How do I be better at system administration and helpdesk tasks?
April 21, 2008 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Small company IT administrators, how do you handle users with a wide disparity of technical ability? Users who hate computers? Who don't want to even restart before calling you? Who treat you like your a nerd from a bad teen comedy?

Quitting or hiring someone to help me is out of the question right now. I have no IT experience except that I worked on quite a few projects at grad level that required me to use Matlab and VBA. Computers were a tool, so I figured out how to configure servers and work data sources by just learning it. Fast forward 9 months and I'm now the only, and first, IT guy at a small 50-100 person company.

I was hired to do all sorts of things, like help implement ERP and CRM solutions, etc. I do that, but at least half my time is taken up by help desk. I hate help desk. I've tried really hard to improve things, and believe I have accomplished a lot, but the, say, bottom half of users cause me the most problems and I believe will always cause me problems. They hate technology, don't understand and refuse to understand it. I can automate and lock down things, but it gets to a point where doing so any further would seriously inhibit their ability to do their job. These are multi-tasking, mobile users ... not a kiosk somewhere.

For example: I have to do things like create desktop shortcuts, explain how to type addresses in the address bar and how to make favorites. Fundamentally, they want computers to work like a cell phone. This contradicts with the fact that their tasks aren't as well defined as phone service. Common hardware, silent installs and remote administration can only go so far. I have to deal with meltdowns and vague troubleshooting ("I can't get my turned on, it is too slow" ... "I have no idea what you're talking about").

So what have I done? Documentation, wikis and other collaboration tools. I've tried them all, and they are great if you can get people to use them, but they don't. I tried a ticket and queue system, but that also doesn't work. If I don't respond within 5 minutes I get frantic calls, and nothing saps your energy more than spending 30 minutes explaining how to put a shortcut on a desktop and being treated like I'm Comic Book Guy.

There's got to be something I can do? Again, 70% of users are fine and only need me if they can't go through some basic trouble shooting themselves, like at least reboot a computer. I feel that the other 30% is a mix of people avoiding work and dumping their problems on me. The correct answer may be to "find another place to work," but that's not an option in at least the short term, so I kind of have to deal with this at some level. Most of these people don't have computers at home and only interaction with this whole computer fad is through their work-provided laptop or desktop. Any, any advice or help would be appreciated. Sorry for the somewhat non-structured ranting.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Great description of illiteracy.
If you get frantic calls after five minutes, you're being treated as if you have nothing better to do. If you're not hired exclusively as a helpdeskist, behave like it, and be like the IT folk at my work: helpful, but sardonic and slightly intimidating. You're a professional.
When you get a call you suspect is someone dumping their problem on to you, first get a cup of tea, eat a biscuit, *then* go and show them how to print to the network printer.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:04 PM on April 21, 2008

Fist, ignore their comments. don't be arrogant, but ignore the petty comments, and refuse to play their games.

Explain to them that they are not the only person who you have to support. When they don't understand and continue to act like babies, talk to them like babies, then maybe they will get it.

The people who make an effort, I encourage.

I like to point out that I prioritize based on severity, like, you need help finding something, John's machine isn't connecting to our network resources. ask them which they would do first.

yep, thats how I roll.
posted by Amby72 at 5:16 PM on April 21, 2008

There isn't an easy answer to this, but I have a couple of recommendations. I used to be a help desk guy; and here is how I dealt with the bad 30% you talk about.

Track everything if you are not already doing so.... you will need a ticket tracking system to back up your observations with stats and you are going to need buy-in from your manager.

On one help desk I worked on, I ran some numbers and found that about 10 users were generating about 30% of the support workload. Create these kind of reports and pass them on to management as people you have identified as having training needs. If you are spending several hours per week resetting the same guys/groups of guys password, generate a report that shows person X forgot his password every two days over the last month and inform management you are worried about a security problem. If a certain printer is hogging your time resources identify it to management and let them know what this printer is costing to keep running. Big help desks do functions like this and call it problem management.

If certain people are causing project delays, security issues, excessive waste.. management should know. Use the stats to gather it and present it as a report... free of emotion etc.

Client attitude is a problem... I recommend recording your calls (this is sometimes helpful in other ways) and letting people know they are recorded. Pass on the recordings of the worst offenders to management or involve HR.

Or, the simplest way - just supply a voice mail number or an email alias and have people call it/email you for support. They leave a message and you support them when you are damn good and ready.
posted by Deep Dish at 5:26 PM on April 21, 2008 [7 favorites]

Learn to push back-- it's as simple and as incredibly complicated as that.

Keep a running calendar of your daily activities, I don't mean planning out what you'll do the following day, I mean, when you've finished as task, fill that in on the calendar. Choose your minimum time, if someone interrupts me, even for a quick fix, I've realisitcally lost at least 20 minutes of my day.

8am - 9am -- Fixed Johns computer, he installed Bonzai Buddy (again)
9am - 9:20 -- Created icon for Bobby.

That list will be your ammo-- talk to your boss, let her/him know that these tasks are taking up 30% of your day and it's because people are treating you as a quick-fix, rather then solving the problems (through learning) for good. These are wasting your day, where you could be doing something far more productive. Tell your boss that you're going to start pushing back more to try and make your coworkers learn this much needed skills, therefore making them, and you more productive-- everyone's a winner.

Then make yourself more unavailable, if they call to create a shortcut, or can't work out that they've type an email address in incorrectly, then give them the reference in the documentation if you have it, or tell them to check the help in Windows. Let them know you'll get to them when you've finished your core responsibilities for the day, but make sure you make them that it's easier for them to work it out themselves, then to make you do it.

That goes for the adhoc stuff too, if you have to go to someones desk. Never do the fix yourself (unless it is truely a random occurance), sit over their shoulder and make then walk through it, otherwise, if anything like it crops up again, your phone will ring. Make them take notes, make your help cost something.

Push back! Learn the power of no.
posted by Static Vagabond at 5:27 PM on April 21, 2008

All of these comments are awesome, but ultimately worthless if your boss isn't willing (or able) to go to bat for you over the corporate culture at your workplace regarding IT people. I don't mean this to be snarky at all, but I had to get out of an IT job for the same reasons you list--combined with the fact that, even though I independently tried to implement many of the solutions given here, nobody gave a damn or was willing to listen to me. The Catch-22 of being the IT person for a small company is that most of your users think the following:

The network/computer/etc. is working as it is supposed to be working, so the IT person must be sitting around doing nothing, or

The network/computer/etc. is not working, so the IT person is not/has not been doing their job or there wouldn't be a problem.

Either way, you are lazy and not working NEARLY as hard as they are. I hope your experience goes better than mine did. I always dreamed of becoming Nick Burns, but never had the guts.
posted by jtfowl0 at 6:08 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your problem 30% are users who don't respect you and your time. What you need to do is develop credibility with those users, and respect will follow.

Next time you get a call from one of your frequent fliers, briefly commiserate with them ("Creating a shortcut? Yeah, that can be a little tricky, especially if you're not used to it."). Tell them you're just finishing up with something, and you'll be there in 15 minutes. Not "right away", or "as soon as I can", but "in 15 minutes".

Now, be there when you said you would. Don't be late and don't be early; if you said 15 minutes, be there in 15 minutes. They will remember this.

Now that you're there on time, communicate with the user. Think about going to the doctor for a check-up. If he starts randomly looking at parts of your body, you'll think he doesn't know what he's doing. If he tells you he's going to auscultate your intercostal space, you'll be frightened and confused. What he'll do is say things like "I'm just going to listen to your heart and lungs for a minute. Everything's okay there, now I'd like to check inside your ears for infection."

Aim for that level of communication. Describe what you're doing in sensible terms: "I'm just going to find the right folder, then I'll make the shortcut you wanted." Even if you're digging around aimlessly, you can hold on to credibility by talking about what you're trying: "I'm going to make sure your e-mail settings are okay. Everything looks good there; let me see whether your network connection is working." Don't let them assume you don't know what to look at or where to go.

Finally, be the consummate professional. Don't tell them their e-mail is broken because Outlook is crappy, or that Vista sucks and the company should have stayed with XP. Don't make them feel stupid if they make a mistake, or next time they won't even try. Fix the problem, ask if you can help them with anything else, apologize for the inconvenience. Doing this stuff not only leaves a good impression, it creates a little professional distance that gives you more credibility. Obviously you'll develop a warmer, more personal relationship with some folks, but make that polite professionalism your default.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of credibility. Once that 30% sees you as a prompt, reliable, knowledgeable, friendly IT guy, they'll be friendlier to you, more willing to try things (because they know you won't make them feel bad for screwing up), and more patient (because they know you're coming when you said you were.)
posted by pocams at 6:10 PM on April 21, 2008 [7 favorites]

I'm one of five people who accesses a shared e-mail account used to handle questions on training and our Learning Management System. We have about 3,000 users worldwide. We've done a few things to encourage user self-sufficiency and track the communications we have with users:
  • This shared e-mail address should be the first and only place users contact for support. Some people had figured out (or knew from before) who the admins were and would contact us directly. So we set up automated e-mail replies and voicemail messages stating that questions should be directed to the shared e-mail account.
  • We use that e-mail box to track responses - as each of us resolves issues, the e-mail is filed in a folder by year and month, and the color of the subject line is changed to correspond with the admin who handled it. These stats are tracked and reported to management each quarter.
  • We created an FAQ page on our department web site that covers the most common questions and technical problems users have. Now when someone e-mails with one of those questions, instead of answering them, we direct them to the section of the FAQ page on which it appears. We also set up an auto reply on the shared e-mail account directing people to first check the FAQ web page. By doing this, we hope to train users to check that page first before contacting us.

posted by LolaGeek at 6:11 PM on April 21, 2008

1) Get the book "time management for system administrators"- well worth it.

2) Implement a ticketing system. If your users won't file the tickets, file them yourself.

3) When you can demonstrate $50,000 in hourly costs supporting boneheads, present the cost to the management team, and recommend either a) training the boneheads, or b) getting an assistant monkey to do the scut helpdesk work.

Business types do better when you can give them numbers. To do numbers you need a ticketing system so you can account for your time spent dealing with boneheads.

Good luck!
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:29 PM on April 21, 2008

In addition, I'd develop a "what to do before calling IT support" document. Then, when the problem users call, make sure they have done all those things. Seriously- step by step.

I can't read their minds, but many people won't try to do anything if they know someone else will do it for them.

Get a simple VNC or remote desktop thing running so you can do some of the basic stuff from your desk. Develop tools like batch files to delete temporary files and other dull tasks and login scripts to restore drive shares- that way if they have followed your above mentioned document, that problem will be solved. Create security policies that disallow things people repeatedly do to their own detriment. Like installing software.

And block out your day, and work in batches. Has management set expectations for arrival and restore times? No? Create your own. Then queue up your "service calls" so you can knock out a few at a time and then go back to your desk to do your other work.
posted by gjc at 7:15 PM on April 21, 2008

Sounds to me that your boss is paying you way too much to be a help desk attendant, and you need to tell him/her that. Typically HD is an entry level position, and your talents are being wasted doing trivial tasks. You have more important work to do, and the HD stuff is costing him/her money.
posted by Gungho at 7:40 PM on April 21, 2008

God, I'm getting flashbacks from a job I had once. The only solution I came up with that actually worked was to find another job, but you don't see that as an option yet.

One of the biggest issues that I had was people installing all sorts of crap such as screensavers and various pirated software. I (mostly) solved these issues by developing a list of "approved" applications that staff could have installed and (with the support of my boss) refusing to support machines that had any other applications installed on them. If I found these, I would take the machine away, wipe the HDD and re-install the "approved" suite of applications. Because this meant they were without a PC for several days (part of the strategy I adopted after the memos from the boss about not installing anything were ignored), they eventually learned that that really, really cute desktop or screensaver wasn't worth the risk of getting grief from their supervisor for not getting any work done for two days.

There will always be a core of people who are completely ignorant (often wilfully, sometimes not) and that is the lot of the "IT Guy" in any small organisation. You may have to consider that, if you can't learn to accept that to some extent, another job may be the only workable solution.

Good luck.
posted by dg at 8:09 PM on April 21, 2008

The only IT guy for a (splitting the difference) 75 person company? No hiring or quitting? Yikes. They had better be paying you out the wazoo.

All of the advice here is good, I'll only add one or two things. First is that every user is slightly different. If you can stand it, get to know some of your more problematic users. Small talk with them, commiserate about how the Foo sucks and have you seen Betty's Quz? Moan a bit about what bugs you that isn't the users themselves. The more they see you as a sympathetic character the less they'll feel they can order you about. That's step one: be charming.

Step two is never, ever, ever let anyone who isn't your boss set your schedule. I'm repeating this I know but it's that important. Emergency? Immediately? Critical? These are your call to make, no one else's. If anyone can declare an emergency, everything is an emergency. You have to be a hardass here, you have to be able to politely but firmly set a timeline for when and how you'll be able to respond and as above, stick to it.

These usually take care of individual problems, but for the aggregate crush of requests nothing but a ticket system (or similar) will really help. We use Fogbugz and I can cautiously recommend it but the key is making it stick. You're the IT department, you should be able to simply declare by administrative fiat that Nothing Gets Done Without A Ticket. (If you can't do this you've got responsibility with no authority and you should fix that). The great advice upthread about tracking time and making reports to mgmt will help push your decree through but it still rests on you to enforce it.

I really can't stress enough that being the only IT guy makes IT decisions your call. If they aren't your call, including having your boss back your call up to the users at least most of the time your problem isn't your users. Don't be taken advantage of.
posted by Skorgu at 9:43 PM on April 21, 2008

... never, ever, ever let anyone who isn't your boss set your schedule. I'm repeating this I know but it's that important. Emergency? Immediately? Critical? These are your call to make, no one else's.
Not exactly IT, but I used to be responsible for managing a queue for admin-type work to be done and there was a ticket that had to be attached to the request, including the date the work had to be completed by. Any ticket with ASAP on it went straight to the bottom of the pile and remained there until there was nothing left but ASAP tickets. My response to any queries was always "we'll get to it as soon as possible but, in the meantime, there is all this work that has actual deadlines that we have to do first".

As noted, don't let users control you. You have to control them. Any way you can.
posted by dg at 10:28 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

The line I took with my most difficult problem generator, pretty much word for word, was this: "Look, I'm every bit as frustrated as you are when things don't work the way they're supposed to. I appreciate how much of your time is wasted by things that don't work. I'm the IT guy - my job is to keep this stuff working, and I really want to do my job. But I'm usually not on site when these problems occur, and I can't fix this stuff by telepathy. If I'm going to work with you to get these things resolved, I need accurate descriptions of what's going wrong for you."

This little speech was delivered in measured tones, looking the guy straight in the eye, right after he'd just lost the plot and paid out on me in front of several other staff. He had been failing to do the things I had been asking him to do for the last four weeks, and as a consequence, none of the many things I'd fixed and tweaked had helped him at all. Afterward, he started keeping actual notes - in a half-arsed sort of way to be sure, but notes - which gave me enough information that next time I was on site, I was able to get the thing fixed to his satisfaction within 20 minutes.

We get on really well these days, and he generates much less rubbish work for me than he used to.

Really, not getting treated like Doormat IT Guy is all about being polite, firm, assertive, responsive, helpful and professional, and bearing in mind that even your most IT-clueless clients have skills you don't have that need to be respected and valued.
posted by flabdablet at 11:05 PM on April 21, 2008

In addition to seconding almost everything already suggested, I've found that how-tos built with animation tools (Captivate, Wink, etc) generally work better than static documentation. These can even be made interactive. And, they're pretty easy to build. Build some for the most common helpdesk tasks, then send out their URLs when those helpdesk requests come in.

Another thing you might consider is the revocation of administrator/power user rights for Windows desktops. The vast majority of people simply don't need them, and this prevents users from screwing up their own machines quite so much.

But again, as mentioned above, having a clearly defined, documented, measured system for processing helpdesk requests is the most important thing.
posted by me & my monkey at 11:16 PM on April 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, you'll need management approval for it:

- Insist on a ticketing system. Make it clear that they don't call you - You call them. If they come to you without a ticket number, explain firmly that you can't deal unless they have a ticket number. Make it very easy to raise tickets.

- Put your worst offender on a locked down Remote Desktop session. You'll get a lot less hassle from people when they realise that calling you all the time for stupid shit will end up with them on a toy computer configured so they can only do their job. Remote desktop has the advantage of making support quicker too.

- Consider rolling out VNC. If you don't have to go and see them, your job will be a lot quicker.
posted by seanyboy at 12:18 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's some bad advice on this thread - anything that advocates an adversarial approach. If you're bad at your job - even if it's not even what you were supposed to be doing/would like to be doing - you're still bad at your job and it will come around to bite you. Why be deliberately bad at your job? Also, if you pick fights, you'll eventually find yourself butting heads with someone important and spending more time and effort putting out political forest fires than you do fixing computers or implementing IT initiatives.

Like it or not, until your responsibilities change, those users, even the annoying 30%, are your customers, and if you don't take care of them, the company as a whole suffers.

There's also some awesome advice on this thread. The best so far has been the IT mailbox/voicemail box. That will really let you take charge of your time. I also really liked the suggestion that you set appointments to do the work, whether 15 minutes or a few hours from the request. So long as you make it a point to keep those appointments, much slack will be given when things are too busy to cope with on an as-it-comes basis. Another idea is to schedule "breakfix sessions" - some set time in the morning and/or the afternoon when users know to expect you. That will seriously cut down on the "Do it now!" mentality, and also makes sure you have time to do your other work.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:29 AM on April 22, 2008

As several others have said, I would insist on a ticketing system. Get the boss to write a memo mandating its use if you have to. There's no way to triage and deal with problems appropriately without some kind of support ticketing system. A decent ticketing system will even auto-generate a ticket on a message sent to a support email address, for those users who refuse to fill out a form.

And this one I learned from experience: if/when they hire someone else to help with the helpdesk requests, you're really going to wish you trained everyone to use the system rather than call you first.
posted by meta_eli at 8:49 PM on April 22, 2008

Notwithstanding some great advice above; delegate to the people around the problem, in the nicest possible way.

IE Tell Sue to ask desk neighbour John how to create a desktop shortcut - you need to make use of those people who don't need to call on your services by encouraging them to share their knowledge.

Along this possible route you have the option of local championing, tier-like creation and so-on. It has been my experience that you find 'closet' geeks who would, in a way, rather be doing your job rather than theirs; they are invaluable as long as they remain balanced :)

There's someone in every room that has answers to certain questions - the key is getting the helpdesk dependents to try locally first...
posted by DrtyBlvd at 1:57 AM on April 23, 2008

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