Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Hymn to the IT man

We all know that the first thing an electrician does when he looks at your installation is suck his teeth, shake his head and ask ‘who set this lot up for you, then?’

It’s a completely useless question. You probably have no idea how to answer it and if you did, it wouldn’t advance the discussion anyway. But they all do it – I’ve even heard it from a French electrician, although in his case he asked what sort of a pastry chef (patissier) had worked on the house before.

It’s infuriating, isn’t it? But electricians are mild irritants in the stream of life compared to IT specialists. I’ll spend hours working on a hopelessly corrupt or failing system before I admit to any IT person that I’ve got a problem. The humiliation and frustration are just too horrible to contemplate.

Imagine you use a piece of software that’s crucial to your work. The day you have a 2:00 p.m. deadline, you’ll come in nice and early to get things finished. Inevitably, that will be when the software refuses to boot up. If you’re like me you’ll struggle for a couple of hours before finally giving in and ringing IT.

Now I’m absolutely convinced that the young people who sign up for computer science courses are, in the main, relatively normal, more or less balanced. They are capable, for instance, of operating phones. In particular, they know how to answer them, and I’m sure they don’t lose that skill after graduation, at least as far as their personal phones are concerned.

So why is it if you phone an IT department you always get through to voicemail?

The voicemail announcement ends ‘leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.’ So you do that and go back to tinkering with your system. After an hour you ring again but still get the voicemail. After another half hour you decide to go down to tge IT department yourself.

The character you’re after is at his desk peering at a computer screen covered, apparently, with binary code. On his desk is a photo of himself and his young family taken a few years earlier, showing him with a neat haircut and a casual but smart shirt. Today he has a greasy pigtail half way down his back and is wearing a black tee shirt over a growing paunch. The shirt bears the slogan ‘make my day – ask me for technical support’. He’s chewing gum in a way that suggests Wrigley's has somehow caused him unforgivable offence.

You stand humbly by his desk until he deigns to acknowledge your presence. You explain your problem.

‘You’re not asking for support today are you?’ he asks.

Well, yes, that is what you were after since your deadline is for this afternoon.

Have you noticed how these guys are always hopelessly busy? They can spend anything up to an hour explaining to you why they can’t spare ten minutes for your trivial problem.

Eventually, however, he agrees to give you exactly that – ten minutes. ‘Not a minute more though,’ he makes clear, he’s got far too much to do. ‘Still, that’s all it’ll take,’ he assures you in a sudden outbreak of sympathy for a fellow human being, to demonstrate that he hasn't entirely forgotten how it's done. He accompanies you back to your desk.

This is where your problems really start. No IT person can possibly see someone else’s system and focus on the single problem causing concern. He comes over all electrician, teeth-sucking and all.

‘Jesus, you’re running Google desktop.’

‘Yes, I use it a lot.’

‘We’ve been taking it off everyone’s machines. It uses much too much disk space.’

‘But I’ve got 150 gig free out of 180.’

‘Even so, even so. Terribly resource hungry application.’

You start to tell him he can uninstall it if he wants when he interrupts you to point out something sill some dire.

‘Oh no, you’re on Service Pack 2. No wonder your system’s playing up. All machines are supposed to be on Service Pack 3 now. How did yours slip through the net?’

You have no idea, but that’s no help.

Fortunately, he’s fully up to dealing with the difficulty. ‘Not to worry.I don’t even have to go back to my desk. I can download the service pack over the network and install it at once.’

He starts the process. One of those wonderful little progress bars of Microsoft’s appears. ‘Remaining time 2 hours 38 minutes’ it tells you, but you have barely time to register the horror before it has fallen to 9 minutes 37 seconds. Ten seconds later it’s disconcertingly down to 5 minutes and 15 seconds. A full 14 minutes after that it's still showing 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Another nine minutes on, it’s finally finished, having taken nearly 25 minutes, nothing like the first time announced, but nothing like any of the other times either.

I keep wanting to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, but I’m afraid their progress bars give the game away. No company responsible for as diabolical a gadget as that can be regarded as truly honest. Not in any sense of the word ‘honest’ that I understand.

Anyway, it’s done now. The IT man smiles at you encouragingly. All that remains is to reboot the machine and, after having taken an hour and a quarter to get started on a job he’d reckoned he’d sort in ten minutes, he’ll finally be able to take a look at it.

Then the screen turns blue.

And you hear the words that finally ram the iron into your soul. ‘You have got a full back up of your system, haven’t you?’

And this is what they call a support service.

No comments: