Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch

Working in a coal mine

April 15, 2005

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When I am having a particularly bad day on the job I tend to grumble about it. On these days, my wife’s usual response is, “It isn’t like your working in a coal mine!” She is right, of course, I am not sweating away hundreds of feet below the earth making my money with physical labor. Still, there are some types of high tech work that are my version of “coal mining.” These are the endlessly repetitive or frustrating tasks that seem to make up the majority of too many workdays. Too much of this type of work and I begin to wonder if I made the right career choice after all.

Fix it, then fix it again

As I am sure many of you have experienced, there are chronic problems that seem to occur nearly everyday. It only gets worse as the number of people you service grows. Hard drive failures, motherboard burnouts and spectacular power supply deaths are one class of tech problem that we face again and again. Mechanical and electronic devices have a “Mean Time Between Failure” (MTBF). It is not a question of “if” they will fail, but more a question of when.

Facing these problems every day can start to wear you down. I know that I would much rather be helping my clients to do great, productive things with their computer than swapping out another hard drive, but reality gets in the way. Still, there are a few ways to get out of the “coal mine” if you focus some energy on the issue.

First, make sure you are using any and all monitoring utilities that you can find. Most hard disks come with built-in S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) firmware, which is supposed to give you some warning of an impending hard drive failure. While it can’t catch every problem, like the electronic failure of the entire drive, it could help you deal with many problems before they turn into nightmares.

Second, make sure that you, your staff and your users remain aware of error messages, strange noises from their PCs or anything else that seems out of the ordinary. Often, PC issues offer long warnings of an eventual failure, but, due to inexperience or inattention, users ignore the signs. Addressing a problem when it first starts to occur can save you hours of work and gigabytes of lost data down the road. Don’t let small problems fester into larger ones.

Third, do everything you can to protect against viruses, worms, spyware and other software that seeks to attack your PCs. In today’s computer reality this needs to be done with almost religious zeal. One slip, one expired anti-virus program or one compromised PC can open the door to a flood of other, even more destructive, problems. Many of the issues I face on a daily basis relate directly back to spyware and viruses. Once I clean (or rebuild) a system and insure protections are in place, the PC can work for months or even years without incident.

Moving on

In many cases, having a system that moves older PCs out of service after a given number of years or hours of operation can go a long way towards reducing the amount of “coal mining” you have to do. It has been my experience that most electronics, computers included, either die in the first 30 days or they last forever. This doesn’t mean, though, that you should leave old equipment in production, just because it is still working. Countless times I have seen servers and other PCs, which have been working for months or years, fail immediately after a power failure. While they may have been working fine as long as they kept moving, hard drive “stiction”, caused by a loss of lubrication in the bearings, may insure that the drive never spins up again.

Roll older equipment out of production on a regular basis. Reboot machines on a regular basis so you can detect hardware failures or software errors. Monitor error logs religiously. Needless to say, backup even more religiously. While this may seem like a lot of work, I can guarantee you it is easier than facing the eventual consequences.

Don’t make your work more difficult than it needs to be. If you want to rise above the dirty and difficult (if necessary) “coal mining” aspects of your job, you have to make an effort to prevent the problems from occurring in the first place. If you can effectively get a handle on these types of constantly recurring issues, the path of your high-tech career will become much more pleasant to travel.


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