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I recently had an email from a long-ago customer. Actually, he wasn't even my customer - I had been hired by a local Synchronics dealer to do something on the SCO Unix box that was running Synchronics point of sale software. I must have given him a card, which is not something I usually do when sub-contracting, though I have done it when I have had to leave something running and I think they might have to call me about the results. In those cases, I always make it very clear that they cannot hire me directly: I go home with the one I came to the dance with.
Anyone, he had kept that card. The phone number on it was long out of service, but the email still works, so I received his message asking me to call him. I did call , and learned that he'd had a falling out with his original Synchronics dealer and had since then hired another and had a falling out with them, and could I please come help him?
I know both of those dealers. I sub-contract for both of them still, though not as often as I did in former years. Neither of them sells much Unix or Linux anymore and over the years they picked up enough basic knowledge not to need me very often. Heck, I helped them pick up a lot of that knowledge. Some might call that dumb, but it's the way I roll, dumb or not.
In all honesty, I could easily understand why this customer might have had disagreements with either or both of those dealers. I don't mean that they are awful people, but they both have certain personality quirks that can lead to misunderstandings and disagreements. So do I, so I'm not casting any stones here. I'm just saying it didn't particularly surprise me that he was ticked off at both of them.
However, I don't know much about Synchronics. Yeah, I've picked a little up here and there, but not enough that I'd call myself "competent". I'd say I can fumble my way through some things if I have to. Given that, I didn't feel that I could help this guy and I told him just that.
"Oh, it's not Synchronics", he said. "It's a terminal that isn't working and I know you can fix that".
"And a printer", he added, "and I know it's probably the serial card and I know you can check that too".
Well sure. I know exactly what he has - an old SCO Unix system with a Digiboard multiport serial board, green screen Wyse terminals and Okidata printers with serial cards. I can handle all of that. Apparently the guys from Synchronics dealer number two could not.
Frankly, that puzzled me a little. As I said, I know these guys. They aren't brilliant troubleshooters, but this is pretty basic stuff. Why couldn't they have fixed it?
He said that they had tried. They started by replacing the terminal with something they charged him $1200.00 for. Twelve hundred bucks? For a terminal? Vecmar sells used Wyse terminals starting at $199.00 ! But maybe that included labor? Yes, it did. That still seemed high, but OK.
However, they failed to make the new terminal work. That seemed VERY odd.
They couldn't fix the printer either. Odds are that there is nothing wrong with it at all - it probably just needs a new serial I/O card, which you can get for short money from Wyse or Vecmar. But they said they couldn't fix it. That I was more ready to believe because there are things you need to know there that they might not know. But gosh - a little Googling or a quick call to me would have solved that. Something didn't smell right.
Now, please understand that I wouldn't expect your average Microsoft dope to be able to fix any of this either. But these particular folks have dozens of other customers with old terminals and old printers - as I said, I know that because they have subbed me in the past to service those customers. I bet they have even bought terminals and printers from Vecmar! So I could not understand why they would have been so incompetent here.
It's not that they sent some pimply faced kid, either. The customer told me who they sent and I know that guy goes back to Tandy Radio Shack days. He's not the brightest bulb on the tree, but he certainly should have been able to fix a terminal and a printer! Very strange, I thought.
I agreed to visit him and a few days later I walked into the store. The first thing I found out was that the terminal certainly was working. What was not working was local printing, which is a simply horrible way to print to start with and is subject to all manner of difficulties. I could half believe the other tech had screwed this up, but only half believe - I suspect he knows this stuff pretty well by now.
To my astonishment, the problem seemed to be rather more basic: a parallel printer was connected to the auxiliary serial port of the terminal.. and this terminal had no parallel port to hook up to - that's NEVER going to work!
I know the other service company isn't that clueless. Not even close. So I called them, explained where I was and said "You know this is a parallel printer and the terminal only has serial?"
Of course he did. As it turns out, that terminal was provided as an emergency replacement on an overnight basis - they could not get one with the needed port overnight. And they only charged him $200 or so - the other thousand was for rushing in there to install it and redirect the printing to a different printer.. maybe a tad high, but I don't know what else they might have done while there.
So, the customer is confused or fibbing.. and I had little interest in being in the middle of a pissing contest. Still, I was there, right? So I looked at the printer with my RS232 tester and yeah, the serial card was dead. I explained that to the customer (really just confirming his own guess) and also told him about the missing parallel port and what dealer number 2 had said.
"I just need it fixed", he said. "Can you do it?"
Well, sure. I showed him Vecmar's website and found what he needed to order. It showed as in stock, so he placed the order and I told him to call me when it came in. I also told him that there might be no reason for me to come back as he could probably configure this himself and save the expense of having me back.
That's just me. I'm all about money.
The reason I felt he could handle the terminal setup was because he had a second, perfectly functional terminal with the exact same receipt printer not ten feet away from this non-functional replacement. As we had ordered the exact same model terminal, all he needed to do was press Shift-Select on both units and follow through every screen to set the new terminal to match the old. As to the printer, I felt I could lead him through that on the phone without charging him any extra.
A week went by and then my phone rang. It was this customer. The terminal had arrived, he had tried to set it up, but with no luck. Could I come?
Oh, well. I did try to save him some money. I got in my car and drove to the store.
Silly, silly problem - he had plugged the printer cable where the data cable should have gone and vice versa.. he also missed setting the parity correctly and had it looking for input from an empty AUX port, but he was actually very close to being successful.. I was proud of him. I fixed those issues and he tested printing and..
It didn't work.
Arrgh. I logged in to a shell and created a text file containing the "start local print" control codes followed by some lines of text and the stop code. I "catted" it. The printer obligingly kicked out my text.
Double arrgh. That meant it was something in Synchronics. Damn! I don't remember how to configure that stuff in there! Something about drawers and registers but I don't remember..
Ahh, but there was that second terminal and that was already set up as its own register and drawer. All I needed to do was fumble my way in and copy whatever I saw. I explained my plan to the customer, asked him to confirm which register/drawer belonged to which terminal and then that's just what I did.
What had happened was that dealer number two, knowing that he couldn't make local printing work, had changed Synchronics to print to the Oki printer - the one that coincidentally blew its serial port shortly after he had left. It's easy to see that nobody was really "wrong" here - it was a misunderstanding.
I left with a smallish check - I hadn't seen a single shopper either time I had been in the store so I fudged the time generously in his favor. Call me a fool if you must, but that's the way I work. I apologize if I have offended your inner capitalist.
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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2012-03-07 Anthony Lawrence
A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing. (Emo Philips)