Pistol Grip Pump, In My Lap At All Times

Dear Everybody Who Has Anything To Do With Software –

I am just a humble sysadmin and general-purpose technical flunky but if you have a moment, I’m hoping that you’ll take that moment to read this over and maybe take a few notes.

Let’s say that I have a problem with your program or widget, and it generates an error message. Here’s how I think it should work:

  1. I read the error message.
  2. I use the information provided in that message to solve the problem.

If there’s a word in there about whether you need admin privileges for the fix, even better. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, and I’ve heard that it can happen.

But hey, that’s not what happens. So let’s assume I’m asking for too much, because your company employs the same grade of mouth-breathing adolescents that, apparently,
everyone else does
, and your error messages say something like “OLE Graph_Snack_Widget Error 0x3ed33d32: Program Will Exit. OK? Cancel?” Of course, “Cancel” doesn’t actually stop the program from exiting, but let’s ignore that for the moment. This is about process, not details.

In that case, it should work like this:

  1. I read the error message
  2. I go to your website
  3. I click on “Support”
  4. I copy and paste that message into your site search engine
  5. I use the information provided to solve my problem.

But wait, I’m getting all dreamy and optimistic again, because that’s not what happens. The program pops up your errors in a dialog that won’t let a user highlight and copy, so step four should read “copy down and retype”. Because we live in the future, or something.

Of course, that’s still not how it works.

So let’s make another reasonable assumption; your company’s website management is made up of the meathead knuckle-draggers who couldn’t cut it in dev, and like a million other boneheads, you’ve decided that to protect your website from l337 h4x0rz and give marketing a bunch of soft targets I’ll have to sign up for a “free support account” and give my name, address, occupation, salary, blood type, sexual inclination, GPS coordinates and permission for your sales staff to break into my house at 3:00 A.M. before I can learn about fixing your misbehaving Graph Snack Widget.

In that case, what really happens is this:

  1. Read the error message.
  2. Go to your website, and click on “Support”.
  3. Ignore all that bullshit and go to Google.
  4. Type your error message into Google.
  5. Read the first five things that come up.
  6. Use information provided by complete strangers, rather than the support mechanisms paid for by the actual producers of the software, to solve my problem.

This is usually works great, a hell of a lot better than having to write down another password and plod through another page unchecking the boxes that say “Please, can we send you a raft of spam? We won’t, really, we promise but, you know, if we wanted to just a little, could we?”

But it’s been one of those days, let’s say this doesn’t do it. Let’s imagine that we’ve got to go a step further here, because your software is so great, and so many people use it, that the only person who cares enough about it to write up their fixes is one guy in Japan.

In that case, here we are:

  1. I read the error message.
  2. I register a throwaway email address.
  3. I go to your website.
  4. I give you a fake name, a fake phone number and so forth, and the throwaway address.
  5. I enjoy, for a moment, imaging the wild twists of fate that must have befallen this made-up identity, one Mr. Busted Flush, sysadmin of a five-employee Cameroonian company, who makes more than half a million dollars a year. What is the exchange rate with Cameroon, I wonder? Perhaps Mr. Flush wears an outlandish hat.
  6. I wait five minutes, and then I check that e-mail exactly once, and never again. Do your worst, you pigfuckers.
  7. I use the information in that e-mail to get into your support website.
  8. I retype, again, the error message in to your search tool, and I use that information to solve my problem.
  9. Titter briefly at the welcome page, which reads “Welcome, Mr. Flush! If you’re notBusted, click here!”

If I were in Cameroon and I had half a million dollars, I would be the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of outlandish hats. I would wear whatever outlandish hat I wanted.

Moving from the general to the specific, now: if after all this, you’re SPSS, and your website is too goddamned awful to describe, and your signup process is even more broken than the “Guest/Guest” account you’re telling people to use instead of signing up, and God help me, I have to phone you, then here’s how it should go:

  1. “SPSS support, how can I help you?”
  2. “Hi, I’m having a problem with SPSS version A on platform B”.
  3. “One moment please, I’ll direct you to the helpdesk that specialises in that area.”
  4. “Thank you”.
  5. – click – “Hi, this is Bob, in SPSS support, what can I do for you?”
  6. “Hi, Bob, I’m getting error message X under conditions Y when I do Z.”
  7. “Ok, you’ll need to login as administrator and foo, bar and baz.
  8. “Thanks, Bob.”

But of course, that’s not how it works. Here’s what happens:

  1. Phone support. To get information about a computer error message. Jesus, what year is this? Why don’t we just send each other smoke signals?
  2. Talk to an automated system. Press zero to get to a person immediately, before I hear “press 1 to whatever”.
  3. Discover that I’ve been sent to some random loser’s voicemail.
  4. Tell the person they’re a random loser, and why. Add the bit about smoke signals.
  5. Call back. Press 1 repeatedly until any real person appears.
  6. Get that person to send me to the actual person I want to talk to.
  7. Have that person insist on walking me through their registration process anyway, before we can get to work. Apparently it works fine for him.
  8. Have that person tell me that, partway through his fix, that the error that pops up isn’t one he’s seen before.
  9. Finish his fix. Test it, reboot.
  10. It stops working.
  11. Son of a bitch.
  12. Hang up. Deep breath.
  13. Find the kernels of truth rattling around in the lies he’s told me and actually fix the problem.

That’s the kind of day I’ve had. I’m less than two hundred meters from some of the most powerful hardware in this town, it’s plugged into Internet2 one one side and the Orion backbone on the other, and because people at the other end of those enormous pipes of it are geniuses, I have to pick up a fucking telephone and talk to a machine, in order to be permitted to talk to a loser.

You know what? If you’re in a meeting with a hundred people who all think they’re the smartest guy in the room, you are absolutely, mathematically guaranteed that ninety-nine of them are dead wrong. And right now I’d put money down on the last one not being all that bright either.

I just got an email from SPSS asking me to participate in a client-service survey. And here I am, sitting here thinking that I’d like to treat somebody at SPSS the way a jet engine treats a seagull. This should be good.


  1. Posted May 14, 2004 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Since you apparently don’t allow comments on older entries, here’s something about fingerprints you may find interesting: http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001855.html

  2. Posted May 24, 2004 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    you rawk Hoye.

    Next bowl of shawarma soup is on me.


  3. Posted May 31, 2004 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Brilliant stuff. Feel the empathy coming across the wires. Unless, of course, the wires aren’t working because of the widget.