Dark tales from your friendly IT help desk

The features I normally tend to write for InfoWorld are ... well, let's call them "technically thick" ... somewhat dense studies in micro- and macro-IT management issues. Good reads if your life revolves around these things, but not exactly where you'd look for a barrel of laughs. But there's an exception to every rule.

Last week, I wrote a feature was called Stupid User Tricks, an anecdotal study on how to protect your infrastructure from not-so-smart user moves. Although I had a number of such stories myself, I decided it'd be fun to open the thing up to readers; so I held a little backpack giveaway for the best snippets of snarky user fun. The results are worth a read.

Unfortunately, the deal with the editors required that all entries have something to do with protecting a network, not a workstation, which left out a number of good stories because they came from help desk personnel, the poor folks who deal with user logic day in and day out. It didn't sound 100 percent fair to leave these folks out entirely, so I figured I'd pick a couple of the best ones and share them here.

First, one of mine: This is the tale of the executive editor for a technical magazine (no, not InfoWorld -- further back in the misty forests of time) who harried a desktop admin into getting him a brand new Toshiba Tecra with the (then) new Windows 95 on it. The notebook cost more than US$6,000, and the editor had it for less than two days before it went back for a rebuild because he deleted several important files from the System directory -- no real reason why. I was in his office when the tech returned the notebook, a sulky look on his face. He sternly warned the editor to leave the Windows stuff alone. The editor nodded and thanked him.

I'm in the guy's office the very next day when the tech shows up. Editor hands him back the notebook, saying it's dead. The poor admin does a bad job hiding his annoyance and asks what's wrong with it. Editor hems and haws for a while before letting it slip that the thing stopped working after he did some "clean up." The admin heaves a sigh, squeezes his eyes shut, and asks what "clean up" means. Turns out it means that the editor didn't like the fact that there were two directories for DLLs in Windows -- one 16-bit and one 32-bit. So he combined them into one folder. Strangely, the system can't reboot. I thought the tech was going to slug somebody.

Larry Kahn submitted one that was too long for the feature. Seems one of his users brought a notebook back -- dead -- saying he had no idea why it stopped working. Larry gets into it with him, and it turns out he decided to take the corporate notebook on a romantic vacation with his wife. To get in the mood, the couple decides that hubby should paint the wife's toenails. In the process, he spills an entire bottle of nail polish remover onto an open laptop. He tries to clean it out, but the stuff pretty much melts several critical motherboard components.

Unfortunately, this wasn't Larry's first experience with Mr. Clumsy, so he decides to get even: He builds the guy a special notebook. He uses the same polish remover-damaged case; a cracked LCD, a slightly damaged keyboard, "the slowest CD drive I had," and a 6GB hard disk. He swears it's true.

One of my favorites that didn't make it into the feature came from John Schoonover. He's a network tech who got summoned on a systems admin job by angry users because the servers were slowing to a crawl. He has no idea what to do, so he approaches the Windows NT Server 4 machine, moves the mouse to end the screen saver, and starts clicking around for problems. Suddenly, the department head calls in asking what he did because everything's running fine again. He shrugs, looks mysterious, and goes back to network toil.

Roughly 10 minutes later, the same call comes in, and Schoonover again approaches the server. Soon after he's "diagnosing," the users call to say everything's fine. The light bulb comes on over Schoonover's head. The server was set to the old 3D pipes screensaver -- the heavy duty one that requires the good video card. The good video card that most servers don't have. He disables the screen saver "and they decided I was a server god after that."

Wish I could keep writing these, but space is limited. We'll be doing a follow-up to this feature soon and exploring other varieties, including something on enterprise hacks. And for that, I'm soliciting more stories from you. Think of something brilliant you figured out on your own, using only existing tools that got a positive result requiring no new money or massive consulting hours and the like. Something like Google's server engineers who had so many racks of machines, they decided to save on rack space and cooling costs by disassembling every 1U machine and simply connecting the components on an open tray and then sliding those trays into open racks. Not only saved rack bucks and cooling dollars, also made upgrading these machines much faster.

If you have something that fits the aforementioned bill, shoot me an e-mail, and put "Enterprise Hack" in the subject line.

Just remember that if it's a real smart Windows or Perl script, you've got to share the code to make it into the piece. Winners get some more InfoWorld schwag. We've still got backpacks, and for the grand-prize winner, I'll steal the hood ornament off the car of InfoWorld Editor in Chief Steve Fox.

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Oliver Rist

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