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They’ve heard ’em all

Feb 13, 20066 mins
Data Center

IT pros recount their favorite tales of clueless users.

IT managers relay funny tech support stories and tales of clueless end users.

Mandy Andress was working in IT at a university library when she told a user that to help correct a computer problem, she’d have to see her cookies.

“They brought me homemade cookies the next day,” says Andress, a member of the Network World Lab Alliance and president of security consulting firm ArcSec Technologies.

“I was initially a bit confused but then just had to laugh,” Andress says, adding that the user had been quite serious.

That kind of misunderstanding isn’t unusual for IT professionals dealing with users who aren’t necessarily the most tech-savvy. Discussions with more than a dozen IT people turned up stories that ranged from the naive to the bizarre.

“You have to have a good sense of humor to work at this,” says Jeff Whitmore, director of IT at guitar strings and accessories maker Ernie Ball of San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“My favorite request is from people wanting me to ‘Restart the Internet [because] it seems frozen,'” he says. “I’m going to quit the day I stop laughing at some of the things people think we should and can do.”

Read even more unusual requests and add your own.

Ross McKenzie, IS director at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, says he got a call at his home one Friday night from a well-respected user who was frantic because he couldn’t reach his online banking sites.

“The user apologized for inconveniencing me, but told me he had already called 911 and was told to call me. By now I’m fully awake and out of bed. The user goes on to tell me he is sure that the Internet is ‘under attack,'” McKenzie says.

McKenzie says he logged on to check things out himself and found the Internet to be responding as normal.

“I e-mailed him and reported this. Then I asked if he had changed any of his software programs lately. He reported that he had installed a new version of his browser that same night,” McKenzie says. “I asked him to see if he had enabled cookies and sent him a short explanation of how to do that. His reply, and coincidentally, the last time I ever heard from him, was ‘Oh . . . thanks. Never mind about the attack.'”

While troubles with the Internet and e-mail account for a large number of requests to IT staff, the systems remain a mystery to many users.

Todd Fink, senior telecommunications administrator at Premier Bankcard in Sioux Falls, S.D., says he once got a request from a user looking for another coffee holder for his computer.

“I asked him what he meant by another coffee holder and he said, ‘You know, the one that pops out of the PC,'” Fink says. “He thought the CD-ROM drive was a cup holder.”

Randy Connelly says a system-related request he got about 10 years ago while working at Invesco Funds Group in Denver is the funniest of his 13-year career. A user called to say that his computer had frozen.

“I joked that the system might be cold, but I would be down to look at [it] right away,” Connelly says. “I worked on the ninth floor, and the system was on the first floor. When I got to the desk to look at the system, the user had put his jacket over the monitor because he thought if he warmed the system up it would unfreeze.”

While requests such as those can be blamed on naiveté, others are more bizarre. Barry Nance, another member of the Network World Lab Alliance who runs Network Testing Labs, remembers dealing with a user in the mid-1990s who wanted to avoid hefty telco charges to connect the networks of two adjacent buildings.

“The business owner, because the two buildings were fairly close, proposed feeding a wire between the two and he wanted someone to actually knot a network cable to an arrow, climb to the roof and shoot the arrow between the buildings,” Nance says. “We had to disabuse him of the idea.”

Nance and his colleagues explained that the hanging cable probably wouldn’t look nice. “The business owner eventually bit the bullet and paid,” he says.

Other users aren’t so easily convinced.

Katherine Stroud, manager of network and systems technology at Bloomington Hospital and Healthcare Systems in Indiana, remembers when a user called to complain that envelopes were printing upside down.

“I told her she had loaded them incorrectly and if she turned them the other way it would be fine. She insisted that they were absolutely loaded correctly, the same way she always loaded them,” Stroud says. “So I lifted the cover of the printer, took out the toner cartridge and gave it a good shake, reassembled the printer, turned the envelopes the other way in the document feeder, and proclaimed that I had fixed it.”

Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the Saugus Union School District in California, isn’t surprised when he gets odd requests, because most of his users have been doing their jobs without computers for decades.

“Our most popular service request is user can’t get into their e-mail,” he says.

“Typically, the conversation goes something like this: User: I can’t get into my e-mail. Tech: What happens when you try? User: Nothing, it doesn’t work. Tech: Do you get any error messages? User: No, I can’t even open it. Tech: Well, what do you see on your screen? User: Nothing. Tech: You mean it’s black? User: Yes. Tech: Is your computer on?” he says.

“For us, ‘can’t get e-mail’ can mean just about anything,” Klein says. “We now always ask, ‘Is your computer turned on?’ first.”

Sometimes the source of computer issues is hidden by the users unknowingly, forcing the IT professional into the role of detective.

Jason Kennedy, senior analyst and system engineer at Tsunami Communications in Vancouver, Canada, for example, once got a call from a user saying her desktop applications such as WordPerfect “simply were not working” on a regular basis.

“I made a visit to her desk, which was clear of any personal items, and was quickly able to recover all her files. When I left, everything seemed to be working perfectly fine,” he says.

When the user called the next day reporting the same problem, Kennedy told her not to touch a thing on her desk.

“Sure enough when I got there she had magnets all around her workspace, which were the culprits and caused the same problem to happen over and over again until she removed them,” he says.