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Friday, July 20, 2012

More quick tales from tech support's trenches

Here are some more quick tales from the days of tech support. They're not really enough to turn into a full post, but in aggregate, it tends to work out.

I was told this one by a friend. One time, a bunch of wise guys swapped the D and K keys around on someone's keyboard. That is, they actually popped off the key caps and moved them to new locations. When he returned, he couldn't unlock his screen or log in. It seems his password contained a K.

As the story goes, he went into single-user mode to fix his workstation, fixed his password somehow, and then rebooted to the usual multi-user mode with X and his web browser. Then he tried to log into the company's web-based system... and couldn't. When this failed, he went "totally Office Space" on his keyboard and reduced it to a pile of slag. They were worried he'd beat them up if any of them fessed up.

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The guys on second shift support used to prank each other. One guy left his screen unlocked, so someone sat down, popped open a terminal, did a quick "setxkbmap dvorak" and then closed the window. Obviously, this person was a normal QWERTY sort, so this would have made his day miserable.

I suggested one thing, though: they should find and print out a dvorak keymap and leave it on his desk. That way, after he gets over the "WTF!" and starts looking around, he'll be able to figure it out. He might even learn a thing or two about alternate layouts... and locking his screen.

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There was a guy hired as a level 1 "phone firewall" who had a terrible grasp of the language. His whole job was to take phone calls, provide as much support as he was able, and get anything else into a ticket for someone else to handle. I'm not talking about sleepiness and "you cars is the gotem p" here.

This guy was always like that. Sometimes you couldn't even tell what the request was supposed to be. It was embarrassing because you'd have to go back to a customer and say "yeah, uh, what did you want again?", thus admitting that the first person who took their call really mangled it.

I think he lasted about a month at that job. What I find more amazing is that he somehow got hired in the first place. I guess assessing oral and written language skills never occurred to HR, despite the obvious need for both when working in customer support!

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Then there was the guy who had been crowned "senior shift engineer", or SSE for a particular support team. It was an additional notch above a "mere level 3" tech. How did he maintain that illusion? Easy. He just farmed out the tough tickets through his underlings so he wouldn't have to actually know the answers.

One time, he farmed out a question which found its way to me. A friend of mine asked me how I might tell if a machine was "64 bit". I said that it varied. There's actual hardware support, there's the kernel, and then there's userspace. Then there's this command, that command, and this other command to see CPU info, which kernel you have, and what userspace stuff is there. You need all three to have an environment that most people would consider worthy of that label.

That's when he mentioned in passing that this "SSE fella" had passed the ticket along because he couldn't answer it himself. I was stunned.

How, exactly, do you receive the title of "top tech" on a team when you don't even know the simplest things about the environment? This guy supposedly had some kind of certification as well, thus adding to the stories about people substituting them for experience and failing at their jobs.

One thing worries me: maybe this guy really was the top tech. I mean, it could just be a relative label. If everyone else knows even less than he does, somehow, then it would actually be totally accurate. It would also be totally depressing.

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Finally, there was the guy who would wander up to either my desk or a friend's desk and start blathering on about something forever. This guy was so dense that when he'd get a popup ad which looked like a Windows dialog box, he'd click the (fake) [X] and then wonder why it didn't go away! He'd keep doing this over and over.

Do I need to mention that he also had a certification?

Anyway, I worked out a scheme with my friend. After an appropriate interval, one of us would look at the other, and the one who wasn't directly in the line of fire would resort to some trickery. We'd pick up the handset of our phone without actually turning towards it or bringing it toward us and just set it down on the desk. Then we'd dial his extension.

He'd hear the phone start ringing and would waddle back that way, at which point, naturally, it stopped. Now, he didn't have a display phone, so he didn't have a call log. He had no idea what was doing it. If he had, I would have just tipped out on one of my few remaining analog modem ports and bashed out a quick ATDT xyz to ring him. He'd see some nonsensical incoming name and would chalk it up to spirits or something.

I mean, this guy had no idea what popups were or what you could do about them, and he was expected to manage millions of dollars of Windows boxes. This was the status quo for many years.

For all I know, he may still be there at that job, cornering people while talking about nothing in particular, getting trapped by the latest malware, and occasionally receiving those strange hang-up calls.