This weekend as I was finishing off a video interview on security, I thought it would be good to flush out my Thinkpad X200 memory by rebooting the PC. Next thing you know I get a blank screen with a message:

Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt:

You can attempt to repair this file by starting Windows Setup using the original Setup CD-ROM.
Select ‘r’ at the first screen to start repair.

Unfortunately this is my office’s property and I was never given the original Windows XP CD. So I waited the next day and called up our tech support guy for help. As soon as I describe the error message – over the phone – he tells me that I only have one option – reformat the hard disk – start over.

Hang on, this is a 4-month old laptop. Its literally new, granted I make it work like a horse (since I work like one for my company and I get paid like one too). He tells me to find a USB drive and backup everything. I explained to him I have to travel to Tokyo on Thursday on business. I think he didn’t hear me. All he said was for me to wait until Wednesday when he comes to the office to install all my programs.

I can tell you this is typical in Hong Kong (and probably elsewhere in the world). My wife’s desktop also had some problems on Monday and her outsourced tech support company sent her a newbie who mucked up her email data.

Outsourced tech support people don’t give a hoot about your problem. They don’t feel accountable to fixiing your tech problems even though that is what we pay them for.

Here are a few tips of keeping tech support away:
1.Power off and on. Sometimes its really a software glitch and switching off and on does the trick. Works with mobile phones too.

2. Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software and keep them up-to-date. If you connect to the Internet or receive emails or are the recipient of other people’s data by way of USB memory sticks, do yourself a favor – get protection.

3. Check cables and power outlets. Sometimes it happens. You switch on your desltop and nothing happens. Before you panic check out the sockets and cables. This happens to my old iMac. When it fails to boot up, I unplug and plug the power cable. It seems to work most times (thank goodness).

4. Backup everything that is important (and not so important). I have 2 external drives at home and two at work. I still don’t get to backup everything because I don’t have a “for dummies” backup software to backup my data. So when my laptop failed to boot and the tech support guy told me to format my hard drive, you can tell I wanted to hang him by my laptop’s power cable. External USB hard drives are now really affordable (US$120 for 1TB). Go get one.

5. Do your research. Vendor websites and forums exists that talk about nearly every conceivable tech problem. When my external USB drive for my iMAC failed several years ago because of a Mac OSX firmware upgrade, the shop where I bought the drive told me they will re-format it. I told the guy to wait until I found an alternative. And sure enough a lot of patience and research later, I printed out the instruction set that allowed him to safely recover my hard drive without reformating it. And yeah, I still paid him to do it even though I literally told him how to do it – yeah, I’m stupid.

6. Someone said that if you remove all the possibilities, whatever remains no matter how improbable is the right answer. Tech support people may sound like geniuses to you and me, but in reality this is all they do to solve a problem. Based on experience, they follow a sequence of steps until they come to what is the answer to your problem. (its the same steps applied to rule 2).

7. Sometimes software glitches do happen. When a software seems to not work no matter what you do, it may be time to uninstall and reinstall it. A rule of thumb my friends and I have come to agree is that for operating systems, its worth doing a complete re-install after 2 years. By then you’ve accumulated enough gunk that you do need to start fresh even though your laptop may be due for an upgrade by then.

Other sources for DIY tech support
Web Worker Daily
Home DIY Support
Tech Support Guy