Ctrl+Alt+Fix-it: Goffstown whiz rides to the rescue

Union Leader Staff
Monday, Apr. 17, 2006

Tom Browne was once a desperate man. A Bedford engineer-turned-author in the midst of researching a book series three years ago, Browne thought he'd lost everything the day his Dell computer died.

"I thought I'd been backing things up sufficiently. But when it froze I tried everything I knew. Two years of research was trapped inside my computer," Browne said.

"I knew Dell wasn't going to walk me through because my computer was no longer under warranty. I was desperate. I opened up the Yellow Pages and found a local guy, the Computer Commuter — Josh Schoenfeld," Browne said. "Josh saved my life."

Before national nerd-for-hire franchises like Best Buy's Geek Squad or Geeks On Call hit the radar, there was Schoenfeld, 29, of Goffstown, a lone computer whiz with a car, who recognized several years ago the growing need for mobile in-home computer repair.

For the cost of a house call ($125), Schoenfeld managed to save all of Browne's data — and threw in the friendly lecture on the virtues of backing up files, no charge.

"He told me I wasn't doing it right. Since then he's taught me how, and now I have a backup hard drive, so if my computer died right now, in five minutes I'd be able to recreate my entire computer," Browne said.

Schoenfeld says he owes his technological success to a graveyard-shift job.

"I had no direction in high school. After that, I got a job working the graveyard shift at the Velcro factory and that really pointed me in the right direction. I knew I didn't want to be there in 10 years," Schoenfeld said.

Then he hurt his hip and needed surgery to fix it. The week before he went under the knife, he impulsively bought his first computer.

"It was in 1999 and I had also signed up for my first college course. I figured I would be on my back for a month recuperating, and I would be needing a computer anyway. I sat in front of that computer and learned so much so fast," Schoenfeld said. "It just came to me."

By the time he fully embraced his knack for computers, he was wrapping up a two-year liberal arts degree, before he went on to earn his bachelor's degree in computer science from Franklin Pierce.

His one-man business started while still a student, mostly side jobs for friends and family — even his professors. After graduation he fielded some good job offers, but quickly realized he was already doing what he loved.

Smart move, according to Dr. Stephanie Collins, an information technology professor at Southern New Hampshire University.

"I think this is going to be the cottage industry of the future, especially in rural areas," Collins said.

Ambitious tech-entrepreneurs in larger cities are already making a name for themselves by word-of-mouth advertising, Collins said.

"You hear more all the time about 'computer doctors' making house calls. It's the kind of business that depends on referrals because someone is coming into your house, so trust becomes an issue," Collins said.

With more than 63 percent of the adult American population regularly using computers, according to the latest figures from Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington, the trend in geek-savvy repair is a no -brainer.

Home tech fix-it needs are prompted, in large part, by the proliferation of "computer rage," a psychological phenomenon that is exactly what it sounds like, well documented through various sources, including more than two decades of study at the Human/Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland.

Frustration over fatal errors and grand mal glitches has led many home computer owners to acts of unspeakable rage, says Dr. Kent Norman on his University of Maryland Web site.

A link to his computer rage survey asks telling questions: "Have you every been angry with a computer? Have you ever felt like smashing a computer screen with a heavy object? Mutilated a disk? Slammed a keyboard? Cursed at, kicked or cracked your computer screen?"

If we are getting emotional about our machines, it's only because computers are now more necessity than indulgence, said Collins — people pay bills, go shopping, work from home, even keep in regular touch with friends and relatives — via the Internet.

So when something goes wrong with the family computer, most are unwilling to wait a week for drop-off service.

"It's like servicing your own car. You can do simple things, like change the oil. But for some segment of the population, even if it's something they could fix themselves, people don't want to spend a lot of time fixing a computer. They just want it to work," Collins said.

Browne, who admits he is a frugal guy, says having his own computer expert on call goes beyond the quick-fix factor.

"You can call some outfit that sends out a different geek every time — maybe just a summer geek. With Josh, his reputation is on the line with every job. He takes ownership and pride in his work — and he remembers things about my computer that I don't," Browne said. "It's like having a car mechanic you trust. You don't worry. You don't ask too many questions. You just know they're going to take care of you."

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