Ensnared by E-mail? Flummoxed by faxes? Our intrepid semi-nerd wrangles with the latest technology

In our company nerds are happy. Non-nerds are happy. Semi-nerds are miserable.

Nerds are happy because they can make anything work. Non-nerds are happy because they, too, can make anything work -- they just call on a nerd, and the nerd will be delighted to get the thing going. Reconfigure it, too, while he's at it. Get it really humming. Take all morning on it. A happy little subsystem, unless you happen to be a semi-nerd and have a job to do.

I am a semi-nerd, and I have a wonderful array of management tools I can barely handle. I have a fax machine with more buttons on top than a French accordion. I have a networked PC that can share documents and move formatted spreadsheets to and from drives A through M, if I can only remember where my files are to begin with. Our network lets me print on three kinds of printers, one of which is actually on my floor -- but it keeps getting moved. I have a telephone that takes messages for me, and I can get them anytime I want, just by playing the Hammerklavier Sonata with the fingers of one hand. We have a wonderful Internet E-mail system and four ways to get into it, any one of which can crash the entire network. And I get to use -- what a marvel this is for an ex-newspaperman -- a copier with an automatic feed so fast it can make and collate 40 perfect copies of the wrong sides of a 40-page report before my fist can reach the wall.

This stuff is amazing and has cut down my semi-nerd productivity to almost nothing. Fortunately, no one notices, because the nerds are too busy explaining and the non-nerds are too busy listening. Our company used to be a comer in a rapidly growing industry. Now we mostly hang around the office and work on learning new software.

That's no problem for the nerds and the non-nerds, but the semi-nerds feel a lot of tension. I almost got into a fistfight with another semi-nerd, a sales vice-president we'll call Matt, even though that really is his name. We can name him here because he doesn't read magazines and none of his friends do, either. Matt doesn't have to read or write because he is one of the most powerful talkers I've ever met. He loves telephones and rates as a semi-nerd on voice mail. Matt is the one who told me you can run an entire sale, down to the post-close wrap, entirely on voice mail.

Alas, I don't use voice mail often enough to know the codes for tricks like editing, storing, and forwarding testimonial voice mail from happy clients. But I'm a natural when it comes to the written word. Unlike Matt, I count as an E-mail semi-nerd.

Matt and I almost had the fistfight when I accidentally reprogrammed my phone so that it no longer had the right signal on the liquid-crystal display to tell me I had messages. I was new and wasn't getting much voice mail anyway, so for almost a week I didn't realize anything was wrong.

Toward the end of that week, I got a rude E-mail from Matt, wanting to know why I hadn't sent him the materials for his upcoming demonstration. I hate it when Matt pulls that number, demanding support on short notice. Turns out he'd also CC-d half the company. Sheesh. So I blasted back, CC-ing a few more people.

Now I come in and read my E-mail, and everyone's asking the musical question, "Why does Moe have such an attitude about Matt?"

Well, he'd flamed me in E-mail, in front of everyone, for no good reason.

Next day Matt's in for meetings, and I figure, if I'm going to get fired, I'm going to take a piece of Matt with me on the way out the door.

First thing he says is, "Didn't you get my voice-mail messages?"

Uh, oh.

I go back to my office, try my code. Wrote the darn thing somewhere around here. Yes!


OK, this time put it in slowly. Get it right? Wrong.

I call the communications nerd, who, happy as a dog in the woods, explains that the company's changed all the codes but he can update my phone in about 20 minutes. Reconfigure it to store and retrieve old messages on six levels, take just another sec.

I have 21 messages. A miniature anthology of voice-mail magic. Six are from Matt. Mostly car-phone calls -- have I mentioned that Matt works out of Los Angeles, where the combination of car phones, auto dialers, and voice mail keeps business moving around the clock?

So old Matt was sure I was ignoring his best moves on voice mail. Angrily he went to E-mail, not his natural voice, and then I dared to put him down in plain pixels. Small wonder he was mad.

He should have sent me a fax, only it's hard to fax from a car phone, I suppose. I have to guess about that because it's hard for me to fax from anywhere in my company.

It's not that I don't know how to send a fax. You just key in the number, then put in your document faceup or facedown, whichever is the opposite of how you feed the nearest copier, right?

The problem is in our company the copiers and the fax machines are always changing.

You see, our CEO used to be a nerd, but he dropped out and got an M.B.A. He's a fine entrepreneur -- heck, he built the whole company -- but he has fits of nostalgia for his techno-geek days, and he takes it out on the office machinery. This man doesn't get suckered by bells and whistles. Oh, no. He wants carillons and calliopes.

He gets a new machine, usually a fax or a copier, about every month. His old one, still perfectly good, goes to sales, which promptly sends its best nerd over for a briefing on the recycled machine. The nerd ends up helping the CEO take the new one apart.

The old sales machine replaces the one in marketing, on which I've finally figured out how to beat my dyslexia over whether the pages go in faceup or facedown -- but only in reference to other machines. Whichever way the pages went in the old machine, they go the opposite way in the new one.

The marketing machine, by the way, goes down to billing. Sometimes I sneak down there to use an old fax or copier I still remember, if it hasn't already taken the next step -- down to the kids on the 800 lines. Theirs, a machine simple enough for me to use on the first try, gets donated to Rwanda.

So if you've got fresher information on Rwanda than you do on our company, it might be because of the relative urgency of the situation, but it also might be because Rwanda's fax machines are simple and logical.

My floor's new fax machine can deliver a singing telegram (12 songs included), but if you hit the wrong key (there are 221 on its top), it will send a fax in mirror writing. Or encrypt it. Or output a paper airplane that sails out the window.

I once had to tell the CEO about the time my press release got copied and collated into 150 paper airplanes at the trade show that covers our industry. He said, "Oh, yeah, you hit the P22 key. It's documented incorrectly in the manual." He was so happy about finding an error in the copier manual, he didn't even hear the news about the press release. I was surprised to learn that copiers had manuals.

The CEO's new fax or copier always comes with a manual. In the first days of a new fax machine, you can see the CEO writing stuff in the margins, happy as an engineer with somebody else's tool apart on the floor. But by the time the machine gets down to marketing, the person who used to have the manual thinks he lent it to someone else, who is sure she put it back under the fax machine before it got moved to sales.

I once found a fax manual, pretty new, tucked behind the toilet, like pornography, in the sales-department men's room. I put it back carefully, exactly where I'd found it, so no one would know I knew, and went around the building looking for the fax it went with. Not the new one, not the old-new one in sales. Maybe ours, maybe, maybe? Nope. Mail room, mail room?


Over in the corner, there's the old one, packed up for Rwanda. Bingo!

Sprint up to the sales-department men's room. Wait for the right stall to open up. At least the Rwandans will get the manual. Don't want any paper airplanes at the United Nations, nosiree Bob!

Finally get into the right stall. Manual gone.

My good deed gone.

Rwandans will probably hit the P22 key, fax the militias instead of the relief agencies, another massacre.

I go back to my desk to send an E-mail message to all hands: "Get that fax manual into the package for Rwanda; it might get one without the correction on the P22 bug."

Network's down.

Consultant won't be back until tomorrow.

Nope, check that. She's away for five days at an important seminar in Chicago about how to change the network software and screw everybody up for two weeks with intermittent crashes.

Tough break for Rwanda. Maybe we could make up for it by sending the network to the bad guys in Rwanda? Maybe Matt could call them from his car phone and set it up?

Now, if I can just dig Matt's phone number out of this personal information manager . . .

Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing small company.