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Virginia Tech’s Engineering Technology Help Center provides a priceless service

August 28, 2012

Student SWAT technicians helping students solve computer problems.
Student SWAT technicians helping students solve computer problems.

Blacksburg, VA

Virginia Tech College of Engineering


“It became clear, early in the game, that young resident experts would float to the top and as time went on, they solved many of the problems,” said Charles “Butch” Nunnally. “They” were helpful engineering students, assisting their peers with new technology.

Speaking today as a retiree, Nunnally was referring to 1984 when he first started the Software Assistance Triage (SWAT) team, a group consisting of four to six undergraduate and graduate electrical and computer engineering students.

Eighteen years ago, Nunnally served as the first assistant dean of engineering computing at Virginia Tech. It was a time when Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering was making history as the first large public university to require its engineering undergraduates to come equipped with a personal computer. With this new requirement, as well as the addition of telephones in dorm rooms, the SWAT team was born.

Nunnally asked these student aides to use their knowledge to solve computer and phone difficulties their peers might be experiencing with these new technologies. This service was free, and for the most part, remains so.

Funding for the team’s needs would come from the electrical and computer engineering departmental budget. Software tools for the students to use to diagnose the problems were purchased and a larger PC shop was established to provide a center for assistance.

“I felt fortunate to be in the position to lead and help initiate a fundamental paradigm shift with the presence of computers in each of the student’s hands. I also had the challenge of pulling faculty along on the ride as well,” recalled Nunnally.

When Dale Pokorski joined Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering as the director of information systems in 2008, she jumped right into re-inventing the SWAT team, which then consisted of one supervisor named Ryan Spoon, one graduate student, and a couple of seasoned undergraduate technicians.

SWAT had transitioned to a much larger space in Torgersen Hall, as this was a far more convenient location for engineering students. SWAT saw an immediate increase in business.

Pokorski started to analyze the team’s purpose. She encouraged the development of training policies and practices and established an inventory tracking system.

Starting in 2009, Pokorski was able to purchase cabinets for storing loaner devices, tables and chairs, and a re-purposed Hokie passport reader for check-in purposes.

Soon, Jeff Lewis was hired as a SWAT team lead after Pokorski and Spoon began to revamp the team. At the time, Lewis was taking a break from school, working full-time as a computer programmer, sitting behind a desk with little to no interaction with the public, trying to earn money toward college tuition. The SWAT team opportunity was appealing because he could work 40 flexible hours a week, allowing him to return to the classroom as well.

“My first year (with SWAT) was a bit intimidating. Five out of the seven part-time technicians who had been on the team since their freshman year were graduating, leaving us with a huge void to fill,” said Lewis. “It tends to be very rare for technicians to leave the team if they are not graduating.”

Lewis needed to bring in new recruits, and develop and implement the new training policies and practices set forth by Pokorski and Spoon. Today’s training for the technicians consists of learning how to install the required software and operating systems, troubleshoot driver issues, remove virus and malware, and diagnose hardware issues.

Usually, for the first month of each semester, 14 students start as temporary technicians, then the group is cut back to six permanent positions for the remainder of the semester. Three team members are available to provide assistance, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., with one of two supervisors present.

In 2010, Spoon and Pokorski hired Naresh Kumar Coimbatore Selvarasu as the second lead to help train and supervise the growing group of student helpers. By his second year with SWAT, Selvarasu became the student technician supervisor.

Selvarasu already had his masters in mechanical engineering from Purdue University, and experience as a software developer at Cognizant Technology Solutions. This real-life work experience gave him the background needed for SWAT.

In addition to being present in the SWAT office part-time, Selvarasu juggles working in the High Performance Computation Fluid Thermal Science Lab under the guidance of Danesh Tafti, professor of mechanical engineering,  with his studies. He is now pursuing his doctorate in mechanical engineering.

“This job can get quite interesting at times,” said Selvarasu. “On one occasion 200,000 viruses were found on a single machine. We had to totally wipe the machine clean and start from the beginning. The same student came back at the end of the semester with another 70,000 viruses and the process was repeated,” said Selvarasu.

Torgersen 2080, the current SWAT team office, is a madhouse the first week of classes. Prior to this particular week, the student technicians meet with Lewis, Selvarasu, and Pokorski. The groups of student technicians, already armed with self-taught or learned computer expertise, train on specifics related to the software and devices the engineering students will use in everyday application. They also train on how to rid computers of the latest virus.

During this time, hours of operation are extended. The students check in using the electronic passport reader and wait for a technician to come to their aid.

Seventy percent of the time, the problem is one the technicians are already familiar with. The other 30 percent require the technician to perform research – talking to other technicians or searching the solution out online. Sometimes the manufacturer is consulted, and at times, learns of this new problem for the first time as well.

“We are extremely excited if we come across a delicious problem,” said Lewis with a grin. “Most problems are so simple to us because we do this everyday. We feel so rewarded when we solve that particular problem that even voodoo can’t seem fix. “

The number of SWAT customers served and the number of device loans increases every semester by at least 30 percent. A total of 6,446 student customers were helped during 2010. But in just the first week of classes in the fall of 2010, 709 students were helped in the SWAT office. In the fall of 2011, 260 students were helped the first day of classes.

For the 2010-11 academic year, 2,840 diagnostic tests were performed, 458 viruses removed, 545 operating systems installed, 1,647 pieces of software installed, and 956 devices loaned out.

The average cost to correct one of the above problems at the Virginia Tech bookstore is $55.00, at Best Buy $117.00, and at SWAT… $0.

Engineering students find out about this priceless service at freshman orientation, word of mouth, or by chance if they stumble upon the SWAT website.