Refurbishing reflections

How a Techie ‘wanna be’  Becomes a Computer Refurbisher

By: Maryanna Milton

January, 2019

Disclaimer:  This is a personal reflection on learning to refurbish computers, not a technical explanation. For technical resources, please visit our Partners Bridging the Digital Divide web page for refurbishers.

For those of you who are already refurbishers, my experiences  provide a perspective on how to bring others on board and possibly relate to their learning curve.

For those of you learning to refurbish, let’s talk. I’d like to swap stories. I’ll buy. At the very least, I hope this brings a smile to your techie filled day.

Context: As a baby boomer, my technology journey started with film strip projectors, mimeograph machines, reel to reel tapes, and then, over two decades, moved to overhead projectors, computer labs, and shared desktop computers at work. Need I say more?  My career in adult education and literacy has shown dramatic tech developments, though this work has been underfunded and therefore low tech. Truly I am not an early tech adopter and still hear my dad’s voice asking, “Is it plugged in?” every time I face a tech issue. It’s not a bad place to start, I’ve found. So you may be surprised to read how a techie ‘wanna be’ got bit by the computer refurbishing bug.

Before October of 2018, I had never voluntarily opened a computer to look at the hardware inside. I had spent 14 years working in an adult Literacy Program at a non-profit with a successful computer refurbishing and training program. The ‘Techie Wonders’ took care of ‘everything with a plug’ and a shout down the hall quickly solved my tech problems. I didn’t do much more than clean crumbs out of my keyboard before they arrived (and make sure it was plugged in, of course). All that changed when I moved out of state two years ago. Suddenly I was in charge of all my things with a plug. Clearly some extensive learning was needed. I signed up to volunteer at a local computer refurbishing non-profit. I thought I might teach a basic computer literacy class. Tom Mehlert told me to come learn about their program on Tuesday with another group learning about computers. What could I say?

The first day I started volunteering at AriZona STudents Recyling Used Technology (AZStRUT), I gulped  when our group leader announced, “Let’s get started replacing the hard drives in these Dell desktops.” My eyes stared at the stack of 50 computers on the wooden pallet. I could already feel my fingers in a tangle of wires, motherboards, capacitors, drives, and RAM. In fact, I didn’t even know the names of most of those parts. Would anything explode, as my mom, who had never become computer literate, repeated when refusing to use a computer? Deep breathing. Mantra. Lifelong learning. As I look back at that day I still feel my heart racing a bit. Then I laugh out loud at myself. I think that’s a good sign.  Let’s see what I’ve learned along the way.

Top Ten Lessons, in no particular order.

  1. It’s true that learning new things keeps our brains sharp. However, be prepared for some headaches along the way (both learner and teacher). I rediscovered that my learning doesn’t happen overnight. Laughter is a good remedy to this pain. Repeating instructions back to the instructor is also helpful. If all else fails, well, try watching as another person is working and break the process down into smaller steps.

  2. All questions are good questions.  How many times will I have to ask about hard drive sizes, gigabytes and megabytes? So many zeros. On the plus side, my mental math is improving. Plus, others feel more comfortable asking questions when they hear mine. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
  3. Working with technology brings generations together. Younger folks who were born using their thumbs to play games and type can teach other generations a lot, though it may be at a speed that’s hard to follow. No matter. More laughter when I repeat what I heard. While they teach me, I sneak in some life experiences, too. Win. Win.
  4. All you techies out there,  I bow down to your talents. Seriously. I know there is much more below the tip of the computer hardware iceberg that I have only begun to touch. Brrrrr. Sorry for that analogy. On the flip side, never underestimate empowering a techie wanna be. She may become your go to for laptop keyboard replacements, or hard drive caddie installs. Yes, I do.
  5. Reuse, repurpose, recycle. Repeat. Enough said. Share this mantra and data locally and widely. AZStRUT refurbished and distributed over 5,700 computers in 2018, along with thousands of LCD monitors, keyboards and other equipment that didn’t go to a landfill. 

It takes 530 pounds of fossil fuel, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor. (Electronics TakeBack Coalition, A Project of the Tides Center. “Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recycling.” Web Accessed April 11, 2015 ).

Here is a powerful infographic from Tech Soup that shows the potential impact computer refurbishing has on our environment
  6. Volunteers, interns and other mission supporters are compounding investments. Not only do they provide free labor, they are a marketing department that will reach many who have never heard of your organization. Tell them your organization stories and mission. Appreciate and recognize their wide potential impact as often as possible.
  7. Talk out loud with your team. This may sound a bit far fetched but I have learned so much just by listening to how our instructor or another person solves a tech hardware problem. Who knew that missing or misplaced RAM could cause the monitor to fail? I didn’t. You probably did. Now I do. Of course, I have been found talking to computers, too. Honestly I think that’s a good sign. It never talks back, directly at least, unless you count beeps.
  8. Demystify tech hardware. Maybe this sounds obvious or impossible. This is a reason why AZStRUT designed Techie Camps in which participants learn to understand computer hardware, peripheral equipment, related maintenance and security procedures. Rather than focusing on software use, these educational programs make computer users comfortable troubleshooting hardware issues. At the end of the camp participants take home a refurbished laptop.
  9. Fixing something and knowing it will have another life is a life-changing experience. That sense of purpose is greater motivation to get to work than any extra tall coffee with a glazed donut. There are many groups of all ages that can benefit from the hands-on learning that computer refurbishing provides. AZStRUT has partnerships with schools, job training programs, women’s groups and local senior housing, just to name a few. Developing refurbishers in many settings has a common satisfaction and joy as one learns a critical skill and can provide a reusable product to someone who needs it.
  10. Keep up the good work and gather with others doing the same. There are many organizations addressing the digital divide from all the necessary angles. Get plugged in! I hope to see you at a conference like Net Inclusion in Charlotte, NC, in April. You will probably find me at the refurbishing sessions.

Sharon Hilliard AZStRUT staff


Louise Allen AZStRUT volunteer intern