Image: Brown Shaheen
Computer tutor Jennifer Shaheen helps Gene Brown get acquainted with his machine, giving pointers in the fine arts of opening e-mail attachments, navigating Excel spreadsheets and performing other basic PC chores.
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updated 10/21/2003 9:52:50 PM ET 2003-10-22T01:52:50

She often meets her powerful clients on nights and on weekends, when no one is around. Some of them insist she call only on their cell phones, fearing the loose lips of secretaries. Yet there is nothing unsavory about Jennifer Shaheen’s line of work. Shaheen is a computer tutor to corporate big shots, giving pointers in the fine arts of opening e-mail attachments, navigating Excel spreadsheets and performing other PC chores the executives’ minions probably can do in their sleep.

“YOU’D BE SURPRISED by what they don’t know,” Shaheen says. “And they’re not comfortable asking the IT person in their company because then they show weakness to their staff.”

Now that the computer revolution is over — and it’s clear the computers won — some senior executives are in the embarrassing position of being perched atop the corporate ladder without knowing their apps from their elbows.

“It used to be a badge of honor to say, ’Everyone knows how to use the computer, but I don’t know how to turn it on.’ Now they say, ’I need help,”’ says Gerald Cullen, a Gainesville, Fla., consultant who offers confidential, $50-an-hour technology training to executives.

Much of the ineptitude is blamed on doting secretaries who handle e-mail and other computer chores for their bosses, computer trainers say. And executives often are too embarrassed and intimidated to attend computer classes with clerks and secretaries.

“These secretaries were typing with 15 fingers and the poor executives were looking for the ‘X’ key and the ‘Y’ key,” recalls Hossein Bidgoli, a California State University-Bakersfield professor who also teaches computers to executives.

IBM Corp. has even poked fun at this type of technophobia with a TV commercial featuring the “executivus obsoletus” — a dark-suited manager who worries he’s become extinct by not keeping up with technology. He’s shown on exhibit in a museum with dinosaurs and woolly mammoths.

Ian Colley, a spokesman for IBM’s consulting arm, says top executives often make ease-of-use a priority in products they seek for themselves.

When a company has many units involved in different types of business, all functioning on a variety of computer platforms, top executives can be overwhelmed. They want what Colley calls a simple “corporate dashboard” — showing at a glance how their business is operating in real time.

But some need more remedial help.

Shaheen says one client literally didn’t know how to turn on his laptop. So when training her clients, she starts with the basics, physically opening and closing a filing cabinet to explain how computer files are organized within Windows.

Though not all clients require that sort of training, it’s exactly this type of non-techie approach that attracts executives to personal technology coaches.

Michael Gallin, a partner in the New York construction company John Gallin & Son, Inc., is one of Shaheen’s few clients willing to publicly admit to needing her services. He says he was only taking advantage of about 10 percent of programs like Excel, Microsoft Outlook and Timberline project management software.

“There are people here who know the system, but they’re busy,” Gallin says. “They run over and solve the problem, rather than show you how to do it. They hit eight buttons before you know what they did.”

Shaheen calls her approach “technology therapy,” and the logo for her small company, e-businesscreations, features a caricature of a computer resting on a therapist’s couch. For $750 a month, an executive gets two hours of training, two one-hour phone calls and e-mail support.

It’s unclear if there is enough business to expand the practice greatly beyond the clients she already has — about a dozen executives who range from small entrepreneurs to heads of large public companies.

Pat Galagan of the American Society for Training and Development says she hasn’t heard of a great demand for this type of coaching, though there does appear to be a growing demand for personal coaching in other business areas.

But others see a potential.

“I don’t think they (executives) want to broadcast their lack of techno-savvy across their business,” said Lane Kramer, president of the CEO Institute, a Texas-based networking group of 225 presidents and CEOs. “So they’re going to be discreet and low-key about bringing someone in.”

Shaheen has a message for all the busy bosses struggling to understand the perpetual stream of software updates and patches, viruses and worms, hackers and identity thieves: You are not alone.

“When they find out they’re not the only ones, it’s like this weight has been lifted off their shoulders and they say, ’Really? I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what the two mouse buttons are for?”’

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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