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O, the joys of IT support - true tales from an ex-IT support man Episode 11

I used to love IT.  I absorbed everything thrown at me.  Especially the dirty looks from my wife when I was elbows deep into building PCs at home when the baby needed feeding and I was otherwise engaged.  I became the focal point of help for my friends and relations when it came to matters IT.  This eventually became a bit of a task, as I never seemed to be able to shut off.  But it was still fun.

At work, I was progressing from comms into the newly adopted world of PC support – the PCs were early generation IBM boulders – enormous compared to the ones around nowadays. The common aspect between all PC usage remains constant, though: the numpties who believe that they know what they’re doing, otherwise known as the end users. These wonderful people were, and no doubt still are, a source of endless amusement and anecdotes, a few of which follow (in no particular order, but all genuine situations in which I found myself):

The advent of the PC and the software for the early generation machines was a great time for tinkering and learning on the fly, whilst making support of the machines, operating system and software look somewhat of a black art.  Essentially, in reality, IT support boils down to one simple fact: where to look in the manual.

One of the fondest memories I can recall is receiving a request to assist a secretary, new to the company in one of the trading rooms (a very noisy environment, which has a bearing later in this tale), who was having a problem printing from WordStar. To our younger readers:  WordStar is an early word processing software, text-based and with no graphical user interface that you get with Windows.  All control key combinations, not buttons – anyway, I digress. Rather than attend, the first things I learned with ANY support issue was first to leave it a few minutes (otherwise, an immediate response would set an expectation that might not always be achievable, Service Level Agreements (SLAs) not withstanding), and secondly call before actually attending, as it might be fixable over the phone which means the user would (hopefully) remember what they did to fix it if the same issue happened again, apart from which it was disturbing my PC games (Rogue, Zork, etc).

On this particular occasion, however, after following my mantra (5 minutes, then call) and receiving no reply, I went deskside and found a note taped to the keyboard explaining that WordStar wasn’t printing to the locally connected HP LaserJet Series 1 – a hulking brute of a machine which was about a 30” cube and weighed (not literally) a ton.  Suffice to say, you wouldn’t want one falling onto your foot. So, in her absence, I tested the WordStar printing function and it worked fine, so I left the printout on her keyboard with a note telling her the “problem” was fixed. About ten minutes after I got back to my desk, we received another call from the same user saying she was having the same problem. Again, I called after 5 minutes; again no answer; again a trip to the PC, finding a similar note on the keyboard; again a WordStar test with no problems evident; again I left the printout on her keyboard with a note telling her the “problem” was fixed, with the difference that NEXT time she was to wait by the machine so I could see what she was actually doing to cause the ”problem”.

Sure enough, a few minutes later I was asked to assist, so I trudged up to the trading room and there she was, sitting dutifully at the PC awaiting her hero (me) to come to the rescue. So, when I arrived, I asked her to show me what she was doing. She opened WordStar, typed a note and then got a piece of nice, white, A4 paper (which I immediately thought was odd, given that the printer she was using had a hopper which held at least 100 sheets of A4, but I went along with it). I was expecting her to place the paper in the hopper – there was no single sheet feed on these machines.  However, what she ACTUALLY did was fold the page into A6 size and then carefully insert the folded piece of paper into the 5¼” disk drive slot and then pressed CTRL-P (print in WordStar). 

I kid you, not.

With all the diplomatic powers I mustered, I contained my urge to roll about on the floor laughing and mocking her, and gently pointed to the 30” cube of plastic and metal seated not two feet away from her, suggesting that perhaps she might look in the top of it where her printout was patiently waiting to be picked up. I suppose, as the trading floor was so noisy, she didn’t hear the LaserJet fire up and spew out the page. After all, it only sounded like a wind-tunnel fan when it was printing…

A few weeks later, the same user called and said she’d just spilled a mono-cup of water over the keyboard and what should she do? I’m sorry to say, but I couldn’t resist… We had just found a little program called “drain”, which was a DOS program run off a floppy drive, and which played some sounds through the internal PC speaker as if water was being drained away. So, I got to the user’s desk with a spare keyboard under my arm, disconnected her wet one and installed the spare.  I  assured her all would be OK, having tested the keyboard and made sure the PC was still working. I then inserted my diskette into the drive, ran the program and it did its thing, much to the fascination and amazement of my wide-eyed client. She asked where the water went – I just told her it went. Some of the traders had noticed me coming to her PC and, having heard about the printing incident (I can’t imagine how that happened…), and they came and stood behind us during the “draining”. I do hope that they didn’t give her too much of a hard time, afterwards.

A final anecdote I’d like to share in this version of the blog is one about disk storage. Some years after I was working as an IT director/guru (not my fault I was a whizz at computing) for a company selling video library systems – a bit like the Blockbusters’ system, only ours was much better, if a little late to the market. One of our customers called to say that he’d had a problem with the data showing as corrupted. I asked if he was taking regular backups, to which he answered in the affirmative, so I said I’d talk him through the restore process over the phone.  I told him to find the backup taken the last time the system was working.  He said that was the previous night, and as this was now 9.00am and no customers had come in yet, I thought that this would be an easy fix.

A short while later, he returned to the phone, and I told him to get the first disk in the backup and put it into the machine. He did this and then after restoring the data from the disk the system asked for the second disk in the backup set.

“Now put the second diskette in”, I said.

“Second disk?”, he asked.

“Yes”, I said.

“There isn’t a second disk”, he said.

Now, I knew that there was a minimum of three disks needed for the backup, so I asked him about when he took the backup and what was the process as he remembered.

“I put in the diskette, hit the enter key and then when it came up with ‘Enter the diskette and press any key when ready…’ I pressed the key and it carried on.” It was at this juncture that I realised that he’d done everything correctly. Apart from using another disk. All that data, potentially lost.

Fortunately, he was a start-up and we’d only sold him the system three months previously, when I had spent the best part of 18 hours setting up the system and then taking a full system backup with me. Unfortunately, we were situated in northeast London and he was in the wilds of Wiltshire, so it meant a trip down to the store (no remote access was in place at the time) and I restored my copy to his system.  He had had the presence of mind to do a printout of user and library records the night before the incident, which meant a three-month keying exercise to recover the lost data. He did the backups correctly after that. Might have been the learning opportunity that ensured that.  Might have been the several hundred pounds we invoiced him for my time…

We’ll never know.