Contest #4: Helpless User Stories

Here's your fourth and final chance to win an iPod or one of 36 other prizes in the Great Tech Call-'Em-Like-You-See-'Em Contest. Share your weird user tales to win!

June 27, 2005

13 Min Read
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Welcome to the final week of The Great Tech Call-'Em-Like-You-See-'Em Contest, the contest where you can win one of two iPods, plus one of 36 other cool prizes.

What's it all about? Well, each week for the past four weeks we've been expounding on a different theme in a series of short essays by various TechWeb editors. Then we let our readers take over by submitting their own contributions.

The topics are:

  • The Software Hall Of Fame: What is your favorite software app of the last 10 years? (There's still time to enter!)

  • The Hardware Hall Of Fame: What's the best hardware you've come across in the past decade? (Enter any time!)

  • The Next Big Thing: There's a lot of great stuff coming up. What tech do you see in your future? (Still open -- don't forget to enter!)

  • Helpless User Stories: Tell us your best, funniest, and/or most horrifying story of user lo-jinks. (Enter at the end of this story.)

    This week, we're looking for Helpless User Stories from IT professionals in the trenches. We've canvassed support tech personnel for both actual horror stories and those classic urban legends that just won't fade away. The results -- amusing, horrifying, or just plain exasperating -- follow.

    Now it's your turn. What's the most irritating thing a user has done on your watch? Which story gets your friends to buy you a beer? What do you talk about at 3 a.m. when you're waiting for the next call to come in?

    Please, keep the urban legend tales to a minimum -- we're really looking for some real-life tales to share with our readers. Feel free to leave out the names of culprits involved -- no need to embarrass anyone in front of the whole Internet. Do include the name of the company at which the incident took place; if we print your entry, we will withhold the company name at your request.

    Why would you want to share your favorite tech support story? To win prizes, of course!

    About The Contest
    How do you win? It's easy.

    1.  Read our list of helpless user stories. This week, we offer up a slew of IT support horror tales that colleagues have either experienced or heard about through the grapevine.2.  Write up to 500 words detailing your funniest user horror story. Remember, in our contest -- as in life -- style counts. Write as often as you like -- but each entry must be a different tale of user foibles.

    3.  Send us your deathless prose using the contest form on the last page of this article.

    4.  Keep your fingers crossed!

    All entries must be received by July 5th. On or around July 15th, our team of judges (drawn from the TechWeb Pipeline editors) will award the writers of the very best essays with one of our fantastic prizes:

  • Grand Prize: An Apple iPod Photo 30GB

  • First Prize: An Apple iPod Mini 6GB

  • 10 Second Prizes: X1 Technologies' X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition

  • 26 Runner-Up Prizes: Six Logitech QuickCams (three QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe and three QuickCam Communicate STX versions), 10 copies of Thornsoft Development's ClipMate Clipboard Extender for Windows, and 10 copies of Sunbelt Software's CounterSpy.

Please read the contest rules for important information. Many thanks to X1, Logitech, Thornsoft, and Sunbelt Software for contributing their goods to our cause.

This Week's Assignment: Helpless User Stories
Read on to enjoy the silly, stupid, and death-defying stories that we've collected from IT and support tech folks. After you've read our tales, share yours!

Favorite Help Desk Legends

We've all heard our fair share of tech support urban legends. In fact, there are more than a few Web sites dedicated to the topic, and every now and then one of these myths resurfaces with an "It's really true, I swear" e-mail from someone who's just discovered how to right-click.Here are some of our favorites.
This was back in the days of 5.25-inch floppies. A guy calls up tech support for his new software, saying it won't install. Tech support asks, "What's the problem?" The guy says he's up to disk seven, and the software is telling him to insert the next disk, and there's no room for any more disks in the disk drive.

Support Tech: "Click the My Computer icon to the left of the screen."

User: "Your left or my left?"

When troubleshooting a user's Internet Explorer problem, a support tech tells the user to open a new window. After a few minutes, the user asks if it would be all right to close the window. "Why?" asks the tech. Says the user: "Because it's getting really chilly in here."

Support Tech: "OK, Bob, hit 'p' to bring up the Program Manager."

User: "I don't have a 'p'."

Support Tech: "On your keyboard, Bob."User: "What do you mean?"

Support Tech: "'P' on your keyboard, Bob."

User: "I'm not going to do that!"

A support tech for a computer manufacturer got a call from a man having trouble getting his new computer to work. After nearly an hour of "Try this," "Try that," "Try the other thing," the tech finally asked, "Is the computer plugged in?""Plugged in?" came the reply. "You have to plug it in?"

The tech paused, then very calmly told the man to pack his computer back into its box and send it back to the factory.

"What should I tell them when I send it back?" asked the man.

"Tell them you're too stupid to own a computer."

Some more highlights on the urban legend hit list:

  • The user who complained that the coffee-cup-holder (really the CD tray) on her PC was broken.

  • The user who, upon being told to boot up his computer, gave it a good, swift kick.

  • The user who attached his 5.25-inch floppies to a file cabinet with a magnet.

  • The user who thought her mouse was a foot-pedal.

  • The user who, upon being told to press any key, asked, "Where's the Any key?"

Now it's time to get down and dirty -- and real. Read on for true-life tales from the trenches.
Of Laptops And Dishwashers

A support tech related this recent help-desk conversation:

User: "My laptop won't turn on."

Tech: "What happened?"

User: "I punched it."Tech: "Excuse me?"

User: "It wasn't working right, so I punched it. That works on my dishwasher at home."

Tech: "Right..."


A Spider Is Worth A Thousand Pleas

From a sysadmin at a science museum:

One of the scientists -- an entomologist -- kept asking for an FTP connection. I didn't want to give it to her, and kept putting her off.One day, I arrived at work to find a jar sitting on my desk. Inside the jar was a black widow spider -- a live black widow spider. Under the jar was a note: "Please, may I have FTP?"

She got it -- but afterward we had a long, long talk.


They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

A hardware support tech tells this tale:

I once had a user (let's just describe him as a high-level director at a large financial firm) who, back in 1996 when laptops were extremely expensive --several thousand dollars -- brought his laptop to me and told me to return it to IBM. He explained that the screen was defective and didn't work.

There was a bullet hole right in the middle of the display.Thanks to Tim Maffei, Jim Freund, and Michael Montayer for sharing these stories.

Got the idea? Submit your Helpless User Story now!
Cleanliness Is Next To A New Peripheral Purchase

From an office worker:

A colleague called IT to complain that her keyboard was sticking. The tech told her (jokingly, he later claimed) to wash it. She apparently didn't get that he was joking -- she unplugged her keyboard and washed it in hot soapy water in the lunchroom while the rest of us watched, dumbfounded.

After complaining to everyone for an hour about how water was still leaking out of the keyboard onto her desk, she called IT again and told them (in a nasty tone of voice) that the keyboard wasn't working at all now.

I can still hear that IT guy laughing from down the hall.Editor's note: If only she'd read the Chicago Sun-Times' keyboard-cleaning tips.


Giveaways Gone Bad

In the late '80s, the annual COMDEX trade show was the place for tech companies to make a splash. One year, a software firm had two booth giveaways: a free, limited-use version of their software on a magnetic floppy disk, and magnetized paper-clip holders. A few people were less than happy with their freebies when they got home.


What's That Password?

A security expert writes:

The security screeners at Washington-Dulles International Airport were trying their best to be helpful, but were clearly harried as a flood of personal items emerged from the X-ray machine. One of them started to hand me an IBM ThinkPad, but it wasn't mine. I'd just placed my nearly identical laptop in my briefcase.

Then I saw something I couldn't believe. As the screener put the laptop back into the gray plastic tray, I saw a piece of yellow paper attached to the surface. On it was a list of access numbers, user names, and passwords, all neatly typed. Clearly, this computer was owned by someone who couldn't remember their login information.That was alarming, but what happened next was even more alarming: I noticed that the owner of the computer had a government ID card around his neck, identifying him as working for an agency heavily involved with fighting terrorism. An attacker could compromise agency security simply by being fast with a camera phone, or just by remembering what he read.

I know people do still write down their passwords, but attaching those passwords directly to the laptop is a new low.

Thanks to Wayne Rash, Judy Mottl, and David Haskin for sharing these stories.

Got the idea? Submit your Helpless User Story now!
It Takes A Secretary

From a member of the support team for a major national bank:

You've read our Helpless User Stories. Now tell us yours for a chance to win an iPod.Enter Now!

Three of us IT staffers were in St. Louis demoing a brand-new software system that used a jury-rigged touch screen. The problem was that, when we set it up, nothing would display on the screen.We checked out the hardware. The power seemed to be on, but nothing would display.

We checked out the drivers -- no help there.

The main office had had some super-tech sent out from New York, but when the guy checked it over, he simply said, "It's broken. You're not going to be able to do the demo."

So we decided we'd have to cancel it, and the VP in charge called in a secretary to start arranging things. While we were all talking about what we needed to do and whom we needed to contact, the secretary said, "Excuse me a moment," got up, and flipped the switch that turned on the monitor.


What Do They Teach Them In These Colleges?

An IT manager relates:I once had a young, fresh, MIT college student who swore he was a master at servers and RAID.

One time we had a hard drive failure on one of our servers that had RAID 5 with a hot spare (which means that if a hard drive fails, the hot spare kicks in and all is okay after it does so). While the hot spare was rebuilding itself, the clearly labeled Rebuilding light was on.

For some inexplicable reason, young Mr. MIT Server RAID Whiz thought the hard drive's contacts were dirty and that was why the Rebuilding light was on. So he decided to remove the hard drive, thus destroying the rebuild and the complete RAID 5 system.

The server just happened to be the e-mail server for a large, internationally known recording studio. Needless to say Mr. MIT was suddenly not there.


Maybe They Should Teach Them To Read

This one from a network manager:In addition to being in charge of the network group, I was also the baby-sitter for about 25 summer interns. We were moving our offices to another floor and boxing up various junk.

We also had to move 10 years' worth of DLT backup tapes for the company. I put the tapes in several large boxes, and in bright red magic marker wrote DO NOT THROW OUT all over them. A blind person could have seen the writing. Then, just to be safe, I moved the boxes far away from the trash to be thrown out.

What happened? The interns threw out the boxes with the DLT tapes. Besides the fact that the tapes cost $50 each (a loss of $10,000, as there were about 2,000 tapes), anyone who happened to go through the garbage could have gotten their hands on 10 years' worth of company data.

The killer was that while they threw out the boxes clearly marked DO NOT THROW OUT, they didn't throw out the boxes packed with garbage. Biggest firing frenzy I ever had to do.

Thanks to Jim Freund and Michael Montayer for sharing these stories.

Now, here's where you ENTER THE CONTEST!


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