10 stupid user stories: The madness persists

Support nightmares come with the territory, but at least we can laugh about some of them. Mostly. Brien Posey shares a few of the most mind-boggling experiences of his IT career.

As IT pros, we have all heard the stories of people using their CD-ROM drive as a cup holder or using a mouse as a foot pedal. Well, after a couple of decades working in IT, I have plenty of stupid user stories of my own. Since I have never told most of these stories before, I thought that it was time for me to share some of them. I hope you enjoy them — and that you'll jump in and share your own favorite tales.

1: Watering the plants

I used to work as a helpdesk technician at a large insurance company. There was one woman in the company who was... What's the politically correct term? Oh right, whacked out of her mind on drugs.

The woman kept a small jungle of live plants sitting on her computer. The old CRT monitor had vines growing all over it. One morning I got a frantic call from the woman. She had attempted to water her plants and ended up watering her computer instead.

When I got to her desk, I could not find any signs of water at first. Like an idiot, I reached behind the monitor to unplug it and let's just say that I found the water. It was a shocking experience.

2: The power strip

I once worked for an organization that had branch offices in some of the most rural locations imaginable. One day I got a phone call from a user in Pine Knot, KY, whose computer would not power up. The woman was as technically illiterate as they come, and it was a major effort to establish that neither the computer nor the monitor was receiving power. I knew from a previous visit to the facility that both were plugged into a power strip, so I asked the woman to check to make sure that the power strip was plugged into the wall and that the switch on the power strip was turned on. For some reason, she just could not grasp the concept of the switch on the power strip. She kept talking about the switch on her computer.

After about half an hour of trying to explain that she needed to flip the switch on the power strip, I was getting nowhere. I had to get in the car and drive for three and a half hours to go turn on the power strip. The five-second fix required a grand total of 45 minutes of telephone support and seven hours of driving.

3: The janitor's closet

One day, someone from another rural branch office called to tell me that nobody was able to access the application that was used throughout the facility. Since the problem affected everyone, I got in the car and drove to the facility as quickly as I could. When I got there, I discovered that the server was gone and that the server room had been completely ransacked.

I approached the director of the facility with my findings, and she told me that she wanted a bigger office so she was commandeering the server room. The server had been moved to the janitor's closet, right next to the mop sink.

There were two reasons why the server wasn't working. First, it was plugged into an outlet that was connected to the light switch. Every time someone turned out the closet lights, the server shut down. Second, there were no network cables in the janitor's closet. The person who moved the server didn't think that those "phone cords" were important.

4: Multi-tasking

Back in the days of DOS, I had one user who insisted that he needed full multi-tasking capabilities on his PC (which was equipped with only 2 MB of RAM). He claimed that the only way he could do his job was if he could seamlessly switch back and forth between a graphic arts program and a clip art catalog.

Needless to say, multi-tasking applications in a DOS environment was a tall order, especially on such a modestly equipped PC. It took me and a couple of other techs a full day of trial and error before we were finally able to make it work.

About a week later, I noticed that the user's cube was completely empty. Since his supervisor was a friend, I asked her what had happened. She told me that the guy was only a temp. When I asked about his multi-tasking request, she knew nothing of it. Later that afternoon, my friend called me and said that she had asked around the department and found out that the guy's only reason for requesting multi-tasking capabilities was that he wanted to print an "Out to Lunch" sign for his desk and wanted to use a clip art image on the sign.

5: Musical PCs

At the same company, one department that liked to play musical PCs. The manager of the department wanted to make sure that he and his top people always had the best computers in the department. Therefore, whenever they would hire a new person (which usually happened once or twice a week), they would order a computer for the new employee.

The new computer might have been ordered for the new employee, but it always went to the department's manager (even if it was identical to the computer he already had). The manager's computer went to the department supervisor, and his computer went to the assistant supervisor. From there, employees in the department received a computer based on their seniority.

Everybody in the department stored everything on the PC's local hard drive. This meant that every time a new employee was hired, every PC in the department had to be backed up so that the data could be restored to a new PC. When you consider that there were dozens of employees in the department and that moves happened at least once a week, you can begin to see how many IT resources were wasted.

6: The undocumented bug

The president of the previously mentioned company had a PC in his office, but he honestly did not know how to use it for anything other than playing a golf video game. One day, he called the helpdesk because his computer wouldn't power up.

The technician who responded to the call noticed that the computer was unplugged and decided to have some fun with it. He told the president of the company that the computers had an undocumented bug that caused them to periodically shut down and that the workaround was to unplug the computer from the wall and plug it back in. The president of the company reached behind his desk and discovered that the computer was unplugged, but he never admitted it. He simply plugged it in, turned on the computer, and then scolded the helpdesk tech for the undocumented bug.

7: Sexual harassment

I have a good friend who has always been something of a womanizer. About 15 years ago, he sent a woman in our company a sexually explicit email message. When the married woman received the message, she became angry and threatened to sue my friend and the company for sexual harassment. She also said that she was going to make sure his wife saw a copy of the message.

My friend (who I hope is reading this) called me in a panic and asked if I could erase the message. When I told him that our mail system didn't work that way, he cooked up another scheme. He wanted me to wait until she was logged into her mail and then use remote access software to lock her keyboard and remotely delete the message. I told him that I wanted no part of the plan. The last thing that I wanted was to get fired or to become involved in a lawsuit.

My friend ended up fixing the problem himself by creating a distraction that caused the woman to step away from her desk without logging out. While she was gone, he quickly sat down at her PC and erased the message.

8: Full hard disk

Back in the days of Windows 3.1, I once had someone call me because Windows wouldn't boot. After talking to the man on the phone, it sounded like a hard disk corruption problem. As I started to reload Windows, I discovered that there wasn't enough free disk space for the operating system. Wondering how that could happen, I started asking the guy a few questions. I found out that he wanted to install a few video games, but there wasn't enough free disk space. So he decided to free up some space by getting rid of anything that he didn't recognize — namely, the system files. Since he couldn't remove any open files, Windows continued to function for a while, but the next day Windows failed to boot because some of the necessary files were missing.

9: High resolution

Back in the mid-1990s, the standard PC in the company I worked for was equipped with an ancient Samtron monitor with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480. One of the managers in the company always wanted the best of everything and ended up spending big bucks on a new PC with a monitor and a video card that supported resolutions of up to 1024 x 768.

When the new machine arrived, everybody in IT was drooling over it. I got the machine set up and delivered it to the manager who had ordered it. About an hour later, I got a call from the manager. She told me that the monitor's quality was unacceptable and that she wanted one of the "safe tron" monitors that everyone else was using. I took the Samtron monitor off my own PC and gleefully swapped it for the manager's ultra-high resolution monitor and video card, all the while profusely apologizing for the high resolution monitor's "poor quality."

10: The hard drive upgrade from hell

The BIOS in the first-generation Pentium computers would accommodate only up to a certain size hard disk. (I forget what the maximum size was.) I had a user who needed a hard drive upgrade and ended up purchasing the replacement drive herself.

The new drive was far beyond what the PC could normally accommodate, but there was a way to use BIOS emulation software to trick the PC into accepting the drive. Of course, this software also slowed down the disk access, which meant that the job of replacing the hard disk, getting the machine to accept the new drive, and then copying all the data to the new drive took forever. As if that weren't enough, the PC had one of those cases with lots of sharp edges. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and my hands were covered in cuts and scrapes.

The next morning, the user called the helpdesk and asked to have an upgraded hard disk installed. When the helpdesk gave me the work order, I told them that it had already been done. The person who had taken the call told me that this was a brand new work order. Confused, I went to the user to see what was going on.

The user had decided that she wanted her seven-year-old son to go into computers one day. So she had brought him into the office during the night and let him disassemble and reassemble her computer "for practice."

The kid managed to fully disassemble the PC (and I do mean fully), but he couldn't figure out how to put it back together. No permanent damage was done, but I had to spend most of my morning turning the pile of parts on the user's desk into a PC.

Your turn

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Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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