April 01, 2005

Curious George: Accidental Tech Support You know how it is. Someone finds out you know what "RAM" is and the next thing you know you're 24/7 tech support for your whole department. How do you handle it?

It started out OK. I do get paid for it (I just bill by the hour) but it's starting to get strange. My department doesn't have an actual IT person, so I somehow ended up as webmaster, computer room tech, on-call for "Oh Shit!" moments by faculty and now I get a call to help with a video recording session. So this is a two-parter. First, I'm a grad student. I won't be here forever. I'm actually planning on finishing this summer. Aside from the obvious (IE, making sure someone knows the passwords for the server), how do I go about making sure that after I'm out of the picture someone else will be able to take care of this stuff? And secondly, as this sort of thing seems to be following me wherever I go, I might as well ask: If you find yourself doing tech support (accidental or otherwise), what do you keep in your bag of mission-critical tools (hardware, software, or otherwise)? People ask me "how do you know so much about computers?" I usually reply "They're a bit like cars - you don't learn a thing about them if they work."

  • I ignore them when they ask in an online forum. Meatspace - I'm good with it.
  • You're a nearly-finished grad student and you're throwing away a paying job? Jesus!
  • >>My department doesn't have an actual IT person well, you go to your department and say, "obviously, we need an actual IT person as i've been doing this on my own. how's about you hire me to do this full time?" unless, of course, you'd rather be a philosopher or donut baker or firefighter or something else.
  • I have a t-shirt that says, "No I will not fix your computer". I break it out whenever necessary.
  • Well, SideDish, it's not really my idea of a paying job. I happen to know how much my department has budgeted for tech support (Our server is a 200 mhz hunk of crap I rescued from a recycle bin - that give you an idea?). It's also not my area of expertise (I'm a zoologist, not a comp sci or engineering major), and all told money-wise probably accounts for about $50-$100 a month or so. It's not something I can live on. I teach for a living, and it's really what I'd like to do. I see the tech help as supplemental income to allow me to buy a new toy now and then (My own home computer was pretty much fully funded, one part at a time, by my department). It also sort of amuses me that people ask me for tech help when I really don't feel I know all that much about computers. Sure, I can disassemble one, reassemble it and have a decent chance of it still working, but I don't see that as a major skill thing. I can generally take apart and rebuild most things as long as I don't lose too many pieces in the process. Honestly, I learned what I do know mostly through messing around, breaking something, and trying desperately to fix it afterwards. Heck, the only reason I learned some basic DOS commands in the first place was so that I could get Doom to boot on my buddy's ancient computer back in 1993 or so. I think I know just enough to sound like I'm sure of myself, but more importantly I know when I'm in over my head, and I know where to start looking for help. It's really strange to me. My brother does actual tech support and training; he has Microsoft certifications in some such thing or other, and yet I get more calls from family members when a computer won't boot. I just can't imagine that I'm the only person in this situation - the guy down the hall at work who knows how to fix that weird noise the computer makes, the family tech person who spends half of each visit home trying to get Uncle So-and-so's computer up and running again...
  • how do I go about making sure that after I'm out of the picture someone else will be able to take care of this stuff? you don't - you're not the manager, it's not your responsibility. if you don't want to be the IT guy, do exactly what you've outlined - give them the passwords, info on any custom tweaks, and let them find your replacement.
  • I had a similar experience at my last job. welcome to the the tech support generation! you'll need to leave explicit instructions on everything. I wrote out a few pages of material and included links to helpful websites. I even wrote out the passwords, though I know it's not the right thing to do from a security standpoint. You may want to see if another grad student in your department is tech-savvy and wouldn't mind an extra $50-$100 a month, and start grooming a replacement.
  • In the end it isn't your problem so you probably shouldn't worry about it too much. I mean, write up some documentation and give people passwords but beyond that they should probably budget for more tech support. And as far as getting out of accidental tech support on a regular basis: Lie. Or at the very least, adjust your priorities. Tell them you don't know how to help them. Tell them you are too busy to deal with it. Typically you only have to do that for a little while and people readjust their thinking and know you're not the go to guy for all tech support. I know it kind of sounds cold, but it really isn't your problem.
  • The crappy thing is (a) I like mucking around with computers as a hobby, and (b) any source of extra income is good news for a grad student. Compound that with the fact that I really like the people who are asking me for help - It isn't a bunch of folks I never actually interact with outside of help, it's generally a bunch of people who I work with on a regular basis and am on good terms with. I think I'd have a much easier time saying "no" if I didn't know people well, disliked them or was actually making more money to begin with. [I've found that letting people know about (a) is a bad idea, though. When they think you like it they're less willing to pay for the help.] So it is sort of my problem, I guess. I've been willing to help for about 5 years now, and that gets around. It generates a lot of goodwill for me, too... There have definitely been times at which others have paid me back for the tech support in terms of influence within the department. (Having the department chair on your side is a good thing!) But it's my problem in that I've allowed myself to become the guy who people ask for help. I don't let it interfere with my own progress towards my dissertation (I spend a whole lot more time letting teaching interfere with that - but hey, that's my planned career choice, so why not?) but I have spent a significant amount of time trying to help other people understand why computers break, rather than just fixing and leaving. Half the time it saves me a return trip. I don't know. I guess it's going to be up to me to finish the thesis and then spend the remainder of the summer documenting things.
  • I would say the easiest thing would be to go to someone and say, "look, you know I'm graduating soon, right? So who's going to do this when I'm gone?" Then let them freak out and take care of it.
  • Blessedly, I am only expert in Mac stuff, so that knocks off a big portion of friends who would want me to help them with their computers, but since I live in Hollywood and Mac is a "creative computer" I still tend to get some folks hankerin' after free advice. Most of those I refer to a Mac tec that I go to when I'm against the wall. The worse offender is my sister. She will call me to say that a folder of photos were eaten by her iMac, or some such thing. The only thing that I could figure out to do is to buy her OSX for Dummies and Office X for Dummies. She still calls me with inane questions, but with a bit less frequency.
  • I've been through this a few times myself. Write down everything you do in a week. From 'Oh the printer won't work' (does it have paper?) to 'My hard disk has exploded'. Hand it to your manager, let him know the scope of what you do, and what he needs to put in place when your gone. Let him know, subtley, that with you out of the picture, people are probably going to be bringing these issues to him... He will have a new person in place within hours if he knows whats good for him. Next time your in the same sitiuation, and someone asks 'hey! my mouse doesnt work', don't be so eager to be the first guy to shout 'its just a bit of lint in the bottom, unscrew the ...' Do like everyone else and just shrug and look puzzled. In my experience, people offload this stuff onto the 'eager' and really overplay (intentionally in a lot of cases) the 'oh im so dumb, I just dont get it' card. Most support stuff, is as you've said - easy. People ask you[me] to do it because you are[I am] the sort of person that is happy to help a friend out. Being the office techy means you are[I am] 50% as effective at what you are[I am] actually being paid for. Avoid it like the plague. It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and before you now it you'll be railroaded into a position that you hate, and that you are probably underpaid and over qualified to do... [Im not bitter!] G'Luck.
  • There are plenty of CS dropouts in the Telecom department with nothing better to do; I'd give them a shot, I think Bob LaRose is still the grad director; BTW GO GREEN!
  • On Second thought, Ron Chura or Tom Muth might be a better avenue.
  • more importantly I know when I'm in over my head, and I know where to start looking for help THIS statement, folks, is the sign of a truly intelligent and educated person. Keep teachin' Frogs, the world needs more teachers like you.
  • Work on expressions of dumbfoundedness in the mirror and apply them accompanied by phrases like "Wow, that is crazy!" "I've never seen THAT happen before." "I can't figure it out when Word does that, either." "You are shit out of luck." "Give it a smack." "I am so, like, stumped and stuff."
  • "Try picking up the monitor and shaking it."
  • I agree....not your problem...they should have solved this long ago....
  • I once worked in a university department and we were supposed to call a central help desk if we had a computer problem. Having someone right there in our office who knew how to fix it may have been very useful, but there was a whole team of people at our school whose job it was to fix hardware & software problems for everybody who worked on campus. It was sort of like waiting for the cable guy if it required an in-house visit, but it eventually got fixed. If you've got the same situation at your school, perhaps that's the way you should leave things for your department? Of course they'll quickly see how spoiled they were to have you around, and they'll probably increase the budget to hire someone with your skills, but they'll always sigh wistfully when they think of the olden days. And you'll be long gone, trying to look blank if someone asks you about T1 lines or operating systems.
  • I say "go with it". I got my Master's in Mechanical Engineering, but was always the "computer guy" on the hall, department, family, etc. Now I'm an indy computer consultant making more $$ than I ever could have in engineering. You obviously have an aptitude for this stuff. Why fight it when there's a great career to be had?
  • You know what RAM is? Will you fix my AOL?
  • My computer never has problems. Did you do that?? 0< look a duck
  • I thought the same thing as Mickey - if you work for a university, are you sure your department doesn't already have a office for computer support? Just about every university I've been at/heard of has huge computer help department - many of the techs are undergrads working part-time, but they are also often very competent (the office at my uni popped out my harddrive and saved all my data for me after a serious HD failure - made me so happy). Now, whether your colleagues know which office to call for it may be another matter. I totally understand why you've taken the work, but if you are leaving, it would seem the most practical thing would be to print out the webpage with the relevent emails and phone numbers for computer support and post it around your lab. This does remind me of the time when I showed my advisor how to reorganise his email by clicking on "name" at the top of his mail reader program. Not that he isn't ten times the historian that I'll ever be, of course.
  • I was never the go-to person at my undergrad for computers, but I *was* the secretary in one department. One day I cam in and saw 5 desperately undercaffinated professors standing around the coffee machine, wondering how it worked. It was very cute, and I got to tell "how many Ph.D.s does it take to make a cup of coffee?" jokes for months.
  • Why fight it when there's a great career to be had? I don't know if it's a great career. My fiance does this sort of stuff for a living. He complains on occasion that things can run smoothly for months at a time and he'll never get any credit or praise or kind words, but the minute something goes down he catches shit from everyone. Every bad thing that happens is somehow IT's fault - power outages, some dumbass who has capslock on when typing in a password, you name it.
  • However, he does have some good stories. Recently he got a frantic call because a coworker had sent a 600 page document to the printer when she only wanted to print 1 page. She was screaming that it wouldn't stop printing. He told her to unplug it and she unplugged her computer instead.
  • RTFM!