Some of the Most Amusing Requests and Inquiries
At Help Desk Institute (HDI), we deal with some truly brilliant men and women who leverage software and hardware for their businesses, customers and employees in ways that truly push the envelope. We call these interactions between humans, machines and software the “Human-Machine Interface.” While it’s always interesting and sometimes even exciting, it can also be hilarious. Those of us in the support profession have enough material to keep the writers for Letterman and Leno busy for years. Listed below are some of favorites that I’ve accumulated over the years.
The Mac Bomb at CSU
One of my first support jobs was working at the help desk at Cleveland State University shortly after Steve Jobs changed the world by releasing the Macintosh Apple. Most of us using computers in those days were comfortable with a CRT and the CMS word processing application. Compared to a CRT with CMS, the Mac was a miracle and the campus community fell in love with them very quickly. Good for them, and a busy time for us.
As soon as the Macs were deployed, the help-desk staff began to get the usual user-related calls. There’s nothing strange about that, but almost immediately, we began to get calls that went something like this.
“Hi, this is Joe over in the English Department. I’m Dr. Smith’s graduate assistant, and I wanted to let you know that we just had to evacuate the department because there’s something wrong with the computer.”
With genuine concern and puzzlement, the student that caught the call asked, “Can you tell me what’s happening with the Mac? Was it on fire or something like that?”
“No,” Joe replied, “I was working on a paper for Dr. Smith, and all of a sudden there was a picture of a bomb with a fuse on the screen and some kind of weird error message. I yelled for everyone to leave the office, called the campus police and then you people. Is it going to explode?”
Joe had interpreted a system error message as a warning that the Mac was about to explode!
The 1990s: A Little Better
The all-time best examples of how not to introduce new computer peripherals into an organization are the famous implementations of graphical user interfaces (GUI), the computer mouse, the CD-ROM drive and, well, just about everything in organizations and business. You know what’s coming, right? As every support professional knows, even by 1997:
- The “foot pad” was still the mouse, and does not have to be moved by hitting the side of the monitor.
- The “cup holder” was still the CD-ROM drive.
- “GUI” does not require that the monitor be disassembled and cleaned weekly.
- “Cleaning the keyboard” does not require that it be taken to the office kitchen and placed in the dishwasher.
- Help-desk pros still haven’t learned that the phrase “press any key” is heard as “press the ‘any’ key.” We’re still working on that one in the training classes.
- When you tell a user to turn “on” the computer, make sure you distinguish between the monitor and the CPU, or your help desk will get a lot of calls about the “computer” not having any power.
The Global Impact of Computing Explodes
Long before the Good Friday Accords slowly brought peace to Northern Ireland, Sunglass Hut International had several stores in the region—one at shopping mall in a suburb of Belfast. The service bureau and help desk in the early to mid-1990s for Sunglass Hut was an IT company in Northeast Ohio. The company received the nightly “polling” data from this store and other stores, which was then processed and forwarded to the Sunglass Hut home office. Part of the service bureau’s job was to contact stores that had failed to poll successfully the night before and ask them to repeat the procedure. The store in the shopping mall had failed to poll for several nights in a row, and the home office was getting perturbed with the help desk and wanted the data, urgently.
The help-desk manager attempted to solve the problem by assigning staff to call the store several times each hour. Over several days, the long-distance phone calls grew, and frustrations mounted. Finally, someone at the store picked up the phone and said, “Hello?”
With equal amounts of relief and frustration, the support analyst asked why the store had not been polling. The individual at the store quickly explained that he was a captain in the British Army’s Royal Engineers Bomb Investigation Unit.
He was at the store examining the damage that an Irish Republican Army bomb had caused to the shopping mall. The bomb had exploded after the shopping mall had closed and completely destroyed the store. The help desk recorded the call as “IRA bomb destroyed store; all data lost. Contact Royal Engineers or the Queen for details.”
HDI regularly solicits stories and jokes from the wonderful folks at RinkWorks (www.rinkworks.com/stupid). One of the most popular stories in 2005 went like this:
“My boss had recently learned how to use spreadsheet software. He proudly called me into his office to show me a new trick he’d learned. At one point during his demonstration, he was moving his mouse toward himself, and it reached the edge of his desk. I watched in amazement as he deftly rolled his mouse around the edge of the desk and underneath. I stifled my giggling and politely said, ‘You know, you don’t need to do that with the mouse.’
“Whereupon he took offense and said, ‘I know. I usually grab a book and put it next to the desk and roll the mouse onto it, but I just can’t reach my books right now.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I do,’ and excused myself before I broke a rib trying not to laugh.”
Robert S. Last is content manager for the Help Desk Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.