Look out -- the computer cops are on to you

In this IT tale, an employee mistakes a routine computer warning message with something far more sinister

When you work long enough in a profession, you get so accustomed to its quirks and particular jargon that it's easy to overlook how it can appear to a novice. IT is no exception.

I've been an IT admin for decades and have certainly encountered my share of different end-user skill sets and learning curves. Early on in my career, when computers were just being introduced to workplaces, a rule of thumb I used when developing front ends was to make it intuitive enough that a 6-year-old could understand it. If you don't aim for that level of usability, you're just begging for trouble. This rule of thumb still works, but times sure have changed. One of my lines now is, "We've done nothing but create a bunch of data junkies."

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Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a company that staffed employees around the clock. Most of the employees had never used a computer before, so we were starting at square one with our training. We got a lot of IT calls at first for every issue imaginable, but over time most employees became fairly computer literate.

One of the night shift supervisors was a few years away from retirement. He'd taken to computers pretty enthusiastically, but at times, we noticed that he definitely felt like he was dealing with something completely out of his league.

One night, he called me about 2:45 a.m. and woke me up from a dead sleep. I could tell from his voice he was very nervous and clearly shaken up about something. I couldn't figure out what he was talking about.

He kept saying over and over, "What do I tell them when the police arrive?"

I kept saying, "What happened? What's wrong? Calm down, everything will be fine. Why are the police on their way anyway?"

Finally he calmed down enough to blurt out: "I was doing nothing wrong, really, then all of a sudden my screen at my PC turned blue and in big white letters it says, I HAVE PERFORMED AN ILLEGAL OPERATION AND WILL BE SHUT DOWN."

I explained to him what the statement meant, and he eventually calmed down. We even laughed about it together the next day.

It's amazing how used to something we can get in a certain context. And it never hurts to take a step back and look at our profession through another viewpoint, even if it's just the way a computer operation warning is worded.

This story, "Look out -- the computer cops are on to you," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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