"You Mean I Need A Computer To Run This Software?"

And other amazing-but-true tales from tech support.

Joshua Shapiro


Technical Support: "Hello. This is the IBM Help Center. Please give me the four-digit type, model, and serial number of your personal computer."

Caller: "My microwave oven wouldn't work."

Not all of IBM's 15,000 personal computer service calls a day are this far off the mark. But companies are finding that technical support, besides being a significant cost of selling computers, has assumed social roles that the community telephone operators used to fill. Besides fixing computer problems over the phone, tech support staffers are expected to educate buyers on how to use their new computers, comfort the housebound and late-night lonely, and generally provide help in any capacity.

Corporate technical support staffers are rarely as funny as Lily Tomlin's Ernestine, but many of their callers are. The sad side is that computer ignorance is costing the American economy billions of dollars in training expenses, lost worker productivity, and technical support costs for computers and software that are still designed to be much too hard for the layperson to use.

From the dawn of the computer age, users of computers have had to expect the unexpected. In 1947, when Grace Murray Hopper discovered the first "bug" in Harvard's giant Mark II computer, no "help desks" or on-line multimedia user guides existed to provide her with support. Hopper, a pioneer programmer who later became known in the computer industry as the "mother of COBOL," traced the source of a faulty calculation to a dead moth jammed in the grip of a mechanical relay. "Debugging" was simply a matter of extracting the hapless insect with a pair of tweezers.

In the nearly 50 years since then, computers have evolved from the esoteric domain of elite mathematicians; through the isolated "glass house" mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s, staffed by a cadre of remote "MIS" professionals; through the 1980s PC revolution, when just about everyone in the business was given at least one desktop computer; to the latest 1990s stage of computer pervasiveness in the home. This year, Americans will probably buy more computers than television sets. But just as most VCRs are still flashing "12:00" because the owners can't figure out how to program them, many of these new home computers are a substantial challenge for buyers who have little previous technical experience.


The questions internal corporate PC support staffs had to field for decades are now fodder for legions of workers with a new job description: technical support engineer. PC manufacturer Dell, with a highly rated support operation, runs a toll-free service line that accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Up to 400 engineers at a time on a variety of shifts sit in cubicles answering an average of 15,000 questions daily. With every PC vendor increasing its support function, technical support is a true growth profession. It's mostly a job for the young; trainees are typically given a couple of months of training and then last a few years before either burning out or advancing up the corporate ladder.

Technical support does have a rewarding side. Staffers at printer manufacturer Canon, for example, have variously received crates of live lobsters, cases of French champagne, and boxes of Victoria's Secret lingerie from grateful callers. Some callers, after a particularly vexatious problem is solved, extol the divinity in the helpful staffer. One depressed gentleman called after eight uninterrupted hours of work. He had accidentally deleted a file before ever saving it. A staffer helped him find and undelete the backup file. The caller starting yelling, "That's my file! How did you do that? You're a god! You're a god!"

But every day, callers impugn the personhood, slur the ethnic origin, defame the legitimate parentage, and malign the age and ability of staffers. Callers routinely threaten to take their computers or printers and drop them off tall buildings, take a sledgehammer to them, or use them for shotgun target practice. Some threaten the tech support person. Through all this real and threatened abuse, staff members are expected to maintain their calm, professional demeanor.

Staffers must also cope with tender celebrity egos. The help staff at Novell, known for its networking software, routinely gets calls from the likes of James Michener, Stephen King, Steve Martin, Michael Keaton, and Donald Sutherland. IBM recently got a call from a man worried that his ThinkPad portable computer was in "suspend" and he couldn't get it to "resume." "The data I was working on is pretty important; I won't lose it, will I?" he asked with concern. The customer was Judge Lance Ito of O.J. Simpson trial fame. The data was safely recovered.


Callers are often faced with crises while talking to tech support staffers. Lotus had one caller interrupt and race off to try to kill a squirrel with a shovel. Another determined caller waited so long on hold to get through to a live support person that when the building next door burst into flames, he wouldn't evacuate his office until his Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet problem was resolved, as fire trucks pulled up outside. Another caller needed help printing a properly formatted spreadsheet. He was very abusive even after being given an easy fix, so the tech support engineer put him on hold for a minute to cool off. When the Lotus staffer returned to the line, the customer apologized and explained that his wife was in labor with their first child, and his boss wouldn't let him go to the hospital until he got the output to look right.

Sometimes the situation is even a matter of life or death. Software manufacturer Intuit once had to call 911 to send an ambulance for a caller. SuperMac, known for its video cards, monitors and encryption software, got a call from an official in Trinidad amidst background sounds of gunfire. Rebels had killed the two ministers who had alone shared the password to an encrypted file on a Macintosh that stored the combination to the lock on the entrance to the country's only armory. Was there a "back door" in the SuperMac program so that he could find the combination and defend the elected government against the insurgents? SuperMac verified the caller's identity and found that the encryption scheme had no secret means of being decoded. The official calmly thanked the support engineer. That night, leaders from the legitimate government in Trinidad were taken hostage, with particularly heavy casualties due to lack of armed resistance from government troops. The coup, however, eventually failed.

Most of the time, though, technical support staffers unglamorously break their picks against the bedrock of American literalism. Much of their difficulty can be laid at the door of Xerox researchers in Palo Alto, California. In the mid-1970s, seeking to make computers "personal," they developed "user interfaces" simple enough for a child to operate. Their approach involved creating visual metaphors like pointing "mice," descriptive "icons," and task "windows" that can be "dragged and dropped" on a display "desktop." If imitation is the true measure of influence, they were successful beyond their wildest dreams. In the subsequent two decades, Apple and Microsoft both have incorporated those radical innovations into over 100 million personal computers. Unfortunately, today, intuititive children can indeed use this "easy-to-use" software, but their more literal-minded parents are more often than not stymied.

This literalism is the bane of technical support. When a Novell technician initially asks a caller for his or her license number, the response is likely to be from a driver's license rather than the software's license. A caller installing a new printer driver asked whether "landscape" fonts can be used to draw trees. Callers to IBM inquire whether their PC's power-saving "hibernate" mode works as well in spring and summer and it does in the fall and winter. When a tech support staffer asks a customer if he is at the DOS command "C:>" prompt, he responds, "No, I'm working in the kitchen." Asked if a program is working under Windows, she answers, "No, but my office mate has his computer under a window, and his program is working fine." Asked to return a computer, a customer asked how to pack it safely for shipping. The tech support staffer answered, "Put it in a box and fill it with popcorn." The computer came back boxed in popcorn with butter on it.


Mice cause widespread confusion. One woman called and insisted that her computer did not come with a mouse. The technician then had to go through a very detailed explanation of how to run a program using a complicated sequence of control keys instead of a mouse. Finally, having solved her immediate problem, she asked, "OK, now what do I do with this foot pedal?" Of course Canon, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexmark have all taken calls from people with problems from real mice that crawl into their printers.

Many other questions afflict the entire industry. Microsoft, and just about every other company offering tech support, has had callers who, when they see the instruction, "Hit any key to proceed," call and ask, "Which key is the 'any key'?" One technician finally told a disbelieving caller to write "a-n-y" on a small Post-it note and stick it onto the wide key in the middle of the bottom of the keyboard. Likewise, practically every help desk has asked a customer to send a copy of their diskette to debug, only to open the correspondence and find a photocopy of the diskette.

Simple diskettes actually incur a raft of problems. Customers have been known to peel off their casings before loading them, trim 5 -inch diskettes smaller to fit them into 3 -inch drives, feed them through typewriters to type storage labels, and staple them to inquiry letters. Multiple diskettes are routinely jammed into diskette drives. Customers even insert diskettes into the crack between the drives and expect the computer to read it. Lotus had a customer who called saying that she could no longer read disks from her "A" drive. After the technician determined that the drive was indeed not working, he asked what led to the failure. "Well," said the customer, "I saw a spider crawl into the drive and sprayed bug spray in to kill it. Then I thought that the bug spray was sticky and might jam the computer, so I sprayed some Windex into it to clean up the drive."

Many callers don't even accept the need for a computer. Intuit received a called inquiring about its popular home finance program Quicken. When told that he had to have a computer to run the software, the caller started railing at the help staff: "It's a big scam. You never advertise that you need a computer." A customer called Canon to ask why his color printer didn't work. After checking all the printer settings, the help desk asked what kind of computer it was attached to. "You mean it needs a computer? I just wanted to print out pictures from my television set." Others want to know how to connect the printer to the keyboard.

Foreign or regional accents can also add confusion over the phone lines. A caller to New Media repeatedly insisted that her new WAVjammer PCMCIA sound card kept making "erotic" sounds. One tech support operator with a noticeable accent asked the customer how much "mammary" she had on her PC. She answered breathlessly, "I'm barely leaning over it." Another Novell operator told a customer that she needed to send him a "new diskette" to fix his printer problem. He was astonished at the suggestion. He thought she was going to send out a free "nudist kit." Actually, once, HP did have to send a technician for an on-site printer repair at a nudist colony. Unfortunately, no one at HP recorded whether the job was done in the buff.

Joshua Shapiro, who lives in Chappaqua, New York, knows computers but still doesn't understand why his eight-track tapes won't work in his VCR. 

This article first appeared in Sky, December 1995.