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Secrets of Computer Geeks

  • Remember that computers are totally literal - if you ask the PC to find the file jobs.doc, it won't find the file jobs.txt. If you ask for jobs.*, it'll find both of them. And if you're using a Unix system, looking for jobs.txt won't find the file if it's really named Jobs.txt. On a Mac, using Spotlight, you probably don't need to worry - just type in jobs and you'll find every file with "jobs" or "Jobs" in the title, as long as you saved it in the proper folders (documents, downloads, the desktop, music, pictures, or videos, generally).
  • Nobody knows everything. Anybody who claims he does is lying. Some people know a lot about some particular thing, but they're going to need help with something at some point. Don't feel bad about needing help or additional information when your computer is acting weird or you can't get it to do something you need to do. Don't feel embarrassed, and don't let any tech support person get away with being condescending. Acknowledge your limits, work to surpass them when necessary by learning new things, and ask for help when you need it.
  • Be willing to learn new things. To be honest, I have not found it useful to try to learn anything technical until I have a concrete motivation rather than a vague "I'd like to know more about that some day." That isn't true of everyone, but I find it's true of many people. Had I simply sat down to learn HTML, I probably wouldn't know it to this day. Because I needed to do something specific at work that used HTML, I found it very easy to learn it quickly. If you want to learn about databases, find a useful purpose for knowing about them—perhaps you could volunteer to create a database to meet a need of an organization with which you're involved?
  • Don't mess with things you don't understand. For example, if you don't know how to get to the Windows Registry, you probably don't have any business messing with it. Yes, there's a time to learn about it, but it's best if you learn about such things after you've done a backup, when you don't have any kind of time limit for getting the system working again if things do go wrong, when you have access to someone who can fix it if things go totally toes up, and ideally when you have another working computer on hand so you can research any errors that occur.
  • Plan for problems. Just like you check the oil regularly in your car, do regular backups of those files that would be most difficult or impossible to replace if you had a problem. Make multiple backups, in fact - keep at least one copy at home and one copy off-site, for instance, in the cloud or at your office. I use a cloud backup service, CrashPlan, as well as an external hard drive. I also copy vital documents to Dropbox, and my phone automatically saves all my photos to Dropbox and iCloud.
  • Let's talk about phones. If you have an iPhone, use iCloud! Seriously - there's no excuse for not doing so. It's a no-brainer. It'll back up your contacts and calendars automatically. Then for your photos and backing up the rest of your phone stuff, you get 5GB of space free, and additional space is $0.99/month for 20GB! Seriously, how is that not wonderful, for a turn it on and forget it backup system?
  • If you have an Android phone, you need anti-malware software on your phone, and several of them come integrated with backup systems now. I'm not in touch with which ones are doing that now, unfortunately, because I don't have an Android phone anymore. But please, please, get and use legitimate security software for your Android phone. Stick with downloading software from the Google Play Store and Amazon App Store, but know that bad guys have gotten stuff onto the Play Store in the past and likely will do so again.
  • Windows machines crash. The operating system gets corrupted. Just expect it. I rebuild the operating system on our PCs at least every six months or so. No, you don't need to reinstall Windows every time you have any little problem, but having returning to a clean slate periodically is nice.
  • As beautifully stable as Macs are, their hard drives can fail just like the hard drives on any other computer can fail. It's a fact of like. And sometimes other things happen - you drop your MacBook down a full flight of stairs at school, or your husband spills a bottle of wine into your beloved MacBook Air. (Both real scenarios from customers with whom I've spoken.) You need to plan for potential disasters, too, and the way you do that is, again, redundant backups. CrashPlan works on Macs, too. And for your local backup, Time Machine is built in to OS X, making backups incredibly easy as long as you have an external drive. Get one - they're cheap. Or if you don't want to bother plugging something in, go for a nice Time Capsule.
  • When things go wrong, note the exact error message and what you were doing at the time. Be totally honest with any support person with whom you speak. If it happened once, say so. If it happened that way three times, say that. If you got different error messages each time, give the person the exact error messages (which you have, because you wrote them down, right?) It'll help you get better support.
  • Google is your friend, but you need to know what to search for. That error message you wrote down is one thing to search for, to see if somebody else has had the same problem in the past and figured out how to fix it.
  • People who are snarky when you ask intelligent, appropriate questions are probably insecure in their own knowledge or position. When I worked in administration, I found that some MIS people were just plain nasty at times when asked perfectly reasonable questions, and some of them would just toss off a non-answer full of jargon rather than admitting that they didn't know something. Those people were a large part of the reason that I did learn about computers. I found that people who really do know their stuff seldom mind sharing information with those who genuinely wanted to learning about their areas of expertise.