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I don't know Unix

© August 2004 Tony Lawrence

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Mon Aug 23 13:03:47 2004 I don't know Unix
Posted by Tony Lawrence
Search Keys: trouble, problems

Most often "I don't know Unix" comes from a voice at the other end of the phone. I'm annoyed already, because it's pretty hard to find my phone number without learning that I don't want phone calls from non-customers who "have a simple question". Existing clients, sure, call me anytime. But there had better be a darn good reason for anyone else to ignore what they read at that contact info page.

Sometimes there is. Sometimes the person at the other end is an intelligent person who understands that I'm not here to answer questions for free and wants to clear up some details about paid support options. Fine, glad to talk to them. And sometimes they somehow managed to get my number some other way and again aren't looking for free help. Fine again.

But then there is that "I don't know Unix". Those words may be accompanied by "I'm a Windows person", and it may very well be true that this person is generally intelligent, knows their way around a computer, and has just managed to avoid any previous exposure to Unix or Linux. OK, that's reasonable.

But too often "I don't know Unix" is a cop-out excuse for laziness and sloppy thinking. What they really should be saying is "I don't know jack about much of anything, I don't know how to ask an intelligent question, and you are going to have drag answers out of me every step of the way." These aren't end-users - I expect that from users. These are support people, often getting paid good money to fumble around ineffectively.

A computer problem, whether it is Unix, Windows, or TRSDOS, shares common elements with all other computer problems and with all problems of any nature. We have a procedure, an expected result, and the actual result. Those are the three things that anyone who does repair or troubleshooting needs to know: we don't want to hear "I can't drive my car", we want "I put the key in the ignition and turned it. I expected the motor to start, but all I got was a clicking noise".

"I don't know Unix" is often the equivalent of someone with a dead starter saying "I don't know Toyotas". Right, you don't. And you don't know anything about cars at all. That's fine: there are lots of things I don't know anything about. But don't tell me "I don't know Unix" when the reality is that you know next to nothing about anything computer related and aren't capable of rational thinking.

Windows is, of course, partially to blame for this. The point and click, don't get under the hood mentality makes some people think they know something ABOUT computers when really all they have learned is a very little bit about USING Windows. But there is also a certain type of "support person" who has learned some magic words (or some magic mouse clicks) and thinks that is what problem solving is all about. It's the equivalent of computer game cheat codes - to get by the monster at level three, type RINGOFFIRE. To add a default route, type "route add default". It's all just magic, there's no logic, no understanding. For those people, "I don't know Unix" means "I don't know the magic words I need - tell them to me!".

I don't do magic words. I do analysis and investigation. I don't expect that customers have the same skills that I do, but I won't put up with silliness from so-called "support" people: if you know nothing about cars, don't annoy your mechanic by pretending that you know something you don't. Don't annoy me with "I don't know Unix" when Unix isn't the issue. I actually had someone once with a totally dead system, hard drive wouldn't even spin up, and this person told me that they didn't know what to do because "I don't know Unix". That was very hard not to laugh at. Yes, that was a support person, not an end-user.

You don't know Unix? That's OK, I do. Now, pay careful attention: what did you do, what did you expect to happen, and what actually happened? That's what I need to know. Nothing else. If you are a generally savvy person who really just doesn't know Unix, that will come out as we go along. If it's really just that you are used to some other OS, we may even solve this problem together: with a little help from me, you may see the problem yourself. I've had that happen plenty of times. It's fun to work with people like that because they ARE smart and they do understand logic.

Well, not everyone is a good problem solver. That's OK, I'm not a good musician, not a good basketball player, and so on. But if you don't have problem solving skills, you shouldn't be in the support business. Your bumbling just annoys the rest of us.

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More Articles by © Tony Lawrence

---August 23, 2004

"It's the equivalent of computer game cheat codes - to get by the monster at level three, type RINGOFFIRE."

I was at a Barnes & Noble last night, perusing the new computer books that may have come out in the last 6 months or so. I ran across a new "... Hacks" series by O'Reilly and decided to thumb thru "Windows XP Hacks" just to see if they came up with anything new. As is my nature with such books, I start at the end and work towards the front of the book, because that's where the most interesting stuff lies.

So, right off the bat I read about hack #96 (of 100), which deals with how to display *all* of the installed devices in Device Manager, whether they're currently present or not. It involves setting an environment variable, of all things, rather than the usual registry hack, and was something like: set devmgr_show_all_...=1.

I didn't have pen & paper at the time, but I figured I could get the magic variable name by listing strings in the actual program (or dll file). (Turns out I couldn't.) But what crossed my mind was why was such a useful feature (which used to be in Win2000) is completely unavaiable to a somewhat knowledgeable user, unless you somehow got ahold of that magic code? We're not supposed to be talking about Easter Eggs here, this is a really useful feature that's simply undocumented, anywhere.

And this only promotes the concept of a wizard, guru, geek that you have to track down to ask him to wave his wand and cast (or type) some incantation to fix some mysterious problem.

There, I feel much better now. Catharsis is a wonderful thing.


"A computer problem, whether it is Unix, Windows, or TRSDOS, shares common elements with all other computer problems and with all problems of any nature. We have a procedure, an expected result, and the actual result."

With Windows, there is the "expected result" and the superfluous byproducts. Any actual result is purely accidental.

"That's OK, I'm...not a good basketball player..."

Not a problem, Tony. You'd be right at home with the Chicago Bulls. <Grin> BTW, how are your baseball skills? The White Sox need help -- lots of it. The Red Sox just left town and Comiskey Park...er...US Cellular Field looks like Atlanta after Sherman and his boys marched through.


---August 24, 2004

Some things in the windows tech support world help to contribute to this sort of desire of a "cheat code"-type fix.

I worked in a tech support place. It was a phone center company that would contract out groups of phone people to do specific tasks. Like telemarketing or whatnot. But I was part of a phone help desk situation that was contracted out to a large nation-wide dial-up ISP company.

Now in order to be successfull it didn't matter what computer skills you had, or your ability to do research, or real troubleshooting ability(actually the less you knew the better off you were). The successfull tech was a guy that could memorize all the routines then quickly flesh out what routines would be most likely to fix the problem in order of shortest time/most likely fix.

So if the customer complained about "a", you would do routine called the "strip and burn" (for example). That would fix 50% of all customer's computers that had similar problems. If that didn't work then you would do the next routine and that would be the most likely to fix the problem, they you would do routine #3 and #4 and so on until you ran out of likely fixes or time.

(you had situations were some techs had everything so well memorized that they would be playing games or writing e-mails while walking the customer thru the "fixes".)

Phone calls had to average under 10 minutes. Sometimes with difficult customers it would take 15 minutes just to walk them thru setting up DNS settings. Some calls lasted as long as 45 minutes to get thru the most likely fixes if you had a especially difficult person. So you had to average that out buy having most of your phone calls last under 5 minutes. You just didn't have time to realy get into details.

I was decent at it. But it was a painfull life-sucking experiance. The longer I worked their my neck would get more and more cramped up from the stress. Pain started shooting up and down my back. Most people when on break wondered around looking like zombies. Some people thrived in it though. It fasinated me that there existed personality types that would actually like a job like that.

But that's why those Support people are always looking for the magic bullet. They are brought up in a industry that doesn't care and uses software that is impossible to fix properly even if you knew how. They just need the quick fix ready for people who yell at them when stuff is not working. People who sometimes have irrationally strong beleifs that understanding technology is a complete waste of time and effort.

(ahrg that job sucked.)


---August 24, 2004

Fri Jun 15 11:32:51 2012: 11103   TonyLawrence


Eight years later - now they think Unix is some variant of Linux :)


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