Grinnell College Computer Services

Submitted by Ben on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 18:52

When I arrived at Grinnell College in 1994, it was quickly apparent to me what campus job I should apply for. At that time the college discouraged students from bringing their own computers to campus, in favor of communal computer labs. Not only did this help level the playing field between rich and poor students, but it helped keep the campus network relatively free of malware and limited the possible combinations of hardware that needed to be supported. The students who worked in the computer labs, providing tech support to the students, were called the User Consultants or UCs. I applied for the UC Corps at the end of my first semester and got my first training right after winter break.

I was not necessarily an obvious choice for the job. Although my knowledge of the Macintosh rivaled any student's at the time, I was openly contemptuous of IBM PCs and the Windows 3.1 that they ran, and by extension, of anyone who preferred to use them. Before I could work as a UC, I had to be taught not only the technical background of the PC / MS-DOS / Windows platform and the VAX/VMS server we all shared, but the people skills to be respectful and patient with my fellow students. That I was considered for the position at all was probably due to the advocacy of a sophomore who was rapidly rising in the UC ranks to be a manager... who then started dating me! It was a sticky situation that I was in no way mature enough to navigate.

In any case, I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the experience. Here are some of them:

  • It's better to be paid to learn something than to pay to learn it. Not only do you come out ahead financially, but the workplace is often a better teacher than the classroom. I haven't had a single computer science class since a semester in high school, yet I've worked as a programmer for most of my career from what I've learned in the workplace.
  • Coordination is at least as important as planning. Before cell phones and text messages and messaging apps, we UCs were using email, forums, and chatrooms to self-organize our work schedules. If you took a shift and then needed to get out of it, you were responsible for finding someone else to work that shift, and at least 90% of the time you could find a sub within minutes. It was a thing of beauty.
  • The network is the computer. This was the slogan of Sun Microsystems in the early '90s when 'Becca and I went off to college; decades before Chromebooks made this experience mainstream, you could sit down at any workstation on a well configured campus network, log in, and in moments have access to all of your documents and programs. In a way it was the antithesis of the "personal computer" movement of the '80s, but it was invaluable to us UCs to be able to use diagnostic and administrative tools on any computer where they might be needed, and it was invaluable to the students to not lose their files to a failed floppy disk.
  • Email is never private. I learned this the hard way when I had some disagreements with what I thought were individuals among the GCCS staff, only to find that everything I'd written had been shared among the staff and was filed in my employee record.
  • Just because you can do something doesn't mean you're allowed to. This should be self-evident, but after a summer of doing hardware repairs on computers, I returned to my UC job and immediately got in trouble for repairing things I wasn't supposed to!

By the time my senior year began in 1997, the role of the UCs had changed. More students were bringing their own computers to campus, and they were allowed to plug them into the network, which meant GCCS had to support a much wider variety of hardware and software with a "helpdesk" that was separate from the computer labs. By spring break I had landed a job in Minneapolis and quit the Corps to work remotely for my new employer.