A Day in the Life of a CA

Yale Computing Assistants: the title conjures up images of a small and elite group of super-students who materialize from the nether regions of the Internet in response to your cries for help. When your computer goes into fatal error mode the night before that big paper is due, a CA is there, like some cyber-Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, rolling his eyes with disdain at your carelessness before finally rescuing your senior project.

They save the technologically-challenged from the perils of PC usage and almost certainly never sleep. They live and breathe Windows, Mac OS and Unix. They speak a language that only fellow CAs can understand. One CA turns to another. “Dereferencing a null pointer,” he says, excitedly. “Ah yes,” the other replies. “Eliminating collisions in a hash table.” After pondering for a bit, the first CA concludes solemnly, “We must hack the mainframe.”

Do CAs really exist on a different plane than the rest of us?

As someone whose complete repertoire of computer skills consists of being able to operate Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer and AOL Instant Messenger, I was utterly bereft of computing knowledge, and thus perfectly unqualified to investigate their mysterious world. To that end, I somehow convinced Jacob Jou ’06, the CA coordinator for Berkeley, to let me follow him on the job for two days.

Jou has two assigned cluster shifts, during which he is dispatched to various points on campus to make sure everything is running smoothly. The rest of his time is spent on “house calls,” when he must travel to the rooms of frantic students to solve their computing problems. Like most CAs, he works about 10 hours a week, but at the beginning of the term he is called on to work upwards of 30 hours a week.

When I first met Jou, he was on a house call. Well, kind of. An avid ultimate frisbee player, he was recuperating from a sprained ACL, and the exasperated computing victim came to see Jou in his room. In his cramped but neat natural habitat, Jou tried to quell the high-pitched beeping and wildly scrolling mouse plaguing the student’s laptop. The student, a tiny punk rock afficionado with short, fiery red hair, sat in silence on Jou’s bed. She bit her fingernails, her lip ring dancing softly. Jou was focused yet nonchalant. A pro.

Surprisingly, other than a list of this week’s cluster shifts posted on one wall, I found no other signs of Jou’s cyber life in his room. Instead of C++ textbooks, Jou’s bookshelves contained Aristotle and Anthony Burgess’s “Nothing Like the Sun.” Jou’s major: Ethics, Politics and Economics. I was confused.

Jou tells me that most CAs are not, in fact, Computer Science majors. Senior CA Mat Perlick is a history major who intends to become a veterinarian. Another senior, Joe Bono, is an English major. Yes, somewhere on this campus there exists a computing assistant who is an English major. During my senior year of high school, my English teacher would only refer to her computer by one name, “Devil.” Last year Bono worked over 40 hours a week at his CA job.

Jou spent over an hour of deftly manuevering through folders and menus, fingers flying over the keyboard. Lip Ring Girl gnawed her nails to the nub.

“Did you update your computer to Service Pack 2?” Jou asked.

She stared at him. “I don’t know what that means.”

Jou observed that the life of the CA requires a unique skill set.

“It’s not one of those jobs in which, when you have a problem, there’s a straightforward way to solve it,” Jou said. “It requires creativity.”

That creativity comes in handy.

“One time, I came across a computer which had dancing naked ladies that had installed themselves on the desktop without the student’s permission and wouldn’t go away,” Jou said.

The diagnosis?

“The student found the naked ladies distracting and annoying, so we had to scan for and delete the appropriate program files.” Boo-yah viruses!

Jou turned to Lip Ring Girl and pronounced her computer beyond repair. She stumbled home at 10:30 p.m., dejected, mourning the impending loss of over eight gigabytes of music. Jou had done all he could.

He says he sleeps about eight hours a night, which is certainly more than I ever get. Once in a while a desperate student circumvents the online ticket system and pounds on his door at 2 a.m., but such instances are rare. Jou said he usually helps the student if the problem is urgent and can be fixed quickly. But a broken iPod? Sorry, Ashlee Simpson will have to wait until the sun rises.

So Jou gets eight hours of sleep a night. He finishes all of his schoolwork and finds time to play on the ultimate frisbee team, serve on the Saybrook College Council and even volunteer at New Haven Reads.

Perlick has worked at a veterinarian clinic, coached the skeet and trap team and served as editor in chief for Rumpus. Bono, who other CAs tell me may have logged in more hours on the job than any other CA, is involved in Timothy Dwight life, the Yale Film Society, the Yale International Relations Association, and directed last year’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Exhausted, bleary-eyed drones chained to their computers CAs are not.

Jou spent the afternoon after the house call manning the ITS Helpdesk deep in CCL. A desolate student soon wandered in, clutching a laptop whose hard drive had stopped functioning. Jou calmed the student, reassuring him that a new hard drive could be delivered as early as the next morning. The specter of his academic demise now diminished, the student left smiling and pacified.

Jou smiled too. n

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