Why won't my !@*!!@ machine work?

It used to be the taxman, now it's IT support who get it in the ear. CAYTE WILLIAMS joins the techies on the front line
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Can't live with them, can't live without them. Like tweezers, pagers and passport control, computers are essential for modern living. They're marvellous (the erotic e-mail is the new love letter) and totally rubbish (it takes three hours to turn the printer on), but if they break down or develop a mind of their own, you can always take it out on the technical helpline.

Technical support representatives - or "techies" as they are known in the trade - can be either supergeeks or annoying gits depending on your experience. We phone them with daft questions (like "how do I turn this thing on?") which they counter with even dafter ones ("do you have a PC or a Mac?" - surely this is no time to talk about rainwear) and then generally jump up and down on our desks when they can't solve our problems. It's simple. If we're having a rotten time with the demon keyboard, we take it out on the techie.

But what's it like for them? Do they work in a room full of macho bluster, attacking steaming PCs and yelling "lunch is for wimps"? Or are they little mouse-like creatures, nibbling Star Wars limited edition crisps and flinching at the flash of a monitor?

If the techies at the CompuServe Call Centre in Bristol get stressed by obscenely stupid phone calls, they don't show it. But then this is not one of the battery-farm call centres we read about. Here they've got sweeping views of the city (they're on the 11th floor), floods of natural light, soothing pink and lilac walls and lots of little toy monsters on top of their computers.

The toy monsters are an essential part of Techieland. "We get pounds 200 a month for a slush fund," says UK technical manager Sam O'Connell, "and everyone goes to the toy shop across the road and fills the cupboard with stress balls, little figures and arrows that stick when you fling them at the walls."

As a result, the techie department looks like one big boys' bedroom with Star Wars figures, Muppets and half-naked calendar girls taking up non- cyberspace. Predictably, techies are mostly men in their twenties, all baseball caps and weird T-shirts.

Joanne Taylor is one of the few women working in the department, mainly because few apply. "The men tend to be far more geeky than I am," she says, "and they see me as a mother figure, even though I'm only 23. Men don't want to find out where things are or organise themselves in an office, so they come to me to sort things out." Does it bother her? "No, it's just typical," she says philosophically.

"I've had a couple of people who were surprised to get a woman answer the helpline," she continues, "and they think they've come through to sales. They're surprised to find a woman who knows her stuff. We get a lot of women as well as men calling up so I've never come across anyone who wanted to speak to a man instead."

It's not easy to get a job as a techie. First you have to phone up to apply (so your telephone manner can be monitored); then it's an interview with a three-person panel. If you get through that there's a three-week training programme teaching everything from the nuts and bolts of CompuServe to "caller anger management". You get to role-play Mr Angry and Helpful Techie until you master the art of not taking computer-generated rage personally.

The helplines are open from 8am to midnight, and each full-time techie spends about four to five hours a day on the phone, answering between 60 and 70 calls. Around 70 per cent of calls are simple queries about modems and e-mails which are solved in about 60 seconds. Techies divide all other callers into two camps: the novice and the know-it-all.

"Novices are extremely grateful when we help them," explains Martin Bartlett, a bright-eyed techie who's worked here for two years, "but some of them have absolutely no idea. You ask them to click on icons and they think you're some kind of religious person. I remember one person said to me, 'I don't have any icons, I'm an atheist!'"

It must be hard for a techie to explain computer language in idiot-speak. There they are, brains the size of planets, surfing the internet in their lunch hours, taking computers apart for fun, dealing with us idiots. It's a difficult job but some geek's got to do it.

"Both the caller and the rep are looking at the same screen," explains Sam O'Connell, "but they have different understandings of that. It's a complicated procedure getting people connected when they have very little knowledge, because reps have to describe exactly what everything on the screen looks like."

Occasionally they get a call that makes it all worth while. "This gentleman sounded as if he was stuck under his desk," says Martin. "He said, 'I can it get up but I can't get it down'. At first I thought he'd called the wrong sort of helpline, but it transpired he'd got stuck in his office chair and couldn't get the height adjusted. He'd seen our number stuck on his computer and thought we'd be able to give support on everything in his office. It took 10 minutes for me to explain what kind of helpline we were, and he still asked 'so do I push the lever down or up?'. It was a nightmare at the time but looking back it was very, very funny."

The know-it-alls, apparently, are a pain in the modem. "They're the ones who are network or computer engineers themselves," Martin explains, "and they don't really like the idea that we know something they don't. If they're upset or angry it takes a lot longer to get the message through. They try to jump ahead and say 'I've done this before and this is what I'm going to do'. You have to keep them under control and tell them, 'You called for my advice. I'm willing to give you that, but you've got to listen to what I'm saying.' If they don't it's a lost cause. It's a waste of their money and my time."

This is when the darts fly and the stress balls bounce, but when times are hard they all look out for each other, like soldiers in the trenches. "There's a lot of camaraderie here," explains Martin. "We rely on each other an awful lot. If a technical problem gets really tricky we can put the caller on hold and ask everyone else's advice."

If the problem is truly in the realm of supergeekdom it gets passed on to RST - the representative support team - that lives in an annexe at the far end of the boys' bedroom. These chaps are the crack squad, the byte boffins of CompuServe. They spend their days researching new equipment and delving into the deep, dark recesses of cyberspace. "The rest of the company think of us as The X-Files," explains Iain Ferguson, who looks uncannily like Yoda, "because we have to deal with the Mulder and Scully issues. You have to be with the company a long time to work your way up to RST." All the techies look over to the RST annexe with desperate longing. Just a few idiots more and who knows, The X-Files might come beckoning.

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