Hardware optimize

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

Can you top these tales? Join the discussion and share your favorite worst (or silliest) user experience.

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About

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.

60 comments
Geekausaurus
Geekausaurus

I have many stories, but you guys are far funnier than I am. I have the usual ones with scripts that I thought were self-explanatory but weren't, etc. I had a user that turned off his computer by unplugging it every day, which was a little unusual. However, I have just created a group on Linked In for helping clueless users. Of course, first you have to identify them. That's the funny part. I used Brien's clueless user list to start the ball rolling. Please join me there...

Just search the group list for Clueless and it should jump right out!

info
info

The job market was relaxed around here in the early 2000's, and for some reason I couldn't seem to get into a 'real' IT job, so I worked at call centers. One of them was doing sales for hpshopping.com. There's a TON of stories, but this one you'll find the most amusing... A potential client and I were going over his needs for a new laptop. He insisted that it have a discreet graphics card with it's own memory in order to run AutoCAD. After I pointed out that his work was in 2D, and an integrated card with shared memory would do just fine, he was persistent. "After all," he said, "I had to take my last one to *can't remember the store name* so they could upgrade the video card! It worked MUCH better after that!" He had a good laugh after I pointed out that laptops of that era (and I checked his particular one) pretty much ALL had integrated video with shared memory, and that it was quite impossible to upgrade them. He even pulled out the receipt for the $180 they'd charged him...

Who Am I Really
Who Am I Really

this actually happened to a Dell PowerEdge server: as the office environment expanded and OSes / workstations were upgraded the company was moved to a Domain from a workgroup a Dell PowerEdge Server was ordered with Server 2003 standard and the required CALs were purchased and most of the workstations were pulled and new shiny XP -Pro boxes were deployed with only a couple of the 2K boxes remaining after all was said and done that nice shiny new PowerEdge server was stuffed into a non-ventilated, closed & locked cabinet (about the size of an average kitchen cabinet) several months later after summer was in full swing with 30C + days the IT guy starts getting repeated "warning emails" Lo and behold Drive 0 was cooked and seized a new HDD was ordered and installed when I arrived the day it was being changed out the dead disk had been sitting on the repair table for a little over 30 min. when I tried to pick it up it burned me after the repair, the server was stuffed back into the same cabinet with the goal to find it a new home about 6 months later it was moved into the phone closet (a much bigger space) it's still running today as BDC for the Domain as a newer 2008 server was ordered a few years later but it could have been a worse disaster, both Drive 0 and 1 could have fried necessitating a full rebuild.

2rs
2rs

Reading stories like this reminds me that my users aren't so bad after all.

Old-Timer
Old-Timer

When I worked in a S& L in the 90's DOS Era, We had IBM PC's with a cloth antiglare screen, that was attached to the "Green on Black" Monochrome Monitor. This was also in the early days, when copier's were expensive. Many of the Secretaries and Clerks used Mimeograph machines, that had Stencils that were created on typewriters. When the stencils had a an error they used a special blue correction fluid. You guessed it. I had to cut the anti-glare screen cloth off of the monitor, because there was no way to remove the correction fluid from the screen.

sjohnson
sjohnson

I got a call one day from an office that is @ 2 hours drive away. They stated that their printer kept jamming. Having issues arise like this quite a bit, I asked the staff to check the printer to make sure there was nothing jammed in the printer. They could not find anything. I got in the car and drove the 2 hours. Walked to the printer and looked down in the slot where the paper comes out and there was a hugh paper clip just sitting jammed between the rollers. I removed the paper clip and the printer worked just fine for 3 more years.

Bogdan Peste
Bogdan Peste

One day, I get a call from one of the training rooms at my office that the power in that room doesn't work and their laptops (there were around 15 people in that room) wouldn't charge. I rush over to discover a couple of my co-workers scratching their heads around some extension outlets on the floor, that were "daisy-chained" between them. Now, this was a fairly large room and all the power outlets were on the walls of the room; that being said, it was fairly obvious when i entered the room that all the extensions were in the middle of the room, with no cable going to the side of the wall where the outlets were... The extensions were connected between them, but nobody bothered to check whether one of them was actually plugged in :) ------------------------------------------------ Also , one of the best stories from this category is one i've heard a couple of years back, and i thought i'd share it, although it didn't happen to me: So, there was this server that rebooted every morning at around 5 A.M, day after day. The IT admin checked for software errors, checked for hardware errors, scheduled tasks, processes that might cause this to hang at that specific hour, every morning at 5 A.M. He called the hardware guys who didn't find any problems with it. Frustrated, he decided to wake up one morning and drive to work, to be in front of the computer when the unexpected shutdown occurs. Needless to say, at 5 A.M the cleaning woman would come into that room and unplug the server to plug in the vacuum cleaner, after which she would plug the computer back in. :P P.S: Lol at no.3 :) Cracked me up

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Way back in the late 1980's when the hard disk controller was a plug-in card, I joined a company that had an abnormally high rate of hard disk failures. I asked the boss's secretary to call me first the next time a computer coughed. I discovered that the hardware and on-site maintenance guy had supplied CPU boxes with the most rubbish controller cards he could find, probably failed QC. Then after a couple of months when disk access failed, he would claim that it was the hard drive, and replace THAT! Then selling the perfectly good hard drive he'd removed to another victim, of course. And on top of it he got himself a reputation as a wizard for recovering all the "lost" data from the "failed" drive...

NZJester
NZJester

All they most likely did was to increase the amount of memory that the on-board video card could access in the bios. A friend of mine had increased the amount of memory in his laptop back in the Windows 98 days with little improvement in some of the games and software he was using. A quick look at the BIOS setting and me changing the shared memory from just 2MB to the max of 32MB of shared video memory improved the speed of his games and a few other graphical programs he used quite a bit. The company I used to work for installs fixed WiMax aerials for customers who don't want to have to get a phone-line just to be able to get broadband, preferring cellphones instead and I used to take some of the support calls. After Asking one customer twice in one call to check that the Power over Ethernet unit that supplies power to the radio unit on the roof is plugged in and turned on and being assured it was, we secluded a maintenance call to check on the problem of why the WiMax unit was not working. Imagine my surprise when I got there to find the customers kids had pulled the power cord out of the PoE unit that supplies the power to the radio unit on the roof to power the second had printer they had purchased that did not come with one. When I pointed out that it was not plugged in and I recognized the power-cord in the printer as one we supplied because of the company ID sticker on it, he admitted that the two times I had asked him if the unit was on and going he had just said yes as he did not want want to get off his chair and look under the desk where the unit was located mounted on the wall down by the skirting board. He also mentioned that he was wondering where the kids had found the extra power cable for the printer.

Alfie AF
Alfie AF

Had a client that built a new office, and hired someone to pull all the wire to a closet that had the water heater in, and was not air conditioned--in Texas. I didn't put the server there, but I did change out their cheap switches almost monthly until I found a good price on a fan-cooled managed switch, and cut a vent in the door.

TheShawnThomas
TheShawnThomas

Yeah I had a client that built homes so he made his office look like it was a home. Including desks with small little cabinets that they expected the computers to go into so they wouldn't be seen. Needless to say there was a higher than average failure rate of equipment there...

chalicemedia
chalicemedia

I, too, am an old timer --- B^) and I have to say this is very reminiscent of an old blonde joke from the early 1980s.

rblevitt1
rblevitt1

You know there's a horrible joke based on that kind of incident, right? ];->

dogknees
dogknees

Many years ago (25+) we had a payroll clerk that would print out every report from her Payroll system and check the totals manually. One day she came to me with a problem, she'd found an error in the totals. I then spent most of the day trying to see how my code could possibly get the total wrong, with no success. Just before 5:00, she came back to tell me she'd checked and it was her error! Some months later, she had a problem with another report. This time, she'd made a mistake the previous month and her report had n incorrect value. so, she'd covered the incorrect value with correction fluid and written in the correct one. Now she couldn't work out why the reports for the next month had the wrong balance! After all, she'd corrected it the previous month!

seanferd
seanferd

Many of these stories are crazy and have extreme consequences, but the user applying correction fluid to a monitor really takes the biscuit. Makes me wonder what sort of adventures this person had with their television at home.

jeasterlingtech
jeasterlingtech

worked in a college lab a student decided to print an overhead using the laser printer (there was a big note saying don't use your own paper and where to get help) and proceed to run a sheet of overhead vinyl through the laser printer it of course melted and jammed into every nook and cranny in the printer i would have been annoyed except he then went to the next printer and did the same thing it took a co-worker and i 2 hours to disassemble most of the two printer pull out the blobs of melted plastic and try to make sure all the bits were out a testimony to HP laser printers, both worked for years after that had a client call me her laptop was not connecting to the wifi network in her house i asked if her wireless in the laptop was on she couldn't tell so i drove sixty miles and flipped the clearly labeled "wireless" switch. total work time 7sec counting walking from the door and greeting the client and explaining where and what the switch was

cnieves
cnieves

i drove an hour to remove the transparent tape on a ink cartridge from a printer that was not printing. you know the packaging tape that covers the inkhead! i charged them travel time and everything.

LeMike
LeMike

Ditto for a large Canadian graphics software company .... at 7.30 every Friday evening their UseNet server (with all the online support forums on it) would "vanish" for about 20 mins!

rblevitt1
rblevitt1

Is that cleaning woman still working there?

aroc
aroc

We had a data center in the US where I worked that had the server consoles/control room separated from the network controller room that connected us to the home HQ in the UK, and for most US operations. The power door between the rooms was controlled by a big red push button, and a few inches away from that button was another big red push button ... for emergency power-off to the entire network room. So guess what happened one night when a new cleaning person wanted to go from one room to the next? Hey, they were "clearly labeled"! The power button did get a cover that took several steps to open up after that.

techrepublic
techrepublic

I had a nightly scheduled job that produced reports for all executives (including the CEO) in the company every morning. One morning, I discovered it had failed to run. After kicking off the long-running job, I performed a little investigation. It turned out that the power failed during the night, which normally wouldn't have been a problem, except the night security guard was disturbed by the beeping of the UPSes -- to shut them up, he shut them off.

tr
tr

back in the day I had a cleaning person unplug a system 34 IBM because they thought it had been left on by mistake. took two days to recover.

spawnywhippet
spawnywhippet

If I had 1c for every time I heard that story, I would have retired many years ago

jemorris
jemorris

I once had the cleaning people forget to bring their extension cord and use the only available outlet on the very large UPS that kept a retailers POS system server going. Loaned them a temporary in hopes it was just a blown fuse inside the unit but no such luck. Every electrolytic capacitor inside had exploded and numerous other components had actually melted beyond recognition. They bought a new UPS!

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

We had a server room about ten feet square holding 8 servers. One weekend the aircon failed and when I unlocked on Monday morning it was like an oven in there. The four Windows boxes had all failed but the four HP boxes were chugging along quite happily. That was in 1996. Wonder if HP quality is still at that standard.

seanferd
seanferd

I lurvs me some magical thinking.

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

than CD readers, we had a user force a CD into the floppy drive, pull down the handle, and "CRUNCH!"

asotelo
asotelo

To plug in the power cord that had slightly come off the back of the monitor when the user pulled it closer....

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

to press the NumLock key when a user couldn't enter her password

rblevitt1
rblevitt1

I hope they hired a new security guard after that when they found out what happened.

smaki611
smaki611

I love the old stories like that. Mine was when I worked in a distribution facility for a textile manufacturer. They only received products during the day, but picked and shipped at least 2 shifts a day. Well the conveyor systems where all run by computers that were networked with a Token "Broken" ring network. Unfortunately, they would kill power to the receiving portion of the building by shutting off all of the breakers in the receiving office. Including the one that stated, DO NOT TURN Off, with tape and a metal cover over the breaker. Invariably, this would happen about 20 minutes after I left the building for the evening. Once you shut off the repeater, it would then take the entire network down, (even after bringing the repeater back up) because our Novell Servers would beacon like crazy until restarted.

snoop0x7b
snoop0x7b

Yeah, I've had that happen plenty of times with cleaning people. To the point where I've said "I'll break your fingers if I find out". I've been lucky though, it's usually just tripped the breaker in the UPS at worst, and at best made it freak out for high current draw.

bboyd
bboyd

I support industrial robots, with computer control cabinets. Each has a 3 Amp outlet for plugging in a computer while programming. Its covered by a small swing door that is stickered with a warning not to use the outlet for anything else. I get people plugging in things like reciprocating saws, drills and vacuums on a pretty regular basis. Blown outlet at least once every three months.

asotelo
asotelo

You were right when you called it "server room", that's what they are... servers.

LeMike
LeMike

I once wrote CADD systems for the Navy - on DEC PDP-11 machines. The dev. machines were single-user 11/55's with a DECWriter console. One day the AC (installed by a contractor that had gone broke half-way through and finished by another!) decided to start blowing hot instead of cold! We thought it was getting hot, so interrogated the machine: "2+2=?" and got "4". OK so far. 30 sweaty mins later, tried again. The answer was now 5! Time to close down until the AC ran cold!!!

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

I remember that 2 of the boxes were "Intel Inside," vendor I can't remember, as mirrored network servers. Also an internet server and a backup server. My DBA who was German told me he'd been to the facility where they tested HP's by dropping them off the roof of a four-storey building after which they were still expected to work perfectly. Before the incident I related I thought he was talking through his shorts.

sharpear
sharpear

What where the 4 Windows boxes? I never actually heard of Windows actually creating a PC, but 1996 I was young and I was using MACs and didn't get a HP with windows until 1998. This would be cool to have a case that actually says Windows or Microsoft on it.

bill.andersen
bill.andersen

NO! Their quality went right down the plughole with their Pavilion series laptops when they used Nvidia integrated chips which they knew were a design fault and which was compounded by their very small heat sync plates and only one fan. When these burnt out they left their customers with no comeback as they refused to acknowledge that it was a design fault. So no, their quality is not at the same level and they are like all other corporations now, in the quest for the mighty dollar and ever more profits, they showed that they do not care about their customers!

snoop0x7b
snoop0x7b

Depends on what you buy. They've gotten into the tiered thing lately. The mid and high end proliants are still great machines. The low end ones, they're built like the Dells that they compete with, crap.

asotelo
asotelo

...To install several 120 outlets around the room, It seems no one wants to plug in their saws-all into a 480.

rblevitt1
rblevitt1

Reminds me of the B-st-rd Operator From Hell stories, where users were constantly being given a hard time by the jerk of a helpdesk tech. These stories did make me wonder about the flip side of the equation, where you had jackass or clueless users who are more trouble than they are worth and the techs and programmers get back at their tormentors.

rblevitt1
rblevitt1

Boxing gloves won't be as effective as spiked maces, swords, or electric pain fields. ]:->

plandok
plandok

Hey, one plug looks like the next. Does anyone really know how much 3amps is? Do you really? Sounds to me like you should get an industrial quality extension cord which can supply at least 15 amps and afix it to the case with a sign to use this. Then you can seal the 3 amp plug. Why is it only 3 amps when most equipment already has at least a 15 amp connection?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

but do they use them there? No. They only use those to stop consumers using the same plugs for all devices - i.e. only to inconvenience, never to prevent harm. *grumble*

allennugent
allennugent

Cardiac patients have been killed when a nurse inserted the ECG lead plugs into an auxiliary AC outlet on the ECG machine or some other handy device. (Nowadays, auxiliary AC outlets are pretty much banned on electromedical equipment.)

bboyd
bboyd

too much fun involves the police.

bboyd
bboyd

Its the only 120VAC outlet near because everything else but the computer runs on 480 3Phase VAC.

pslat
pslat

You must have a few robotic arms lying around that you could rig up with boxing gloves...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Why take that risk, and not simply put the outlet as a separate item next to the robot?