Computer sprawl at Geek Squad City

Just down the road from Louisville, more than 700 "secret agents" work nearly 'round the clock to fix laptops as fast as they possibly can.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
A "secret agent" works on repairing a laptop at Geek Squad City, the company's giant facility near Louisville. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

BROOKS, Ky.--At Geek Squad City, it's no accident that everywhere you look are well-groomed young people in dark pants, white shirts, and narrow black ties.

Since its founding by Robert Stephens in Minnesota in 1994, Geek Squad has always been run on a very stylized kind-of-Mormon-missionary, kind-of-G-Men motif. That's why my host for a tour of the Geek Squad City facilities was Anthony Hadfield, who bears the job title "deputy director for counterintelligence."

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I've come to the well-known computer repair company's giant facility just south of Louisville as part of Road Trip 2008.

Employees' cute job titles aside, Geek Squad City is an extremely impressive operation. More than 700 technicians work in two shifts from 5 a.m. until midnight to take the more than 3,000 computers a day that stream in from nationwide Best Buy locations (Best Buy bought Geek Squad several years ago), turn them around in a single day, and then get them back to their owners within a week.

Geek Squad City is organized with a municipal theme: the giant repair warehouse is called "downtown," its executive suite is known as the "city council" area, and within downtown, each aisle is called 1st Ave., 2nd Ave., and so on.

While Geek Squad is headquartered in Minnesota, the Geek Squad City facility is located here because it's just a few miles away from Louisville, where UPS has its world distribution center. That makes it possible for Geek Squad to expedite the receiving and then return shipping of the thousands of computers that come in each week, with the first machines arriving at 5 a.m., and the last ones going out at 9:30 p.m.

These racks are used to sort--by brand--laptops for delivery to technicians who will attempt to repair them within a day. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

According to Hadfield, what really differentiates Geek Squad City from other computer repair facilities is its parts center, which stocks a $7 million supply of everything needed to fix just about any computer model that comes in. It uses a specialized delivery system--which I wasn't allowed to photograph--and the goal is to get technicians' parts orders to them within 15 minutes.

On each "avenue" of downtown, you see rack after rack after rack, known as "bread racks," of laptops, sorted by brand, just waiting to be repaired by the white-shirted so-called secret agent repairmen and women. In fact, each aisle, or avenue, is divided by brand of computer, and each technician specializes in one brand or another.

Hadfield said the most common repair needs are broken DC jacks and hard drives.

"The more you move (a laptop), the more problems you can possibly have," Hadfield said, "and the better the chance of error."

The "downtown" area of Geek Squad City is organized with a municipal motif. For example, the executive suite is known as the "city council" section and the manager who runs the facility is the "mayor." Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Once a computer is fixed, it is loaded onto one of several conveyor belts, which all merge with a single larger belt that carries the machines into the shipping department.

There, workers take special boxes, load the computers into them, and pop on a UPS mailing label. Within minutes, the machines are in a stack of completely indistinguishable brown packages, all of which are expected back in the hands of their owners within a couple of days.

One thing Geek Squad agents do that's probably well-appreciated by computer owners is include a sheet of paper that explains exactly what was wrong with the machines and what the technicians did to fix them.

"They really want to know what happened and why they had to be without" their computer, Hadfield said. "So we explain, 'Your hard drive was replaced.' Or 'your motherboard was replaced,' and what that means so that they can prevent it" in the future.

In Geek Squad City's shipping department, an "agent" stacks laptops that have been repaired and boxed and are now about to be sent back to their owners. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com