IT Employment

Technical support according to Dilbert

Good comedy takes some element of truth and stretches it to the absurd. However, the Dilbert cartoon series might not have to stretch the truth too far when showing the humor associated with providing (or receiving) technical support.</

Good comedy takes some element of truth and stretches it to the absurd. However, the Dilbert cartoon series might not have to stretch the truth too far when showing the humor associated with providing (or receiving) technical support.

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In a recent Dilbert Zone cartoon, by Scott Adams, Pointy-Haired Boss approaches Tina, the brittle tech writer, and said, "You'll have to have all the documentation written by next week so we can ship it when the software is done." Tina replied, "How can I write instructions for something that doesn't exist yet?" Pointy-Haired Boss answered, "You'll have to make logical guesses." That ended the conversation between Tina and Pointy-Haired Boss, but the last caption of the cartoon showed Tina as she was writing the software documentation, "If you press any key your computer will lock up. If you call our Tech. Support, we'll blame Microsoft."

With all good humor, there's some element of truth to it. How often is software documentation written before the final product is completed? My guess is that, in reality, the software engineers and the technical writers probably work hand-in-hand while the product is being created. But how often is something overlooked? I've seen it happen. How often is something lost in the translation? I've seen that happen a lot. Does the technical writer ever have to make logical guesses, as suggested in the cartoon? In some cases, it might not be too much of a stretch to think so. Does software always behave as it's supposed to? Well, sometimes it doesn't -- and it's not always user error.

I was recently involved in trying to figure out why one of our applications, Revit MEP, wasn't behaving as it was supposed to. In such cases, I always try to keep in mind that old adage "software (or a computer) won't do what you want it to do, but rather what you tell it to do," meaning that if the result you're seeing isn't the one you expect, then it must be something you've overlooked, or something you've configured incorrectly, or something else along those lines. This is where I might check, double-check, and even triple-check the settings and configurations, retrace the steps taken, and even duplicate what was done. After all, it can't be a bug in the software, can it?

In my particular case, without going into a lot of detail, Revit MEP, a building design software, wasn't showing building sections correctly, even though we did everything the way we were supposed to. Or were we? We were not really questioning the software, but rather questioning ourselves, wondering what it was we were overlooking. Since we haven't been using this product for too long, I called our vendor's tech support looking for an answer. Surely they would easily point out that little thing we were overlooking. The way we described the problem to the support tech didn't make a lot of sense to him, so we established a remote session and he took over the computer to check everything himself. Well, after an hour and a half of checking, he was just as stumped as we were -- and still are. It should work, he said, but it doesn't.

I suppose this might illustrate another old adage about good news and bad news: the good news is we weren't overlooking anything obvious; the bad news is that it still doesn't work right, and we still don't have the answer. Another bit of good news is that the software manufacturer, Autodesk, will actually accept our project file and try to find out what's going on with it. But that comes with the bad news that the answer might not be discovered before our building design project is due.

User support (yours truly, in this case) might not always have an answer. Taking it to the next step, the vendor's tech. support, doesn't always provide an answer either. And the last step, the software manufacturer's engineers, might not even provide an answer; but the jury is still out on that one.

Help desks often follow written scripts based on how an application should work, but what if the user is faced with something out of the ordinary, and it's something not written in the script? Software might not always behave as it's supposed to; did a technical writer somewhere have to form a logical conclusion that might not have been correct?

Of course, when it comes to an application or some hardware not behaving as expected, it is indeed very easy to just blame Microsoft, just as Tina, the brittle technical writer did. That's something I've seen done, and I must admit, something I've even done myself. After all, who could possibly disagree with blaming Microsoft?

18 comments
mastertexan
mastertexan

I'm a huge Dilbert fan and of course i've got one of the comic strips on my desk (the one about virtualization, actually). Here in the Real Estate business we have a program called ZipForms. As you've probably already guessed, it gives us updated forms. The problem is whenever we go to print some of the forms, we get an error message saying "Catastrophic Failure". This ties up our printer and we have to save and close to get anything else to print, if we can print. The other side of the problem is tomorrow, we may be able to print the same form. I've called tech support many many times and each and every tech is stunned at the problem. They all give me the same solution and nothing has worked. The only solution is a workaround, exporting to pdf then printing the pdf. Scott Adams is usually on the money.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...is harder to develop and keep current than good software. I often charge as much for writing documentation as I do for the software.

dburrows
dburrows

Dogbert Technical Support: Dogbert (on the phone with a customer): Try turning off your router, your modem, and your computer. Now, turn off your air conditioning, your lights, and your water heater. Unplug your microwave, and defrost your refridgerator. Dilbert (coffee mug in hand, looking on): You're very thorough. Dogbert (still on the phone):Cancel your garbage service, renounce your citizenship, and yank out your phone. Dogbert is my hero!

cupcake
cupcake

IMHO, I think the biggest issue isn't with technical support or documentation, its the way the software is being written. Users should have - in most cases - the ability to use software without having to have a degree in computer science and only have to refer to documentation or tech support when something isn't working correctly. I have done my share of technical support and quality testing where the software application isn't written well enough for the target audience to know what the first step is when launching the application. Good UI and a knowledge of the customer base is very important when designing software. And although you don't have to write software for the lowest common denominator, it shouldn't require a degree from MIT to use it.

davestewart.sr
davestewart.sr

Last year I was a tech at a major phone company and received a call one morning saying "the work in your call center is switching from division A to division XYZ and there will be 110 applications from division XYZ loaded on your base image. What we need to know is - can you start building that this afternoon?" I said "When can I get a list of the 110 required applications and what is the network share where I can get the applications to load?" The reply was "we don't have that information and may not for days. Do yuo think you could build that image this afternoon?" My head was spinning as I asked again "What apps are needed and wehn can I get them so I can begin installing them?" He reply again was " we don't know. It has not been determined and will be discussed in tomorrow's meeting. Can you build the image this afternoon?" Of course my reply was a very polite "With the information you provided I would have to say, while I am willing to do the work, No I cannot build the image this afternoon." I hung up and thought On WHAT planet do they have you build a pc with 110 applications but not provide you with the application nmeas and the applications?!!! I probably made it on a list of uncooperative techs...

TomMerritt
TomMerritt

This goes back to the mid 90's. A customer of mine had it hanging on his wall: Point-Haired Boss: My boss tells me we need some eunuch programmers. Dilbert: He means UNIX. I Already know UNIX. Pointy Haired Boss: Then when the company nurse comes around, tell her never mind.

VikingCoder
VikingCoder

I consulted for a VAR whose source company was so bad with their documentation that it didn't change for several major version releases. On the average of once a week or so, we'd find a major feature of the program that plain didn't work, and end up getting a bug sent all the way back to the development group. Time for a bug fix was about 1.5 years. Evidently no-one even unit tested new features, even though they were in the documentation and had been in the product for 3 or 4 major releases. What did it say about our little VAR that we found more errors in the software than any other VAR worldwide? I'll leave the reader to decide.

Joe_R
Joe_R

As it relates to the original blog piece: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/helpdesk/?p=269 .....what do you do when tech support can't provide an answer? Have you ever seen technical documentation that was incorrect? Do software engineers and technical writers work hand-in-hand, or is documentation sometimes written by making logical guesses? And finally, is Microsoft sometimes an easy scapegoat - maybe too easy?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

My wife still has the scars from AT&T's call centre. She was with a smaller company with an acceptable level of angry vs happy callers but things blew up when AT&T baught the commany and then started slamming new customers onto there network. It isn't the managers, but the call centre that gets to hear from the public when they find out there phone carrier changed without there requesting it. From the other side, I've also been slammed and also caught attempted slams from the two energy providers that fight over our neiborhood. Those are a whole other level of slimy though; I'm getting pissed again now just thinking about it. When the contract comes up for renewal I have a few phrases that will be expressed to indicate my decision.

mastertexan
mastertexan

Pointy Haired Boss to Dilbert: "Our servers are using too much electricity. We need to virtualize." PHB to Dilbert: "I did my part by reading about virtualization in a trade journal now you do the software part." PHB to Dilbert: "Why is your part taking so long?" This is hilarious for me b/c my boss does this very thing.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I had a Bell ISDN router decide it was going to be a wifi and wired router along with dhcp rather than maintaining it's configuration as a ISDN to cat6 bridge. It took the external IP and started issuing internal IP rather than passing the external IP to the actual network router. We called Bells support people who aperently, can't provide any better support for business customers than they provide for home users. "Uh, I have no idea how you can fix that sir." Me and the next hour with google and digging through that misserable ISDN modem's settings finally fixed it with some archaine settings about three layers of forms down. I'll call support if the line goes down but other than that, it's just assumed that they've nothing in there help scripts to read too me.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

The Good -- it was a cartoon joke, probably loosely based on some major company The Bad -- MS has earned the 'blame' game in some aspects. Like patches that purposely break applications from competition, etc. The Ugly -- It is not false! I work at a large company, and have recently been complaining about some things. Mostly it happens in policies/processes, however new SW is deployed (even SW developed by us) without or with little documentation. When there is documentation, nothing seems right after the first 2-3 steps. If you try calling for help, you are wasting time. Within an hour someone will answer the call, just to tell you that it is not supported in this manner and to use the help in the application -- which is why you called, because it was wrong or not documented at all. Whats worse, if they do respond and cannot fix it, and you fix it yourself, they dont even care as to how it was fixed (for future reference)

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Way back when BASIC was THE program, every manufacturer had their own versions and it often took a translater to rewrite portions to fit another users machine. At first it was 8K, then 16K and onward and upward from there. Extended Basic, enhanced basic, what a nightmare. Some versions had peek and poke, others push and pop, with a dozen different schemes that did the same thing but were called something else than was written in the documentation. The joke was BASIC TO ALL BUT BASIC TO NONE. A similar thing happened when Compaq asked MS to write a version of DOS to run on their hardware that was different enough from IBM's PC to avoid hardware copyrights but was SUPPOSED to run all the DOS based programs when the BIOS made up for the differences and the DOS filled in the blanks. What a joke that turned out to be.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

when I called Comcast (on my 3rd modem, the first time), I mentioned that I wanted a Firmware upgrade for it and asked how to download it. Suddenly (well, 5 min later), they were able to connect to it and upgrade it without me downloading it. The next time I had the issue, on the second and third modem that was one of the first things that they tried.

rebeccaaward
rebeccaaward

I recently did a short contract as a Tier Two tech support person for a fairly large media company. For one of my calls, I opened the third party documentation that we were supposed to use to solve our customers' "issues". I searched for the term that described the problem at hand and went to the indicated section. Under "Tier Two Support" it had: "Enter support notes here". Needless to say, while I helped the customer, the solution wasn't a quick one.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

I clearly know I will have plenty of incompetence/non know how. I dont think I have spoken to a worthy help center since -- hmmm, maybe in 01? And they keep getting worse and worse too

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I think this one "broke" with a firmware upgrade that blew out the config settings leaving it in default "router" mode instead of clear bridging. Good to hear you had better luck with support though. With Rogers and Bell here, you usually start with "could I be transfered to the canadian call centre please" then hope they can help. (Bad connetions and heavy accents rather than assumptions if incompetance on that request for transfer; if anyone's curious.)

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