Editorial

Friday Fun: Tales from an IT Service Desk

Call it what you like--Service Desk, Helpdesk, IT, etc.--we have all had interactions with some poor operator, on the phone or in person, who has helped you resolve whatever computer problem(s) you’ve experienced.

In my day job, I am such an operator. To be fair, my job title is fancier than that, but ultimately I help my employer’s customers with their IT issues. There are a number of things I love about my job, and very few I hate. I love the technologies I deal with and the people I work with.  I have it good.

But I want to talk about some of the questions I get asked when I answer the phone, or pick up a call logged with the helpdesk. If given the opportunity, I’d like to make it a regular thing, reporting on the good, the bad and the stupid! I stress this is all good-natured, and I am sure the IT helpdesk operator in all of us can have a little chuckle at the issues we respond to on a regular basis.

Is there a problem?
One of the best questions that I regularly get asked is one that remains to this day so vague, you could answer “no” and the user have to accept your answer. That question is:

Is there a problem with the server?

I know, from experience, what is wrong with that question. The best way I can describe it, is in my response to the user(s) who ask me.

[User] Is there a problem with the server?
[Me] Not that I’m aware of. Can you be more specific?

Now, this has the potential to open up a can of worms. At the moment, only one person is having an issue, so could it be a PICNIC error (Problem In Chair Not In Computer)? Well at this point who knows, and do you know why? I don’t even know what “server” they think might be causing their problems! Bear in mind that as I support multiple customers, so they are going to be talking about their environment. I could be a real tool when I answer, but no matter who asks, the response can be altered accordingly.

[User] Is there a problem with the server?
[Me] I am not sure, let me think….. you have a total of 30 servers on site, all of which provide you, the end user with services such as email and fax, file and print, database, internet connectivity, antivirus and collaboration tools. Beyond your walls, you use online services, with servers that send and receive email and data between yourselves and your customers. So tell me end user, what exactly do you think is the problem?!

If I’m honest, this question amuses me, simply because I know I could be a tool, or I could go into a technical rant about the number of servers in the company; but I don’t. However, it does beg the question, does the user calling think I sit and watch the servers, waiting for a little green LED to turn red, leaping into action to resolve the problem behind the red LED? Maybe they do. I’ve never asked them why they think I would know. I know the reason they ask though; they think that as soon as there is a problem, it’s them or “the server”, and if it is the server, I could be aware of it as other users could have called and reported the issue.

My email has been blocked!
Now that it’s been firmly established that I sit and watch a panel of blinking green and red LEDs, the next gem revolves around email.

It’s common practice for businesses and organisations to filter their incoming emails. It cuts down on spam, viruses and malware and allows the mail servers to process only the necessary mail that the users need. There are many different solutions out there, some free that aren’t worth the code in which it’s been written, online services that act as a stop gap between your environment and the sender and premium solutions that block legitimate email. This is exactly what happened in a position I was in working for one of the public services about six years ago.

Once a week, usually a Wednesday or a Thursday, a decent user - let’s call them A - used to frequent our office requesting that a blocked email be released. After a few weeks she politely asked could this particular email address be made exempt from the filters as it was information both A and the sender were relying on to complete certain reports. Our response? “No problem!

What followed was a four day ordeal going from A, to us in the IT department, to the third party IT support contractor who provided the software, to the software vendor itself, trying to figure out why this email address was being blocked. The reason? Bad language.

Now this wasn’t the case, but I’ll never forget the conversation between us and the software vendor when it finally came to light what was wrong. I will be as accurate as I can when telling you what was wrong. At this point we were in a teleconference with the vendor, with them having remote access to our onsite email filters.

[Us] Seriously, there’s no bad language in any of the mails A is sending to them [the recipient in question]. We’ve even tested it, sending from our mailboxes and it’s being blocked.
[Vendor] Can you try it again while we’re on the phone, we have one other thing we can try. We’ve got a script we want to run that will flag up the words that are triggering the filter, but we want to see it live if possible.
[Us] Yeah, tell me when you want to send it, we’re ready to hit send.
[Vendor] Do it now.
[Us] That’s it sent.
[Vendor] ….. Yep, we’ve got it.
[Us] So, what is it?
[Vendor] …..
[Us] Hello?!
[Vendor] Sorry. *cough* we just needed a second.

Without going into too much more, we could hear the childish sniggering down the phone. We didn’t mind, as it was more relief that the issue looked like it was going to be resolved, but it was only when we were informed why any mails to or from this person would be flagged did we laugh as well. You’ll also not be able to visit the place, or see it on a map or road signs without thinking it’s the most offensive place in the world. And what was the domain we were sending emails to?

@scunthorpeambulanceservice.com

Without being offensive for the sake of it, letters two to five of Scunthorpe should explain everything.

The next step was explaining to the higher ups in our organisation what the outcome was and why it had occurred. Queue lots of circling the hidden rude word and pointing it out, with reactions ranging from an embarrassed “oh, okay then” to a hearty “Ha!” Although like A, they were delighted. Amused at first, but ultimately delighted that we’d got to the bottom of their issue.

I think the best thing you can take away from this is that no matter how innocent you think something is, it may not be! I still look at email address domains now searching for rude words.

What I actually do
I like the users I deal with; most of them are savvy enough to let me work away and provide them with a solution, but what do I actually do?

It’s pretty amazing that as soon as there is an issue with a system, unless we’ve seen or dealt with the same issue previously, we consult knowledge bases for possible solutions and answers. Thankfully, my work has a great helpdesk system that we can search for keywords and see if the same, or other, customer(s) had the same issue. But if not, we do what has been ingrained into society; we Google it.

What’s frightening, to me at least, is the level of knowledge that people in IT had to have 20 years ago, when computers started to become part of the mainstream. They didn’t have Google. Hell, they might not have even had any form of knowledge base to record problems and resolutions. They kept it all up here (I’m pointing to my head now). Okay yeah, systems were simpler, but the processes behind them were just as complex as they are today.

I guess it’s good to know that any IT issue will have been seen by at least one other person and that person will probably have Googled it, and asked for help, in the hope of finding a solution as well.

Until next time!

Images courtesy of and Shutterstock, Express Arab and What People Think I Do!

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