I’ve had a couple of people ask me in the past couple of weeks how to break into the computer field. It was a tough question. I literally got into fixing these things because I couldn’t find a repair shop in St. Louis that I felt I could trust. So I started trying to fix them myself. I might break it beyond repair, but one time we had a repair done that cost more than replacing the unit outright would have cost. So what did I have to lose, right?
I took my Commodore 128 apart a few times. Usually it was for an upgrade, but once it was to clean the keyboard because keys weren’t working anymore. It was an adventure, and I had to learn how to solder first. My dad’s friend Norb taught me how. He was a building inspector. No wonder I still solder like a plumber, even to this day. So I de-soldered the 6 connections I had to in order to get into the keyboard, removed the dozens of tiny screws, cleaned up the printed circuit board, put it back together, re-soldered those connections, reassembled the computer, and held my breath. It worked. Cool. It didn’t impress the girls, but it saved me at least 50 bucks.
It was my uncle’s approach. I remember riding with him to an auto parts store once, then watching him work on his truck. “I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to cars,” I said.
“I don’t let that stop me,” he said. “I just have to do it.”
His truck cost more than any computer I’ve ever owned.
Later on, I got an upgrade ROM for my Amiga 2000. So my dad came home one day to find me hovering above my Amiga, which was sprawled across his OMT table. The cover was off, the power supply was out, and the drive cage was out, and there I was, slowly prying out a chip with a screwdriver. Dad gave me a nervous look. “You gonna be able to get that thing back together?” he asked me. “Sure,” I said. I didn’t tell him how many times I’d had it apart before. So he stood there and watched me as I finished extracting the chip, popped the new one into place, and re-installed the power supply and drive cage.
Eventually I got smart and realized I shouldn’t be experimenting on computers that I cared about. XT clones cost about 20 bucks when people wouldn’t just give them to you, so I got a couple. I ripped them apart, figured out how a computer was really put together, and reassembled them. And yes, I even took parts from one and put them in the other to see what would happen. I was pretty sure it would work. It did. Eventually I did something stupid (I don’t remember what anymore) and I killed at least one of those XT clones, but it wasn’t important. I’d learned a lot from them, and I was only out 20 bucks. That’s assuming I wasn’t given the thing outright–I don’t remember that detail anymore either.
I needed that skill the next year. I was living in a fraternity house, and the power supply died in the house computer. I knew enough by then to diagnose it, and I headed off to the local computer shop for parts. They didn’t have any power supplies that would fit, and the motherboard was nonstandard. But they had a lineup of barebones systems sprawled across the floor. A bare 386 cost about $200. I knew the rest of the system worked. So I talked it over with the treasurer, then came back with a house check and bought a 25 MHz 386DX. I took it home, popped the case on the house computer, pulled out the video card and all the I/O cards, installed them in the 386, and found the computer wouldn’t recognize the hard drive. We eventually worked through that one (it turned out we had one of the very few 8-bit IDE drives ever made, and that 8-bit controller did not get along with our 386 one bit) and we got a working system up and going.
By the time I graduated there were at least half a dozen guys in that house capable of doing that job. Times changed (swapping a motherboard was much more of an endeavor in 1993 than it was in 1997, because by then so many components that had once been discrete and configured by jumpers were integrated and configurable through the BIOS Setup), and I’d like to think most of them learned at least a little something from me.
That summer, I got a job selling computers. An opportunity arose when the store technician developed a difficulty showing up for work. They never fired the guy, but since he was only there half the time, I got to be the tech the other half. When he was there, I learned a lot from him.
The next school year, I got wind of a job opportunity on campus. The journalism department had a batch of 300 new IBM PC 330s and 350s. Every last one of them needed to be unboxed and upgraded with extra memory and a NIC, then plugged into the network, where one of the more experienced techs could do a push install of OS/2. I got the job, and I learned a ton from those guys. These are guys who had seen prototypes of the IBM PS/2 Model 80, and who occasionally had to whip out a soldering gun and make a change to the motherboard with an engineer from IBM on the phone. You bet they had a lot to teach me.
That part-time job eventually grew into a full-time job when those guys recognized that I was willing to work hard and willing and able to learn.
That approach worked really well for me. But I had the advantage of being young and being able to wait for opportunities and take them as they came. I also had the advantage of growing up with the things (the schools I went to had computers and taught computer classes, all the way back to when I was in the second grade) and messing with them for the majority of my life.
Realistically, I don’t think that approach would work for an adult with minimal computer skills and a family to support. Or at least it wouldn’t work on a quick timeframe. I’ve tried to teach 24-year-olds starting from ground zero how to do this. It didn’t work very well.
It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to write.