I’m writing this from Sturgeon Bay, Door County, Wisconsin. I don’t think I’d be offending anybody around here if I suggested that it isn’t exactly the hub of the universe. In fact, it’s a peninsular that sticks into the top-left corner of Lake Michigan, which means it’s not on the way anywhere. But even around here there are Macs, and where there are Macs, that means there is a Mac Guy.
In this case it’s Bill Skadden, or Mr Skadden to his ex-pupils. Mr Skadden was once a teacher at the local high school – he taught my wife, in fact. But since what might have been his retirement he has been helping people in Door County get to grips with their Macs. I don’t know how it happened, but I can guess. The road to being The Mac Guy is well trodden, and the route familiar.
David Pogue once told me that he knew when to start charging for his expertise when his sister’s yoga instructor’s mum called him for technical help. Once you get to three degrees of separation, it's time to talk cash.
I’ve seen Macs in a few places in Sturgeon Bay. The local optician runs on a Mac system, and the place I’m sitting in right now, Kick Coffee, has a couple of eMacs. I know Bill was responsible for the Kick Coffee Macs – I suspect he had a hand in the other Macs I’ve seen around, too. You see, there are few other choices available to residents of places like Door County. The nearest Apple Store is in Milwaukee, and that’s three hours drive away. There may be closer Apple retailers in Green Bay, but that’s still over 40 miles away.
So the marketing of Apple products is very much a matter of word of mouth, and expertise comes from knowing people like Bill Skadden. I spent some time in the States when I first got into Macs. I lived in a city called Kenosha in south eastern Wisconsin, a cultural wilderness between Chicago and Milwaukee. There was a local Mac guy there called Nathan Ivanov who taught me everything there was to know about Macs in 1989. Unfortunately Nathan never quite got the hang of charging for his expertise before he passed away in the early 1990s. But while he was around there were plenty of lucky recipients of his wisdom in south eastern Wisconsin. I wonder who has taken up the mantle?
When I moved back to the UK I had a spell doing technical support at MacWarehouse. When they moved out of London I decided to become what I grandly described as a ‘consultant’. Actually, a more accurate description would have been that I became The Mac Guy for various designers and, oddly, a lot of German architectural students. Anyway, there’s always work for a Mac Guy that knows his stuff.
As far as I can tell, most of the leading writers on the Mac have been The Mac Guy at some point in their careers. David Pogue was a Broadway conductor before becoming a Mac guru. Bob Levitus was an account executive for an ad agency before turning professional Mac Guy. Jim Heid was a typesetter – from so far back they actually still had typesetters! – before the Mac Guy mantle was thrust upon him. I’m sure that there’s a new generation of Mac Guys in the pipeline, probably lending their sister’s yoga instructor’s mum a hand as we speak.
You may have noticed that so far I have been talking about Mac Guys and, nothing about Mac Gals. I promise it isn’t any policy of exclusion, but I have yet to come across more than a couple of women in the really techie end of the Mac market – lots of trainers, but not screwdriver-wielding techies. There are plenty of women that use Macs; many are very competent technically, including my wife. But for some reason women don’t seem so fascinated by the minutiæ of the Mac as men do. It isn’t a lack of capability – maybe it’s just they have better things to do.
I hope it isn’t that men feel inadequate at having to call a woman to fix their Macs, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Although when I once called the AA man to fix my car, I was surprised and delighted to have an AA woman come and do the job for me. There was something reassuring to know that she deals with spanner-phobic men all day long and that she might be more understanding of my inadequacies in the engine department. I can’t help thinking male mechanics are more likely to be disappointed at me letting down our reputation for mechanical machismo.
Later this year Apple will open an Apple Store in London’s Regent Street. It will feature the famous Genius Bar: Mac Guys on tap. This may offer a chance for budding gurus to start their illustrious careers. But I don’t think the Genius Bar will threaten the livelihood of The Mac Guy just yet. You can’t call the Genius Bar in tears because you’ve lost all your fonts and have them come out at midnight to help you finish a project. That kind of thing would happen to me on a semi-regular basis when I was a Mac Guy.
The calling, I think, is a noble one. It really is a calling, too – it just seems to happen rather than it being an aim or career move. If you’re reasonably au fait with Macs and you have the kind of sunny disposition that makes people feel they can approach you to do them favours, it’s almost inevitable. But don’t forget David Pogue’s rule of three degrees of separation – it’s easy to get taken advantage of. But to the Bill Skaddens and Nathan Ivanovs of this world: I salute you. All those Mac techies that prop up our market in the places Apple doesn’t seem to reach are as important as any iPod campaign. Three cheers and hats off to the Mac Guys. MW