare time in his or her office, ask meaningful questions about the nature of the Universe, contemplate ancient tomes and user manuals, and take care of the mundane tasks of life (like formatting floppies or installing software) so the Guru could spend their time connecting with his or her latest project (generally spent looking at an arcane flowchart or design document and saying "Hmm" a lot). You knew, one day, with practice and patience, you too could become a Guru, have followers to format your floppies, and say Hmm.

However, the computer industry started changing. User interfaces became simpler, USB made the promise of true plug-and-play a near reality... the command line all but disappeared. Computers stopped being a specialized device and became a commodity. Computers were EVERYWHERE. And there was this belief that computers will become so "user friendly" that there was no need for the long learning process of the Guru.

And for the most part, this has happened. Programs are very user friendly now. There's tons of documentation, and most don't expect you to have a PhD in Computer Science to understand them. Workflows have become "point and click link" instead of "chant this esoteric string into the command prompt".

However, sometimes I really miss my Guru. For example, just this last week, my roommate's computer (which I built) started randomly crashing. There wasn't a specific program that crashed, and it didn't crash at a set time. I knew something was wrong, so I tried to diagnose. 'Course, Vista being user friendly, the computer would automatically reboot, without showing the Bluescreen, except for the subliminal hint of blue to let you know that the computer had crashed. See, blue screens have "Technical Information" (it says so right on the screen!)... and user friendly computers (1) don't crash, and (2) are NOT technical. So I was stuck with a computer that wouldn't run, and a bored Roommate who just realized he has a $1200 paperweight.

As Dr. McCoy would say, "I'm a programmer, not a hardware doctor!" Hardware issues are right outside my realm of experience. I longed for my Guru. I knew how to diagnose; I pulled hardware, changed orders of cards, swapped the memory sticks back and forth... all the standard religious rituals for modern computers. I knew that if I could but approach a Guru, tell him or her my issue, they could give me leads to check. I didn't have the money to buy all new parts at random; I had to work with what I had. I knew I had all the data for a real diagnosis... I simply wasn't able to pick out the error. Working the next day at SoftLayer, I mused about my lack of Guru leadership. At the end of the day, I turned to a coworker and said "Now I get to tinker for a few more hours on this stupid computer. I wish I knew a Computer Guru!"

My coworker smiled and asked what the problem was. I told him and he looked at the ceiling. "Hmm" he said. "Could be a power supply issue. Maybe the power coming out of the supply isn't clean and it's resetting the motherboard." Just then, another coworker walked around the corner.

"What about a power supply?" he asked. The first coworker told him the issue. "Hmm," he said, looking intently at the wall. "I bet it's a RAM issue. I bet your ram is bad. Swap it out with some good RAM and see what happens."

So I went home and crosswired some power supplies. Rebooting the machine, I finally got a bluescreen that crashed itself, locking up the computer and letting me read it. "PAGE_FAULT_IN_NON_PAGED_AREA" "Page Fault?" I thought. "Hmm." My roommate walked in. "What are you doing, meditating? Have you fixed it yet?"

We went to Fry's and bought some new RAM sticks. Going home, I popped 'em in and started the machine. And it worked! It's been running 6 days nonstop. My roommate was really happy. I was finally able to look up the bluescreen message up on the Internet. Sure enough, that specific error almost always pops up when there's bad ram.

So, where have all the Gurus gone? Where else? They all work at SoftLayer! Whenever I've had a software or hardware issue, or an operating system issue, I've found somebody here who knows the issue. They look at the wall, say "Hmm", sip their coffee or Monster (depending on their level of enlightenment), and give me the answer. The guys here are at one with the Network. The DC guys almost seem to be able to FEEL a power issue or a drive problem before it happens. SLales is able to think about your problems and provide a tailor made solution to help. And Development is where all the action takes place; we get to write all the behind the scenes magic.

"You must be some kind of Computer Genius!" shouts my roommate (lucky for me, he's gotten to play some Call of Duty 4, so he's already forgotten the previous week of frustration). "No, not yet." I respond. "I'm working on it, but I'm not a Guru yet."

-Zoey

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