The knowledge gap in the early days of PCs

An IT instructor takes us to a time when PCs were first entering the workplace and tech know-how wasn't easy to come by

During my years in IT, I've taught a variety of courses to users. Like many instructors, I encourage those taking the course to ask any question they have. I expect a wide range of queries, from the basic to the advanced, but sometimes I'm taken aback by questions that are staggeringly naïve.

In the late '80s and '90s, I worked in the tech department of a large regional bank. When I first started, I was in a department of about a dozen folks who did everything there was to do with PCs: hardware, software, application development, training, and so on. As a result, the position put me in contact with employees who had all ranges of computer competence, from the beginners to the highly experienced.

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One of the things I did was to teach an introduction to DOS and the PC to bank employees. The class was available to all employees. At the time, PCs were just being accepted as a serious, integral part of the IT landscape, so at every class we often had people with a wide variety of tech knowledge.

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One particular day, I had 8 people in class, ranging from a newly hired assistant to a couple of highly experienced tech support guys from the mainframe side.

The PCs we were buying at that time were IBM PS2s, which were designed to be taken apart without any tools. As a break from the more intensive parts of the class, I had the students come up and observe while I took one apart and pointed out the various components.

The assistant, who had been asking questions nonstop throughout the class and obviously didn't know much at all about computers, pointed to the hard drive, which contained a dime-sized hole in the case.

"You see that hole?" she asked. "If your power went out, could you stick your finger in there and spin that disk around so you could still see the pictures on the screen?"

Needless to say, the tech support guys had tears of silent laughter streaming down their cheeks. I, being the instructor, had to maintain a certain sense of decorum, which I did mostly by biting my tongue. However, I was sure tempted to say something like, "Well, if you could get your finger in there, and spin it around at exactly the right speed ..."

The assistant listened as I explained that if the power is out, nothing on the computer would be working and why. She solemnly nodded her head in agreement.

Since at the time even an assistant position required a basic computer literacy, I wasn't surprised to hear a few weeks later that she had been fired. It's a puzzle why she got the job in the first place.

No matter how long you've been in the business, someone can still ask a question that takes you completely by surprise. We all know that, as geeks, we are a lot more technically oriented than most people, but don't always realize how wide that gap can be.

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