When a little IT knowledge is too much

A lesson in why it's wise to find out the end-users' wishes before wasting time installing nifty updates that they don't want

In the early 1980s, I worked as a computer tech in a small computer store. I did quite a bit of customizing user menus for MS-DOS systems. For store customers, both personal and small business users, we installed a menu system to serve as a user-friendly interface to the then-common MS DOS operating system.

I had talked with a close friend of mine -- we'll call him John -- who did not work in IT, and I guess I gave him just enough knowledge to make him dangerous.

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One day John talked enough computer lingo that a business owner friend of his from another state decided to save a few bucks and have John help him update his business computer -- this being back in the days when many businesses only had one computer. The business owner had complained to John about slow performance of the PC, so John in his free time drove down to the office to "clean up" the hard drive by removing junk and unused files and programs.

John, in a panic, called me at home at about 7 that night. From talking with him on the phone, it became clear that in his effort to "clean out old files" he had typed "delete *.*" from the directory "C:\" and then entered "Y" in response to the "are you sure" question. From his telling of the story, he had said "Oops!" just as he lifted his finger from the "Y" key -- and the people in the office went dead silent.

At first I thought this would be no big deal since I was very familiar with the way to create a standard initial screen using the old MS-DOS edlin program. However, after talking with John, long-distance, it became clear that the business had been using an unusual custom menu system set up by "Someone." After about half an hour of fruitless attempts to get that menu system back, I had him pack up the computer, keyboard, and monitor and bring it back up so I could work on it directly.

Within a few hours we had the PC set up in my home and I began working on getting the menu system and initial screen back the way they had been before John wiped out the root directory.

Fortunately, all the important data was in subdirectories and still intact. By looking in several of the sub-directories, I managed to spot parts of the long-gone menu system, but there was no trace of the full version. So I had to use what I could find, keep checking John's memory of the way the original one had looked, and try to create a new menu interface that looked as close to the original as possible.

I think it was about 3:30 in the morning when we finally had something that should satisfy the business owner. John packed up the computer and went to his home to get a little sleep before taking it back to the business owner by 8 that morning.

At the site, he managed to get the PC set up and successfully demonstrated the new menu system that we had installed -- except for one complaint. Just as he was ready to leave, the receptionist who was the main user of the PC commented that she wished she didn't have to deal with any "dumb" menu system. She said she would much rather work directly with MS-DOS.

The takeaway from this experience, in addition to being careful about how much IT knowledge to share, can be applied to all those in the IT profession. When helping a customer, make sure that the "neat" technical things we can do are both good for and wanted by the user -- or at least talk to them about possible training so they can get up to speed with the new features. In this case, knowing that the menu system was not wanted would have saved many hours of unpaid frustrating work, a long early-morning drive out of state, a strained friendship, and (my) temptation to strangle a friend and (his) a business employee.

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