The follies of technical support

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I wrote this article as the editor of RV Daily Report after a particularly harrowing week of website problems. It remains one of my favorites.

There is an old Mother Goose nursery rhyme that goes like this:

There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

Thus is the story of our server. I think I’m going to start referring to “it” as “she” because, as a dad of three daughters, I know moody, I know stubborn, I know temperamental and I know a hissy fit when I see one. Our server appears prone to hissy fits.

As many of you have probably noticed, we have had server issues from time to time since the day we were forced to rename our website. All that came to a head last week, which required us to pretty much rebuild the site.

I have spent most of the last seven days speaking with various technical support gurus who work deep in some high security, underground vault in a mystical secret place in America’s heartland.

“My server is acting up again. It’s like she’s frozen.”

“Let me check it out,” says Level One Technician.

Like everything else, technicians have a pecking order. Level One Technicians are sharp computer users. Their computer skills generally exceed those of average computer users over the age of 30. That’s because they are all between the ages of 16 and 25. They grew up on computers and speak an entirely different language.

It’s called Geek Speak and, according to one definition I read, it often sounds like normal English that doesn’t quite make sense because familiar words have been given a new meaning. A port is no longer where a ship docks and a spool is no longer what thread comes on.

And for that matter, a thread is no longer a thin strand of cotton. And executing a program is not at all the same thing as killing it.

“Yep, she’s certainly locked up,” Level One Technician explained. “It looks like the SQL server is running at 1.5 billion processes and that’s causing an I/O bottleneck at the DBO tables, especially when you’re trying to RPC a batch command to the SQL server without effectively resolving the initial query. Want me to reboot it?”

“If that’s what it will take to correct the problem, then yes.”

“Wait 15 minutes and try to access your site again.”

So, Level One technician “boots” the server which conjures up visions of an old farmer giving the boot to an old tractor to get it to start.

That corrects the problem for awhile. But, it only addresses the symptoms. It’s like guys taking an aspirin for a PMS headache. The problem is still there, but you just don’t notice it as much.

A few days later, the problem returns with a vengeance. Same symptoms, same issue. So, I call up the tech support team still looking for another fix.

“My server is acting up again. It looks like she’s frozen.”

“Hey, didn’t I talk to you a few days ago?” asks Level One Technician. “If it’s the same issue, I should have another more experienced technician look at it. Want me to see if I can find him?”

“If that will correct the problem, then yes, please find him.”

So Level One Technician rushes off in search of Level Two Technician, who makes twice as much as the first guy, but does half the work. That’s because Level Two Technician normally has to only place his hands over a computer to divine what the trouble is.

Then he directs Level One Technician on how to fix it and he goes back to his anime comic book or playing Dragon Age online with another bored tech in Australia.

Level Two Technicians speak the same language as Level One Technicians, but in a different dialect that is completely incomprehensible to normal people. But, Level One Technician acts as an interpreter, and it always ends in, “You want me to reboot the server?”

That corrects the problem for a while. But, again, it’s only addressing symptoms. It’s like guys playing a round of golf for a PMS headache. The problem is still there, but heck you’re out of the house for a while.

A few days later, the problem returns. Same symptoms, same issue. So, it’s time to call the tech support team once again. This time, you actually get to speak directly with Level Two Technician who is cursing himself and everyone else for his inability to divine the correct answer in the first place.

You can hear him furiously typing away at something and mumbling to himself about things like AJAX, bit rates, Oracle, table manipulation and proper SQL syntax.

Finally, with a sigh of resignation, he admits there must be something wrong with the server that he can’t readily see. He asks if I would I like him to “escalate” the problem to a Level Three Technician. When you hear the word “escalate” uttered by a computer guru, reach for your wallet.

That’s because Level Three Technician gets paid three times as much as a Level Two Technician and works about one third the time. Finding one in the office is the real challenge. They don’t carry pagers or cell phones. Or, if they do, they are ignored.

They go by names like StrykkerXG are always “in training,” which is code for talking on their cell phones or communicating over the Onion routers with other geeks trying to hack into banks or the Pentagon.

I have discovered that unless a Level Three Technician is actually in the building, has a Rock Star energy drink and a sprinkle donut, don’t expect much in the terms of technical support.

But, on this day, I get lucky – and he’s in a good mood having reached Level 18 on the World of Warcraft online game. So, in a matter of a few hours, he has dissected my server, my database, its related tables, and all the cells like a Harvard brain surgeon.

“There, I fixed it,” he says with glee. “You had a permissions problem in one of the subsets in your root folder security in the ASP module. That was causing NULL inserts into the SQL exception table. Without being able to parse itself at the Boolean break connection, it was throwing an exception warning which was being misinterpreted by the run execute reader in the update portal. Try it now.”

That worked for another day or two. But, soon the problem returns. Same symptoms, same issue. So, it’s time to call the tech support team once again.

By now they are really tired of hearing from you. But, the technician on the phone listens politely and in a very serious, hushed voice, he asks if I would like them to find THE Senior Technician. They reference the Senior Technician with an almost reverend ambiance because this technician is truly omnipotent.

The senior technician is like a wife. If you have any money left over after spending it on other things you didn’t need, she’ll take it, too.

My guess is THE Senior Technician is actually a woman who simply sits down next to the server and says, “Honey, something’s bothering you. What is it?”

The server gushes out all this emotional data about its temperature, what it ate for breakfast, the last time it was serviced and the pain it experienced being “booted” all the time by uncaring technicians who really didn’t listen and take time to understand what she was trying to say.

After a good cry, the problem simply clears itself up. THE Senior Technician chastises all the lower level technicians and relays all the painful stories it heard from the server.

One by one, the lower level technicians log into the server and apologize, promising to remedy their bad behavior with chocolate, roses and a weekend away at a nice bed and breakfast inn near dozens of quaint little boutique shoppes.

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Greg Gerber

A native of Wisconsin who moved to Arizona in 2009, Greg Gerber is a DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three grown daughters. He worked as a journalist for many years before pursuing a career as a faith-based writer, author, coach and speaker. Greg is the author of Pornocide: How Lust is Killing Your Faith, Stealing Your Joy and Destroying Your Life.

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