It was not a job for just any old expert. Although it seemed simple enough -- a lousy paper jam in a copying machine -- before this electromechanical nightmare was fixed, no less than three levels of experts had been consulted, each, in turn, going higher on the organizational chart of expertise, each calling for more expertise, until, as a last resort, they reached the ultimate jungle fighters in the war of technology for the Xerox Corp.: The Tiger Team.
This is an age of specialization, where experts need experts and specialized experts need more specialized experts. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in companies that thrive on new technology. At Xerox, technicians who repair and service company copiers and computers are organized as if they were still in the military (where many got their first training): field technicians report to technical specialists, who report to regional technical specialists, who report to... well, you get the idea.
More than 90 percent of the time, Xerox insists, the quagmires of the computer age are solved locally, with the experts on hand. Sometimes, though, that's not enough, not nearly enough. This is an account of one of those occasions...
It began last winter at the Pentagon -- where else? -- with a Xerox 9500 copier, a high-speed (two copies a second), high-volume (500,000 copies a month) machine with a headache: what the experts call a "slug feed." Rather than one sheet of paper at a time, the copier was feeding itself chunks of paper, forcing someone to remove the paper and clear the jam.
The problem was first handed to Walt Moyer and Rick Jones, two of the 560 Xerox technicians in Washington. Moyer and Jones work full-time at the Pentagon, a haven, it seems, for copying machines.
Moyer (3 1/2 years with Xerox, 20 years in the Air Force as a computer operator and radar mechanic) said he and Jones adjusted or replaced all parts that might cause the paper to jam, but the problem came back.
"We did 100 percent of the things that fix the problem 95 percent of the time," Moyer said. "When all that doesn't do any good, you go deeper and get more help."
Enter Brady McGuire, one of 48 team technical specialists, "the first line," as Xerox puts it, "of direct support for the technicians." McGuire checked the technicians' adjustments, then made his own. The monster copier continued to feed itself slugs.
Exit McGuire. Enter Darin Martin, one of two regional technical specialists who deals with high-volume copiers. Martin (13 years with Xerox, a former Navy teletype operator and C&P phone installer) had worked his way up the ranks, from technician to instructor in Xerox's training school to specialist. He knew his way around a 9500 about as well as anyone in Washington.
But the machine "gave all the appearances that nothing was wrong with it," Martin said. High-speed copiers "do so many things so rapidly that diagnosing what's at fault is more difficult. The symptoms can be confusing." He designed tests to eliminate possible causes of the problem. "That's the hardest part of troubleshooting -- isolating what's causing the problem. If I can tell you the cause, then it can be fixed." Nothing seemed to work. The Pentagon wasn't in trouble, but Xerox was.
Finally, we come to one William Santmyer. Formally, Santmyer works for the "systems support team," but around Xerox his outfit is known by a more descriptive name: The Tiger Team. As Santmyer puts it, "We're aggressive kind of people -- tigers." The team -- 10 engineers who specialize in high-volume copiers -- is based at Xerox's national service headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., where the first copier was born. Tiger Team members have planned and designed copiers, and, as one technician says, they "know them from the frame up."
Santmyer (engineering degree from Allegheny Tech., 20 years in electronics, TV repairs "for the fun of it") flew down from Rochester, conferred with Martin, McGuire, Moyer and Jones. He poked and peered, looked and wondered. Then he removed a small plastic shield, no larger than a quarter. The jams stopped.
Santmyer, being the expert he is, knew something the others didn't: a firm that supplies Xerox with parts had changed the chemical material in the belts that feed the paper into the copier. That could affect the sensitivity of the belts. "So I took a shot at something that might compensate for the change," Santmyer said. It worked.
It's a temporary solution, Martin says, until the design engineers -- more expertise -- come up with something better. Meanwhile, that old 9500 just hums along, no slug feeds at the Pentagon.