7 hardware horror stories from the help desk

Used, abused, and kinda rude -- unfortunately, that's what IT has come to expect of workers and company-issued hardware

user hardware 1b
Credit: Benj Edwards
Hardware hell

The beauty and the curse of a tech job is the speed of change, from ransomware attacks to cloud initiatives to whatever the next hour will bring.

Yet one part of the job description stays pretty much the same: Users who either don’t understand or don’t care about taking care of the hardware entrusted to them. Or perhaps, they figure why worry about it when the IT department is around. After all, it's not their job.

Published in the anonymous InfoWorld Off the Record blog, here are real-life stories from IT pros who’ve had to answer the call when users experienced hardware mishaps -- whether accidental or on purpose is anybody’s guess.

IT pros, if you have an on-the-job experience to submit about managing IT, developing apps, supporting users, a humbling moment, or a time when something went very right, send your story to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish it, we’ll keep you anonymous -- and send you a $50 American Express gift card.

[ Follow InfoWorld's Off the Record on Twitter and subscribe to the newsletter. ]

Messy is as messy does
Credit: Thinkstock
Messy is as messy does

At least the user got one fact right to help IT: An accurate diagnosis of his keyboard problem. A staffer spills water on the keyboard and needs a replacement, so the techie gets a new one out of the storeroom and heads to the user’s office.

However, a few surprises await. First, the user has left – why stick around when you can’t work? Second, the office is a cluttered mess and it’s hard to even find the desk, complicating what should be a simple task. Third, the user has ignored IT’s directions to lock the screen when leaving the computer unattended. Grrr.

The IT pro replaces the sopping keyboard and lets the user know the task is complete. But it’s not – turns out the seepage changed some settings. After a few more clicks, the user is finally back in business, but the proceedings could've gone so much more smoothly if the employee had simply shown some respect and followed best practices.

The wrong tool for the job
Credit: Thinkstock
The wrong tool for the job

During a casual office conversation, a user explains she’s having pain in her right shoulder and her therapist advised her to reconfigure her desk to make it more ergonomic. This user is known to be fairly tech-savvy, so the IT pro thinks nothing of giving her off-the-cuff advice to switch her mouse to her left hand for a little while to give her shoulder a break. She could also switch the buttons on the mouse so that her index finger would still do the majority of the clicking – on the other hand. The user likes the idea.

Not much later, the user seeks out the IT pro with a question: How to get the mouse buttons switched for use on the left hand? The unexpected sight of a screwdriver and pliers next to the mouse makes the techie rethink the instructions. Yes, the user had thought that the buttons on the mouse had to literally be switched and was trying to pry them loose. The IT pro is relieved to find the mouse undamaged and shows the user how to adjust the mouse settings.

Lesson learned: “Now when I'm helping a user and think we're on the same page, I look at a mouse as a reminder to make sure to clarify who, what, when, where, why, and how whenever I offer any suggestions.” 

TMI! (Or not?)
TMI! (Or not?)

An IT pro shares several notable episodes when there was too much information about how users, er, used the hardware. You’re better off not knowing some things – unless it's for self-preservation.

One user’s computer turns out to be filled with malware, and the screensaver is a pornographic image that the IT pro discovers in a public area, of course. Another user on a conference call forgets to mute his smartphone, and the rest of the attendees listen in to distinct bathroom sounds – with the notable absence of hand-washing! Still another user is hesitant to disclose why his BlackBerry is filled with water (from the urinal, he finally discloses right after the IT pro has picked it up). 

Good tip: “Keep gloves, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer at your desk at all times. You never know when you'll need them.”

[ Related Off the Record story: Laptops don't lie: Filthy tales of tech repair ]

Hot or cold? Leave it to the pros -- please!
Credit: Thinkstock
Hot or cold? Leave it to the pros -- please!

A user has repeated problems with his laptop, and an IT pro tries again and again to fix it. After almost a week of this, it’s time to call the warrantor.

Turns out they are well aware of this particular user and piece of hardware: The user had called them directly. What’s more, he had even told them that he’d put the laptop in the refrigerator.

When confronted by the IT pro, the user admits to this and says he wanted to cool down the laptop since it was running hot. While the honesty is refreshing, it’s obvious this user needs a crash course in computer care and tech support protocol.

The sad realization after time at the help desk: “Many users take little responsibility for hardware they don't purchase themselves.“

Thou shalt not covet thy co-worker's smartphone
Credit: Thinkstock
Thou shalt not covet thy co-worker's smartphone

At one company, standard-issue PDAs are bare-bones and clunky, but also bombproof. No ifs, ands, or buts -- replacements are of the same model. Into this environment comes an experiment from the bean counters to switch to a lower-cost cellular carrier for new lines, along with a new temptation: a new, compact smartphone bearing all the bells and whistles.  

As word spreads, tech envy takes over the workplace and the old PDAs are suddenly are plagued with any number of vague problems such as dropping calls and short battery life. It’s not too long before horrific accidents befall the bombproof clunkers.

The honeymoon soon comes to an end, as it becomes apparent that the new carrier is horrible and service is spotty. Employees beg to be switched back, but many still have to slog through the two-year contract. The company wastes thousands during the debacle.

Users, take heed: “Newer isn’t always better.”

A missing piece
Credit: Thinkstock
A missing piece

A road warrior calls in a panic on a Saturday, reporting that his brand-new laptop is not working. It had been fine the night before but was now reporting “no hard drive found.” Despite best efforts over over the phone, the IT pro advises the user to bring it to the office ASAP, thinking that the hard drive is shot.

With the troubled machine in person, the IT pro notes that the error message has not changed. Then the techie flips it around and realizes that the error message is literal: There is no hard drive in the laptop. The space is empty.

A phone call goes back to the user and the search for the hard drive is on. Luckily, it was right in the bag – a screw had come loose and the drive had slipped out, unnoticed by the busy user.

Kinda gives a new meaning to the "items may have shifted in flight."

Negligence, disinterest, or what?
Credit: MartinFredy / iStock
Negligence, disinterest, or what?

An IT department provides support for dozens of workers scattered across the United States, most of whom are high on sales skills but low on tech know-how. From the top down, technology is a low priority among the sales staff.

One user gets off the plane, picks up her checked baggage (including her computer bag), and doesn’t discover until the next day that her laptop is missing. Another user goes on vacation and parks the SUV in the airport parking lot, then seems surprised upon return a week later that the laptop stored inside has been stolen.

IT has to rush to get new machines to the users, who probably don’t face any consequences from upper management. From dropped equipment to food smears and lies, the IT department is on the front line.

Which leads the IT pro to offer a tip of the hat to “the majority of users who showed up with 2- and 3- year-old laptops, with many travel miles on them, looking like new. … May their hard drives never fail!”

Share your tech stories
Share your tech stories

Share your true IT tale true IT tale of personal blunders, coping with poor managers, trying to communicate with users, and resolving tech problems. Or other memorable experiences from the tech job.

Send your submission to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish your story -- anonymously, of course -- you’ll receive a $50 American Express gift card.

More in IT careers:

7 blowhard bosses bollix up IT

Newbies, nerves, and networking: Lessons for IT rookies

8 feel-good tales of life in IT

Step away from the button! Six touchy tech disasters

From bad jobs to new beginnings: Techies take a chance

Mean, rude, and angry: Tales of the toxic office

Print at your own risk: 8 printer predicaments

The 33 worst lines ever said by tech recruiters

12 bad habits that slow IT to a crawl

14 nightmare clients -- and how to defang them