Computer troubleshooting vs. finding a quick solution

In this IT tale, a techie lands his first job working at a support center -- and learns to really listen to what a caller is saying

Back in the mid-'90s, I worked at a support center for a line of home PCs. It was my first tech job, and perhaps the most valuable things I learned were to trust myself and to really listen to the client.

In a help desk environment, you are typically graded (at least in part) on your average call time, and this support center was no exception. There was a lot of emphasis on finding a quick solution and moving on to the next caller.

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When I first started, I Iooked in awe at the mentors and learned all I could from them. As time went on, though, I learned that the mentors were mainly out for their own interests. The mentors varied in attitude as much as they did in age.

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For instance, many of the older ones looked down their noses and scrutinized every word on the call monitors -- they seemed to be trying to show their superiority and maybe looking for a way to get promoted. Many of the younger ones would joke around and make fun of those who didn't do so well -- they seemed to be mainly interested in having fun and looking for a paycheck. I discovered that it was helpful to listen to the mentors' advice, but to trust my own instincts more and more.

One day I received a call from a lady who immediately assumed she needed to speak to second level. She said she had already called in many times before and had all sorts of things replaced.

I looked up her call history and, sure enough, she had called in many times before. She had already had her RAM, processor, motherboard, and hard drive replaced during three different in-home visits. The problem written into the system was pretty brief: "After booting the system into Windows 95, the system would slow down and lock up regardless if she opened any application or not." From what I could see, nobody had logged any of the troubleshooting. It seemed like they were just guessing at it.

I convinced her to let me walk her through a few steps. Since I was now about 25 minutes into the call, my mentor sent me an email and told me that we'd probably never figure out her problem and I should just send her a new computer and get off the call. Thinking that I might be able to get more information and figure it out, I ignored his sage advice and decided to troubleshoot a bit further. I asked her to reboot her computer and go into safe mode, wanting to see if any app was running in the background that could hang the system.

After she pressed F8 on boot up, I could hear her printer going. She asked me to hold on while she turned off her printer. Confused, I asked if she had another computer she was printing with. She said no, but every time she went to DOS her printer started printing blank pages nonstop.

A lightbulb came on in my head. "Have they ever replaced your keyboard?" I asked. She said, "No, what would a keyboard have to do with anything?" I told her there is a key on the keyboard called Print Screen. When you press Print Screen in DOS, it would print out whatever was on your screen. If you are in Windows, it just continually recycles the screenshot to your clipboard. The Print Screen key could be stuck, and that could be why your computer is locking up after being in Windows for a short amount of time.

I sent her a new keyboard and followed up with her. Everything worked out great. My mentor got on my case about the lengthy 50-minute phone call, but had no room for argument because I saved the company from replacing an entire PC (back then close to $2,000) by sending out the $20 keyboard.

Not sure if there is a moral to this story other than sometimes the things you learn in basic training such as listening and troubleshooting are better than listening to an expert tell you what to do.

This story "Computer troubleshooting vs. finding a quick solution," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at InfoWorld.com.

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