Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy by
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There are two independent threads that intersect for me in response to this prompt. The first thread is my own skill, or lack thereof, as a techie. As I’ve noted in previous stories — not worth linking to — I’ve never learned to properly touch type.  Indeed, the ever-patient Retro administrator can testify to my ongoing proclivity for typos, despite my better efforts otherwise.  But I am not a Luddite. I appreciate and embrace technology and always was quite adept at the STEM skills even though my academic interests lay elsewhere. Plus, I am by nature a problem solver. To put it metaphorically, if things suddenly go black, I want to light a candle — or, more literally, change the batteries or re-set the fuse  — rather than simply curse the darkness.

Two independent threads intersect for me here: my own skill, or lack thereof, as a techie, and Saturday Night Live sketches. 

The second thread is Saturday Night Live sketches.  There have been literally thousands of them over the years, and they have ranged in quality from egregious one-offs, which make one wonder what sketches were rejected that week, to hugely popular ones that ended up being spun off into their own movies, albeit of varying success.*  But the ones that most resonated with me, at least professionally, were fairly occasional ones featuring Jimmy Fallon playing Nick Burns, “Your Company’s Computer Guy.”  As the jingle that accompanied these sketches went,  “Nick Burns, the computer guy.  He’ll fix your computer, then he’s going to make fun of you.”

For those unfamiliar with the oeuvre, here’s a representative example:

In brief, Nick Burns is the archetypical computer guy.  He is geeky beyond geeky and yet, in the environment of a large company’s dependent on computers but populated by personnel largely computer-ignorant or, worse yet, hysterically techo-phobic, he is a superhero.  Though not a humble one at all.  He is snarky, officious and occasionally sadistic. He lords his mastery over all those executives who make ten times what he makes and yet can do nothing but pathetically beg for his help and obsequiously thank him for even his most minimal efforts.

Now the thready intersection. One of the best lessons I learned early on in my legal career — a lesson definitely not taught in law school — was to treat the support staff nicely.  You did that for two reasons.  First, and most importantly, you should be a decent human being.  But second, even if you are not a decent human being, from a pragmatic standpoint, these are people whom you will need to help you at some points in your career, and sometimes desperately so.  And woe be to the executive who has treated a techie like a jerk.  Not only won’t the executive get the help he needs, he may well be sabotaged (though often without even realizing it).

In my last position as a general counsel, we had a techie assigned to us senior executives in HQ named Dave.  Dave was a classic Nick Burns, right down to the pocket protector, big collared 70’s shirts and the usually snarky air of superiority.  But when your computer crashed, you had no choice: better call Dave.  Over time, however, and in light of the lesson noted in the previous paragraph, I actually got to be pretty friendly with Dave.  I think he appreciated my pleasant, egalitarian demeanor and realized that at least I was trying to work things out myself and did have some modicum of technical competence.

Dave even confided in me at one point two techie in-jokes about computer problems.  Per Dave, when techies were together, they would speak in terms of such and such a problem being a “PIC/NIC.”  This was a pseudo-technical acronym for “problem in chair, not in computer.”  In other words, the guy they were helping was a moron.  Similarly, they would speak of problems being of the “ID ten T” sort.   Convert the ten into numerals and you will get it.  I liked to think that Dave would not have shared this techie lingo with me if he thought I was like the seated guy in the Nick Burns sketch that is the featured image.

Modern businesses being what they are, the Powers That Be at my firm ultimately decided that we executives didn’t need our own dedicated (at least in one sense of the word) techie, so Dave was laid off.  We were then thrown to the mercy of the off-site IT department that, rather than making house calls, would either try to talk you off the ledge via speaker phone or, in particularly desperate situations, “remote” into your computer and try to fix the problem as you helplessly watched an alien cursor move madly around your screen   — a truly terrifying, 1984-ish experience. Happily, but not surprisingly, Dave had already landed a much better paying job elsewhere even before I was able to drop by his office to offer my condolences and thanks.  But, when I did, he did appreciate the fact that I had done so..

Now that I’m retired, I don’t even have an off-site IT department to call on (other than the Geek Squad at Best Buy).  Fortunately, I have learned that an awful lot of fixes can be found either within my computer’s programs themselves — just look for a “Help” tab —  or by simply googling whatever my question is.  Almost invariably, thousands of other users have had the very same problem.  And often, once the problem is solved, I realize that it was a PIC/NIC.

_____

*On the success side, think of  “The Blues Brothers” and the “Wayne’s World” movies. On the stinker side, think of “Stuart Saves His Family” and “It’s Pat.”  Somewhere in the middle is “Coneheads.”

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Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    We always watched SNL, but my memory must be dimming, as I don’t remember that recurring sketch. It is a good one for this prompt, John. Good for you for befriending Dave, both for being a good guy, but also because you knew that it was useful. I am still fairly hopeless when it comes to these things and depend on the much savvier people in my family when I need help, even remotely.

    • John Shutkin says:

      As mentioned, Betsy, this was one of the more obscure SNL sketches, but it really resonated with me. Ironically, my brother, who was a computer programmer, can rarely help me (though his intentions are always honorable). His knowledge base is simply in a different, more advanced universe than mine.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Like Betsy, I don’t remember the Nick Burns skits on SNL, so thanks for including the clip. It was very funny and spot on. Like you, I learned early on that it pays to be nice to everyone, no matter their status in the organization. Your description of the remote help experience really resonated with me. I always want to ask them to slow down so I can do it myself next time, but of course they want the opposite to be true.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Good lessons for life about befriending people! And the value of someone you know to help out instead of anonymous departments. My greatest take home from multiple tech problems is “turn it all off and start over”.

  4. Marian says:

    The SNL sketches run true to life, John, and I totally agree about being nice to support staff. It’s the right thing to do and in your self interest. In my last job I had a lot of experience with remote support–from India. It was maddening because often the problem wasn’t fixed (despite my being knowledgeable enough to describe it accurately), and the ticket closed. It was both educational and scary to watch your screen being taken over. And I agree about programmers trying to help you. They are in a different universe.

  5. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this great story and youtube clip. Like everyone else, I have no memory of the Nick Burns sketches, even though I am a pretty faithful viewer of SNL. And it perfectly shows the problem with most tech support – no, not the insults, but the fact that they just take over your keyboard and with a few quick strokes fix the problem. That won’t help if it happens again, because they didn’t explain what they did. Whenever I am getting help, I say don’t do it for me, tell me what to do and let me do it myself. Actually that applies to many other things besides computers.

  6. Thanx John for telling us what many of our tech tribulations often are – PIC/NICs!

    (Wonder if it’s a legit Scrabble word?)

  7. Love the story, John, and the clip brought back memories of those cool iMac colors and how much I wanted one just because of the way they looked. Interesting that they used those in the sketch…ten years after they were discontinued.

    PIC/NIC is great way of saying user error. “Stupid computer” comes up fairly frequently in our house.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    I think either IT people have mellowed, or the stereotype was less prevalent than it was made out to be. I’ve found most of them kind and helpful. Also, in some situations, grossly understaffed and overworked.

  9. Good one, John. Yep, I remember Dave well. And I concur with your approach to support staff. Makes me think of my son Charlie’s swearing in ceremony in MA. It was conducted by the clerk of the supreme court, who cautioned the newly minted lawyers that while a judge can hurt you, a clerk can kill you.

  10. Jeff Gerken says:

    I LOVED the new acronym, PIC/NIC and will pass that on to my wife. She and I often have words over the fact that she is a MAC person and I am a PC guy. One way to guarantee a cold shoulder is to tell her, when she asks why something isn’t working right on her machine, that she should just get a real computer.
    And I must have missed the Jimmy Fallon sketches. I will remedy that as soon as possible.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Dave suggested that PIC/NIC was not so new; it was just new to us non-IT folks. And, yes, do check the Nick Burns sketches. I also vaguely recall that David Spade may have done one or two after Jimmy Fallon left SNL.

  11. I/T guys. Great topic for this prompt, John. I am always courteous with them. They rule one critical domain of our worlds. But I have erred in another direction — being too friendly. Some are so antisocial that they control the “off” button when it’s time to sayonara. But have you ever had an I/T guy attach himself to you? A disaster! Needy, lonely, usually with an obscure collector’s habit, for example, ukelele tunes from the 1920s. I had one sad sack at Cal State LA, a slumper and shuffler, who insisted on bringing his accordion to my office and playing obscure pop tunes from 1930s sheet music. My home guy is a friend with cats and a penchant for animal viddies and disgusting anti-Trump memes. But, he does know what he’s doing. Most of the time, I’m with you. I just press ‘help.’

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