Who ya gonna call?
'Geek Squad Guide' offers unique computer help
September 3, 1999
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- If a person's intelligence can be measured by how fast he talks, then Robert Stephens is a genius. The guy is one fast talker. And when he starts into a sentence, he doesn't stop for several minutes. It's tempting to tell him to take a breath for fear that he might pass out.
It's surprising, then, that Stephens says he doesn't drink much coffee.
"You don't want to see me on a stimulant," he says. "I'm just having a lot of fun. I'm energized by that. For me, The Geek Squad is an artistic experiment."
The Geek Squad is Stephens' company, a 24/7 computer support task force based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Geek Squad employees wear clip-on ties and police badges. They have titles like "Special Agent" and "Inspector." They drive around in Geekmobiles, old Fords and Simcas and new VW Beetles painted with the company logo.
In short, they are the "Ghostbusters" of the computer world. They've gotten so popular that Hollywood movies and rock stars have relied on them.
Now The Geek Squad is expanding to the printed page with a book published by Simon & Schuster this month. Stephens and author Dale Burg have compiled "The Geek Squad Guide to Solving Any Computer Glitch," a resource of Mac and PC tips for "when the help desk doesn't help."
"The book is basically a compilation of all the questions we get asked, but we tried to do it different," says Stephens. "Who the hell wants to buy a book on how to fix a computer? Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and do that. But we made it entertaining and covered the most basic stuff."
In the "Guide," readers will find a chronological reference tool that starts with purchasing a computer and walks them through the errors, restarts and crashes that will eventually follow.
Computer-themed poems written with comic flair by Burg's friend are interspersed throughout. And the book is written in common language that any non-geek can understand.
"We stayed away from the technical talk," says Stephens, who gathered the data from his employees at The Geek Squad to fill the book. "These guys aren't writers. They stammer when they talk normal because they want to tell you what BIOS stands for, blah blah blah. But I forced them -- I said, 'Use normal words.'
"The book is not going to solve every single problem, but what it will do is give you tips on just about any situation," says Stephens.
For instance, what do you do when you spill a soda on your keyboard? The Geek Squad received a call like this early one morning from a writer on deadline.
"We said, 'Why don't you put it in the dishwasher?'" Stephens says. "I said, 'Listen, turn off the heat dry because that will melt the plastic. But the hot water will dissolve the sugar crystals, and it will become unstuck.' He called back and said, 'You know what? It worked.'
"We try to put unique stuff like that in the book."
Stephens, 30, dropped out of college to form The Geek Squad five years ago. At the time, the Internet was just beginning to blossom, and everyone and their mother either had a computer or would buy one in the next few years. Stephens, who was programming at a research lab at the University of Minnesota at the time, recognized the opportunity.
"I'd go through a supermarket and hear two housewives going, 'Marge, are you going to upgrade the RAM in your hard drive?'" he says in his best Midwest housewife voice. "That's a fundamental social shift that occurred that you have normal people talking computers. I thought, 'This is going to blow big.'
"I said, 'I'm going to do computer repair, be like the plumber of the industry.'"
As The Geek Squad started solving computer problems around the Twin Cities, causing a stir with their Geekmobiles, Stephens made connections and soon found himself working on the computers for the Kevin Smith movie "Mallrats," which was filming in town.
"Next thing you know, we're like the computer people for the movie industry in the Twin Cities," says Stephens, listing productions like "Grumpy Old Men" and "D3: The Mighty Ducks" as customers. "Now people Fed-Ex me their stuff from L.A."
He also met Disney producer Jordan Kerner. The two have been in talks to make a movie about The Geek Squad.
Meantime, Stephens has also taken his shtick to the rock 'n' roll market. The Artist formerly known as Prince, the Rolling Stones and Smashing Pumpkins are some of his musically talented customers.
"You wouldn't think rock stars use computers," says Stephens. "But rock stars use laptops on the road, so actually they're the most finicky, demanding people. They're great practice for us."
Obviously, there are perks that come with being a Geek.
"We're like the legalized Mafia," he says. "We get the best concert tickets. We get the best seats in every restaurant in town because we do everybody's computers.
"Penthouse Magazine was in town a couple of weeks ago. They were having a photo shoot, and they had to beam back photos to New York or L.A. or something. So their computer crashed. The lighting guy said, 'You should call The Geek Squad.'"
A short time later at Geek Squad headquarters, one of Stephens' employees came into his office: "Dude, Penthouse Magazine is on line four. Who should we send out there?"
"I'm like, who's been good this week?" Stephens recalls. Special Agent Kyle Killian got the call.
"You had all these naked ladies sitting around, and a computer geek with a clip-on tie is sitting there fixing the computer," Stephens says.
For Stephens, stories like the Penthouse one make the book an afterthought. But the "Guide" serves as another notch on his belt. The only time Stephens slows down is when he discusses his age.
"Ah, 30," he says, then promptly lists how in the last two years he's written a book, gotten married and fathered his first child, a girl. "We bought this house in the suburbs.... It's got this nice yard and it's safe and all this stuff. It's good. It's close to Home Depot and close to Target, blah blah blah. So my father calls me on my 30th birthday. I wear this clip-on tie and funny uniform to work, so I get home and my tie's off and my shirt's untucked and I'm sitting in the backyard with a beer, talking on the cordless phone to my father, watching my little daughter run around in her diapers. And my dad is going, 'So, son, how does it feel to be 30?' And I'm looking around going, 'I feel like you, OK? Are you happy now?' I'm holding a beer, my shirt's untucked, I look like a slob.
"But Geek Squad is my one solace in the world ... it's my answer to the world, going, 'Listen, I may have a house in the suburbs and all this, but I don't have a normal job. I don't have a normal title," he says. "This is my style."
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