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Taming of the Computer : Managers Fight Phobias to Get on Line

May 07, 1985|GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

When Terry Whitesides served as a fire technician on a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer during the Vietnam War, he knew that loose lips could sink ships. But what lurked in the back of his mind was the damage he could accidentally do by misdirecting the World War II-era analog computer that his ship relied on for fire control.

"I think everyone goes through a very antsy stage where you're fearful of making some mistakes," recalled Whitesides, who now uses desktop computers in his job as a business services support supervisor with the San Diego Unified School District.

"Computers are initially very intimidating," he conceded. "You think they're almost human, and that if you make a mistake, you're stupid or won't be able to fix it. Some people never get over it."

For Mark Berger, the computer class offered by the San Diego Professional Property Appraisers Assn. opened the door to a new experience. His only previous on-line time had been with a hand-held calculator. But even the mechanically inclined Berger dreaded learning to operate his new IBM PC. "It wasn't because I didn't think I could do it," Berger explained, "but because the knowledge level needed to operate it was so large. I looked at the thing and realized I was already a year behind.

"If you're afraid of machines, and a lot of people are, it will be very intimidating. One thing I was afraid of was spending . . . two or three weeks on a project and then hitting the wrong key and losing it all, seeing all that work evaporate."

Then there's the large San Diego corporation that for years banned computers from its offices, reportedly because a powerful but backward executive vice president scorned word processors as "toy typewriters."

To this day, a San Diego consultant claimed, the company's bookkeeping is done by hand.

"There are people who welcome technology, who are waiting for it to come in," said another San Diego computer consultant. "Then there are those who accept it because it's there, but who won't make any effort to use it until you show that it's as automatic as possible.

"I've also seen some people that just don't have the slightest idea about what a computer is, other than that it's some mystical, magical thing to be held in reverent awe. They say, 'I've got a computer on my desk. Don't mess with it.' "

That contrasts radically with National University President David Chigos, who has been logging onto National's computer system for 10 years. He acknowledged, however, that some executives and managers aren't ready to pound a keyboard or move a mouse.

"That man over there resisted using a computer for five years," Chigos said, pointing across his open office to a university official. "Each time he had to use one he had a secretary do it for him."

All the talk about computerphobia, then, is not just talk, because there are people for whom computing simply does not compute.

"The unfortunate truth is that some people seem to take to them, while others don't, and there are few in between," said Ted Crooks, a San Diego computer consultant. "Pep talks won't overcome it. Some people are born with green thumbs, others have keyboard fingers."

Kyle Roach, a product consultant with Home Federal Savings & Loan's information systems division, spends part of his working day with computer neophytes, some of whom exhibit computerphobia.

"Some people feel very comfortable," Roach said, "but there was one (person) who actually got physically nauseated because the computer intimidated him so much."

Chigos doesn't understand that kind of intimidation, but he seems an exception to the notion that executives and managers don't use keyboards. He admitted that it took him the better part of a year to master National's computer system.

While the phobias can generally be dealt with, there are other problems that confront managers who are in line to go on line.

One is the "ingrained stereotype that keyboards are for women and not for managerial people," Crooks said. "I've talked to executives who say, 'I'll have a girl do that because there's a keyboard (involved).' "

That backward approach can backfire, Crooks warned: "What computers have done is create a sneaky career path for a lot of secretarial people who can advance themselves by getting computer skills."

A more difficult barrier between managers and computers is time.

"Managers are busy people," said Roger Silliman, director of training for Muir Training Technologies, a San Diego computer consulting firm. "To be a hacker on a computer takes an investment of time that they usually don't have. But managers need to direct people who are using computers, even if they don't have time to take out of their schedule to attend a computer class."

When Steve Jontez, president of a Poway-based consulting firm, installed a new computer network for a local TRW operation, he was distressed to learn that it wasn't being used to its potential.

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