Real IT consulting with real people

A techie shares experiences from working at a university's computer consulting office

When I was working in the tech department at our local university many years ago, one of my duties was to take shifts in the computer consulting office. The format was that staff and students could drop in without appointments for help with computing or programming problems. Most of the time it was pretty humdrum -- problems to them were usually nothing we had not seen before -- but it was a nice break from programming, and I got to talk to real, live people.

The most interesting thing I learned was to read upside-down because clients would sit across the table from me with their continuous form printouts (yes, it was that long ago). This turned out to be a remarkably valuable skill in later life when dealing with bank managers, potential employers, and so on.

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But as with any job, there were some memorable moments.

Off the Record submissions
Tricky shipping costs One end of term, a foreign post-doc grad student came in to see me. He had just completed his thesis, was returning to his native land, and wanted to send a second copy of his thesis and research files home on magnetic tape for security. He had confirmed he would be able to read the tape back home. He asked how much it would cost to mail. Being a slow day, I got a blank tape, weighed it, then called the Post Office to get postage rates, which I wrote out for him.

One end of term, a foreign post-doc grad student came in to see me. He had just completed his thesis, was returning to his native land, and wanted to send a second copy of his thesis and research files home on magnetic tape for security. He had confirmed he would be able to read the tape back home. He asked how much it would cost to mail. Being a slow day, I got a blank tape, weighed it, then called the Post Office to get postage rates, which I wrote out for him.

The student was strangely upset when I gave everything to him, and I asked why. Well, I was told, I'd gotten the price to mail an empty tape. His tape would be full -- with his thesis.

Programming pranks

When I first started working in the consulting office, one of our regular clients was a staff member, a programmer who happened to be blind. He programmed in PL/1 and Cobol, which, as the old-timers will remember, could be quite verbose. He would show up with a hundred-page printout and ask for help in debugging it. I would read the printout and we would carry on a discussion of the logic and so on. He seemed to have his entire program memorized, because he of course could not read it, yet he knew every line of code. I was amazed.

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