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Monday, August 18, 2014

Is It Plugged In?

Users are a magical resource; an unending fount of  challenges and puzzles.

An individual's level, aside from being a user, is completely irrelevant to whether or not they are a challenging user or not. It is also completely irrelevant as to whether they will successfully examine their own situation or not.

There are two initial questions that must always be the starting point of any technological troubleshooting:
1. Is it plugged in?
2. Is it turned on?

These are the logical first points of failure and they are asked because they are EASY to solve. These questions are asked not in a condescending manner and have even tripped up experienced technical individuals (the author acknowledges one incident of where each of these questions was the solution to his problem after considerable troubleshooting).

This is the story of one such situation.

It seems quite obvious, and was widely acknowledged, that no one in IT could assist a user unless they knew of the problem the user was experiencing. It was also quite widely accepted that IT did not have a magical clairvoyance that would allow them to know of the problems without them being reported. These axioms are the reasons that IT departments, and maintenance departments and, really, any service department, has a means to manage requests. The user who needs a service puts in a request and it is serviced as soon as it reaches the top of the queue. Many IT departments have a very strict means of submitting requests and others have a very lax manner of accepting requests; the important constancy is that they must get requests to be able to provide any service or support.

After a decent career as an IT monkey I made my way into a role as the entire IT department for a small school system. I held this job for two years before moving into a larger schools system where I became the department head of the IT department. Upon taking control of the department I went about the process of familiarizing myself with the helpdesk system that was in place and, through necessity, investigating the reason why no one would use it. After considerably examination of the administrative side I opted to examine it from the user side and my quandary was resolved. The previous director had made the system nearly impossible to operate from a user viewpoint. I corrected the issue and proceeded to campaign heavily for users to use the system while still accepting requests via email.

In a shameless effort to decrease efficiency and increase bureaucracy the Superintendent of this district required all department heads (including Principals) to attend a half-day meeting every other week. This meeting, which rotated around the schools, was designed to bring up items for discussion that were concerning to anyone in attendance. Most often the items placed on the agenda affected only the member who was discussing it and the Superintendent. With the exception of budget preparation these meeting were, primarily, a waste of time for me.

About a third of the way through the school year, long enough for me to have revamped the entire helpdesk system to be more user friendly and have had my campaign be heard nearly everywhere, I was attending one such meeting in one of the schools.

Moments after the meeting began we started around the room to address agenda items from individual users. That's when it happened.

The metaphorical bus was driven by an elementary school principal. It was driven hard and fast and it was driven true. It hit me with the force of managerial shame and stained my reputation in front of all of the principals and the superintendent. The bus took the form of a single question, asked in a sarcastic and snarky tone: "When are you going to fix my printer?"

"Did you submit a request for it?" I replied, attempting to hide my contempt for the manner of inquisition and working to retain an innocent and professional demeanor.

"Of course I did!" was the, still snarky, reponse.

"Oh, I see. Did you use the helpdesk system or just email one of us?" I asked, in an effort to narrow down my options.


"OK. While I look for it, could you tell me what it is doing?"

"It's not printing" was the only answer I received.

"I can't seem to find a ticket in my email, in the helpdesk or even in the emails of either tech. Let me just take a moment to go ahead and make this ticket for you."

"Well, I know I submitted it."

Closing my laptop again, as the Superintendent did not like them present in the meetings, I asked the first of the two questions, "is your printer plugged in?"

The reply was explosive. Based on the response one would have assumed that I had criticized the principal's ability to do simple arithmetic or tie shoes. "Of course it's plugged in! I might not be a technical person but I know to check THAT." Hiding behind the words were additional messages that that could not have been clearer had they been spoken aloud. "How DARE you question my intelligence in front of our boss with that question? How could you possibly insult me like this? Who do you think you are?"

Chuckling a bit I replied "It's the first question we always ask, the first thing we check. The next thing is whether or not its turned on. You'd be surprised how many times one of those is the problem; even when we're the one experiencing it. I'll pop across the hall during the break and check on it for you."

The next hour passed slowly. The principal spent the time talking about issues in the school or glaring at me for the perceived insult I had laid upon them in front of our peers. Invisible daggers were flying through the air and, as needed, I dodged them skillfully.

The mid-morning break rolled into being and I popped up "Let me see what I can do about that printer." I was pleased to get out of the room for a variety of reasons.

The office was, literally, directly across the hallway. I walked into the inner office and found the laptop, resting happily on the stand that was used to hold it. I noted that the power cord was plugged into the laptop and so were two USB cables: one white, one black. I noticed the printer, sitting quietly in the corner of the desk with its power light lit up green. One quick look over the top of it showed me an important clue: a transparent USB cable.

I reached out and looped a finger under the cable and gently pulled. Up, up and up some more: there was no resistance to my efforts. Moments, and about three feet, passed when the far end of the cable appeared from behind the desk, dangling in the air before my eyes.

Turning my head I found that the black USB cable that was plugged into the computer ran to a palm pilot docking cradle and the white to the keyboard. Examining the keyboard yielded two USB ports, one of which had the mouse plugged into it.

I simply unplugged the palm pilot cradle from the laptop and plugged it into the remaining port on the keyboard; replacing it with the USB able that ran to the printer.

Immediately upon the cable being seated into the laptop the printer woke and responded. It came to life and began to print a document. I took the moment to examine the printing queue and found that 57 copies of the same document had been sent to the printer (because, obviously, if the print command didn't work one should just do it again, and again, and again). I closed the print queue and grabbed the one page that had finished printing to take with me.

Crossing the hall felt good. I had solved the problem and I had the chance to redeem myself in the eyes of my peers and my supervisor.

I strolled into the room, the last to rejoin the group, and handed the paper to the principal whose office I had just quitted.

"Is this the document you were trying to print?" I asked, politely and nicely.

"Yes" was the short reply, "thank you."

"No problem. Glad I could take care of it for you. The rest is printing now."

I sat, ready to rejoin the meeting without another word but the snarkiness from the other side couldn't be contained. "Well, what was wrong with it?" I was asked, in an effort to corner me in the room with everyone watching; an effort to back the bus back over me after the earlier inflicted professional wounds.

"Oh, it was easy. It wasn't plugged in, as soon as I plugged it in it started printing. If you'll all pardon me a moment I'll just go ahead and close the case I opened for this in our ticket system."

I opened the laptop. I opened the ticket file. I changed its status to closed and applied the status to my laptop, too.

The meeting resumed with me trying to avoid smiling and with another party fuming so greatly that one might mistake them for an active volcano that is ready to explode.

No one in that district questioned my inquiry about being plugged in again.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite support request was from a salesperson who came to me with a report that her mouse was all messed up. Someone must have changed it to left handed while she was out, she suggested, and she didn't have time to figure out how to get it back to the right setting. This seemed curious given that the computer was an iMac with a one button mouse. Turns out she had it rotated 180 degrees.

    Second favorite, and more inline with the theme of your article, was a misbehaving network which was eventually found to be caused by an Ethernet cable coming out of a wall socket, going around a corner, and into another wall socket.