I started this as an entry into Greg’s MWE prompt about the clash between man and machine. Now, nearly two months later, I am completing it for his prompt about workplace stories. I may be slow, but at least I’m adaptable.
I have worked with computers and users for over two decades now, and am fully familiar with the terms PEBKAC and ID10T. This is easy to understand: users are physically and rationally imprecise, they are emotional and they have brains that run the fuzziest of fuzzy logic. Computers on the other hand are smaller, harder-edged and far more consistent. They are also just machines. So when a user appears at my desk to complain about how their little bit of plastic and metal is bent on sabotaging their day, I remind them that in that particular battle of wills, their antagonist has no more sentience than a Rubik’s cube.
Users. To us technical helpdesk staffers that word is both a noun and an epithet.
But one day changed all that. That day I found myself engaged in just such a battle, and thinking just like a user, in what I call The Case of the Suicidal Computer.
The computer in question belonged to Bob in Accounts. Bob in Accounts was one of my worst users. If dealing with users can be compared to Dante’s Inferno — and I believe it can — then Bob is right down there in the seventh circle with the violent and the blasphemers. He is the sort who can break a computer just by looking at it. As a result Bob had been issued with one of the oldest computers we have and he was only a couple of sins away from getting it replaced with a pen and paper.
One day I got a call from Bob. “My damn computer’s broke.”
“What is wrong with it?”
“I dunno. It’s broke.” And that was all the information I was going to get.
I made my way to his desk. Sure enough the screen was frozen solid and nothing short of a reboot was going to get it moving again. I could see the smeared imprints of Bob’s attempts at repair on the monitor and case.
“Damn thing’s done that to me three times already this morning!” Bob spat, jabbing at the keyboard.
There was no fixing it there, so I brought him a spare and took his one back to my desk.
I rebooted. I reset. I reconfigured. I uninstalled and reinstalled. I measured everything that could be measured and replaced everything that could be replaced. I also cleaned everything that could be cleaned and a few things that shouldn’t. I consulted user manuals. I consulted colleagues. I consulted FAQs. In short, I tried everything I knew.
I also swore. Copiously. Longer and louder and harder with every failed attempt. By mid-afternoon I had a lexicon that would make a sailor blush.
For its part it responded by wheezing, whining, bluescreening and stuttering. It froze up faster than my wife when I tell her I’m working over the weekend. For every problem fixed, a new one appeared. Then, just before it jammed for the fifteenth time, and as I stared at the hyperlink icon — you know the one, that little hand with the pointing finger — the monitor flickered, and I swear it flipped me the bird.
I ground the power button into the panel with my thumb, and as I did so it gave a tiny mechanical chuckle as it wound down into silence.
And that little sound made me take a step back and think. It was time perhaps, to listen to Bob’s computer rather than fight it.
Even Bob was not capable of screwing things up this badly. Too many things were broken too completely. So it dawned on me: this computer, this little box of plastic and metal, knew that repair meant being returned to Bob. It had endured months under his gentle care and was adamant never to return. So it was fighting me to the bitter end. It had contemplated life with Bob or suicide by tech, and had decided that death was the better option.
So I decided to grant it this last request. I owed it that much. The spare computer would meet all of Bob’s needs without rewarding his incompetence, so I filled in the requisite forms to retire his old one from service, solemnly took it out to the car park, and smashed it with a sledgehammer.