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Two Digital Docs Who Can Ease Your Computer Pain
By Jeff Kaliss
Ever since he hung out his shingle in late summer, Jim Cooley has felt less like the itinerant miracle worker and more like the local family physician.
For the past couple of years, Cooley has been operating a computer trouble-shooting business out of his residence at 22nd and Church. He's been scooting around to individuals and businesses in the neighborhood, installing equipment and mending blockages and breakdowns.
In August, he relocated his practice to the tiny storefront on Sanchez Street near 24th once filled by PuroFino Cigars. He calls it the Computer Closet.
"Part of the reason I moved here was to get all the computers out of my house, and now I don't have a single one there," explains Cooley during a break from upgrading a client from Windows 95 to 98 and expanding his machine's data processing space.
The medical comparison is Cooley's idea. "I'm like a doctor because I know everyone," he says. "So far, I can pretty much remember what people have in their computers and what their problems are. And [whether or not you're my client], it's a good idea for you to get a regular checkup. I clean out your temporary files, make sure your hard drive's working, and most importantly, update your device drivers and patch your products."
Another specialist, Duncan Fraser, who runs his own Macintosh & PC Solutions service from his home near 20th and Church, points out that the digital doctor has to be a bit of a shrink, too.
"A very common emotion people feel around their computers is one of incompetence, fear of the unknown, which therefore brings up feelings of vulnerability," Fraser says. "And there's the fear that they're gonna hurt something."
There's further anxiety in allowing someone like Fraser or Cooley to look into the private, sometimes secret place that computers have become in the '90s.
"When you're going into someone's hard drive," where much of the computer's information is stored, "it's akin to opening someone's medicine cabinet," Fraser has found. "There are all kinds of personal things on there, whether it's e-mail or surfings from the Internet."
Cooley recounts helping a female client install image-editing software and in the process discovering that her husband had downloaded prurient pictures from an X-rated web site.
The two computer pros think it's essential to inspire trust in their clients -- and to inspire their clients to trust themselves.
"The most enjoyable clients I work with are the ones where basically the two of us are just sitting there and exploring," Fraser reveals, "whether it's hooking up a digital camera or going through old files. And it's not only just doing it for them, but teaching them how to do it themselves, and building up confidence where they can do it on their own. I want them to be self- sufficient."
The bulk of both men's client roster is small businesses and institutions, a goodly number based in Noe Valley. Cooley has built computers for Small Frys, banished bugs for Selecta, and created networks for St. Paul's and several neighborhood lawyers.
"A lot of them are asking for networks now," Cooley says. "They want to put all their files on one central computer [for use by two or more people at separate stations], and they're pleasantly surprised to find it's cheap and works very well."
Cooley also designed a web site for Java Ventures on Elizabeth Street, a group that facilitates tours and coffee exports in poorer South American countries (its location is www.javaventures.com). The site is easily navigated and admirably clear in its exposition.
"Everyone's seen bad sites where you can't get where you want to go without digging through layers," Cooley points out. "So you've got to look at it from the standpoint of the average user, rather than some web whacker. Aesthetics are secondary: You don't go on the web to see pretty pictures," he maintains. "You go there to get information."
Fraser comes to computers from a business background. He majored in economics in college, was employed by Coca-Cola in his native Atlanta, attended Harvard Business School, and worked for startups and in consulting after moving to near Dolores Park in 1990. That experience has been attractive to his neighborhood commercial clients.
"I think smaller businesses are where a lot of the prosperity in our economy is coming from," Fraser says. "People get laid off from XYZ Corporation and then figure it's not such a bad thing after all. They'd rather be doing landscaping or whatever their interest is. Then they realize, 'To be more efficient about what I'm doing, maybe I'd better get a computer.' And that's where I come in: to find solutions -- not only to make their business more efficient and easier to run, but also to integrate computers into that goal."
He cites the example of a Noe Valley architect, partnered with an interior designer. "We laid out three things: a system by which they could manage clients and keep track of their invoicing and billing; a way to manage their relationships with vendors to optimize their cash flow and keep track of what they'd ordered for which clients; and a system to organize their own workloads."
But the web and the Internet have themselves helped both men extend their businesses well beyond Noe Valley. "I've got a client in Czechoslovakia," boasts Cooley. "We work via e-mail, and I can also remotely work on his computer through the Internet. He dials up and launches a program, and I can get into it and fix things up."
On the local front, Cooley avoids direct advertising "to keep the demand down." However, he has leafleted at Martha & Bros. Coffee Company on 24th Street and initiated an arrangement whereby his Computer Closet customers can get a free cup of coffee while their machine is being worked on. For those who want to sit and observe his wizardry, Cooley provides a basket of jellybeans. (He also provides, in the box accompanying this article, some basic tips for computer users.)
"A lot of times, I can diagnose a problem on the phone," Cooley notes. "But my rates are at market or under it." For work on personal computers (IBM PCs), either on site at Computer Closet or at the client's home or business, he charges a diagnostic rate of $35 for up to half an hour, and $65 an hour for repairs. Cooley's rates are somewhat less for Macintosh products, because he knows less about them, he says. "Questions are always free, if I have the time."
Fraser says his rates vary by project and depend on the complexity of the job. "But for the smaller ones, the hourly rate runs from $100," and there's a half-hour minimum as well.
Fraser is conversant with the Apple line and is "very pleased to see what's gone on there in the last 18 months or so: the iMac and iBook have definitely turned the tide in terms of simplicity and ease of use and aesthetics as well. The advantage of the PC platform is, obviously, its ubiquity, and the wide variety of software that's made for it. It's come a long way with [the] Windows [operating system]."
Cooley's new retail location will allow him, within the next few weeks, to set up a bank of computers on which clients can rent time. There will be three PC terminals and one Mac, with a scanner, printers, and high speed to the Internet. "The machines the public uses," he points out, "will also be demonstration machines for different levels of systems." In other words, if you like it, he can build one for you to take home.
As much as Cooley and Fraser know about what their clients don't know, they are ardent about not talking down to people new to computing.
Fraser shares an anecdote about a Noe Valley man whose father, while visiting, had assembled his son's new system but then had to phone and ask, "What does the pedal do?"
Arriving at the home, Fraser discovered that the computer's mouse had mistakenly been placed by the father on the floor instead of on the top of the desk. "He ended up laughing at himself," says Fraser, "but to me, the only dumb question is the one you don't ask."
You can reach Fraser at 415-824-0323 or at MacPCSvc@aol.com, and Cooley at 415-642-1651 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Cooley's Tips for Staying Cool with Your Computer
1. Check the cables. Even I forget that sometimes.
2. Use quality components.
3. Virus-check all e-mail attachments, and if your virus definitions are older than July 1999, update them.
4. Turn your computer on in the morning and off at night. Try not to repeatedly turn it on and off.
5. Put your CPU (Central Processing Unit) on a couple of phone books or something else, because having it just a couple of inches off the floor will keep dust from getting in.
6. Don't download unnecessary software, because a computer is a tool, and you don't want to weigh it down.