Service Calls - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Pathetic Attempts at Humor

Service Calls

I used to work for a small systems integrator. (That is, we produced both hardware and software.) The software development staff, which included me, was in the room right next to the customer service department, and so they often came to us for help with particularly tough problems or when they were overworked. This often became quite a burden, but it did mean that I got to be a part of or at least hear about all sorts of entertaining service calls. Among my favories:

Insert floppy #2 ...

A computer was brought in for repair of a broken floppy drive. When we took it apart, we discovered that someone had managed to cram three floppies into it at the same time! No doubt someone was carefully following instructions, "Insert floppy number 1 ... insert floppy number 2 ... insert floppy number 3 ..." and the instructions never said to take the previous one out.

A compatibility problem

Another computer brought in for repair of a broken floppy drive. Apparently the user had gotten some software on 5 1/4" diskettes. (Remember those?) But her computer only had a 3 1/2" drive. No problem. She just folded the disk in half, and it fit in the drive no problem.

Another defective floppy drive

A customer called complaining that their floppy drive did not work. As our service tech went through the problem with her on the phone, it became more and more curious. She could write to a disk and read back what she had written, but if she tried to read a disk she had made a day or two before it wouldn't work. Even the disk that the service tech walked her through creating wouldn't work when the customer called back a couple of days later. They went around and around on the exact procedures she was following, exactly what the error messages were, etc. for many phone calls over a period of weeks. The customer was starting to get really made about this problem, and was threatening to sue.

So finally we sent someone to make a "house call". Once he walked in the office, he could see what the problem was. The customer was apparently a very orderly person, and she had devised a simple but effective system for keeping track of her floppy disks. She kept them all on a neat, well-organized peg board. Of course, she had to punch a hole in the floppy to hang it on a peg ...

Remote diagnostics

Back in the days before lasers and ink jets, we used to have a thing called "daisy wheel" printers. Ever seen one of these? There's a little plastic "negative" for each letter or symbol you can print. These are arranged at the end of spokes on a wheel. I think it looks more like a wagon wheel than a daisy, but I guess that name sounded cuter. Anyway, the printer spins the wheel so that the desired character is at the top, and then a hammer presses it against a ribbon, leaving an impression on the paper.

One day one of our customers who had such a printer called with a problem. The daisy wheel had broken. Specifically, the zero symbol had broken off. This was rather a problem when it came to printing financial reports.

But this particular customer happened to be hundreds of miles away. We couldn't just drive over there with a new daisy wheel. There was no FedEx back then, so it would take days to get to them by mail, and they wanted to print their reports now.

So my boss dialed up their system on a modem, and fixed the problem from a remote terminal.

How in the world do you fix a broken piece of hardware over the phone, you may ask. I certainly did. Well, he simply wrote a trivial program to change all digit zeros to letter ohs, and then installed this so that all their print output was run through it. I guess that's why he was the boss.

© 1997 by Jay Johansen


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