Many service technicians like their jobs because they can work on their own at their own pace - and usually the person looking over their shoulder hasn't the slightest idea what they are doing.

But today's techs are not quite the soloists they once were. Cell phones (and picture phones) provide a near-constant link to the home office. Laptop computers with Internet capability mean regular checking of e-mails and Web sites. And some contractors have service vans equipped with a type of GPS to allow the boss to track technicians to make sure they are where they are supposed to be.

Times Change

A number of years ago, when I first started traveling to the IKK Expo in Germany, I asked the travel agent (back in the day, when our company used a travel agent) to book me in an inexpensive hotel in or near Nuremberg, site of that year's expo. She found such a place literally at the top of a hill, in the woods on the outskirts of town.

To get from there to the convention site, I had to walk about half a mile down a path to the entrance of the city zoo, also deep in the woods outside town. A trolley dropping off zoo visitors picked me up and took me through more woods, through a residential neighborhood, and eventually to the city center next to the main train station. From there a subway went to the expo site in the southern part of the city.

The tiny TV in the room had just a few German language stations. There was no Internet hookup then (and I would still expect that is the case today at that hotel). To make an outside call, you had to go through the German version of Sarah of Mayberry, the never-seen telephone operator on "The Andy Griffith Show."

After a busy day at the expo, I spent my nights in the quiet of my room, classical music on the radio, reviewing the notes of the day, and reading a bit of a mystery novel.

The need to be in near-constant contact with the home office has changed all that now. For the most recent trip to IKK in Nuremberg, I did a hotel booking on the Internet, using the Web site of a major hotel chain and discovering it has a modern hotel within a few blocks of the train station/subway stop.

The TV in the room had at least a dozen German language stations, three in English, three in Italian, a couple in French, and several in various Arabic languages. Some of the German stations had American TV dubbed into German, but all the others had programs unique to their respective countries.

Of course, there was a DSL hookup, thanks to a wireless connect and some Internet cards sold at the front desk.

After a busy day at the expo and once the paperwork from that day was done, it was time to work my way through e-mails, some of which were still coming in because of the six-hour time difference between Germany and the Eastern United States.

Like today's technician dealing with almost constant contact with the home office, I, too, felt the onus to keep up with what was happening. And like the tech who might miss really being on his or her own, I also missed those few hours a night of pleasant isolation.

Peter Powell is refrigeration editor. He can be reached at 847-622-7260, 847-622-7266 (fax), or

Publication date: 12/06/2004