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My computer is having a spaz attack – discuss!

January 10, 2012 7 comments

I was working from home yesterday. My daughter stormed into my office:

  • “Dad, I need to use your computer”
  • “Why?”
  • “I need to print some pictures”
  • “Why don’t you use your laptop?”
  • “It’s not working…”
  • “What do you mean ‘it’s not working’? What is not working?”
  • “I don’t know, it’s having a spaz attack”

I have long given up any pretence of understanding the etymology of the teenage language. In a language where “fit” means handsome and “sick” means nice, I have no hope in tracing the origins of “spaz”. I can only guess that it stems from “spastic” or “spasmodic”. I have learned that “spaz” is an abbreviation of “spasticated” (as in “it’s gone all spasticated…”), which leaves me none the wiser. I digress… Whatever the origin of the term, in my thirty years of troubleshooting computers I’m pretty sure that epileptic seizures where never on the symptom list…

  • “Why didn’t you bring it down so that I can sort it out?”
  • “I don’t have time for that. All I need is to print three pictures for my artwork.”

I yielded, even though every fibre in my body was screaming for answers and detail. There is no such thing as “Not working”.

I saw a huge IT generation gap issue here: When I started working with computers, somewhere in the prehistoric early ‘80s, you needed to understand computers to use them. I won’t bore you with stories of bootstrapping from paper tapes and disk drives that needed to be shutdown in a certain way because the heads would physically crash on the disk, but to a whole generation of us, “not working” immediately triggers a root cause analysis mechanism in our brain: Power, motherboard, fans, memory, disks, peripherals, operating system, drivers, software, network connection, telephone line, etc. By process of elimination, ONE of them is not working, but not usually the whole. And part of “using” the computer was to understand which part is not working and how to get it to work. Because, frankly, if we didn’t figure it out there wasn’t anyone else around that could.

My daughter is a typical business user: To her, the computer is a means to an end. Her laptop is a tool. She has no interest to find out which part isn’t working or to make any attempt to fix it. If she can’t go to Google and print the three pictures she needs, when she needs them, it renders the tool useless. “The computer is not working”, does not mean the physical machine is broken, it means “my tool doesn’t do what I need it to do”. Why and how is irrelevant.

A couple of weeks ago, when her laptop refused to start altogether (hard disk index corruption problem, a simple CHKDSK fix), her only concern was if she would lose the book she has been writing for the last six months – cue the usual backup lecture from dad… She doesn’t want to learn how to do backups, she wants her book to be there.

Interestingly, the same gap exists between most business user communities and IT. IT will worry about which part of the infrastructure is failing, which vendor to contact, which component needs tweaking, which performance bottleneck requires more resources at peak time. For the users it’s black & white: “The system” is working, or it’s not.

Coincidentally, I saw another example of the same gap earlier in the day, yesterday, when I went to my dentist. After paying for my check-up, and after several failed attempts, the receptionist informed me that they could not give me a receipt because the printer is broken and they were waiting for the engineer to arrive. I could see the aforementioned printer from where I was standing: It was flashing a red light with a message that it had a paper-jam. There were four people at reception, and various dentist assistants that paraded through. Not one of them had either the skills or the inclination to clear the jam.

I felt envy towards the engineer – Money for nothing!

I also resisted the temptation to say “Can I try and sort it for you?”, but it was hard! I agreed to have my receipts posted in the mail, instead.

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