The man behind the machines

Formerly an auto mechanic, computer system analyst
Mark Decker likes
to solve problems.
Sunday, September 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Although most of the people in his department at University Hospital know Mark Decker by name, he says he is OK with being known simply as “the computer guy.”

Access to e-mail, software programs and network files are among the features taken for granted by those whose jobs require daily use of technology. “People don’t realize how things get done,” Decker says.

When things are running smoothly, his work goes largely unnoticed; it’s when the network server goes down or someone needs to recover files that were accidentally deleted that his phone starts ringing.

As system support analyst for MU’s Department of Family and Community Medicine — which he estimates has about 100 computers used by 150 doctors, residents and administrative assistants — Decker’s many daily responsibilities include maintaining the server (a computer that allows files to be accessible on the Internet so various users can access the same database), creating file backups and updating virus protection software.

These tasks keep him on his toes. “There are always viruses running around,” he says. “We have to keep the servers really secure because they’re externally accessible.”

But Decker, a longtime Columbia resident, says one of the things he likes most about his job is the opportunity to help others solve problems on a much smaller scale than a virus or system crash. It’s not uncommon for doctors and others working in the department to stop by the network room, which serves as both office and workshop for Decker and his colleagues. Computer parts, speakers, keyboards and various tools are scattered about the countertops and laid out on the floor.

When Dr. Jacqueline Ruplinger stops by early one morning requesting help with a project, he invites her in and pulls up a chair for her. Ruplinger is preparing for a conference and needs help tweaking some graphic files and importing them into a PowerPoint presentation.

“Oh, good!” she says, as Decker double-checks that the images will show correctly in PowerPoint. She thanks him and jokes that she’ll surely be back. “I always have some toy that doesn’t work,” she says.

Decker says this type of interaction with those in his department is commonplace and that it’s also one of his favorite things about his job. He says that although not everyone in similar positions finds much pleasure in working one-on-one with computer users, he enjoys being able to help whenever he can.

“Some would rather stick to the technical side of it and not have to mess with the people side,” he says. “I guess you could say I’m kind of a people person.”

Decker’s helpfulness goes beyond work-related needs. When someone in the department seeks advice on which printer to buy for personal use or how to fix a problem with a home computer, they often come to him first.

“People ask advice on buying or modifying their home computers, or sometimes they bring their computers in for us to rebuild,” he says.

To hear him talk about the more technical aspects of his work, one might think Decker, 46, is a seasoned veteran in the business of network administration. But just a few years ago, he was much more likely to be found working under the hood of a car than managing access to network accounts.

An auto mechanic for more than 22 years, Decker said it was one of his customers — Mark Hudson, who in late 1999 held Decker’s current position at the hospital — who suggested he might be good at working on computers, given his problem-solving skills and mechanical expertise.

The timing was perfect. Decker was looking for a different work environment and a new career challenge.

He began as a network support specialist and assumed his current position in July 2003.

“I started out doing programming — the basics — and then began moving up as people left the department,” he says.

Though he still has a great love for his previous line of work — in his spare time, he enjoys working on the 1969 Camaro he has had since he was 17 — he says he is glad he had the opportunity to try something different.

“Cars have computers, so I had experience with that,” he says. “But it’s a whole different game than this.”

Decker says the best part of his job, and what keeps it interesting, is that each day is an opportunity to learn something new. He didn’t enter his profession by the traditional route, he says, so that means he’s had to figure out a lot of things on the job, often by researching the topic in question or employing trial and error.

“I learned as things went along,” he says. “And I’m still learning. It’s a continuous process.”

Such an approach doesn’t go unnoticed by others in the department.

“I’m grateful for his curiosity,” says Susan Kauffmann, an administrative assistant.

“He likes to find the answers for himself as much as for someone else.”

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