Field support

Tech Support has to address different issues when users travel with their computers. During this Guild Meeting Jeff Davis explained how the Help Desk can keep portable computing under control.

Tech Support has to address different issues when users travel with their computers. On August 15th Jeff Davis explained how the Help Desk can keep portable computing under control. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.


Tech Support has to address different issues when users travel with their computers. On August 15th Jeff Davis explained how the Help Desk can keep portable computing under control. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

Welcome to tonight’s guild meeting on field support
MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Guild Meeting! I'd like to take a moment to introduce our speaker—the famous, and sometimes infamous, Mr. Jeff Davis.

JEFF DAVIS: Greetings, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us this evening. We're going to have a good chat.

MODERATOR: Jeff's topic tonight is going to be Field Support.

JEFF DAVIS: Tonight we're going to talk about supporting portable computer users. I have three main areas to cover tonight: inventory, training, and support.

TLSNC: Support of the field or in the field?

MARTINCHURCH: I suspect it’s a little of both.

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, I'm talking about making sure these users don't call you from the field or when they come back to the office.

TLSNC: I'm all for that! Of course too much of it that way and we do not have jobs!

SHARI: There is plenty of other stuff we are needed for.

Tips for buying a portable pc
JEFF DAVIS: There are a couple of important models of portable PC support: take-home-PCs on demand and the "everybody gets a dockable PC" model. Here are my top three rules for buying portables:

Never buy any portable without a decent carrying case. If there isn't an official case available from the PC vendor, make sure you can buy a case that will fit it.

Make sure you put your portables and their accessories in your inventory and apply unique company ID tags. Consider extra insurance coverage on those machines to protect against damage and theft losses.

Order more batteries than you think you’ll need. You'll need them, because your users will lose them or burn them up.

TLSNC: Having a few extra power adapters is always a good thing too.

MARTINCHURCH: I also put my business card in the laptop and tape another one to the bottom of the laptop.

JEFF DAVIS: Good one, Martin. Here's another important lesson: Teach users about theft prevention. I know you're working with adults, for the most part, but you've got to remind them about this commonsense rule: Never leave the laptop alone, not in a car, in a bar, on a bus, or in a plane. Never nap without the laptop in your lap. (I was trying to do a Dr. Seuss riff there, but I couldn't find a good rhyme for bus or plane!)

Who do you support?
JEFF DAVIS: Let's do a quick roll call here. And please post your city/state and the number of users you support on the first post. Do you have more desktop or dockable PCs in your shop? I live in Louisville, Kentucky, and I support 100 users.

TLSNC: I work in Asheville, North Carolina, and I support more desktops. But the laptops I support are usually on the road for extended periods of time.

MARTINCHURCH: I’m from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and I support 250+ users, of whom 75 percent are desktop rest portables. In addition, I support five sites across the country with a central help desk.

SHARI: I work in Tampa, Florida, and I have 11 users, two are dockables and the other nine are desktops.

JEFF DAVIS: Here's one for you. The standard dockable in our shop is the OmniBook. It has no CD or 3.5 drive built in, but it has the external, not-hot-swappable drive kit. Anybody else support a system like that?

MARTINCHURCH: I have several old Compaqs like that.

JEFF DAVIS: How many of you have any portables available for loaners?

TLSNC: We do. Usually each department has at least one.

MARTINCHURCH: I have ten loaners, plus two LCD projectors.

JEFF DAVIS: Wow, Martin has all the good toys! Martin, do you have any formal documentation or training for the care and feeding of those loaners?

MARTINCHURCH: Yes, we have 20 pages of documentation, and I give each new user one hour of training.

TLSNC: You’re way ahead of the game, Martin.

MARTINCHURCH: I have found we need to improve the training and cover more basics for the mature users. They prefer typewriters.

JEFF DAVIS: Here's what I teach them: how to correctly plug everything in, whether they’re back in the office or in a hotel room. In spite of your training, some of these folks will still force plugs, break pins and connectors, and run the batteries down because they forgot the power cord.

MARTINCHURCH: We also do that.

JEFF DAVIS: Here's what I'd love to be able to do: Make each user sign a statement that says, "I certify that I fully understand the safe operation of this laptop, and I agree I'll pay for the repairs if I do something stupid."

TLSNC: I have worked for companies that have almost that statement. The “something stupid” part is implied rather than written out.

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, as the author of TechProGuild's "dumb user stories" download (shameless plug), I couldn't resist putting that comment in there. Here's one I've seen before: The portable gets returned in a fried state. The user says, "I don't know what happened..." Close examination of the power supply reveals it's not the right one! It came from some appliance or boom box at the user's house. The machine was shot.

TLSNC: The power cord training is one that I stress for sure.

MARTINCHURCH: What about the “it just slipped into the bath tub” story?

Tracking your support calls
JEFF DAVIS: How many of you track your tech support calls (or e-mails) and how many of you could guestimate how many are related to docking and undocking? Maybe it's just me, but I get pinged by coworkers all the time, who ask, "Could you please help me put my PC back together?"

MARTINCHURCH: That's the call I get from the president of the company and her vice president. They are more at home with test tubes than technology.

SHARI: I track all calls for help. About 50 percent are docking problems.

MARTINCHURCH: We track all help desk calls. The dock versus undock problems account for 5 percent of our calls. Most of our problems come with the migration to new operating systems.

TLSNC: We track calls. I’d say about 5 percent are laptop calls.

SHARI: I have one that will not shut down while docked. I get called on that three times per week.

JEFF DAVIS: That brings up another important topic for training: The keyboard. How many of you have had the ugly user come at you first thing in the morning: "I couldn't get anything done on this funky mouse pad." Then you have to explain how the user could have taken the other mouse home in the carrying case! Mike Jackman, TechProGuild editor and mountain climber extraordinaire, had one of the coolest IT toys I'd ever seen: It was a full-size keyboard that folded up as small as a deck of cards, and it connected to his PDA! With the dockables, dragging home that full-size keyboard is a chore, but some users will want to know how to do it. And it's up to us to teach them.

TLSNC: I have never seen a keyboard that small, Jeff.

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, it's very cool. It’s very thin, yet they've approximated that "click" sound and feel you get on a typical keyboard.

TLSNC: Jeff, where did he get it? Sounds like something I would like for myself!

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, I believe the Palm people sent it to him to evaluate (Mike gets a lot of cool gadgets that way). Madame Moderator, could we have Tlsnc contact Mike at

MODERATOR: You sure can. Tslnc, e-mail Mike at

MARTINCHURCH: I’ve had that problem with my users many times. They use a touch mouse, so I take their business card and cover the pad.

JEFF DAVIS: Ah, the multi-purpose business card strikes again! I love it.

SHARI: I always keep a "real" mouse in the case.

TLSNC: Many of our users take home discarded keyboards and leave them at home. The ones on the road all the time rarely use a full-size keyboard, even when they are in the home office.

What certifications do you have?
JEFF DAVIS: We're about halfway through tonight's Guild Meeting, and I want to thank everyone for joining us. Let's do a quick roll call for the sake of the transcript: How many here tonight have one or more IT certifications? Wang VS 100!

MARTINCHURCH: I have an A+ Certification and I’m working on Network +, Win NT workstation, and Win 9x certification.

JEFF DAVIS: You go, Martin!

MARTINCHURCH: Boss also says I should begin to work on help desk certification.

SHARI: I’m working on NT4.0! My first one!

JEFF DAVIS: Shari, very nice! That OS is going to be around a long time.

TLSNC: I have some old Xexix/UNIX certifications and a very outdated Novell one. I am taking classes in Win 2000.

Backing up for safety
JEFF DAVIS: One of my favorite practices is to use a batch file to back up user files on logon. You grab the files out of the Personal directory and copy them to a network drive.

MARTINCHURCH: I built one to zip the files and then back them up with password protection.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, I like that approach for sensitive data.

TLSNC: That sounds like a good idea if all your users are NT. But Win 95 users will drop their files all over the drive.

MARTINCHURCH: I use profiles settings for 95 users to prevent that from happening.

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, of course you're right—you might write your batch file to detect the OS and look for My Documents under 9x.

TLSNC: Well, actually we set the profiles to force their documents to a network folder so it is backed up every night.

JEFF DAVIS: Usually it takes only one time getting burned for a user to learn the value of backups.

MARTINCHURCH: Also I ask the users once in a while what they would do if their system crashed.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, what kinds of answers do you get when you ask what they'd do?

MARTINCHURCH: They say they’d call me for help, to which I reply sorry you have just cost the company three million dollars.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin plays hardball! But it's the truth. This data is not our data—it belongs to the company. The laptops are company assets. I tell my users to treat the laptop as if it were a company car.

RAS procedures
JEFF DAVIS: Honk if you have a documented RAS procedure! (honk—I just published it this week.) I don't know how many hours of tech support time that document will save.

TLSNC: Honk.

MARTINCHURCH: Honk. Now the trick is to get the users to read it.

TLSNC: Lots of luck, Martin, that’s so true.

Implementing a disaster recovery plan
JEFF DAVIS: Do any of your users have disaster recovery plans?

MARTINCHURCH: Our company’s disaster recovery plans call for backups of all systems daily and a weekly tape maintained offsite.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, you're setting a fine example in your shop.

SHARI: I do the daily tapes. I need to start the weekly ones. Do you ever overwrite them?

MARTINCHURCH: We had a local company that did not do backups. They made a fortune and employed several hundred workers, and then the computer crashed and all the employees lost their jobs. It was a good example for the rest of the community.

JEFF DAVIS: I try to practice what I preach. I still keep a 3.5 disk handy for a Quick Save as when I have a document I absolutely, positively can't afford to lose.

TLSNC: Jeff, I have had users who were once taught the value of backups and now make their own. One in particular saved herself weeks of rekeying data because a fired employee took out the system data and the backup files of the server.

JEFF DAVIS: Everyone, please pay close attention to Tlsnc's fired employee story. It can happen in any of our shops. Make multiple backups. Keep one set offsite. Enough said.

TLSNC: Jeff, what do you have them do for backups on the road? Should they use just the 3.5?

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, excellent question! I have them e-mail themselves a copy of the file! That way, they don't have to fumble with the disk, and they can retrieve that file via e-mail later.

SHARI: E-mail is a great idea! I hate disks!

MARTINCHURCH: We are investigating the use of Iomega clip Zip drives.

JEFF DAVIS: I'm not sure what the "clip" refers to.

MARTINCHURCH: It's a Zip drive that runs from the PCMCIA slot on the laptop. It uses 40m zip disks.

JEFF DAVIS: I had one bad experience with Iomega built-in Zip drives. The local shop built eight machines for my client, sold the client the Zip drives, and installed the Iomega tools. I would find out later that the drives are fine, but the tools suck.

The nature of mobile users’ support calls
JEFF DAVIS: Let's get back to the issue of supporting mobile users. Is it true that for the most part once your users figure out how to dial in, they don't call as often?

MARTINCHURCH: They still call, mostly about connection speed. It seems that Ma Bell allows our lines to connect only at 24kbps and we are using 56k modems. Also we are finding we need to increase the number of phone lines. We have 30 users dialing in, and four lines are not cutting it.

JEFF DAVIS: One big issue for mobile users is the varying levels of service in each hotel and each city.

MARTINCHURCH: Not to mention the number of connections in some hotels. I had one user try to dial out on the digital phone in his room, using the network card.

SHARI: Oh please! Some of them have no clue.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, I've personally cajoled a hotel clerk into letting me unplug her fax machine so I could get a message sent! One day the whole world will be equally wired! I have a dream!

MARTINCHURCH: Did you actually find a desk clerk who knew how to unplug the fax system?

TLSNC: Jeff, what has been your most frequent problem with dialing in and what was your solution?

JEFF DAVIS: Tlsnc, we use an 800 toll-free phone number to connect, and that usually gets our users in cleanly.

MARTINCHURCH: Has anyone else had a problem with tech support from the local phone service and getting lines?

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, you've hit a big nerve there. You couldn't get a T1 in this town for the longest time—they were all used up.

TLSNC: Jeff, is that the biggest problem your users have in dialing in or are there other connection issues?

JEFF DAVIS: The problem that's most prevalent is brownouts or hiccups (hiccoughs) in the public telephone systems.

TLSNC: Mine here in Asheville has been bad for nearly 2 weeks now. Usually 50+, but lately I can't get more than 24 and sometimes as low as 17.

MARTINCHURCH: So how do we get tech support and service from the phone system?

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, it's just like getting decent service from the plumber or the electrician: You have to be as nice as you can to the people on the phone, be nice to the people who show up, and find out what makes them tick.

MARTINCHURCH: Currently a number of businesses led by the local NT user group have protested at the Public Service commission. They are looking in to the matter with possible fines. Ameritech has been complaining because the state legislature has opened the market to others.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, I like the idea of banding together as IT people to demand better service from public utilities. If we don't, guess what's coming down the pike—pay-per-minute of Web access and no more free voice over IP.

MARTINCHURCH: Another thing we have been working with is the use of NetMeeting to see what the users are doing when they are having their problems.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin brings up an excellent point—third-party software can help you help users out of a jam, no matter where they are. I like PCAnywhere, too.

TLSNC: Martin, is your support set up to open the NetMeeting so the user "calls" you?

MARTINCHURCH: We can do it ether way. I can call them or they can call me.

JEFF DAVIS: It works the same way with PCAnywhere. You gotta love it!

SHARI: PCAnywhere is excellent to help users out, no matter where they are. I have it loaded on everything.

Trouble at the democratic convention
MARTINCHURCH: Has anyone heard of problems with the mobile support at the Democratic's convention? I heard every delegate received a palm to communicate with e-mail.

JEFF DAVIS: Martin, if it had been up to me, I would have given them all visors!

MARTINCHURCH: I loved the articles on NASA's support of mobile users. I’d like to see more.

Thanks for coming
JEFF DAVIS: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us tonight. I encourage you to stop by TechProGuild and check out the transcript of this evening's meeting. And please join us again soon. You have been an excellent group.

If you'd like to continue this discussion, please send me an e-mail message at the address we mentioned earlier. I'll be happy to follow up.

MARTINCHURCH: Time to say good-bye to you all and spend some time away from the computer. It's wife time.

SHARI: See you then! Thanks all.

JEFF DAVIS: Keep your end users happy and all will be right with the world! Peace everyone.

TLSNC: Thanks, Jeff, for the great discussion.

MODERATOR: Thanks everyone. Good night.
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

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