My 16th Tech Support Anniversary

Today, according to the company database, 16 years have gone by since my first employee email account was created. My 0x10* anniversary, if you like.

* The computer term 0x10, or 1016 or 10h, means hexadecimal 10, which is 16 in human terms. This reference only proves what is already well known: that I am a nerd.

Back in June of 2000 I started working for an Internet Service Provider (ISP), in their customer support department, back when everything Internet and computer related was still pretty new to most people, and dial-up was still the awesome order of the day. Much has happened since then, and the scope of my support work has expanded considerably — from merely account registration, email setup and landline dial-up settings, to iPhones, tablets, DSL, fiber and mobile broadband, Internet television, as well most kinds of technical computer and Internet related problems that home and office users may experience. I’ve been doing this for sixteen years now, more than a third of my forty-seven year lifetime, and I still love it.

Love it? Surely you heard that wrong! No doubt you know full well that customer support is one of the most thankless, mind-eroding, depressing and cursed kinds of jobs any human can have, right?

Not in my world, I promise you. Computers and Internet are among the most all- pervasive things in people’s lives these days, and it doesn’t look like they’re going away any day soon. Problem is, to a lot of people it can be infuriatingly difficult to get to grips with the tech, to use it correctly, and downright impossible to figure out when something goes wrong. And I’m not talking just about the elderly. Clients of all ages call in, some of them to complain, sure, but most of them are simply asking for help, even just for a hand to hold while they try to get through things that seem far too frightening to deal with on their own.

~ o ~

One of the calls I remember best from that first summer, or in fact from my entire career, was a then 84 year old lady who had just bought her first computer and needed help to get connected. The background story for this deserves some telling:

The reason why she had bought a computer at all at such an advanced age (as she herself put it), was that she lived just a couple of houses away from her grandson and granddaughter, who used to stop by every single day and spend precious time with their grandmother. Now that her grandchildren were growing up, they were also leaving home to study abroad, one in USA and the other in Australia, and they all found it difficult to no longer be able to enjoy the daily visits, so they had thought about alternative ways of keeping in touch.

Letters? No, snail mail simply takes too long, and is way too cumbersome. Phone calls? Nope. Not only are long distance calls expensive, dealing with the time difference would be a pain. The only logical choice would be email, since it’s practically instant, and can be read and written at any convenient time. Yes, that would be perfect. The crux? Grandma didn’t have a computer, much less an Internet connection, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her.

She’d asked the nearest computer vendor for something suitable for a beginner, especially one as senior as herself, and the shop not only sold her an affordable one, they kindly brought it to her home and connected it up, cables and all. Except for the actual Internet connection. She’d need to call an ISP for that, so she called us.

I took the call, and after a pleasant introduction, where she told me the above mentioned background story, I offered to send her our CD to install the necessary bits and bobs to get a new connection up and running with a minimum of manual work. Problem was, that CD would certainly not be in her mailbox until several days later (probably just one or two days, but that’s practically forever for someone who is waiting), and she didn’t want to have to wait that long. Could I please help her get started right away? She so missed her grandchildren!

Some may shudder and stutter at the idea of trying to verbally, on the phone, guide an 84 year old woman through the screen navigation and maneuvers required to configure a dial-up ISDN connection, on a computer running Windows NT4.0*. She could further inform me that, although she had on occasion used an electric typewriter, and was fairly familiar with her TV remote, actual usage of a computer was something she had until this day never been within a good stone’s throw of. She was literally sitting in front of a computer screen for the first time in her life. I may have hesitated for a moment, but shook it off and decided I was up for the challenge!

* Windows NT4.0 is light-years from being the user friendly system she had asked the shop for. I silently wished to strangle the salesman for this transgression, but let it pass — he had probably eyed an opportunity to rid the store of their last Windows NT4.0 computer, and there was little I could do to change that fact.

There was nothing wrong with her eagerness to get started. We began with the basics, which involved locating and pressing the power button to boot up the computer. She had no problem handling everyday concepts such as up and down, left and right, which is a good foundation for moving around the screen. We skirted swiftly past such things as what the mouse does (the cable points forwards, and *giggle* no, it’s not a foot pedal), left- and right-clicking, single- and double-clicking (a good rule of the thumb is that it’s always ‘left click’ unless I say ‘right click’, and always ‘single-click’ unless I say ‘double-click’). She absorbed concepts rather like a sponge absorbs water. Icons and buttons, windows and menus. Some things I had to explain twice, but rarely more. I suspect that she was secretly taking notes.

Fifteen minutes into the conversation we had successfully configured the initial connection to the registration server and set up a user account for her. Not ten minutes later she was connected to the proper dial-up and we had finished setting up her email in Outlook Express. That girl was running on sheer motivation! If she hadn’t needed me to tell her what to do, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. She had her grandchildren’s email addresses, which they’d written down for her before they left for schools on distant shores, and before the half hour was up she had not only sent off her very first email to her granddaughter, but also received a swift and joyous reply, as the granddaughter happened to be sitting at her computer when the email arrived. Victory! I think I cheered out loud, because my colleagues were looking at me as if they thought I was mad.

She thanked me, and asked me to send the CD anyway, as she intended to keep it around to show her friends, telling them that “I didn’t even need to use this! Look, it’s still wrapped in plastic!”

As is usually the case in this job, with nearly all of the different people that I talk to every day, we never spoke again. Of course, being all new to the trade at the time I had no idea then how important this conversation would be to the shaping of my own perception of my work. Now, however, it is clear to me that what makes my job so enjoyable is that I get to help people with things that are important to them in their everyday lives. I’d make a terrible doctor, first aid responder or social worker, but this I can do. Helping make the world a better place, one person’s Internet connection or computer problem at a time.

That was sixteen years ago. I’ve no idea if the old girl is still around, but if she is, and I hope that she is, she’ll have turned a hundred years old this year, which makes my sixteenth tech support anniversary feel even more special. I truly wish that she and her grandchildren got much joy out of their long distance contact, and that it continued as amazingly as it had started. I’m grateful for having been part of that.

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