Shep Bostin has no illusions about his job.
“Sometimes, we are considered saviors,” said the owner of five Geeks On Call franchises in the D.C. area. “Other times, the customer is just happy to find someone willing to crawl under a desk for them.”
The general practitioner of computer repair fixes faulty servers and drives and untangles extension cords beneath desks in dusty places.
He is among the service technicians whose talents have become increasingly essential as daily life becomes more and more dependent on computers.
Easily spotted by their black PT Cruisers with “Geeks On Call” scrawled on the side, the geeks of Geeks on Call are the largest of several home service computer technicians to enter the Washington-area market in recent years.
Mr. Bostin, who graduated from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in 1988 with a degree in information systems, almost fits the geek stereotype to a T. A heavy-set man with glasses and his Bluetooth receiver always in his ear, Mr. Bostin is constantly advising his technicians and clients with indecipherable computer jargon. Still, in many ways, the operation is like a modern version of the home calls doctors used to make.
“If you fix this, I will be so happy,” said Lynette Roseman of Potomac, who is Mr. Bostin’s first call of the day and is having problems syncing her new BlackBerry to her computer.
Within minutes, Mr. Bostin can tell that a teenager recently used a computer by the amount of unnecessary programs on the hard drive.
“Generally, if something is free on the internet, it is usually bad,” Mr. Bostin tells Mrs. Roseman. “Most adults are cynical enough to know when something is too good to be true. Kids between 10 and 20 can be murder on a computer.”
Finding the problem with the machine and fixing it takes about two hours, a little longer than most home visits, Mr. Bostin said. The base price for a typical diagnosis and quick fix is about $99, although the price goes up for larger companies with more computers.
Originally from Stamford, Conn., Mr. Bostin is living in the D.C. area for a second time. He previously worked in the Dulles technology corridor right out of college. After that, he moved to Silicon Valley, Calif., where he became the chief operating officer of a company called Netword that would eventually fall apart during the tech-boom collapse.
In 2002, Mr. Bostin bought the first Geeks on Call franchise in Maryland. He continues to serve customers within that first franchise, which goes from Walkersville, Md., all the way to the White Flint area, while he oversees the technicians from each of the franchises in the area.
One of the largest challenges is finding technicians who can pass the “Geek test,” a way to determine the competence of potential employees. Some who are considered relatively high-level by the government have failed the extensive test, Mr. Bostin said.
The Geeks’ customer base ranges from elderly women who still have trouble accessing their e-mail to entire corporate networks with 50 servers, and he must make sure that he has people that can fix computers anywhere in between.
The next stop is a Poolesville dentist’s office that is implementing a new computer program that uses digital X-rays on monitors rather than actual pictures. In a moment more likely out of “Mayberry R.F.D.” than a D.C. suburb, Dr. Timothy Piketells Mr. Bostin that he had just seen the technician’s wife that morning and that she needed a filling.
Mr. Bostin finds that many of the computers on the system still need to be registered and will require a return visit when the machines are functioning better.
Although many of the problems that Mr. Bostin and his technicians come across are easily fixed, the Geeks make it a point to keep a cool head when the going gets tougher.
“Sometimes I get frustrated,” Mr. Bostin said. “But I guess if not for those problems, I wouldn’t have a job.”