Monday, August 6, 2012

Wildly arcane computer knowledge

Maybe a week or so ago, one of my co-workers stopped by my desk because he was having a problem using the main web application I’m responsible for. I should perhaps point out that this is not a co-worker I tend to interact with much on a regular basis. We don’t sit anywhere near each other, or go to the same staff meetings or anything like that. In fact, when this co-worker approached me he basically led with “So I was told you’re the guy to come ask when I’m having problems with the system …” And that was true enough, and I was happy to help him with his problem, which was legit. There’s a weird quirk that pops up in the web application every once in a while that I could address in one of three different ways:

1 – Fix the underlying cause, which would actually be hugely time-consuming and effort-intensive (for something that honestly doesn’t pop up that often)
2 – Train my coworkers how to deal with the problem themselves (which … is not going to happen)
3 – Fix the quirk myself every time it pops up

So I took care of my co-worker’s problem and he was back up and running with no worries.

A few days after that, he stopped by my desk again. This, of course, is how it often goes in cubicle-land: when users feel like they are on their own, they will struggle through problematic experiences on their own, discover workarounds, etc. But as soon as they know there’s an office whiz who can fix things quickly, turning to said whiz is their kneejerk response to any problem. So, round two, my co-worker says “I can’t get the system to come up.” Which sounded significantly worse than the quirk I had fixed previously, so I followed him back to his desk to see what was going on.

Here’s a couple things to keep in mind about my government office with its computer systems riding on the DoD network. One, the users’ desktops get updated all the time, with patches and system updates and new software version deployments and all manner of things which, if you’ve ever worked in a larger corporate environment, I’m sure you’re familiar with. Two, the web application I administer is, bottom line, a website. It has a lot of moving parts and bells and whistles and interacts dynamically with a very large database, but it’s a website. You get to it with a browser, which for all of us here means good old Internet Explorer 7.

So what my co-worker was showing me was that when he opened IE, his home page was the intranet landing page. Which is exactly what happens when I open IE on my computer, as that’s the default setting for all the browsers in the office. So for a couple of seconds I waited for him to show me the problem with accessing the system until I realized that was the whole problem for him. Apparently he used to have the web app login page as his homepage, but it somehow got changed to the network default. (NB: there should be huge scare quotes around “somehow”; I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that it was in fact an overnight update of some sort that caused his browser to reset its homepage settings, but I know it’s just as likely my co-worker changed it himself without realizing it.)

Anyway, it was all I could do to non-condescendingly explain that no matter what page was coming up when a browser was opened, the browser could navigate to wherever he wanted to go, including of course the web app he needed. I showed him the dropdown for the browser history, and the address of the web app was in there of course, and once he was pointed at the right page I left him to do whatever he needed to do.

Normally you would think that would be the end of it but today he stopped by my desk again. “I can’t get into the system,” he said, and I don’t know how it’s even possible but my initial assumption was that he really was having trouble logging in, getting an error message, maybe getting no response from the server, etc. I dutifully followed him back to his desk, whereupon he opened IE, and clicked on the down arrow for the address bar history, and then turned to me with an expectant “See? SEE?” look on his face because the address of the web app wasn’t in the dropdown.

To which I could only respond, “OK, right, well, if the site you want to go to isn’t there you can always, you know, type it in yourself?” The app, because so many people use it every single day, is one of the few in use around here that has its own intuitive vanity URL, which I swear is all of about ten characters long, total. I typed it in for him and, of course, the web app appeared right away, ready for him to log in.

I don’t know how my co-worker’s dropdown history got erased but that’s really entirely beside the point. My main question is, how did he ever manage to use the system day in and day out before he knew there was an in-house tech support guy for the web app who could type in URLs for him???

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