All Tech Considered
4:58 pm
Mon August 11, 2014

A Good IT Person Needs To Be Half Technologist, Half Psychologist

Originally published on Tue August 12, 2014 1:37 pm

Your doctor and your lawyer may know a lot about you. But in a time when we are using computers to socialize, keep track of finances, do work and store family photos, your IT person probably knows more.

So when computers go down, it can cause intense feelings. There's an entire meme of online videos of frustrated people destroying their computers. Some psychologists have even coined the term "computer rage" to describe these outbursts.

When you're feeling that way, you can pick up a hammer or you can call an IT guy at a firm like Mann Consulting in downtown San Francisco. This is command central for customers in the midst of a crisis.

Co-founder Harold Mann says his office can be like a hospital emergency room. "We have the same challenges where we have to counsel people and comfort them during stressful times while also practicing our craft, which is getting their machines to work," he says.

Getting machines to work is an essential part of the job, but so is making the customer feel better. And tech geeks are famous for not being very good at that.

The British comedy series The IT Crowd gets laughs because it nails that modern-day trope. Two of its main characters, Maurice Moss and Roy Trenneman, answer phone calls from distressed computer users and treat them with disdain or give incoherent technical explanations.

Mann, who has a staff of 16, says those are the kinds of people he doesn't want to hire. "There's no question that pure engineering talents does not make for a great IT person," he says. "We have to do a lot of vetting when we hire people to find people who are kind, not just brilliant."

Many of Mann's clients say they find him kind.

Fred Goldberg, a retired advertising executive, has been working with Mann for two decades. "I always kid him," Goldberg says. "I say, 'What'd you take a lesson on human behavior this morning?' But it's good. I'm sure it gives comfort to a lot of people."

Goldberg says he often gets comfort from Mann. When Mann or his people finish their work, Goldberg says, he's like a starving person who just got fed for the first time in months. "Thank you! Thank you for fixing this," he'll tell them. "Thank you for relieving me of this horrible mess that I was in."

Goldberg says when your whole life is on a computer, you need more comfort from your IT person than you need from your doctor. "The computer's an appendage," Goldberg says. "It's more important than your liver. You can't function without it."

Whoever can access our computers can access almost the entirety of our social, family and business lives. To know someone's computer is to know them.

Goldberg says it took him awhile to trust Mann.

"I used to have him stand away when I accessed certain parts of the information," he says. "But now it's like, 'Do what you want! If you haven't done something bad with my information at this point then it's not gonna happen.' "

It's a common moment with clients, Mann says. They get desperate, frustrated and just want everything to work. So they hand themselves over to the IT person.

"You can almost see it where they just give up," Mann says. "And they say, 'OK, just go ahead.' And they basically are saying, 'You're welcome into my entire life. I'm going to hope that you're not a bad person.' "

Mann has clearly worked on cultivating a team of people who have IT and people skills. But even a big outfit like Geek Squad says it hires people who are able to "empathize with the frustration so many of us feel when our devices aren't working right."

Another Mann client, Pat Belding, who runs a small marketing firm, talks about his 25-year relationship with Mann almost like a marriage.

"Over these years we've had our times where we've just bumped heads," Belding says. "He knows what will push me and I know what'll push him, and then you just kind of let things rest, and he'll come back and I'll come back to him."

As we all get even more dependent on our computers, many of us hope we too can have a happy marriage with someone who will fix them.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And it's time for All Tech Considered. Doctors and lawyers are often in the role of knowing a lot of details about the personal and professional lives of their patients and clients. But there's a professional who may know more - your IT person. NPR's Laura Sydell profiles one IT guy who says his job requires him to be half technologist, half psychologist.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: I'm sure this is hard to imagine but what if you were in the middle of doing something really important on your computer - say working on finishing a report for your boss. And the computer crashed and you lost everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON YELLING)

SYDELL: This is one of an entire meme of online videos of people in the midst of what some psychologists have officially dubbed computer rage. That's one way to deal with your feelings. Another way might be to call the IT expert.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mann Consulting, how may I direct your call?

SYDELL: This small IT firm in San Francisco gets a lot of those calls. Harold Mann is the cofounder and he says sometimes it's like he's running a hospital emergency room.

HAROLD MANN: We have the same challenges where we have to counsel people and comfort them during stressful times while also practicing our craft, which is getting their machines to work.

SYDELL: Getting machines to work is an essential part of the job but so is making the customer feel better. And the tech savvy are famous for their inability to do this. The British comedy series the IT Crowd gets a lot of knowing laughs with scenes like this one with the character Roy at the help desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT CROWD")

O'DOWD: (As Roy Trenneman) No, no. There you go. No, there you go. I just heard it come on. No, no, that's the music you hear when it comes on. No, that's the music you hear. I'm sorry. Are you from the past?

SYDELL: This is exactly the kind of person that Mann does not want to hire. He has a staff of 16.

MANN: There's no question that pure engineering talents does not make for a great IT person. We have to do a lot of vetting when we hire people to find people who are kind, not just brilliant.

SYDELL: Many of Mann's clients say they find that in him. Fred Goldberg, a retired advertising executive, has been working with Mann for two decades.

FRED GOLDBERG: I always kid him. I said what, did you take a lesson on human behavior this morning? But it's good. I'm sure it gives comfort to a lot of people.

SYDELL: Goldberg says when your whole life is on a computer, you need more comfort from your IT person than you do from your doctor.

GOLDBERG: The computer - it's an appendage. It's more important than your liver, you know. You can't function without it.

SYDELL: Now that computers are where we socialize, get entertainment, store health and financial records - whoever can access it can access us. Goldberg says Mann had to gain his distrust.

GOLDBERG: I used to have him stand away when I accessed certain parts of information that I was going after. But now it's like do what you want. If you haven't done something bad with my information at this point, then it's not going to happen.

SYDELL: It's a common moment with clients, says Mann. They get desperate, frustrated and just want everything to work. In a fit of exhaustion, they finally just hand themselves over to the IT person.

MANN: You can almost see it where they just give up and they say OK, just go ahead. And they basically are saying you're welcome into my entire life. I'm going to hope that you're not a bad person.

SYDELL: Mann has clearly worked on cultivating a team of people who have IT and people skills. But even a big outfit like Geek Squad says it hires people who are able to (quote) "empathize with the frustration so many of us feel when our devices aren't working right." Mann's client, Pat Belding, runs a small marketing firm. He talks about his 25-year relationship with Mann like it's a marriage.

PAT BELDING: Over these years, we've had our times where we've just bumped heads. And he knows what will push me and I know what'll push him. And then you just kind of let things rest. And he'll come back and I'll come back to him.

SYDELL: And it's been worth the ups and downs of the relationship to client Fred Goldberg. In the end, he's grateful.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Thank you for fixing this. Thank you for relieving me of this horrible mess that I was in.

SYDELL: It's increasingly looking like we're only going to get more dependent on our computers and more intimate with the people who fix them. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.