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IT Support 101

As many of the followers of this blog will know, I do IT support and programming for a New Zealand university. After just spending 4 days away from “home base ” doing some quite intense and varied work I thought I might list a few hints for aspiring IT support people and anyone else who might have a passing interest. I have worked in IT since the days of the Apple II and have learned a few things in that time!

OK, here’s some of my best hints…

Hint 1: passwords.

It has been shown to be psychologically impossible for users to remember their passwords, and in the unlikely event that they do remember a password it will be even worse because it will be the wrong one, they will enter 10 times in a row, and they will lock themselves out of their own accounts.

Many users also “don’t have a password” for their email and other services. When you hear this you know you are in trouble because, of course, they do have a password which is provided automatically by the software. Generally on a Mac this can be retrieved from the system keychain – if you can get the master password for that!

Next, if a user has a password and they can remember it then it will most likely be something incredibly secure like “password” or “123” and the clue for these will naturally be “password” or “123”. Also, when you visit the same person several years later it will still be the same.

My solution to this is to give the user a reasonably secure password and record it somewhere safe for them (only with their permission, of course). I would recommend an encrypted document (with a really secure master password) and this will be stored on your hard disk which is also automatically encrypted, right? Bonus hint: get a Mac and use Apple’s built-in system, FileVault 2, which is secure enough for most situations.

Hint 2: help.

It is extremely rare to find a help system in any software which is particularly helpful. In fact I would say that all built-in help systems are basically useless. Luckily there is an alternative: our old friend Google! Yes, google the question or problem (google is now a valid verb meaning to search the web using Google) and you will generally get a much better answer much more quickly than you can get from any help system.

You do have to be aware of one effect though. That is that every new program, computer, or anything else will have many people complaining about its basic deficiencies whether these issues really exist or not. So don’t take too much notice of general comments that a certain system simply doesn’t work, especially when there is a trendy meme on that topic.

Sometimes the problem with googling (a noun derived from the verb google) is finding an answer which is specific enough. I like to include error numbers or unusual words which are more likely to give more specific information. Don’t google “Microsoft Word crash” because you’ll get millions of answers (that particular query might even overload Google!). Try “word mac hangs at launch” or something like that. Even better, use the Console app (on Mac) to check error logs and find more specific error information.

Hint 3: generic solutions.

Have you ever contacted a helpdesk and been told to reset your modem, restart your computer, rebuild a database, re-install your software, or just to “try it again?” Of course you have! These are what I call “generic solutions” and they are usually (but not always) given when the person has no idea what is going on.

That’s not to say that they won’t work or that you shouldn’t use them, but by using them you do lose something. Specifically you lose the chance to really know what went wrong, because the information needed to diagnose the source of the problem might be lost after a reboot, etc.

So I recommend trying to actually solve the issue unless you specifically know of a problem which cannot be fixed realistically any other way. In some cases I use this solution myself, usually when I want a particularly nasty problem to just go away. For example Microsoft Outlook is a horrendous mess which often corrupts its master database. I’ve never figured out why and would prefer it if people just didn’t use the program, but if they do use it and when (not if) the database becomes corrupted a rebuild is an easy solution.

Hint 4: burning bridges.

Some functions we perform on computers cannot be undone, or if they can be it might involve a huge effort. For example, deleting a settings file, because you think it is corrupt, might fix a problem. But on the other hand it might not fix it, and it might create more problems because valuable settings are lost.

So just move it to a new location or rename it instead. Remember that if you just move it some programs will continue to use it, even in the new location, even if that location is the trash! Relaunching the program, including any background processes, will usually persuade it to relinquish control of the file. And yes, reboot if you must!

If the process above doesn’t fix the problem you can just reverse the steps to get back to where you were. Don’t forget that any file re-created when the app launches will be in use and won’t be able to be replaced unless you quit the app first.

Hint 5: everyone is different.

Every user, every job, every computer, and every situation is different. Don’t get too hung up on policies, rules and regulations. These can be useful as general guidelines but I prefer to evaluate every case on its own merits and come up with an optimal solution for the user. Of course, many bureaucrats don’t like this but I always feel I am there for the users, not the bureaucrats.

Naturally this idea is a bit contentious so use it sensibly. If there are corporate requirements which aren’t too onerous it makes sense to follow them rather than risk problems later. Choose which battles are worth fighting!

Hint 6: don’t panic, and be nice.

This is the ultimate hint really and one that can be very difficult to always follow. I do have to say that on occasions I get frustrated with poor infrastructure, substandard programs some people are forced to use, and outdated hardware which really should be replaced, and might launch into a rant regarding the unfairness of it all.

I generally regret these and a simple statement like: “Unfortunately our network is very unreliable so we can’t give a perfect solution to this problem”, or “Yes, Microsoft PowerPoint often does that and I’m sorry but it can’t be fixed by anyone except Microsoft” is more effective anyway.

Also, don’t try to force people into working in a way which doesn’t suit them. When I was a beginner computer support person I tried to persuade people to adopt a zero desktop clutter policy, or to use PDFs instead of printing, but I now realize that is the wrong approach.

Many people just like throwing junk on their desktop even though I believe it is better to reserve it for stuff which is currently being used or awaiting being filed in a permanent location. By the way, the ability to find files amongst the clutter by just typing the first few letters of their name is a revelation to some users!

And most people still really like paper and I can see why because it has a lot of benefits, so let them use paper if they must. Maybe creating a preset to print double-sided might be a more valuable contribution to saving the trees than trying to eliminate paper completely.

Sometimes people have such hideous computer habits that it is worth trying to correct them. For example I once had a user who stored her documents in the trash because then they “wouldn’t use space on her disk”! That was an accident waiting to happen. And if people store so many items on their desktop that they overflow and pile up on top of each other at the top-right of the screen it is worth encouraging them to use an alternative strategy.

A secret stealth weapon I often use is to be nice. Many people get stressed when their computer is misbehaving and they might not treat you as well as they should. But being nice back to them – even if they are being a real ass – is something they might not expect and often works really well.

I once had a senior manager call me and rant about something I had done and when he threatened to never let me work in his department again I said “That’s unfortunate because apart from this I thought we had a really good working relationship”. I then went on to explain why I had done what I had done and he agreed that he had over-reacted. In the end he apologized to me!

So those are my IT support 101 hints. I hope you find them useful. Now I just need to take my own advice and eliminate those rants!

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