IT is a unique field. Partially because of just how broad a field it actually is, but mostly because people seem to have a lot of misconceptions about those of us who work in IT. I don’t mean the normal misconceptions that form from a simple lack of knowledge of a given profession, I mean misconceptions that only seem to apply to the IT field. It’s as if completely rational, mostly intelligent people lose all semblance of intelligence or rationality when thinking about it.
One misconception is that if you are good at simply one aspect of IT (such as computer repair, or web design, or programming) you must therefore be an expert in every possible electronic whatsit or doodad even remotely related to technology. You know what? Just because it plugs in to an electrical outlet does not mean it is something I know how to fix.
I once had a friend ask me to fix his digital camera.
“I really don;t know much about them,” I explained.
“What do you mean? You have one.”
“Well, yeah, but I just know how to use it. I don’t know how to fix it.”
“Because I don’t work on digital cameras.”
“But you’re technical!” I hear that a lot, but I have no idea what it actually means.
Another misconception is that we possess a heightened and highly specific form of Extra Sensory Perception that allows us to interact with anything computer related at any distance. I often receive calls from friends and family members that go something like this:
“What’s wrong with my printer?”
“Um, I don’t know. What is wrong with your printer?”
“That’s what I asked you.”
“Yeah, but I’m not, you know, there.”
“So I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” I say while trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. Okay, I don’t try too hard.
“Oh, that makes sense. Sorry about that. It’s not printing.”
“Well, why isn’t it printing?”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?”
“Well, it could be a number of things, none of which I magically know over the phone. I’d have to look at it.”
“Can’t you just tell me a few things to try?”
“Sure,” I say, knowing this will only end in tears for me, “Is the printer on?”
“Of course. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Is the computer on as well?”
“Is the printer connected to the computer?”
“Well, those are the simple things I can suggest. . . ”
“Can’t you just tell me how to fix it?”
“Probably, but I have to know what’s wrong first.”
“Fine. I’ll try to help. Go to your System Preferences . . .”
“Stop! You know I can;t do that hard stuff. Why can’t you just tell me what to do? I thought you were technical!”
“I guess I am, whatever that means,” I say, “but I technically have to be there to figure out exactly what’s wrong if you won’t help me.”
Which leads me to a third misconception. Since we’re geeks and like computers, we must like them so much that we’ll do anything just to get to work on someone’s problem. A situation similar to the one above could continue thusly:
“Okay, okay. Can you just come over and fix it for me?”
“I’d rather not tonight. I was kind of planning on catching up on some reading or TV shows.”
“What? I thought this is what you like to do. You;re a computer guy aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I’m not just a computer guy.”
“But it’s a technical challenge, and you’re technical!” Obviously an overused generality.
“I guess. Would you like to pay me?”
“No, of course not. I’m letting you work on my brand new hyper cool computer. Isn’t that payment enough?”
“Let me put it this way: Do you ask your dentist to come over and fill your cavity on his off time?”
“Of course not, that’s silly.”
“Do you expect your mechanic to pop over and replace a headlight for free?”
“Then why do you expect me to drop everything, come over, and do what I do for a living for free?”
“Because you love this stuff. You’re technical!” Overused and completely misunderstood.
The biggest misconception, though, is at least one not held by everyone (though it is held by far too many). Too many view us as one of the smartest people they know while simultaneously assuming we are one of the dumbest. The following are true, unedited conversations I had when I worked in Nashville.
“Yes. Wait, why aren’t you calling me from your extension?”
“Because my phone just quit working.”
“Okay. What happened before it quit?”
“Nothing. It just stopped working.”
I left my office and walked across the plant to her workstation. I picked up her phone to examine it.
“So did you phone stop working before or after you spilled coffee on it?”
“I was hoping you wouldn’t notice,” she laughed.
“I probably wouldn’t have, except it’s, you know, pouring out of it.”
There was another employee who had difficulty with his keyboard. Multiple times.
“My keyboard quit working.”
I took a replacement over to his desk.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“I spilled Diet Coke in it.” At least he was honest. Accidents do happen (like spilled coffee) so I was willing to cut him a break.
A week later, he called again. “My keyboard isn’t working again,” he said.
“Did you spill Diet Coke in it again?”
“No! I learned my lesson.”
I took another keyboard to his workstation. When I got there, I examined his current keyboard. We used mostly Macs and this was when Apple made the clear style keyboards.
“Hey,” I asked, “What’s this brown liquid inside the keyboard?”
“I have no idea.”
“Are you sure?”
I shook the keyboard. The brown liquid fizzed. I looked in the trash can, reached in it, and withdrew an empty can. I held the can up and asked, “It couldn’t possibly be Diet Coke could it?”
He looked like the proverbial kid with his hand caught in the even more proverbial cookie jar. “Yes, it could be, ” he admitted.
“Uh huh,” I said, but I replaced the keyboard.
We stepped through the same dance twice more that week (that’s four keyboards in two weeks for those following along at home). When he called a fifth time the next week and told me his keyboard wasn’t working, again, I had a one word response.
“Tough,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this will be your fifth keyboard in three weeks. I’m sure it’s your fault and we only have one left, which I plan on saving for someone who deserves it.”
“Are you saying I don’t deserve another keyboard?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“You can’t say that to me!”
“Really? Because apparently, I just did.”
He got his manager involved.
“Why won’t you replace his keyboard?”
“Because it will be his fifth keyboard in three weeks. We only have one extra left and I want to use it for someone who deserves it.”
“He needs a keyboard.”
“Then he shouldn’t keep ruining them.”
“He assure me he didn’t cause it this time.”
“I assure you he probably did.”
“But you haven;t looked at it.”
“I don’t have to. We have an established pattern. He spills Diet Coke in the keyboard, pretends he didn’t, then finally admits it. He doesn’t deserve a keyboard.”
“He promises he hasn’t had Diet Coke anywhere near his keyboard today.”
“He spilled it yesterday?” I knew I pushed it too far, but I just couldn’t help myself.
He got my manager involved who directed me to replace the keyboard. I took our last extra keyboard and walked across the plant. I came to the work area where both the gentleman in question and his manager sat.
“You’re just being hateful. You don’t want to replace my keyboard because you don’t like me.”
“No,” I said. Then I lived out every tech support individual’s fantasy, “I don’t want to replace your keyboard because you are a moron who can’t keep Diet Coke out of keyboards.”
“I am not! And there’s no Diet Coke in this keyboard!” He stomped off.
I swapped out his keyboard. I was surprised that there was no hint of Diet Coke in his keyboard. Even more angry that I might be wrong, I walked away. As I did, I let his keyboard drop parallel to my legs. That’s when the chicken soup in it poured out and soaked my pants.
I looked over at his manager.
“Moron,” he muttered. He wasn’t talking about me.