When inexperience and tech jargon collide

An IT tale of learning to communicate with and never making assumptions about your junior staff

My first job right out of college was with a small software company that developed systems for medical offices. The company covered every aspect from start to finish, which included developing the network/hardware equipment and software, installation, and support.

Being a small company, the sale of a system was a big thing. In our town, word of mouth helped create sales, which helped us make payroll, so keeping customers happy was very important.

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My primary job was to program, but I also helped out with installation and support. I found myself frequently having to go to a customer site and troubleshoot a network or hardware problem. Additionally, I was called upon to help with installations -- not just the software I was developing, but things like printers and PCs as well. That's the nature of the small business.

Business was booming, and our staff was having a hard time keeping up, so the owner of the company decided to hire some young college students to help out, especially with the basic tasks and, after evaluation of their skills, wherever we could use their assistance. Most were very inexperienced, but some were pretty smart -- the hacker type.

Some of these hacker-type students would accompany me on service calls when I was needed. At the time of this incident, I was loading a lot of patches and software upgrades to make the programs run better and to eliminate bugs.

I headed out one afternoon to do some software loads with one of the students who'd proven himself to be one of the more experienced that was working with us at the time -- or at least he seemed that way. The job involved rebooting the server after loading the patches. We arrived on site, and I asked the office manager if I could load the patches and then let her know when it was time to reboot. With her approval I loaded the software, then asked my young assistant to down the server. To my horror he walked up and just unplugged it from the outlet.

Down went everything. All the employees who were logged in lost their connection, and some even lost the data they were working on. I looked at the young man and asked him what he was thinking. Everyone in the busy office was looking at him, including the office manager. He started shaking, and I started to feel really bad for him.

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I later found out that he plain did not know how to "down the server" and thought it was a matter of just unplugging it. But the way he was sweating and shaking will forever be etched in my mind. Ultimately, it was my responsibility to get the job done.

It can be tricky getting acquainted with someone else's knowledge and skills. My lesson that day was to never assume a junior coworker, especially a young student, knows the technical aspects of what they are doing. Find a way to politely ask, and explain IT jargon just to make sure they know what you mean. I also learned a few lessons in service recovery -- the hard way.

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