Pompous professor swallows placebo PC

A tech pro's people skills are put to the test by a professor who demands more computing power than he knows how to handle

Xerox Alto computer
Credit: flickr/Michael Hicks

There are good and bad aspects of working with people in any business, and each has its quirks. For a university where I worked, a gratifying challenge was finding effective ways to communicate with the users. A downside was working with huge egos and know-it-alls who clearly knew nothing.

We all strive to understand our audience. With changes in technology, the users have to pay more attention to it, which takes time away from their regular jobs. They don’t want to waste their day. They simply want to see what it does, how it can be applied to their needs, and how -- in the simplest set of instructions possible -- to make it work.

Tech departments work to instruct users on how to best utilize their everyday tools. It makes our jobs easier, and it means less frustration for them. But it also means being OK with teaching them only the basics, even if we know the new features would be extremely helpful -- and a lot of fun.

Meet the users where they are

One of the best ways I found to accomplish this for the faculty was to put together a printed 4-by-5 card that explained on one side what something would do, with a few examples, and give very straightforward steps on the other side on how to accomplish the most basic of tasks under the new system. Then we would host open training sessions or online tutorials for those who wanted to push further.

For example, when we moved from GroupWise to Outlook as our email platform, we didn’t try to overload faculty with information about how to mail merge, set group appointments, or manage contact lists. Instead, we gave them the bare essentials of how to read and send email. For most, that was more than they could handle. For those who wanted to learn more, the information was available.

But getting resistance to training is one matter. Dealing with attitudes of entitlement is yet another.

Some of the more senior faculty members expected the best, brightest, biggest, newest of anything. In some cases, it didn’t matter that the individual couldn’t actually use it -- but they had to have the status symbol.

I’m sure we all have tricks for getting through such encounters without losing our sanity. Our department was known to grant the request if the budget allowed, since it often was less hassle in the long run. But at other times, it was enough to provide the appearance of something being the best.

Objects on desk are not always what they appear to be

One professor in particular was a real prima donna and complicated everyone’s day by demanding the best of everything -- including computers. But he was also the most computer-illiterate person in the department. At his insistence, though, we provided a desktop computer with the best of everything at that time: CD burner, processor, the whole shebang.

About a month later, my assistant’s computer crashed completely: motherboard, hard drive, RAM, the works. But the budget didn't allow us to get her a new computer, though she would really use it.

One day after hours, I went into the professor’s office and swapped his dust-covered, clearly unused box with my assistant’s dead box. The professor never said a word. A few weeks later when asked how his computer was doing, he replied that it was working out fine.

The dead box sat in his office for months. He never knew the difference.

No matter the workplace, there will always be users who make you want to hide every time you see them coming. The trick is to find a way to deal with them that isn’t too stressful on you. Instead, focus on the “wins.”

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