Hardware

Reminders of how little I know, and how much I take for granted

There are amazing tools on the market that can make that which seems impossible a reality. Software can read aloud the text on screen, or convert it to a Braille display. Computers can take dictation and respond to voice commands. They’re amazing. But these tools certainly aren’t easy to learn to use.

There’s a stereotype of a know-it-all computer support guy that has gotten some traction in the media (cf. The Office and Saturday Night Live). The personal style of these characters can be variable—taped glasses and an abrasive nerdiness or sarcastic stoicism paired with a fetish for sci-fi in-jokes—but universally they’re depicted as believing that the people who need their help are beneath them, or in some way pathetic.

The growing prevalence of this image irks me, not simply because it paints support techs as less than professional, but because it makes light of a vocation that’s about helping people. I imagine that nurses and nuns in the U.S. feel a similar sort of annoyance around Halloween when their professions are parodied by trashy costumes.

Even more than being an annoyance, though, the characterization of help desk techs as being full of their own knowledge is just plain wrong.

Sure, I’m only human, and I may start to roll my eyes every time I have to remind someone that they need to unseal their toner cartridge before it will work in their printer. The really memorable trouble tickets though, are the ones that prompt me to scratch my head and hit the books (or the Google), rather than the trivial problems that might inflate my ego. I think technology support is a dangerous place for those drunk on their own expertise, since invariably a situation will arise about which one knows doodley-squat.

One area that I have to educate myself about right now is the field of assistive technologies, those that aid people experiencing physical impairment to use computers. An acquaintance is facing adult-onset blindness as a side effect of cancer treatment, and I am hoping that I can provide some help finding add-on software and components that might allow him to continue his work as a college professor. I’ve had to pursue a similar inquiry once before, when a woman in my office was dealing with a crippling repetitive stress injury in her wrists and hands.

There are amazing tools on the market that can make that which seems impossible a reality. Software can read aloud the text on screen, or convert it to a Braille display. Computers can take dictation and respond to voice commands. They’re amazing. But these tools certainly aren’t easy to learn to use.

After my colleague’s doctor told her that she wouldn’t be able to type or use a computer mouse, I tracked down a software package that would allow her to dictate to the machine and use oral commands to interact with Windows. I set up the software for her, ran her through its initial training procedure, and showed her how to use it. The program was pretty inaccurate at first, mishearing commands and words, especially some pieces of jargon specific to this researcher’s field. The software learned her voice and vocabulary over time, though, and now it works for her about as well as we can expect. The software documentation claims that with proper setup and a chance to learn, it’s accuracy could be as high as ninety-seven or ninety-eight percent. Until you’re living with it every day, though, with no other means to use your computer, it’s impossible to understand how much frustration that two or three percent can hold.

Helping someone to learn an entirely new way of doing things is difficult (I say this in no way intending to trivialize the challenges these two people face). It’s hard to imagine not being able to see the mouse pointer on the screen, or not being able to type. Putting myself in the shoes of these two individuals has been the most difficult thing I’ve encountered while doing technology support. Researching the technologies available was simple, but there is no possible way for me to completely understand the challenges of situations like these. If I can find some solutions for this man who’s lost his sight, I’ll spend time making sure that they ‘function’, but only he will be able to determine if they really work.

Every time I solve a simple problem and start to get full of myself like those on-screen support guys, cases like these make me think of the things I don’t know—can’t know. And that just makes me glad I can provide a little help. No matter what the problem might be.

9 comments
ceastwoods
ceastwoods

I think this is a great article. It's important to remember there are lots of I.T. Professionals out there across many industries and as time goes on, it gets more and more competitive. We need to stay humble or we won't be around to see the next generation of computer users. We may know more about our job than the user, but isn't that what we get paid for? Research, stay informed and anticipate our client's needs? I support multiple law firms. I don't know didley squat about producing a brief or preparing for trial. They (legal professionals) don't try to rub it in my face, why should I be unprofessional and make them feel less intelligent than me? Ultimately, everyone loses. They just want to know I'm there if and when they need me. I need to build that confidence in them or they'll be calling a different support number the next time they need technical assistance. Go I.T. Professionals!

lastchip
lastchip

there is *always* someone in IT that knows something you don't. Never attempt to make a fool of someone or destroy their dignity. Happy New Year :-)

llynara
llynara

Great post! Helping people use technology to do their jobs can be the best part of the job, and also the most frustrating. Humility is certainly the key to bridging the gap between the user and their knowledge of the computer. A little goes a long way, and helps to instill confidence in those who may be less computer literate. After all, none of us were born computer geniuses. We all had to learn somewhere. A little humility, humor, and a down-to-earth approach go so much farther than being a know-it-all ever could. Who knows, you could even inspire a user/customer to cross over to the other side of the help desk!

Support Gal
Support Gal

Some of my best moments in IT support have been supporting folks working through disabilities. About 10 years ago a colleague began losing her sight, due to MS. It was tough on her but she was determined to keep working full time. All the jobs in our office required computer use so some thought she would have to give up. Fortunately we were in Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of the Blind had a great program. They provided thousands of dollars worth of equipment and six weeks of training for my colleague. They even spent an afternoon with me, helping me install it for her and going over general support. It allowed my company to keep a great employee and was a positive experience for all of us. If you haven't already, you might check to see if your state has a similar program.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

throughout the new year. Thanks. I needed that..

Tig2
Tig2

I was lucky. I had some of the side effects of chemo but not others. I remember every day to say "Thank you" to the unseen who chooses some of my challenges. Having had that experience and subsequent is one of the many reasons that I don't work in technology just now. Oh, I blog. And I stay current. But I have seen that which is greater in terms of my time and attention and find that I can no longer tolerate the supercilious attitudes of my peers and management. We all to often forget that, regardless of our specific role, we exist to serve the end user. PERIOD. And when we are no longer capable of providing service in any meaningful way, we are obsolete. I've been an ER nurse. No, I don't appreciate the stereotypes. Yes, I'm a big girl and can get over it. But I have a choice of letting those stereotypes define me- as a nurse or as a professional. I choose to define me. And I don't allow my peers to do that for me in any negative fashion. Or in my particular case, I simply opted out. I hope to think that those people entrusted with support bring a level of humanity to their work. And I would caution them that if they don't, they are replaceable. Just another sign of the times. There will always be a place where the professionals among us can let their hair down, as it were, and relax. But I would like to think that the lion's share of my colleagues out there will choose to do that responsibly. You bring a voice of wisdom to an otherwise sparsely occupied place. For that, I thank you.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Your constancy is wisdom. You might not believe the new course of study I undertake on account of what you, and another paragon, let drop again. Ain't English.

CG IT
CG IT

however, I've run across my share of the tech guys who actually have the prima dona attitude towards the very people they are supposed to help. I especially find this true for the young kid who was a wiz at causing chaos and mayhem with non tech savy peers.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Thanks for the post and reminding me of the special moments.

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