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Data crisis counselors help avoid computer catastrophes

Nikki Stange, data crisis counselor at DriveSavers, is a lifeline for the company's most frantic customers  

In this story:

"Sometimes you can just hear the white knuckles"

From Human Psychology to Data Recovery

90 Percent Success Rate

The Therapeutic Touch

The Waterlogged Laptop

Educating and Helping Users


(IDG) -- In New York City, a book publisher is three days away from printing its biggest catalog ever, when suddenly the computers crash and all the data--covers, graphics, descriptions--is seemingly lost.

In California, the cofounder of an Internet startup is frozen out of a PC that holds three years' worth of critical client files, contracts and sales proposals, none of which had been saved.

On a cruise on the Amazon, a former circus juggler nearly faints when her ship sinks in 20 feet of water, taking with it the laptop and floppy disks that contain her unpublished memoirs.

Three very different computer crises, all with potentially devastating repercussions for the victims. Yet each is resolved with the help of a single person with a soft voice, technical know-how and experience in suicide prevention. Meet Nikki Stange, a self-styled data crisis counselor at DriveSavers, a Novato, Calif.-based data recovery company that specializes in helping commercial and consumer customers retrieve data from computers that have crashed, burned or just plain died. A former suicide hotline counselor, Stange (rhymes with "dang," a common customer exclamation) is a lifeline for DriveSavers' most frantic customers. She talks them down from the edge of electronic emergencies, disarming people with an FM radio voice and a methodology that helps bring order to computer chaos.

"Sometimes you can just hear the white knuckles"

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On average, Stange handles five to 10 calls per day at DriveSavers' cozy waterside office off San Francisco Bay, each of them ranging from 10 to 40 minutes in length, from people exhibiting all conceivable shades of anger, anxiety or hysteria. Typically, Stange encourages callers to share their stories, to get it all out. She empathizes, directs people away from playing the blame game, steering them instead toward possible solutions. She encourages clients to see that the problem isn't as career-threatening as it might seem and that a resolution may be close at hand. "You can either get freaked out yourself by these calls or deny that whole aspect of it and concentrate on helping people," Stange says. "Sometimes you can just hear the white knuckles over the phone." But then, as Stange goes to work and leads these people out of a crisis, she can actually hear their transformation from hopeless to hopeful. This is the part of the job Stange likes best. "It's very rewarding," she says, "and the variety of people is fascinating."

People such as Bill Oakley, executive producer of Fox's The Simpsons. When Oakley's Macintosh crashed, it took with it 12 complete Simpsons scripts, including the memorable two-part episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" Stange handled that call, the data recovery was successful, and today DriveSavers proudly displays an inscribed Simpsons illustration.

People such as musician Isaac Hayes, best known for recording the theme to the 1970s movie Shaft or, for the younger set, for portraying Chef on Comedy Central's South Park. Hayes was digitally recording a new album when his system failed. "I didn't even know I was talking to Isaac Hayes at first," says Stange. "I just knew he was a musician with a really great voice." Stange eased Hayes' fears, DriveSavers recovered his songs, and subsequently the company received an autographed photo signed, "Thanks for saving me from the drive Shaft!"

And then there are people who aren't so well-known but whose data crises could cripple their businesses--like the IT manager of the New York City publisher that lost its catalog data three days before deadline. When this executive flew cross-country with the damaged hard drive, Stange says, the man strongly believed he had no job to return to if the data wasn't recovered. "He just sat here and waited in the office," Stange says. Fortunately, the data was recovered--and quickly enough so that the publisher, which prefers to remain anonymous, got its catalog out on time. Stange, meanwhile, witnessed the IT manager's cathartic sense of relief. "For some people," says Stange, "[data recovery] is just like getting a second lease on life."

From Human Psychology to Data Recovery

Stange grew up in Denver, graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. While in school, Stange spent two years working on a suicide hotline in Boulder. "I was considering a career in psychology and the hotline seemed like a good experience for me," Stange says. Although frequently stressful--the callers were anonymous, and Stange rarely got the satisfaction of knowing whether, or how, people resolved their suicidal feelings--the work introduced Stange to a gratification she quickly embraced. "I liked to see that transformation as people were helped."

After college, Stange moved to San Francisco. Psychology still interested her, but she needed a break from school. She took a job in the repair department of a computer drive reseller, "and it just clicked," Stange says. "I completely fell in love with computers."

When the drive company folded in the late 1980s, Stange found herself out of work. But not for long. In 1990, she joined two friends in a startup venture--DriveSavers. "We knew there were a lot of drives out there that no one was backing up," says Scott Gaidano, DriveSavers president and cofounder. And because Gaidano and Jay Hagan, his partner and CEO, had experience recovering data from all kinds of disk drives, they felt there was a secure future in data recovery. At first, DriveSavers operated out of Gaidano's condo, and the principals didn't even draw a paycheck for the first six months. But before long, through trade magazine advertising and word of mouth at repair shops, word started to spread to consumer and commercial customers alike.

90 Percent Success Rate

Today, DriveSavers employs more than 30 people at its Novato office complex, 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the company does an average of 30 data recoveries daily--60 percent for corporate clients, the rest for individuals and small businesses. On average data recovery costs anywhere from $300 to $5,000 per job depending on the complexity and immediacy of the work, and it can take anywhere from one to seven days. DriveSavers works on all operating systems in all media and boasts a 90 percent success rate. And while the work may seem mystical or miraculous to those who don't understand it, Gaidano says data recovery really isn't so arcane after all. Without divulging proprietary techniques, Gaidano does say that DriveSavers' engineers are facile with all major operating platforms, and they keep in stock every commonly used disk drive part in steel vaults. For drives that need to be opened, engineers operate in white safety suits in a clean room of filtered air that is 10,000 times cleaner than normal air. And believe it: Some of these damaged drives need all the cleanliness they can get, especially when they've been through fires. "They're a mess, they stink," says Gaidano, describing fire-damaged hard drives. "Typically, the drives are burnt and they've been hosed with water. The platters (which contain the data) are covered with dirt and smoke." If the platters are physically destroyed, which sometimes is the case when computers have been through such natural disasters as earthquakes and major fires, then the data is lost. "But the day-to-day stuff? That's usually recoverable," Gaidano says.

Most of DriveSavers' work results from user error--failure to use proper data backup techniques or, on a lesser scale, physical problems such as power shortages caused by faulty surge protectors. Gaidano remembers a Fortune 500 company whose Unix system died, taking with it all of the company's stockholder information. The company had previously purchased a backup system, but the hired consultant had never installed it. "This happened on a Friday," says Gaidano. "The CFO flew in with the hard drive, and he was almost suicidal. I had to take him out and give him a tour of the wine country while they worked on it!" By Sunday, the data was recovered; by Monday, the CFO was back at work, his system was up and running without business interruption. "Most people know hard drives can be a problem," Gaidano says, "but they always think it can't happen to them."

The Therapeutic Touch

DriveSavers isn't the only company in the data recovery business--the Data Recovery Group in San Leandro, Calif., and Ontrack in Eden Prairie, Minn., are two prominent rivals in this niche marketplace--but this is the only one to tout the services of a data crisis counselor. Is it just a northern California thing? Not from Gaidano's perspective. Anyone who's ever suffered a computer failure, or dealt with someone else's, can understand why DriveSavers quickly found a way to employ Stange's psychology skills. "We'd get these calls for help, and a lot of people were just too freaked out for us," Gaidano says. "We knew Nikki had these qualifications, and we couldn't stand the calls, so we started sending them to her."

Stange liked taking the calls. Unlike the suicide hotline work, where she seldom knew her clients' names or what ultimately became of them, DriveSavers offered Stange the chance to talk people out of emotional distress and see them through to real technical solutions. "I haven't actually talked to anyone who's been out on a window ledge with their laptop, ready to jump," says Stange. "But the intensity of our clients' emotion is similar [to those from the suicide hotline]. The crash of a hard drive can be job-threatening, and the loss of a job can be a life-changing event. In that situation, it's not uncommon to feel a void right in the middle of your being." Stange's approach: "I just hang in there with these people. I accept their emotion--I acknowledge and validate it," she says. "It's not about being right or wrong; it's about understanding. Really, that's what a lot of therapy is based on. It makes sense to me."

The Waterlogged Laptop

Remember the ex-juggler on the Amazon? That story made a name for Stange and DriveSavers.

The call came in Feb. 26, 1993, the day the World Trade Center was bombed. "A real weird day," Stange recalls. It was the former juggler on the line, frantic. She'd been enjoying an Amazon cruise in Brazil, writing her memoirs, when the ship struck an underwater barge and sank in 20 feet of water. The 270 passengers got off safely, but the former juggler's Apple PowerBook, floppy disks and heirloom diamond ring went down with the ship. In addition, she had lost her financial data, correspondence and travel journal. Undaunted, she rented scuba gear, dove to the ship, smashed a window with a flashlight and found her way to her stateroom. When she resurfaced, she had her ring, computer, disks--and a data recovery quandary. How does one recover data from a soaked hard drive? The woman took her machine to a Florida repair shop, which referred her to DriveSavers. Stange took her initial call, calmed her down and convinced her to ship the waterlogged computer to DriveSavers. And sure enough, her finance history and memoirs were recovered, albeit never published (at least not that anyone knows--Stange and her colleagues have lost touch with this client, who could not be located for comment).

Soon after this incident, Stange noticed the woman's water-damaged computer sitting around DriveSavers' office, and she said to Gaidano, "This story might be interesting to the press." To that point, publicity had never even occurred to Gaidano. The company existed entirely on advertising and referral. But on a whim, Gaidano decided to bring the damaged computer to a computer trade show, where he displayed it at DriveSavers' booth. "The press loved it," Gaidano says. Today, DriveSavers travels to trade shows with what Gaidano calls an entire freak show of burnt, crushed and mutilated computers whose data has been recovered.

Educating and Helping Users

But beyond the publicity, Stange's job boils down to helping everyday people overcome everyday computer disasters. Remember the Internet startup executive? That's Harlow Newton, the cofounder and director of business development of SF, a San Francisco city guide. When his PC crashed last year, he saw his career flash before his eyes with the realization that he'd lost access to three years' worth of critical business data. "I was kind of hysterical when I called DriveSavers," says Newton. His call was routed to Stange, who reassured him that these things happen all the time and that DriveSavers has a 90 percent recovery rate. "I was not at all familiar with hard drives, so I needed to be educated, to be reassured that things really weren't as bad as they seemed," Newton says. "[Stange] made me comfortable knowing that she'd handled situations like this in the past." Newton sent his hard drive to DriveSavers. Three days later, he received a CD-ROM containing 99.9 percent of his lost data. Lessons learned? "We back up everything now," says Newton.

Clearly, not every recovery effort is successful, and not every client is easily placated. When Stange encounters one of these cases, she tries to be both honest and hopeful. "I let them know in a gentle way that there is no possibility of recovering their data, and I try to help them understand why," Stange says. "Then I ask if they have even some old backups; I try to help them identify resources available to them to rebuild and recreate what was there on the drive. I try to get them to focus on that which is most important right now. It's easy in the midst of a crisis to think globally, but it might be that there's just one file they need to finish off the week or the month."

After a decade of data crisis counseling, Stange admits the work can be stressful. "But I have this really fabulous lava lamp in my office," she says, and when that fails to soothe, she's off body-boarding in the Pacific. Certainly if she wanted to, she could make a move into purely technical or psychological work. But right now this mix feels right. "If I was doing just technology work without the human element, or psychology without a technology element, I wouldn't be satisfied," says Stange. "This is really perfect for me."

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