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'Techplumber' finds lots of work after holidays

When high-tech gifts frustrate instead of delight, some people turn to personal tech support consultants. And yes, they make house calls.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

In the '60s, people asked, "Who is your dealer?" In the '70s, it was, "Who's your Realtor?" In the '80s, your stockbroker, and in the '90s, your personal trainer. And now, Patty Joffee says, it's, "Who is your personal tech consultant?"

Especially on the day after Christmas, when you can't get the new #(*$(*&$# TiVo to work.

"What could be a more extravagant thing?" Joffee said. "But it's so necessary."

So at 8:30 a.m. yesterday, Joffee called the appropriately named Jason Hacker, who runs his own "techplumber" personal tech support business and, without trying to sound too desperate, asked if he could come over. "Santa came, and we have a TiiiiiVoooo," she sang into his answering machine. The kids are home, "and we'd love some help getting it to work."

When he arrived at her North Arlington home about 10 a.m., she flung open the door, announced that she'd gotten out of her pajamas just for his house call, then pulled out a checklist of all the other stuff she wanted Hacker's help with: Her cell phone is obsolete, her daughter's laptop keeps freezing . . . "and we do have some iPod issues."

She turned to visitors and said, "I was a liberal arts French major."

Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, has long been the unheralded day that makes all that Christmas joy work. Parents return rejected gifts for demanded ones or put together the new wagons and dollhouses that had been eagerly awaited presents.

Except these days they're figuring out cell phones, computers, USB flash drives, Xbox 360s, PSPs, BlackBerries, DVD players, Treo 650s, digital videos and cameras, fancy photo printers and TiVos. Now Dec. 26 means parents spend hours deciphering manuals or on the phone on hold to get tech support while kids forlornly wait for their shiny new toys to become more than expensive paperweights.

That's why Hacker ran this ad: "Call Us Because You Know You Need Us."

Hacker had prepared for this day — finding four extra people in case he needed backup, like the guy he met at the drive-through coffee shop in Falls Church ("He seems techie"). And he'd borrowed friends' Xboxes and latest gadgets to make sure he was up to speed.

"The biggest noise is from the kids these days," Hacker said. "When the parents get computers or digital cameras and can't figure out how to work them, they take it in stride. When the kids' machines don't work, you hear about it immediately. They scream the loudest: 'Dad, I don't have 10,000 songs in my pocket! What am I going to do?' "

Hacker often fields desperate calls as early as 5:30 a.m. He described his job as "sometimes kinda like talking to someone on a ledge."

Joffee's 8:30 a.m. call was the first yesterday. But soon thereafter came alarms from Steve in Springfield with printer problems. Then Jeremy. Then Jack in Oakton, who had already called Christmas Eve to say the digital camera he'd bought his wife for Christmas had just screwed up his computer.

To Hacker, setting up a TiVo is a piece of cake: The red cord goes into the red plug, the orange into the orange, and so on. But one day, as he was setting up his own, his wife happened upon him in a tangle of wires and cables and burst out, "Oh my God! How is anyone supposed to figure this out?"

That was Patty Joffee's view, too. Leading Hacker past the glowing fiber-optic Christmas tree to the basement family room, where a giant, 350-pound, 53-inch Sony TV sat in the corner, she sputtered, "It's hard to believe I'm highly competent in other areas in life!" (She's a management consultant.) "The first thing goes wrong, and I spaz out."

Like punching in the string of code numbers on the TiVo to start the setup. She typed the letter "O" and got an error message, blanched and turned it over to Hacker. He calmly typed the number "zero" instead and got in.

Joffee's daughter, Kate Kramer, 19, home for the holidays from Goucher College outside Baltimore, walked down the stairs, and, seeing the screen flicker to life, opened her arms wide. "Ahhhhh. Ha. Ha!" She can't wait to use the TiVo to record "The West Wing."

Joffee wants to TiVo "The Daily Show" for herself and "South Park" for her son, Adam, 13, so they won't have to stay up late to watch them. (Adam, rather than being part of the TiVo party, was upstairs in his room "multiplexing," Joffee explained.)

By this time, Hacker had fastened a flashlight to his forehead and climbed behind the enormous TV, dubbed "the monster" by Joffee. He'd sorted the tangle of all-white wires. He'd filled out all of the onscreen information. He'd hacked into her wireless routing system by guessing her password — she had forgotten. He'd been on the phone with TiVo tech people himself.

After about an hour and a half came the moment of truth: They had to have a phone line to set up the TiVo for the first time. Joffee has only wireless Internet and cell phone service. Hacker said he'd take the machine home and program it with his own phone line that night.

What she wanted, when she wanted it, would have to wait a day.

"Grrrrr," Joffee said.

Driving away, Hacker, 35, racked his brain for what he could have done differently. But before the usually unflappable Hacker had time to rebuke himself too badly, he was fixing Jack Clark's digital camera and computer. Clark had already spent hours on the phone with Dell and Kodak tech supports. "I got pretty frustrated with them." And he had been back and forth to a computer store to buy a part that didn't work.

"Sir," Clark said gratefully, "You rock!"

Hacker sighed with relief. By day's end, he'd have Joffee's TiVo working on his own tiny 12-inch Philips TV, he'd have talked Steve's printer problem through on the phone and he'd be on his way to another client to walk him through his new Microsoft Office software.

And everyone would get what they want, if not exactly when they wanted it.