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Tech Support for Mere Mortals

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

If you use computers, then you have most likely been in need of tech support at one point or another. Whether it be professional technical support from your computer vendor or the geek in the family.

Technical support is easy when you have the machine in front of you. Basically, you can just do what you need to do without having to explain a thing. The person whose computer you’re fixing only needs to keep the cookies and juice coming. When you’re done, you announce “The computer is fixed”. The user doesn’t care what you did or how you did it. It is only important that the computer be restored to working order.

An alternative to having the machine in front of you is to login to the machine remotely and fix the problem. Windows® comes with the Remote Desktop feature, but only for the Professional versions and above. There is also the Remote Assistance feature, but I have never been able to get either of them to work reliably through the public internet. There was always something in the way – be it a firewall, network policy or whatever.

Remote assistance may not always be the best way, especially if it is necessary to reboot, or connect stuff to the computer, or do anything which requires physical presence. This brings us to the most painful form of technical support (for both user & coder): phone support.

When the user knows their way around computers, then it can be easy to deal with tech support. But sometimes, dear coder, you have to deal with users who are not as skilled as you. At such times, asking the user for their MAC address won’t cut it. You need to walk them through the steps to find it and read it to you.

This usually goes something like:

User: “Hello, my internet is not working

Support: “Ok. We need to open the Network and Sharing Center. Click Start and ….

User: “Wait, wait, please! Where is ‘Start’? I can’t find it

Support: “Oh sorry. Click the round blue button at the bottom of your screen

User: “Ok done

Support: “Now ……..”

And so it continues.

Scott Hanselman proposed FizzBin as a passphrase to inform tech support that you know your way around computers. But there is still the issue of abuse of the passphrase.

A recent incident at a student hostel in the Technical University of Aachen (RWTH Aachen) illustrates the point. A student’s computer was infected by a virus and the network administrator cut-off network access for the machine. In order for access to be restored, the student had to answer some questions.

Imagine a user suddenly losing their internet connection at home for no apparent reason. The next day at work/school, they check their email and see a list of questions. Here is a rough translation of the questions and answers you might get from your user.

1. What Operating system are you using? What is the patch level?

User: “I don’t know. It is Windows…erm… something! What is patch level?”

2. What virus was found on the computer (give the installation date)?

User: “Virus? Does my PC have a virus? I saw something like: [email protected] Is that a virus? I didn’t install anything!!”

3. What product did you use to get rid of the virus?

User: “I use Antivirus.”

4. What did Sophos say about the virus?

User: “What is Sophos??”

5. How did you get rid of the virus?

User: “I don’t know. Antivirus??”

6. How did the virus get onto the machine.

User: “Dude!!! I don’t know.”

7. What did you do to prevent future infection?

User: “I will use Antivirus”

You end up confusing your user more than helping, and you have not learned anything new in the process. Take this to heart, dear coder, during you next support call and tread gently with your users.

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