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back to article Helpdesk Heroes or unappreciated geeks?

The helpdesk has always been the most visible part of the IT support operation. It is here that the “my password isn’t working anymore” and the “computer says no” calls are taken by valiant members of the IT team. As we move into an era when the help desk may become more of a ‘service centre’ and less of fault reporting point, …

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Linux

From the other side

Help desks are not always helpful.

I dread having to call ours. I'm technically literate and when I call the help desk I have a pretty good idea where the problem lies but I'm not in the right part of the organisation to do anything about it.

The most recent call was to try and find out what the hell was going on with the proxies. I knew I wanted to talk to the network folks but first I had to get through the help desk.

It took three days.

The first day nothing happened, but when I got in the next morning I had a voicemail message saying they'd tried to contact me. Correct. They'd tried to phone me after I said I would no longer me in the office so I wasn't, as I'd said, there.

The second day they wanted me to try some commands. First they told me to get a command window. This is Linux, I knew I was on to a bad thing. I just said OK, I'm running Linux, what command do you actually want me to run. Oh, they said, hold on a minute.

Little while later they came back and said can I ping an external machine (this would be on the other side of the proxy). I explained that no, you cannot ping a machine on the other side of the proxy because proxies don't do that. OK, can you run this command, they started spelling it ...

The command was traceroute. I explained that traceroute doesn't work for the same reason that ping doesn't -- you can't get that through the proxy.

OK they said, we'll get back to you.

This was Friday.

Nothing happened.

On Monday I came back into the office and I had another voicemail. This time they'd tried to phone me on Sunday. Admitedly, it was mid-afternoon Sunday, but it was Sunday nonetheless.

They wanted to try something else.

The something else they wanted, bearing in mind that this was Linux, was that I run the task manager to see if I had any spinning processes that were slowing the machine down.

I was slightly dumbfounded. I still can't work out how they thought a spinning process would slow down access through the proxies but leave internal access entirely alone.

They also wanted a load of information I'd already given them. I filled in the form in the browser and was somewhat surprised to see, right at the bottom, that they wanted a phone number that they could contact me on. And this was after three phone calls (admitedly for two of them I wasn't actually there)

I basically pleaded with them to pass this on to the network people.

So, five days after I logged the call the phone rang -- one of the local network guys rang and sympathised with me.

The problem was discussed and resolved in about thirty seconds: in fact the problem had already been fixed by then.

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Linux

My favourite one recently

An email...

From: xxxx

To: Chris

Subject: Help

My email is not working. Can you sort it out please?

Also had a woman come in a couple years ago. Said she'd bought a computer from the local dental surgery, but they'd removed the hard drive due to patient confidentiality and can she buy one. I whipped out a hard drive in an anti-static bag and she cried "That's not a hard drive, THAT'S a hard drive" (pointing at a tower) "Don't you know ANYTHING about computers?"

From further back in time:

1: The woman who insisted that her machine needed more memory to run her Excel spreadsheet (she had 512MB, every other desktop in the company had 64MB, and some of the servers only had 256MB),

2: The request to replace a laptop keyboard, but the user then went on holiday and took the laptop with them,

3: The long conversation with a (British) guy in China, politely trying to explain why trying to connect his laptop to our DUN server in Cornwall via his mobile phone in the basement of a building in the demilitarised zone 250 miles from the nearest city didn't stand much chance of working.

4: The drawing guys who wanted their GBs of data moved onto a network share "to speed it up". This in the days of 10Mbit networks.

5: My argument with 3rd Level Support who swore blind they knew what they were doing, but didn't believe me when I said there were 2 different IP addresses in the DNS manager for one remote server. The result, it was pot luck whether you connected to the server in a nearby village, or another unrelated server halfway across the country. Someone in Atlanta put the wrong IP address in, and rather than edit the entry just typed it in again.

6: A call that started off as "X can't log in". A quick glance at the switches on that floor showed everything connected, but it quickly became apparent that not only did this Director have problems, but so did the entire SAP team. And a few machines in Logistics. And a secretary's PC on the floor below. At this point I asked for a schematic of the network layout. "What schematic?" was the reply. The building had literally of miles of cabling running between switches and the server room alone, and nobody in 3rd had thought to map it all out. After a LOT of testing I decided to take another route and checked through the list of faults that had been logged at the same time. There were two printers in a Lab 5 miles away that weren't printing. I duly popped into 3rd and asked to see the stats on all the Novell gateways, and lo and behold one card on one gateway shows no traffic. Removed the fried network card, slapped the cable in a spare point and everything sprang back into life. The network wiring in that place was truly bizarre. I did my work experience there and in order to print to the printer right next to the PC I was using (an IBM PS/2) the print job went round the building twice, out to America and back, and then half way around the building again.

You see, it's not just the "customer", it's something to do with the human psyche.

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helpdesks

For me, the big thing is continued lack of any training by companies for these lusers. They are someone expected to "know" things that they've never experienced before, just because computers are now "ubiquitous".

Then they put non-technical management in charge of the helpdesk, because of course it's just another department, what could possibly go wrong.

Then they put the LEAST experienced I.T. staff on helpdesk, those with the least knowledge or understanding.

Then they put in scripts because these helpdesk trainees (to be polite) don't know a router from a hard disk.

Then they put in "measurements" that measure how many calls they close, as opposed to how many actual problems they solve.

Then they put in "call management" software whose REAL purpose is to make those fake measurements and create fake stats so that the fake managers can be really happy about the fake help they're supposedly providing.

They they wonder why the fuck the helpdesk isn't helpful, the I.T. group doesn't fix things (because the ignorant helpdesk doesn't know where to send things maybe?), and why the users want the heads of the helpdesk folks (but never, NEVER the head of the fucking management that put the stupid system in place in the first instance)

It'll all end in tears I tell you!

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Silver badge

"That's just the switch, they do that!"

The scene: Old house in Mountain View, converted to Vet clinic.

The time: Late 1999.

The job: Convert the Vet's database from non-Y2K compliant PSI/Idexx on HP/UX to Cornerstone on Win98 (I know, I know, but that was what the Vet wanted).

Considering that Cornerstone included the database conversion in the cost of the 8 hour staff training session, my job was basically setting up the Windows boxes, installing software, and pulling wire. Easy. In fact, I did the complete network setup back in my lab, so all I had to do was make space for the computers, printers, label makers etc., plug it all in, and turn it on.

Unfortunately, the house was built in the post-war building boom, and originally had 2 prong plugs for mains power. Some had been converted to three prong, but not all. I had to convert the six locations where the Vet wanted the computers installed. Three new breakers, pull some wire ... Again, pretty easy.

Day of install, the Saturday afternoon before the Sunday the Cornerstone rep was to hold the staff training session. The Vet wanted me to plug a scanner into her personal machine. The floppies that came with the scanner didn't come with Win98 compatible drivers, so I used the new-fangled V.92 modem to dial into my ISP ... But the connection speed reported as 2400 baud instead of the expected 56K (or so). I broke the connection, redialed, same result. And again. Now, I had already used the modem from my lab, just to verify it worked, so I knew it wasn't my hardware ... I picked up the phone. Line noise. 60hz line noise, to be precise.

I turned to the Vet and asked how long the phones had been buzzing ... she brightly answered that "That's just the switch, they do that!" ... WTF? After further questioning, it turned out that instead of having six phone lines coming in, she had a small switch with six extensions. It was installed when she took over the practice about a decade earlier. (You can probably see where this is going ...).

She lead me to a storage and washing machine room in the back, and pointed at the wall. Hanging there was a dusty, cobweb covered, slightly sad looking $TELCO supplied switch. It had a three-prong cord ... plugged into a two prong socket. The $TELCO tech who did the install had cut the ground pin off the power cord to fit the availabe mains power. I asked her to go get me a cordless 'phone and grabbed a wire coathanger. With phone to ear, I grounded the case of the switch to the cold water pipe with the coathanger ... No more AC hum.

I explained the situation to her, and she went ballistic. After she calmed down a little, I asked if she wanted me to call $TELCO for her. (I could have put a new cord on it myself, and put in another 3-prong socket, but if you touch $TELCO gear, they will refuse to fix it if anything goes wrong in the future.) On further questioning, she allowed as to how in the last decade she had had techs out half a dozen times or so to service her telephones, including what sounded like a firmware upgrade to the switch itself.

Long and short of it, we had a $TELCO tech out 45 minutes after I hung up the phone.

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WTF?

Sometimes they tell the truth...

Over phone:

"We were trying to install <software>, but the machine ate all the disks"

Conversation ensues where I am trying to figure out how the hell they can be making any sense but they are adamant it is "eating" disks.

I trot on down there to discover that there was a slight gap below the 3.5" drive that user had mistaken for the floppy slot. I open the cover to find a stack of 3.5" disks at the bottom of the case.

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@Jake, @

@Jake ¨ Line noise. 60hz line noise, to be precise.¨ Funny that. In most civilized areas the mains work at 50 Hz. I wonder what this ¨precise¨ 60 hz of yours was. Oh. I see. You´re a Merkin maybe. ;-)

@AC 9:57 GMT:

¨we had just finished a complicated little website for a client and they were really impressed with the results and had asked our sales rep if they could have a copy of it on a CD to show their partners. Took me about 30 minutes to explain to our sales lass that it was a dynamic website that needed a web server and database to run and we couldn't just 'copy it to a CD'. She says 'fine, ok' and calls the client back on her new mobile in front of me... 'no, I'm sorry we can't put it on a CD..(pause as client talks).... DISKETTES!!! Well of course we can put it on DISKETTES!!'

D´uh. You´re new to this computer thing, aint you? What´s wrong with a website snapshot, stored on a CD (or diskettes)? Oh right, it´s dynamic and all that, right? So I can´t give you a snapshot. See, it´s dynamic. Same a your car: I can´t sent you a pic of your car ´cause it has the ability to move, so the car might not be there anymore 30 min. after i took the pic. Therefore it is technically impossible to take a pic of you car. That´ll teach her: next time, she´ll ask people with a grasp on IT instead of Web designers.... I mean, how difficult is it to just burn a snapshot of the website on a cd? Sure you won´t get the fancy database interactive stuff, but it will still be more than enough for a demo. Or do you not know how to do that?

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Thumb Up

Having fun with bosses,...

Saw a Dilbert 10+ years where the PHB asks how to reboot his laptop and the answer is "hold it upside down and shake it" (ie. its a exa-sketch). As my boss resembed the PHB (and was an arsehole) I brought an exa-sketch and swapped it for his laptop in his bag Friday afternoon, along with a printed copy of the cartoon. He had to drive back across town on Saturday morning to get his real laptop from under his desk. (I don't work there anymore.)

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Happy

Mothers and computers

My mum is quite bright (school teacher) but one day she dragged and minimised the toolbar on Windows 98, and it took me ages to figure out what she had done. (I gave her a workaround of pressing ctrl-esc to get the Start menu bar up, but had to travel the 5 hours home for christmas to fix it permanently).

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Happy

Family

Speaking of mothers and family support.

I am the tech go-to guy in our family, doesn't matter if it's a pc, a tv or a toaster...

I remember my mum got a new pc - I think she upgraded from 95 to 98 (or similair), I told her to not plug in her old scanner as the drivers were different, anyway long story short - she plugged in the scanner and completely stuffed the system and it then became my urgent job to fix it!!

I took the machine home, fixed the driver issue and at the same time swapped her swanky new GeForce 3 graphics card for my long in the tooth GeForce 1 - she didn't need it she didn't play games!!

Don't think I ever did tell her what I did :)

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FAIL

@ElReg!comments!Pierre

You haven't worked on many CMS based websites have you? Making a comparison between a picture of a car and a dynamic website shows a stunning level of ignorance.

What type of snapshot of a page are you going to get when there's no database to tell it were to get its images from or were its style sheet to tell it what to look like or where to gets its contents from?

Try saving this page and then browse it locally and see what you get.

If you had at least made the suggestion that a stand alone server could have been setup on a live CD to demo the website instead of a snarky comment, I would have though of you being less clueless.

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Pint

This much I know...

Wireless networks don't like large metal objects such as car bonnets getting in the way of a signal, and wired networks are allergic to electric welding equipment!!! (We have some garages as customers!)

And I once tried to email the department to tell them that the email wasn't working.

Well it was very early, after a very late night.

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Alien

Oh, and I challenge anyone to find a weirder one

Network keeps crashing at one of our customers sites.

Cue dozens of visits and almost every single piece of kit being swapped out until one engineer happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Whenever someone walked through the front door, a loose floorboard pinched a cable and dropped the connection to the server.

And the weirdest one by far was a Server rebooting, seemingly at random.

Further investigation revealed that the Electricity Board was doing some work outside and had done something to one of the phases, which meant that if someone pressed the button on the Pedestrian Crossing outside the shop, there was a power drop and the Server rebooted.

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Management

Working back in the 90's our office had recently installed wireless (it had just come out and we were getting fed up of the one manager constantly loosing network cables for his laptop).

I was working on the support desk at the time and had the joy of being on call overnight.

I had a call at 2am from a manager who was pretty irate as he was unable to print out the documents he was working on (it kept telling him that it had failed to print)

First question I asked was to check that the printer was still turned on / online. His response was "It was on when I left the office". It took me a moment to register that he was at home, approx 7 miles from the office. Said manager was under the impression that the small 3" antenna on the wireless router was capable of picking his laptop up from anywhere on the planet.

Same manager also came in and started screaming at the IT support staff the one day demanding to know why he couldnt access the internet or the servers. We pointed out that there was a power cut in progress and that until the lights came back on he would not be able to. It took a further 15 minutes of explaining that his laptop had a battery in it so that it could work without power, while the rest of the building did not, and that no, it was not possible to have the entire building on battery with the budget we had for IT spend (by this point the battery in his laptop died and he buggered off home leaving us in peace).

More recently we had a customer call up panicking as their server was beeping and telling them it was on battery power and had 8 minutes remaining. After several attempts to get them to check the power cable from the wall socket to the UPS (after each request I was told that no-one was stupid enough to unplug it therefore it could not be that) it was down to 2 minutes before shutdown. At which point I said to the customer that they could either (a) check the power cable was plugged in and turned on, or (b) wait for me to make the 90 minute drive to site, during which time they would not be able to work and would be charged a call out fee. Customer came back on and sheepishly informed me that the power cable had been unplugged from the wall so that he could plug his iPod charger in.

I wonder some days how I have not ended up like the BOFH with a collection of cattle prods and alternative user education devices.

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I remember when...

...a laptop with keys stuck back onto the keyboard with double sided foamy tape. Those keys (and the laptop itself) had dog's teeth marks on them...

...a user telling me "my son must have done something to my pc... the homepage has been changed, to erm, some sort of spanish brothel site".

...opening a laptop that isn't working to be greeted with the smell (and crusty remnants) of gone off milk from under the keyboard.

I've actually been privy to the "any key?" incident, the assumption that the monitor is actually the entire PC, and many, many other tales of IT yore. and I've only been in the business 2 years...

On the other hand, we had one incompetent fool working on our helpdesk who installed a desktop PC *upside down*. I have no idea how he got past initial screening. Even the user thought it was odd the way the PC was setup, but thought "he's from IT, he must know best".

The list is endless, but the buffer in my brain has been overflowing since about the second week of work...

ps, and why is it that it always seems to be the same users who come back week after week with virus problems, eh?

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FAIL

@ Seno

"If you had at least made the suggestion that a stand alone server could have been setup on a live CD to demo the website instead of a snarky comment, I would have though of you being less clueless."

Standalone server on a CD, with the whole database, too, I guess? Right... and I'm the clueless one...

"What type of snapshot of a page are you going to get when there's no database to tell it were to get its images from or were its style sheet to tell it what to look like or where to gets its contents from?"

I dunno, maybe something made by one of the hundreds of utilities out there that trawl dynamic websites to output a static snapshot? My preference would probably go to httrack but hey, pick yours, as I said there are hundreds just lying around doing nothing. You might want to pick a clue while you're out there, too.

Fail, obviously

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"The mail server's down"

A few years back, a secretary in the law firm where I work rushed over to my desk to tell me that the mail server was down.

I looked at Outlook on my computer and everything looked fine, so went back to the secretary. It turns out that some Chinese whispers had taken place, and the actual problem was that one of the lawyers wanted to check his email and couldn't. Solution -- turn on the monitor.

Oli

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nails

A colleague of mine and I were discussing I think user we didn't like and he told me this story.

Said user calls helpdesk.

"My password isn't working"

He resets it and says "try this one"

"Its still not working"

He tries again, still nada.

He goes down and see's her. He types the password in, it works....

He logs off and gets her to try.

Turns out her long fingernails kept brushing other keys when she was typing.

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Lawyers...

I've remember a few more:

I arrived at work to find a plastic case (almost CD-shaped) on my desk with a post-it note that read "please install on my computer". It was a desk calendar sent as a gift from one of her contacts.

We have a bar across the road from our office called Number 7. We also number our printers. One of my colleagues explained to a user that he couldn't fix her printer, but that he'd set her up to print to number 7. "What, so I have to walk across the road to get my work?"

Another lawyer complained that his laptop kept shutting down after a few hours each morning. It turned out that the cleaners had been unplugging it to plug in their vacuum cleaner. The lawyer in went on to ask if his computer could be configured not to turn off when the battery ran out.

A trainee came to tell us that he needed a new keyboard because his was broken. We replaced his keyboard and he came back to say that the new one was also broken. Turns out he thought his "i" key wasn't working because his font was set so small that i looked like l.

At the time of the Blaster worm, my then boss was setting up a new laptop for himself, as he frequently did. Sitting opposite, I saw him plug his laptop (still attached to the network) into a phone line to test the modem. "Have you got a firewall on that", I asked. "No". "Have you installed any patches, like the one for the Blaster vulnerability?" "No, I'm only testing. I won't be online for long".

One of the best efforts at screwing up a PC I've seen was someone who'd managed to create a file association for .exe to open with Word. That wasn't easy to fix.

And of course "this file is corrupted" generally means that the file has been opened with the universal file opening application -- Microsoft Word.

Oli

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WTF?

@ElReg!comments!Pierre

"Standalone server on a CD, with the whole database, too, I guess? Right... and I'm the clueless one..."

You sure are - you can take a slice of the database and fit it on a laptop, and an app stack can frequently fit there too if you only need to serve one user. It's work, but you can do it.

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FAIL

Duh

1) User did not know they needed to click on the little [+] beside their Outlook inbox to see subfolders... even though they had created those subfolders a week or so before.

2) User did not have admin access to install a printer on their laptop. So I logged in as admin, gave them admin rights ('s OK, company policy allows it) and logged off. Gave user laptop back. User could not log in... because they didn't know how to change the displayed username from administrator to their own username.

3) Many years ago... user's SCO server died. OK, after trying everything else, hard reboot it with the power switch. They do so and nope, green screen is still the displaying the same words. OK, try turning off the server not the monitor this time.

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FAIL

@ CoonDoggy

"- you can take a slice of the database and fit it on a laptop, and an app stack can frequently fit there too if you only need to serve one user. It's work, but you can do it."

yes you can. Yes it's a lot of work. Yes it's pointless., and no it won't fit the "put it on a CD for demo purpose' requirement. So what's you point?

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@ CoonDoggy -bis

About fitting a whole dynamic website on a CD with a standalone webserver, plus database management system, plus database...

¨You sure are[clueless] - you can take a slice of the database and fit it on a laptop, and an app stack can frequently fit there too if you only need to serve one user. It's work, but you can do it.¨

You´re right. I am clueless. Taking a slice of the database and fitting it on a laptop so totally fits the bill. After all there is no difference between a CD and a laptop. Or is there? Sorry for being stupid. Of course nowadays CDs come with half a terabyte of storage, a quad-core processor, 4 GB of ram, a nice display and the X server to use it. How stupid of me not to know that. That´s the third millenium CD for you.

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@ CoonDoggy, and others

Do not feed the troll

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@ElReg!comments!Pierre

Insert the CD in to PC. They work better that way.

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Coffee/keyboard

Hmmm

Was speaking to a lovely chinese chap the other day, and had a clash of alphabets that proved quite amusing. Have you ever tried to explain a letter of the alphabet to someone who doesn't know what it is?

Me: "Your username is h u a w"

Him: "H u a u u"

M: "No sorry, H u a w"

H: "Double U?"

M: "No. Think like George W Bush, or when you type a web address, the character you use at the start."

H: "I'm sorry I have no idea."

M: "It's nestled between Q and E on your keyboard."

H: "My computer is all in mandarin."

M: "Excellent. Have you got a mobile number? I'll text you what a W looks like."

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