Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shine up that crystal ball...

Shine up that crystal ball. Someone sent me a link to the “Chronicles of George”. Long story short: George works the help desk, writes the problem tickets for the engineers to act on. Only George cannot write a complete meaningful sentence to save his life.

Not all of the messages are funny – but some are really good. I liked the response of “Fortunately, since I brought my Magic Telepathic Helmet today, I don't need any more of a description than this.” Reminded me immediately of when I say “my crystal ball is in the shop this week”.

Updated after posting:
I was just doing some asktom questions when this one came along. Classic:

not loging on oracle server 2000. and "database not started"

so what are doing now

It just seemed so appropriate, I had to add it here.
End of update...

When I read “isn't that what's supposed to be happening?” – I was reminded of the pilot gripe sheet and the “that’s what they’re there for” answer.

I can feel the posters frustration when they type “But what do they need, George? For the love of all that is good and pure in this world, what do they need?”. I know his pain – that would be when I ask simply “why”. Details – details, details. It is all about details (and preciseness and clarity).

But the one that made me actually laugh out loud – that was the response of “Well, George, it's like this: when a man and a woman get together...”. Absolutely classic, I’ll have to use that one someday.

When asking a question, when providing information, when forced to communicate – be precise, clear, brief, and remove anything that just isn’t relevant. I say it all of the time – “I need more information – maybe an example, something that is 100% complete, yet concise, but entirely complete from start to finish. Did I mention, it should be brief – but very importantly, it should be complete”.

I still think written communication and the ability to explain in detail to others the problem you have and are trying to solve is perhaps the most key trait one can have. Forget how much you know about computers, databases, software – all of that stuff. If you cannot communicate your needs, your requirements to others – it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you cannot be used in a team environment with other human beings.

When explaining a problem – take the approach of pretending you are explaining this to your mom (I am making the assumption your mom doesn’t work in information technology of course!). Don’t use internal acronyms well known only to you, remember that the person you are talking to (communicating with) hasn’t been staring at your problem for the last week like you have. Don’t tell them all of the failed attempts you made – tell them what you need to do. The thing that drives me crazy is when someone posts pages of code that doesn’t work – and then says “this doesn’t work, what is wrong with it”. Literally – that is the entire scope of the information provided – a failed attempt and the note that “it doesn’t work”. No ideas about what it is supposed to do in the first place!!

Just as importantly, remove things that are simply not relevant to the problem. I call them red herrings in the problem statement. It might go like this:

We are using unix. Well, not really unix but linux. We telnet into the server (actually, it is “ssh” but it looks just like telnet). We have an external table (code to set up external table here). It has data that looks like this (echo statements to create data here). We then have these five other tables (creates and data go here). We need to write a query that does “this” against the external table and loads this table over here.

  • The fact they are on unix/linux – not relevant.

  • That they use telnet/ssh – not relevant.

  • That they use an external table – not relevant (only confuses the issue – you start assuming “they are having a problem with external tables”, but they are not)

  • That they have these five other tables – not relevant, they don’t use them.

All we really need is

  • I have these inputs

  • I need these outputs

  • This is the logic in detail (the specifications) that explains to you how to process the inputs and turn them into outputs.

Funny thing is – if we get that third bullet, most of the time, you are ready to write the code! I think many questions come from not fully understanding the problem that is trying to be solved in the first place…


Blogger Bill S. said....

I had to stop part way through because I was laughing so hard I was crying, and couldn't see the monitor (guess I was havening a problem ;-D).

I worked with a guy like that once, listening to him talk to end-users over the phone was priceless. He would make stuff up to sound like he knew what he was talking about, and the other HelpDesk techs would have to cover the mouthpieces of their phones so their users wouldn't hear the techs laughing.

Could of been a Mastercard commercial. Thanks for George - I needed a laugh today.

word: rqrxifc
require X if C?

Tue Jul 25, 12:22:00 PM EDT  

Blogger David Aldridge said....

From the FAQ's about George we also learn of one of the human characteristics that leads to these problems ...

"It became immediately apparent that George wasn't really interested in putting any effort into improving himself, in spite of the fact that he was being faced with an amazing opportunity. ...

He simply didn't improve.


Imagine George sitting with three other guys in the help desk glass bubble, all on the phone, with George badgering EVERYONE with a question he has the tools to solve himself ("She says her computer is slow. What do I do?").


The problem is that George didn't learn. He just didn't care ..."

For me that is one of the cardinal sins for technical folk, and in my fantasy "I'm-in-charge" world nothing would get you kicked out the door faster. I would rather have no-one than one of these specimens.

Tue Jul 25, 04:02:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Howard J. Rogers said....

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tue Jul 25, 05:05:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Howard J. Rogers said....

OK, call me an old grump with no sense of humour if you must, but the George business is **appalling**.

Either the man was dyslexic, in which case mocking him isn't really that funny.

Or, and more likely, he was badly educated -and that's hardly a funny business, either. More a sad comment on the state of US schools, I would have thought.

If he managed to hold that job for 14 months, then I'd say he was badly managed, too. When and how often was he counselled about the need for clarity and precision as an aid to his colleagues? Or were the colleagues just too busy thinking 'God what a thicko! I am a genius by comparison' and laughing at him behind his back to do anything about it?

Incidentally: "Could HAVE been a Mastercard commercial" and "From the FAQs about George", no apostrophe since no possession is implied... see, this game is easy to play, no?!

Tue Jul 25, 05:08:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

I agree it is appalling, but it is "real". It is not a US school problem either - that was pretty harsh. It is a *world wide phenomena.

It happens. It happens every day. I agree it was a management problem, it does sound like his peers (some of them) tried.

I've worked with similar people in the past. Not quite that bad, but really close. When I was in a position of being the manager - I could do things about it.

Have you seen the TV show the "Office" - either the US or UK version. It is not that far from reality at many places.

Tue Jul 25, 05:33:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Howard J. Rogers said....

"I look at this ticket in awe. I mean, he doesn't TALK that way. Why would he WRITE that?"

Which suggests to me that he's not a thicko, but has trouble writing (as I say, dyslexia, whatever). The Office is about severely socially dysfunctional people who might well be classed as thick, but I don't see that applying here. The problem here is so bad, it's a clinical, educational or managerial matter, and not a source of rich humour -IMHO, of course.

I get as irritated as all hell when it comes to sloppy problem description, and I've blogged about the need for precision and clarity in my time. But making fun of a guy because he can't spell 'having'?

Whatever rocks your boat, I guess.

Tue Jul 25, 07:00:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

What rocked my boat was not the havening.

It was the lack of any sort of useful description about anything.

Tue Jul 25, 07:03:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Home grown.

Tue Jul 25, 07:53:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Howard J. Rogers said....

Sorry. I should have said 'rocks ONE's boat'. Your point was clear enough in the original blog. I was getting at the 'sticker' on the front of the entire series at the original site.

Tue Jul 25, 09:58:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Either the man was dyslexic, in which case mocking him isn't really that funny.

If he managed to hold that job for 14 months, then I'd say he was badly managed, too

Incidentally: .....

It would probably be a good idea if you went through this, I guess!

All your concerns have been answered there.

Wed Jul 26, 10:10:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Stephen Booth said....

'George' and his ilk are certainly a widespread problem. Every company I havew worked for that has been big enough to have a helpdesk (i.e. where the users didn't just walk up and grab me to solve their problem) has had similar issues. I believe that the problem is one of management, even when second/third line support complain about lack of detail nothing gets done, except maybe a comment in a briefing to the first line support that they should include more detail.

Often the call loggers on a helpdesk are working to very tight time scales to wrap up their calls and so, to keep their call times down, they don't bother to get more detail. There's also the fact that increasingly the person who picks up the phone and takes the support call and logs it onto the call manageent system has little or no technical knowledge. Even if the user did give them the information they often wouldn't know that it was important and to log it.

Wed Jul 26, 10:18:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous RobH said....

Nothing to do with schools, people like that exist in canada too. I think its more of a parenting thing...

Wed Jul 26, 02:11:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

This is for Howard Rogers.

George has dyslexia, and you're a cruel bastard for making fun of him. I'm going to kick your ass!

This is an accusation I receive at least once a week (and it's usually a badly spelled accusation). I've corresponded with a number of dyslexic people and the consensus is that even if George IS dyslexic--which I admit is a possibility--there's no excuse for the stuff he writes. ANYONE could copy-and-paste a block of text (like a work log) into Word, let Word spell and grammar check that block of text, and then copy it back into Remedy. A six year old child could do it, provided he or she was told exactly how to do it.

We explained to George how to do this and we gave him exact instructions. More than once. I'd like to think that he had the competence of at least a six year old child, so I can only attribute his mangled tickets to laziness. Dyslexia is forgivable--it affects a huge number of people through no fault of their own. Forgetfulness is forgivable--I forget stuff all the time, and so does everyone else. But fourteen months worth of mangled, fucked up tickets? Besides "outright stupidity," find me an excuse that works. Go ahead. Find one.

When you come right down to it, it's not about his inability to write coherent tickets--it's about him working at a job for which he was profoundly unsuited, and fucking it up for the rest of us. It's difficult to take pride in your work when your department is a joke to the rest of the company, and it's difficult to not feel resentment when it all stems from a single person's gross incompetence.

I guess you are his "once a week" Howard.

Wed Jul 26, 05:26:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Howard J. Rogers said....

It's a feeble defence to say, 'I'm making fun of his laziness' when on the front page of the site, and repeatedly through the contents, he makes fun of the spelling of 'havening' and 'movening' and so forth.

So you can dismiss that with a 'I guess your his once a week' if you want, but I think the citation makes my point for me.

The citation also claims 'it's not his dyslexia, it's his profound unsuitability for the job' that is the cause of all the fun... and that was my point too. What manager lets someone who can't problem-solve, write, or analyse sit there for 14 months doing that job? That's not George's fault, that's management's failure to do their jobs properly. And I note that the George FAQ makes the point explicitly: he was hired as a non-technical person, the Boss knew he was non-technical "and we were hiring bodies very quickly". So now lets make fun of the fact that he hasn't heard of FrontPage, or calls a computer a CPU?? Come off it!

In comedy, there is subtle wit and there is slap-stick clowning around: the one I find hilarious, the other I find tedious as hell. When someone makes an inadvertent spelling or grammatical slip-up, that can be hilarious. But when they do it over and over again -well, then it gets tedious, and if it keeps up it becomes a matter for concern, because that's a deep problem that ought to be addressed not an occasion for comedy and a cheap laugh.

Neither your anonymity nor the original site host's protestations to the contrary mean you & he aren't in danger of engaging in the worst sort of schadenfreude. (You I don't know about; that site's host has already crossed that line).

Wed Jul 26, 05:48:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

I work in second level support. I did laugh at some of the postings because I recognised the same ones that I occasionally come across from the help desk.

I found myself skipping the misspellings and grammatical errors because I could still make some sense of what was being written. The help desk personnel are not employed as technical writers but to get the clear and concise problem definitions to the right people. I don't care if the problem has to do with Oracle, Oralce, orrabel, etc., but I do care if it is 8.1.6, 9.2, or 10.1; it is a SQL syntax error; or a database (an instance) is down.

On a different topic, the help desk database should be a gold mine of information of what is happening to the company's IT infrastructure. As I have seen in far too many organisations, the information in there is poorly organised, and has very poor data quality.

Vendors should be very interested about how their products are being used at a customer's site. What problems do they call the help desk about? For example, onee problem was about the dark monitor: was the brightness dial not obvious to the user? Why couldn't the user diagnose the problem themselves?

If vendors offered to buy this information from the customer's help desk database (after appropriate anonymisation), then the management would have to put resources to get the data into a usable form by improving the quality of the data.


Wed Jul 26, 06:18:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Bill S. said....

Howard Rogers said...

So you can dismiss that with a 'I guess your his once a week' if you want, but I think the citation makes my point for me.

You meant "you're", there, I'm sure. Makes up for my "Could of" that should have been "Could've". Neener neener.

word: yaurqx
Yau rocks?

Thu Jul 27, 09:16:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Bill S. said....

BTW, I do agree with you Howard that folks like George are usually mismanaged. The problem with Technical Support for most places nowadays is that the "Technical" part is glaringly omitted. Spelling errors are one thing (everybody makes them), even grammatical errors can be excused. Ignorance and lack of desire to improve - those are inexcusable. Not everyone is technically oriented, and some (like me) have to work hard at it to be "good". But some folks should never be allowed to "help" others with technical problems, and George seems to be one of those people.

Thu Jul 27, 09:32:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

no apostrophe since no possession is implied

Howard's comment prompted me to do the following Google search:

+acronym +plural +apostrophe

And that lead me to Google Answers: Grammar -- Plural of Abbreviation.

According to them, the practice of adding apostrophes to plural acronyms is indeed "no longer considered necessary", though commonplace in the New York Times. At any rate, the article makes for interesting reading.

As for "could of", that's been one of my pet peeves for some time. I believe it's a corruption of "could've", itself a contraction of "could have". We say "could've" all the time in American English. The same goes for "would of".

Bob Shepard

Thu Jul 27, 12:57:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Bill S. said....

Anonymous said.....
As for "could of", that's been one of my pet peeves for some time. I believe it's a corruption of "could've", itself a contraction of "could have". We say "could've" all the time in American English. The same goes for "would of".

Bob Shepard

Yup, but in this case it was my hands typing what my brain "heard" and not what it "saw". I know full well that the contraction is "could've" but my hands typed it as it sounded, not as it is spelled.
Happens to me all the time (yes Howard, I know that the sentence should start with "It" but I'm lazy ;-D).

Thu Jul 27, 01:15:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Mladen Gogala said....

I find "George" hilarious. I have no problem with mocking idiots. I guess that makes me a bad person, but somebody has to be a bad person, otherwise the goodness of the world wouldn't be so meaningful. I am the
ingredient that makes Angelina Jolie good, if we forget the bosom. Dyslexic? Mismanaged? Unhappy? Promised 72 virgins, but UPS doesn't deliver? Who cares? It's still funny, even if I am bad to the bone because of that.

Thu Jul 27, 02:42:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Yup, but in this case it was my hands typing what my brain "heard" and not what it "saw".

You know, I bet we're all doing that more than we realize. Probably some form of dyslexia. How many times have I realized, to my chagrin, that I just typed a "blooper", but too late -- I've already clicked on "send"!

On a related note: I'm wondering how long it'll be before "woulda", "coulda" and "shoulda" become official words in the English lexicon.

My spell checker sure doesn't like them!

Bob Shepard

Thu Jul 27, 03:01:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Dave Edwards said....

Funny stuff! Bill covered it in this week's Log Buffer.

Fri Jul 28, 02:15:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Mladen Gogala said....

Sorry Dave, I'm havening a problem. My hole area cannot send or receive emails. I'm unable to read Log Buffer right now.

Fri Jul 28, 05:10:00 PM EDT  


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