My Interview with Steven Salemi,
Santa Fe’s Computer Whisperer
by Nils Montan
Let’s face it. We all live in a bit of fear of our computers. It’s a love/hate thing. We don’t really know how they work. We just hope they turn on like our TVs when we press the little button.
So of course, eventually they don’t. They slow down, they freeze or they just don’t turn on. Of course, we haven’t backed up our work and so a cold panic begins to envelop us as we realize that it’s probably all lost.
What should we do? We could call the manufacturer’s “Customer Service” department, but bitter personal experience tells us that talking to somebody in India is probably not going to help too much. Things have just gone too far.
Computer Geeks? Why didn’t we buy that extra protection contract when we bought the computer? Oh well, they probably wouldn’t be able to help too much anyway. They just want you to buy a new machine.
So this was the position I was in when I moved to Santa Fe recently. My long suffering laptop had been getting slower and slower as time when on. I knew I wasn’t long from a complete breakdown. I did a Google search and found an ad for The Computer Guru, Steven Salemi. Guru? “That’s intriguing,” I thought to myself.
I threw the laptop in the back seat and headed over to 844 Agua Fria at the corner of St. Francis.
There is a kind of mystical aura about the Guru’s cottage. Steven is a lovely and gregarious guy. He doesn’t actually whisper “I see dead computers,” to you, but it is clear that you are not at Best Buy anymore. Steven was able to fix my laptop in a snap at a pretty reasonable cost. It occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to have him build me a new desktop. Something that he could personally take care of and maintain as the years rolled by. We talked about it and set some parameters of cost and function. In a couple of weeks I had the new machine. It is a thing of real beauty.
This is my conversation with Steven shortly after he finished building me the new computer.
N: Okay, Steven, let’s talk computers. First of all, how long have you been working on computers in Santa Fe.
S: I came to Santa Fe around the time of the Gulf War, the first Gulf War, so I’ve been here since 1990. So we’re talking a little over 20 years…although I didn’t start The Computer Guru business till 1996.
N: Well, it’s safe to say that you have been doing this a long time, in other words.
S: That’s for sure. And I had worked in the computer industry for many, many years before I came to Santa Fe and became The Computer Guru. So I’ve been in the computer industry since the beginning of what you might call the PC era, the personal computer era. And there was a time, believe it or not, before personal computers. Along the way I wrote a book on the topic, “Make Peace with Your PC.” It sold pretty well and is still for sale on Amazon.com.
N: How would you characterize the services you provide here at The Computer Guru?
S: I would say that the hallmark of my services is that they are highly personalized. I take the time to get to know you and your computing needs. We are living today in a world of commodities. Everything is getting commoditized in our culture. Big box stores and the big internet sites sell literally millions of computers every year. The people who sell them to you probably don’t have much training or experience. If something goes wrong, you will be talking to someone half a world away who is staring at a computer himself and trying to figure out what has gone wrong with yours. It sounds crazy, but everything is getting depersonalized and computerized and automated to the point where you’re not even dealing with a human being any more. With me, you get a human being, someone who can actually listen to you and understand what you are saying.
N: So your specialty, besides working on computers, fixing computers, and building computers, is really personal service and direct interaction with the customer.
S: Yes, that’s right, actual human to human service. In the old days, everyone had human service. So it was just a question of, who’s got the best human service? Nowadays, it’s human service versus robotic service, or automatic service. So someone like me is becoming increasingly rare. I am a craftsman, not a part of a mass assembly line or a computer data bank.
N: OK, well, give me the specifics of exactly what you do here, Steven.
S: I have two levels of operation. Level one is the basic repair service, everything you can see here, the visible stuff. And that is, I repair broken computers and service and upgrade computers. Some computers are broken and need to be fixed. Other computers are no longer capable of keeping up with today’s computing environment, so I upgrade them if that’s possible. Keeping the same machine but adding more power and more capacity. Sometimes the machine can’t be fixed, or it just isn’t worth the cost of my time to fix a cheap computer, so I am also in the position to sell new or refurbished machines. Building computers, like the monster I built for you, is, obviously, in many ways, the most fun.
N: So, I guess that the typical customer might walk in with a busted computer or at least a computer that’s not working well. How do you analyze what may be wrong with the computer?
S: Like a good doctor, after you’ve seen about 10,000 patients, you kind of develop some solid instincts and intuition. Those are not, you know, mystical or paranormal things. Intuition and instincts are real, and they’ve been in our human genes and our DNA or whatever for a billion years or more. A lot of times a person will bring in a computer, and I have actually been able to diagnose it before I even turn it on, based sometimes on something the client tells me or something I can feel through the machine.
N: I guess that is why some people call you “The Computer Whisperer,” as well as the Computer Guru. You really have a feel for these machines that seems to transcend the normal.
S: Yeah, it is a little unusual, because you always hear about horse whisperers, dog whisperers. But I’m a whisperer for inorganic matter, which is a little different. You know, bouncing electrons and stuff like that. Of course, we’re all made of bouncing electrons, so there may be fewer differences here than we all suspect.
N: What do you think is the typical lifespan of a computer that somebody might purchase at a big box store or over the internet? How long can someone expect them to last?
S: Well, if I can preface this with a little story. When I first got to Santa Fe, I went to massage school, and that’s something a lot of us do. A school of massage and natural healing. I don’t think I ever thought I was going to end up being a massage therapist, but it’s just something I felt like doing. Part of “going native” after spending my entire life on The East Coast.
I remember the first day at class, one of our professors said to everyone, “you know, before we start talking about ways that you can get yourself healed and live longer and be healthy and help others, you need to know one immutable fact of life. Some of us are Rolls Royces and some of us are Pintos.”
So to answer your question, most people, or many people these days, are buying the very, very least expensive computers they can buy from mass market outlets with no visible means of effective customer support. They are, simply put, buying Pintos, thinking they are buying really good machines.
N: There is a big incentive to do so these days. Computer prices have dropped a lot over the past decade and people believe that, with the exception of Apple, that they can a good computer for three to five hundred dollars.
S: Maybe, but as we have discussed, how long will the machine last? How well will it run? Where does the support come from, and what is the quality of that support? Let’s use laptops as an example. 15 inch laptops range from a low of around 400 dollars to a high of 1500 or more. And so there’s a whole spectrum of machines that people do not look at, because they’re simply not in the budget. Or the buyer may not even know that a high-quality, premium grade of laptop exists. So what many people are buying – and again, more and more, with this economy, and maybe without knowing it – is Pintos. Unfortunately, it’s being penny wise and pound foolish, in my opinion.
N: Well, let’s face it, most people literally know nothing about computers except how to turn them on. So as soon as something goes wrong, they need help. As opposed to going to, you know, the Computer Geeks or something like that, if they brought it here, they’d have someone they could talk to, someone with long experience, who knows both the hardware – and I guess there can be software issues wrong, too, right?
S: Oh, very often, very often!
N: What kind of software – viruses, I assume, are very common?
S: Viruses are very common, corrupted files, damaged files. Software that isn’t up to date. Conflicts and crashes. Unfortunately, people don’t know how to work with the anti-virus programs on their machines or even how to keep them up to date, not to mention rectify problems once they’ve taken hold.
N: And so these are things you can work on?
S: Oh sure, there’s nothing that I can’t repair, given the opportunity to do so. However, with the decreasing cost of hardware, if it is a Pinto, it may not even be worth repairing, because it might take many, many hours to put that Pinto back together. When I tell a customer about the estimated cost of repair they often say, well, I can get a new machine for that price, and they’re right, they can always…
N: …they can always go and buy another Pinto.
S: They can buy another Pinto. And that is one way of doing it. Not the right way, in my opinion, but a way nonetheless. It’s funny; very often they weren’t happy with the first Pinto, and when it dies a premature death after a relatively unhappy and troublesome life, they run out and buy another machine in the same class. I have a slogan posted on the wall here, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” And the opposite is true also. It’s certainly not the way I operate. I would much rather have a real nice machine and keep it for 5 or 10 years, rather than a cheapo machine and keep it for 2 or 3 years – if you’re lucky.
N: Suppose somebody was smart enough not to go to a retail store, but instead walked in here and said, “I want a nice computer, but I can’t spend a fortune.” Obviously, you have a choice between a laptop and a desktop. If somebody wanted a really good solid machine for home use, what kind of recommendations would you likely make to them?
S: I would first spend a little time talking to them to understand their computer needs. I have here in the shop a number of systems that I have built, custom systems, and the prices are very reasonable. These are the machines that would serve the average person. They’re not high end machines, but they are very serviceable. They’re what I would call mid-range machines. The quality is good, and they have many, many benefits over a store- or internet-bought machine. I try to give people something I’ve already built if I have it. I also have refurbished computers available. Refurbs are machines that people have traded in to me when they bought a new machine, and in my spare time, I’ll fix them up and make them as good as they can be. They may be several years old, but they are affordable and will give years of good use.
N: Right, I guess that part of the benefit of coming to you as we said in the beginning…that whole personal service thing. That would certainly apply to the first-time purchaser who comes in. You would talk to him and find out what their needs are. Then you are better able to sell them the appropriate machine at the appropriate level.
S: Sure. I can build someone a computer from 300 to 3,000 dollars or more, and every price point in between. Believe it or not, it’s easy to spend three thousand dollars on a computer. It’s not hard at all; it’s just that most people are not exposed to the entire spectrum of what’s available. They are exposed to a very narrow range of what I would call the overall computing spectrum, and the salesmen in the big box stores have no idea why someone should buy this machine or that machine. They sell whatever they have on hand. It’s the difference, for a musician, between some portable Casio keyboard, and a Steinway Grand Piano — and all points in-between.
The level of knowledge and sophistication about computers is much higher now in general than it was when I first came to Santa Fe. Back then, I would go into a professional office, an insurance office or a doctor’s office, and the computers being used by these professionals were strictly consumer-grade computers. The offices were professional, but the computing tools they were using were not. At the time, professional grade computers were available from companies like Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment Corporation (which is now gone) and others. But these professionals were not using professional grade computing tools to serve their businesses. This has changed to some extent, but it’s still more common than you might think.
The problem is that the professional knows his profession, be it insurance or dentistry or whatever. But they don’t know computers. And so, rather than hiring someone like me or bringing someone in, they went to the store and bought a computer that was really meant for Little Billy under the Christmas tree, a toy computer, and use it in their office. And then they complained when they found out the performance was poor, or that it couldn’t be expanded or upgraded, or that they lost all their data one day because the computer didn’t have a backup system, because computers built for home-use don’t have backup systems!
In fact, most computers to this day do not come with backup systems.
N: And I know you suggest that people should backup their computer on some kind of regular schedule.
S: I urge them to. For my customers, it’s easy to put their computer on a timed schedule to back up their work on an internal or external drive, all automatic. The user doesn’t have to remember to back up. The machine does all the work.
N: What’s the best way for the average user to back up their computer? I know there are online kinds of Cloud systems that people can subscribe to. Are those better, or is it better to do an external hard drive for example?
S: The Cloud, of course, is something that’s coming. The Cloud is coming. But it’s interesting – we remember the dot com bust there in the ’90s or the early 2000s or whatever. And there was a lot of stuff that people thought was coming that came and went pretty fast. Anyone who invested with Bernie Madoff discovered that their money came and went pretty fast. So the Cloud, the idea of putting all your own data and applications, word processors, spreadsheets, having all that stuff running remotely, that’s the latest thing. We’re in the early phases of that, and we’re not clear how that’s going to work out.
So for example, Apple is going to have a Cloud. Well, Apple is Apple. And they make nice hardware. Very brilliant, innovative equipment with a very visionary approach to computing. Although not necessarily suitable for everyone. In fact, Macs are to this day a very small minority of the computers that are being used.
But the Cloud that Apple is creating is going to be an Apple Cloud. It’s not going to be “The Cloud.” So if ten percent of the people in the world use Apple computers and Apple gadgetry, that means that Apple’s Cloud will contain – if it’s fully functional and online – at most ten percent of people’s stuff, be it data or applications. And then the other ninety percent, well, where’s that going to be? Whose cloud will hold all the other stuff?
Well, Google’s going to have a Cloud, too. Microsoft’s going to have a Cloud. Internet service providers like Comcast will have a cloud. There won’t be one cloud, there will be lots of different clouds. So, it’s a very interesting time in the industry, and it is all changing dramatically. You’ll get these emails from some stock trading company saying, “we will sell you the secrets of who are the next big three Cloud players– you can make a million dollars by investing now.”
Well, there’s some truth in that. The Cloud is coming! But it may not look, or work, the way anyone really expects it to.
N: Okay, but I mean, for the average user, it’s probably better just to use an external hard drive of some kind, right, to save and backup their files?
S: Right. Well, backing up, it’s one of my pet peeves, only because I see so many lost document casualties. Backup is only one small part of the whole computing universe, but it’s a hot button with me and it certainly ends up being a sore point for many clients who ignore it to their peril and end up losing all their stuff.
So I recommend for backup a machine that can back itself up without the Cloud and without the Internet. That’s the first stage of backup. So for example, if it’s a desktop computer or a deluxe laptop, there’s often room inside that box for a second hard drive. And even that is sort of revolutionary. Because 95 percent of the computers on the planet, if not more, have only a single hard drive.
And you cannot backup a computer on a single hard drive. Because if a hard drive fails, everything goes away. And you can no longer backup onto CDs or DVDs, or flash drives, because none of these things have sufficient capacity.
One thing that is exploding in the computing industry, even for the average person, is the sheer volume of data – content, we call it — that people have. Even if the average family, the Beaver Cleaver family, goes off to Yosemite for a vacation, they have a digital camera that’s 12 megapixels. They take 600 pictures of everyone having a good time. And when they get home, they’ve got gigabytes and gigabytes worth of photos. And that stuff has to get stored. And they really don’t want to lose those photos.
So not only do you need a computer with X gigabytes of primary storage, but then you also need a computer with X gigabytes of backup. When someone goes to the store and buys a computer, 95 percent of the time it doesn’t have a second backup drive and the salesman does not necessarily tell the customer that they need some kind of backup plan. So then, sure, you can get a cheap, slow external backup drive and you know, hopefully, it’s a good one, and hopefully it’s got decent backup software with it. Although the real trick is not using the software that comes with the original machine, but using the software that’s part of Windows 7, because it’s simpler and more reliable.
N: I suppose that there must have been cases where maybe a client listened to you, and had his machine backed up on the external drive. Then the primary drive crashed and burned. But because of the external backup, you were able to replace the primary drive, transfer the material back to the replacement drive, or maybe sell them a new machine and transfer the files to the new machine — a failsafe, if you will.
S: Right, right, that has happened, but, unfortunately, it is by no means the majority of cases. Most people are still not backing up properly and when the cheapo system crashes the data goes bye bye.
N: Let’s talk about talk about the machine that you built for me and some of the decisions we made to put it together in a particular way. Personally, I wanted to own a computer that I knew could be very reliable with a lot of capacity, but one that was also expandable, could be something that would keep up with modern technology, something that would backup itself, and something that wouldn’t be obsolete in 2 or 3 years, or subject to just crashing and burning. And since we’re here in Santa Fe in a small town, I thought it would be great to have you build me a machine from scratch, where it could last literally years and years. Tell me a little bit about the machine you built for me in general terms.
S: As I said before, I consider myself a craftsman. Building a computer like this is like putting together a fine piece of furniture or a tailor creating a fine suit. Actually, the tailor is a good analogy. The customer would go into the shop and the tailor would take your measurements and discuss with you about what you wanted. It’s the same kind of thing here. You can call it old world craftsmanship. But the materials involved are not old world materials. They are high tech, the latest high tech materials.
A lot of times when I am envisioning a computer for a customer, I will sit down with them, ask them what they intend to do, what their goals are. And you mentioned a few of those in terms of quality and long life and expandability and upgradability. I would also add strong performance, smooth operation. A machine that is a joy to operate.
Can you imagine sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and for the operation of the machine to be an absolute joy, rather than an absolute pain? Well, I can and do, and that’s what I want for you and all my clients.
N: Let’s talk about the components in the machine that you built for me, and there’s a photograph of it here that people can see, with the side panel removed, so they can actually see what the guts look like Tell me about the case. Why did you choose this kind of case?
S: I chose this case for your machine because, unlike your typical Best Buy computer, which is mostly plastic, this case is not only all machined metal, nicely machined metal, which is a beautiful thing, but it’s aluminum and in the world of computers, aluminum has many nice properties, especially related to cooling. Machines that run cool run better. Airplanes use a lot of aluminum and titanium, and this machine is just like a sleek modern airplane in that respect.
END PART ONE