The Computer Geeks Who Saved Christmas

Stan King, an engineer who works on mainframe supercomputers, spends much of the holidays dealing with family computers, printers and software.
Stan King, an engineer who works on mainframe supercomputers, spends much of the holidays dealing with family computers, printers and software. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

Stan King is going to Pittsburgh and then Los Angeles to visit family for the holidays; he has already gotten word that he needs to fix computers belonging to his cousins, his nieces and nephews in both places. District resident Laura Maschal needs to load Apple's iTunes on her dad's computer during her Christmas break. Robert Clemenzi, meanwhile, will be trying to fix his sister's broadband connection during his holiday jaunt down to Asheville, N.C.

For many folks like them, having a family reputation for tech savviness means that going home for the holidays has become the time for connecting printers and figuring out why mom's e-mail software stopped working a few weeks back. As computers have found a place in nearly everyone's home, the annual computer checkup has become almost as much of a tradition as dad putting together the new bicycle or sister-in-law getting dragged into the kitchen to make gravy or eggnog.

"It used to be that grandma wanted you to put in a new light bulb in some hard-to-reach place," said Maschal, who works for a local Web company, though in a non-techie capacity. "Now you have to come over to take spyware off her hard drive."

If there is a tech professional in the family, that is the person who gets the job of configuring that new wireless network connection or figuring out why a computer is acting "funny." Otherwise, it's the young guy, the one who is into computer games or uses an iPod or who packs cutting-edge gadgets like a Treo smart phone. After that, practically anyone who uses a computer at work might wind up appointed to the task.

"Once you're in a technical field, you're automatically the computer guy," said Manassas Park resident Manny Mangilit. Mangilit works for a local tech firm, sure, but he's no programmer -- he works in personnel and administration. "I'm certainly not a techno-geek by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

Even those designated fix-it guys and gals who visit their out-of-state family several times a year say the holidays tend to be the main time when they get hit up for help. That's because now, of course, is when people tend to have a lot of new gadgets.

Dennis Courtney has another theory as well: During the summers, family activities usually involve spending time outdoors -- computers are out of sight and out of mind.

Courtney, who is scheduled to be in Detroit fixing his sisters' computers right about now, runs a server data center for a bank in Ashburn as his day job. He is happy enough to do the family computer maintenance work, especially because his family tries to repay him for the effort in their own ways. One of his sisters does nails in a beauty parlor, so Courtney's wife and daughters get their nails done free as he tries to figure out how to remove the latest pieces of spyware or viruses on those hard drives.

Some family tech guys are so used to the routine that they pack travel kits for problems they anticipate. King said he always travels with about 20 CD-ROMs containing antivirus software and diagnostic tools. "It'd be foolish not to," he said; after all, he spends about one full day of every family-visit vacation devoted to fixing tech support problems.

King got stuck with the job of being his family's fix-it guy because he is an engineer who works on mainframe supercomputers, machines that cost upward of $50 million. The IBM X900 probably does not have a lot in common with the typical $500 Dell laptop, but his family members seem to think his day job should make removing pesky computer viruses and spyware a snap.

"I would love to run and hide, but it's very hard when you're a captive audience," he said. When he was at a funeral in Pittsburgh recently, a family member tried to get him to commit to giving computer aid over the holidays.

In families blessed with more than one alpha geek, fixing a computer is a matter of pride. When antivirus expert David Perry finds himself at home with his computer science PhD brother and his computer engineer brother-in-law, it can turn into a bit of a showdown. Correctly diagnosing the family computer's ailments becomes "the geek holiday sport" he said.

The tech-support issues do not just revolve around computers, either, as other appliances in the home get more complex. When Clemenzi is not fixing his sister's high-speed Internet connection, he might be working on his parents' TV setup. They have been flummoxed by their satellite system, and for a few months had to use the living room TV to change channels on the set in the bedroom. Clemenzi fixed that problem with a gadget he got at Radio Shack.

Sometimes, though, you just have to draw a line. When Timothy Shey, an executive at a local Web applications company, found out that his parents were deciding on a new computer a couple of years ago, he offered to give them free and unlimited tech support, on one condition-- they had to buy an Apple MacIntosh.

For Mac fans such as Shey, having to do maintenance on a rival Windows computer is a galling experience. Shey said he knows one guy who took his parents' Windows system when they were out of the house and replaced it with a Mac: Tech-support problem solved.

But the Sheys ignored their son's advice and bought a Windows-based computer. So a year later when the machine started acting up, he kept his word.

"I cut them off," he said with a laugh.

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