The Impact of Apprenticeship

My tech skills came with practice and patience. But learning to work with clients was even more valuable.

Ross Nowacki


When I started college I knew nothing about computers. I knew they would allow me to research, create, write, and read. But the computer itself? That was magical. And it was slow.

At the advice of a trusted friend of a friend, I bought RAM. RAM was supposed to make my computer faster but as soon as I installed it, my computer started doing funny things. Like turning itself off while I wrote my midterms.

What once was slow was now unreliable, so I called support for my PC and the tier-one support rep used their script to ask if I had reformatted my hard drive and reinstalled the operating system. No, I had not. “OK, let’s do that,” he said, so I did.

Great, we’re back online. Now, where are my files?

“You can restore them from backup,” he said.

“You didn’t mention anything about a backup before reformatting my hard drive…”

Now, where are my midterms? My entire senior year of English? My SimCities? Gone.

Worse still, rebuilding my PC didn’t do anything to stop what turned out to be the wrong type of RAM from changing my magic box into a box of frustration. It was my first experience with technological powerlessness and unmanageability, and I vowed never to let it happen again.

Learning the Ropes

At the start of the next semester I got a job with Alan, the father of a close friend who was looking for someone to help with his consulting business. I told him the story of my college PC and he offered to teach me about computers.

That year, Alan taught me how to take apart a PC and, more importantly, put it back together better than I left it. He taught me basic networking skills and what a server was. I stopped being afraid of dip switches and driver updates. I learned how to back up—and I got paid to do it.

My tech skills came with practice and patience. But learning to work with clients was even more valuable. I had been working after school and weekends since I was 16, but those jobs weren’t stepping stones to building a career. This was different. This was local businesses partnering with a caring professional to keep things running smoothly.

There is also a difference between clocking in and making yourself available. At the time, I was in school and working a job on the weekends. Sometimes the work would be an hour here or there. Other times we’d need larger blocks for bigger projects. But it was the emergency calls that were the greatest learning experiences for working with clients.

I let Alan take the lead, and he’d let me overhear his assessment of a situation. He’d get the client to take us back to when things were working normally—what did that look like? Then he’d have them walk us through what happened. He would take the time to let them go into as much detail as they needed and didn’t pass judgement or shut them down.

Sometimes the issues were larger issues, like the network being down or a server offline. After getting as much information as possible without condescending or patronizing the client, he’d give them an estimate of how long they could expect to be offline so we could have a window of opportunity to get to the bottom of things. Seems simple, but I’ve seen a lot of people over the years forget to give themselves the time they need to accurately assess and resolve a situation.

A lot of what I was there for was to be a sounding board. Everyone needs someone to bounce ideas off of, and Alan was a one-man show. Clients don’t need to hear every idea that comes into an engineer’s head, they need to know how long before things are working and that we have what we need to get the job done. Having an assistant meant he had someone who could go get the missing part or check the other end of a cable.

But First, Chocolate

I learned the importance of chocolate in the art of troubleshooting. If something was seriously messed up, the first thing Alan did was reach for the best chocolate he could find and have a piece. I’d be up and running out the door, but he would always wait just a minute while he collected his thoughts on the matter and savored that last bit of calm before diving into whatever needed to be fixed. When Alan said, “We need chocolate,” I knew he meant, “Let’s have a think before we do anything.”

IT folks are easily forgotten. We’re mostly behind the scenes and disappear when things are good. Alan had a thing about two-dollar bills. They were his calling card. He always kept a few on-hand and would give them to people he met, and they’d keep them on their desks to remind them who to call. I forgot about them until someone brought one to his memorial service and spoke about it, and him. And how he always took time with his clients to connect them with the people behind the work.

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