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The Secrets to My Success

Entry 1943, on 2018-10-24 at 15:14:00 (Rating 3, Comments)

I am often told that I am the greatest IT support person ever. Of course, I don't really believe that is literally true, because I'm sure other people are told the same thing, and there are no doubt times when I "stuff up" and people think I am the worst IT geek ever!

But those points aside, I think that, after many years, I generally do a pretty good job in my main work sectors: setup and troubleshooting of Mac computers and other Apple devices; design and implementation of small web sites, web databases, and small programs; basic networking, and hardware installation and repairs; and just about anything else, because I try to be a generalist rather than a specialist.

So now I must reveal the secrets to my success! (by the way, I don't take that claim too seriously, because how successful I am is debatable depending on how you evaluate success). But what are my philosophies and coping mechanisms which I find help to get successful outcomes? In other words: what advice would I give to other IT support geeks?

How about this: I understand the computer and the person. My clients like me because I try to make things easier for them. I don't tell them anything like "this is the way the computer works and this is what you must do". I say "OK, you want to work that way, so let's see if we can configure the computer to work as closely to that way as we can".

To do that I need to understand what the person is trying to do and why, and I need to know how to change the way the computer works as well. So it is necessary to be able to talk to the client and to "talk" to the computer.

And on the subject of communications, it is important to talk to the user in a reasonable way. Recently I had someone who told me that I had literally solved their problem in less time than the previous IT consultant had spent explaining to them why the problem couldn't be solved. And they couldn't remember anything about what he had said, so clearly the explanation had been pointless.

I do think there is value in telling the person a little bit about what you are doing, but you must monitor their level of interest and comprehension carefully. There's nothing worse than someone who spends a long time explaining in excruciating detail what they are doing when you're really not interested, or who uses so much jargon that you lose track of the story half way.

And that brings me to the subject of vocabulary. I often hear that anyone who truly understands their area of expertise should be able to explain it to a non-specialist using common language. For example, explaining why the person should replace their hard disk with a solid state drive might involve a bit of explanation, but there's no need to quote latency, seek times, and other technical details. It is sufficient to say that one involves a little spinning disk with several moving parts, and the other has a solid chunk of "electronics" (you don't have to be completely technically correct) which is almost always faster, more reliable, and uses less power.

But I'm not totally against using some jargon. I often intersperse my explanations with comments like "we call that a kernel panic because the kernel, which is the inner-most part of the system, gets into a situation where it doesn't know how to recover and panics!" Again, note that this is not necessarily 100% true, and we get almost no panics on Macs now so it is rarely necessary!

So those are some fairly serious points, but now I need to list a few more facetious ones, even though they all have a significant element of truth.

If I ever have to do something which is very simplistic and might make it look like I am just guessing, I have a good explanation ready. The most common example of this, of course, is the reboot. So if I need to reboot I say something like "There must be a memory leak in a program you are using. I could spend half an hour tracking it down and recovering it, but its easier just to reboot so that the lost memory will be recovered." I try to use an explanation with an element of truth behind it, more for my own peace of mind that the client's benefit!

If there's something I cannot do due to office politics, policies, or other forms of bureaucracy, I say so, but I try to avoid using that as an excuse for everything. So I will quite often "minimise the effects of rules" but there are times when there is no way to avoid them, such as network ports being blocked. So I would say in that case what the rule is causing the problem but I would explain why the rule exists in such a way that makes it seem like I think it is unnecessary.

Obviously this is a difficult balance to get just right. There have been occasions where I have encountered problems with the bureaucracy for making fairly innocuous comments. But there have been other times when I have definitely gone over the line of reasonable criticism but got away with it!

So I remember that ranting about the inadequacies of management is OK, but I keep it under control. There's usually some small element of sense in what bureaucrats do, so I usually just leave it with a comment like "this is the rule, which I personally think is unnecessary" or something similar.

And that, in turn, leads on to the concept of certainty. It's important to sound confident when dealing with difficult situations, so I might say "sure, we will get this fixed some way", but leave room for humility. For example, when discovering a possible cause of a problem, I might say "I think this might fix it" instead Of "God I'm brilliant! This will fix it for sure."

So then, not only do I avoid the difficult situation of a brilliant solution failing, but I also find a certain amount of self-deprecation is usually appreciated. In fact, I think just quietly solving a problem and playing down any possible brilliant insight involved has more impact than making a lot of self-aggrandising comments ever could.

Here's a simple one which increases my credibility with clients and other tech support people too: I learned the (military style) mnemonic alphabet! If I need to give someone a serial number, MAC address, or other complex sequence of characters over the phone something like Mike Bravo Whisky Niner Hotel is cooler than MBW9H and more likely to be received correctly.

This is my favourite (or maybe my second favourite, see later). I always give out random hints! It's quite painful watching some people use their computer, so I like to throw out hints on ways to make them more efficient. On the Mac I have 2 in particular which most people don't use and might find really valuable. The first is to use command-tab to switch between programs and command-` to switch between windows open in a program. The second is to look at the mouse pointer when dragging files. If there is a "+" on the pointer you are copying. If not, you are moving. To change from move to copy hold down option. To change from copy to move, hold down command.

Finally, the most important thing of all is this: make people do backups! If I see someone with no backup I usually tell them tragic stories of people about to finish a PhD thesis who suddenly lose the lot and have no backup. Or the person who stored the book they are writing on a flash drive that failed. Or the person who has had their computer stolen with all their exam revision notes on it.

So I say, keep backups, people. An external hard disk is just $100. I keep 3 backups, using two different backup strategies (cloning and traditional backup) and keep them in 3 different places. The disks are all encrypted to avoid information being leaked.

So that's it, apart from one other all-encompassing philosophy. That is this: care. I actually care about making my clients interactions with computers as good as possible. I get a lot of satisfaction from coming up with a great solution to a problem. I like it when people appreciate my work. Note that I don't care what the bureaucrats think - it is entirely the people I actually work with who matter to me.

Some of those ideas might be useful, and some more philosophical, or maybe just a bit of fun, but they are definitely the secrets to my success!


Comment 1 (4952) by Anonymous on 2018-10-28 at 09:45:00:

A good summary of your success Owen. I like it.


Comment 2 (4953) by OJB on 2018-10-28 at 10:43:21:

Yeah, the next blog post with be "the secret to my failure", but that could take a lot longer to write! :)


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