Crazy tech support stories

An IT support specialist remembers the calls that made him push the mute button while he pulled himself together

I'm one of the people who answers your call or e-mail when you have a computer or software problem. I've been doing it for years at a range of organizations. And there's a reason that I sound like a 911 operator when you call, with that oddly dispassionate demeanor: Some of your calls and e-mails are real doozies, and if it weren't for the Mute button, I'd have gotten fired years ago for my laughter or exclamations in response to some of the stuff I hear.

All of us in tech support rely on the Mute button to hide our reactions when one of those calls comes in, and on IM to chatter about them quietly, for the need to share as well as to get possible answers from each other. Think about it: I'm on the phone and can't see what you're calling about, yet I have to figure it out and then walk you through the fix. Now that takes some skill, focus, and perhaps obsession!

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But I have to admit that even the crazy cases usually reveal some new insight on how to solve the next person's problem -- or even my own.

After all, even tech support folks like me run into issues: I'm reminded of an incident from childhood, where my family had just gotten its first PC, a hulking AT-style machine, and -- budding geek that I was -- I decided to use autoexec.bat to automate access to apps by pressing numbers in a text menu that appeared at startup. However, I managed to create two autoexec.bat files in different directories and cross-link them, so the PCs simply got stuck in an endless cycle of menu loads. After hours of trying to figure out the problem, I went to my parents tearfully and told them I broke their computer. "You broke it, you fix it -- and fast," was the gist of their response, so the next day at school I told the computer expert there what I had done. "Press and hold Ctrl-C to abort it," he advised. "That's so simple. Why didn't I know that?" I thought.

That's why today, when even the smartest people have the silliest lapses -- like not realizing that the power is down in their building and that's why the computer won't start -- I can share these crazy support stories with humility and a straight face (at least, as far as you can tell).

"The ball is bouncing ... and exploding!"I used to work for a tech-support company with many small-business clients. One client was notorious for an Indian gentleman who would call with extremely naïve questions and who clearly had little familiarity with computers. If he called at the end of a shift, support staff tended to save the call for someone on the next shift to handle.

One evening after hours, he called and left a message that mystified us all: "The ball is bouncing. It is bouncing. And exploding!" he exclaimed in his endearing accent. When I called him back the next day, he repeated the story, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what he meant. He just kept saying, "The ball is bouncing, the ball is exploding!" During the call, a number of my coworkers collected outside of my cubicle, listening to the conversation, trying to supply tips, and giggling quietly.

[ Users are by no means alone when it comes to hard-headedness in the IT world. See "Stupid user tricks 3: IT admin follies" and "True IT confessions" for real-world tales of folks who should know better fouling up. ]

Then it dawned on me. The screen saver! -- set by someone to the "bouncing ball" that shatters when it "hits" the screen edges. I asked him to move the mouse. "What mouse? There is no mouse!" he exclaimed.

"Press the space bar," I said.

"Oh! The ball went away!" he cheered.

I began to explain to him about screen savers, and as we were talking, he stopped suddenly and exclaimed, "The ball is bouncing again! The ball is exploding again!" I patiently explained that when this happened, all he had to do was move the "mouse" or press any key. And I made a note in his account to turn off his screen saver the next time someone worked on his PC in person.

What did she just say?Users can say the darnedest things, and you're not always sure if there's a hidden intent. At one company, with a trainee technician on the phone with me, I was talking a client through a server swap. We had backed up the client's original Unix server to tape and needed her to disconnect the cables to it, slide in the replacement loaner, and hook up the network, power, and other cables to it.

So I explain this to the woman, who responds by saying, "So you want me to crawl under the table to do that, right? Well, luckily I'm good on my back." Before the trainee tech could gasp or laugh, I hit the Mute button, then explained that client come-ons do happen. Was that the case here? I don't think so; her tone was more daringly playful than anything. My tone, when the mute was off again, was standard "neutral tech." There are some lines you don't go near, much less cross.

Umm, I don't see a footpedal in your manifestOne of the challenges of phone support is that you can't see what's happening. And that makes for some amusing false leads every once in a while -- it's almost the blind leading the blind.

At one job, I was helping a client install a new PC, with me giving her directions over the phone as she unpacked the box, connected the cables, and so on. At some point, she asked me how to set up the footpedal. "Footpedal? That's odd," I thought. But we did occasionally sell imaging systems that use footpedals to help navigate the display and control, such as for zooming.

I checked her order manifest to see what system she got and to find out the footpedal model she had, so I could help her specifically. But the manifest had no footpedal in it. She then mentioned she thought it was an awfully small footpedal and was concerned it wouldn't work well with her feet.

The light began to dawn, so I asked her what brand of footpedal it was. "Dell," she replied. Bingo! It was her mouse. And it definitely did not belong on the floor.

An ergonomic step too farFor some reason, I've done lots of support work for doctors and veterinarians, who are some of the smartest people around. But they sometimes are -- how shall I put it? -- disconnected from the physical world.

Case in point: I got a call from one vet who had a mobile practice; she treated animals in a converted ice cream truck she drove from site to site. Her question was what joystick-style mouse did I recommend for her laptop. I did some research for her while she was on the phone, but all I could find were gaming joysticks, and those didn't seem right. So I asked her what she was looking for in a joystick and why she thought she wanted one. (I was thinking to myself that I might check with a rehab facility to see what kind of joysticks they could recommend, as they would be more familiar with devices designed for specific ergonomic or physiological needs.)

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Then I got her answer: It would be easier to operate the laptop with a joystick while she was driving. I explained in that neutral 911-style voice that it was probably not a good idea to use a computer while driving. I don't think she was completely convinced; it was clear she did want to end the call without getting some satisfaction.

So she asked me what kind of cleaner she should use to remove the Sharpie marks off her laptop screen. I wanted to say that they call them permanent markers for a reason, but restrained myself. She pushed for an answer, so I put her on hold and called the laptop's manufacturer, which made a recommendation but warned me that the ink would probably not come off. I found out later the manufacturer was right and the vet never did get the ink marks off the screen.

Dealing with a dead mouseThe ticket in the help desk system was short and sweet: "Tech on site: dead mouse." That seemed like an easy problem to deal with, so when I called the tech -- who had gone to the site to replace a drive in the client's RAID array -- I expected to be told what brand mouse and what type of connector I needed to put on order.

Instead, my colleague told me he had a real dead mouse: A pesky rodent had gotten into the sealed server enclosure without tripping the containment alarm, then died. Fortunately for him, the mouse corpse had desiccated and was easy to remove and dispose of. Fortunately for me, I was on the phone and didn't have to deal with it directly.

When support gets too dangerousOne of my earliest experiences in being a support tech involved running cables in a manufacturing facility. The place had robots moving about, machines processing various materials, you name it: lots of metal, lots of wires, and lots of obstructions. To do the wiring, I had to get in a cage and be hoisted over the machinery so that I could run the cabling above, winding it through and running it over various things -- many of which were highly conductive.

Plus, much of the equipment had huge capacitors that were prone to explode, filling the facility with clouds of acrid smoke -- or so I was warned. Thoughts of being fried entered my head, especially when I was told that if something went wrong I was to stay in the metal cage until brought down.

Yeah, right. I did that job once, then bailed. I don't fight with electricity. It may be trickier to figure out stuff over the phone, but I don't have to worry about exploding equipment. Well, I guess there is the chance that a battery in one of the laptops cluttering my cubicle might explode.

This story, "The supporting life: Crazy user tech-support stories," was originally published at Follow the crazy goings-on of the tech industry in Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog and the anonymous Off the Record blog at

This story, "Crazy tech support stories" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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