Working in the IT department is often a thankless job. You're like the invisible behind-the-scenes worker who is only noticed when something breaks -- and then you're blamed for it. Here are seven misconceptions about tech support reps and the IT department you should know so you can work better with the IT guy or gal.
Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge
Recently we asked you what you wish others knew about your occupation, and many in the IT field chimed in -- system admins and tech support specialists among them. We're including many of their answers here, as well as info from other sources. (I used to work as an IT admin, and now that I'm out, am free to help reveal some secrets.)
1. We're Not Magicians Or Mind Readers
Lifehacker readers tend to be their families' tech support person. You know how annoying it is when a family member asks you out of the blue about an obscure problem with an obscure piece of software or technology and expects you to have the solution at the top of your head? It's like that, except a hundred times worse for those in IT. Now you have dozens or possibly hundreds of employees expecting a quick fix to an infinite number of problems.
The truth is, the same way that a lawyer doesn't know every law or legal ruling ever made, but uses research and critical thinking skills to form an understanding of a case, IT people are trained primarily in problem-solving skills. The knowledge part is gleaned from the info you provide, knowledgebases, prior experience, and, yes, Google.
That means a bit of patience on your part is much appreciated, and the more details you can provide about an issue, the better. Also, be honest. Lifehacker commenter echo125488 says:
I work in customer support for a software company. I wish people would understand that I'm really here to help you, I'm not going to blame you for your mistakes, so when I ask you if anything changed with your system, just admit it. I don't care why you deleted your database and I'm not going to rat you out to your boss. Heck, I don't even know your boss. Just be honest, and be as detailed as possible when stating your issue. I don't have psychic abilities, I can't read minds, and I don't have a mind reading app.
Go through enough tech support sessions and you'll find a universal set of questions and recommendations: Did you try restarting your computer? Plugging and unplugging the device? Clear your internet cache? Try another browser and incognito mode? Etc. Jot down the steps you took and have the specs for your system on hand and everything will go more smoothly for everyone.
Also, as OrangeGello points out, there's a limit to what the IT department can do:
If corporations like Oracle never supported their software for Macs, don't ask us how you can run Oracle's software on your Mac. Get a PC like a normal person.
There's an expectation now that work environments have to support every type of consumer device and product -- as soon as it's available (now!) -- but it's not always easy or possible for the IT department to make everything work for everybody.
2. Please Don't Ask Us To Fix Your Personal Computer
Back when I was working in IT, I'd get requests almost every week from a co-worker or my bosses to work on their personal technology -- and sometimes even fix their friends' or family members' laptops or phones. Sometimes promises of a pizza or a small payment would be suggested, but even then it seemed inappropriate. It's like asking someone you know in the accounting department to do your taxes for you or someone in HR to revise your resume. If the person has a side business repairing PCs, by all means, ask. But otherwise, look for personal tech support advice or repair work elsewhere.
3. There Are Reasons For Slow Tech Adoption (It's Sometimes Not Our Fault)
IT is often ridiculed for antiquated practices, like continuing to use Windows XP beyond its support life. (Seriously, it is time to move on.) Not long ago, a small business executive told me that his company buys all of the PDAs it can find on eBay (I think it was a particular Palm Pilot model) because their critical, proprietary company software could run only on that device and operating system. They thought it was better to stick with a dying technology than to invest in moving to a new platform.
That's the extreme example, but I don't think it's uncommon. Organisational inertia, Big Men Content points out, plays a huge role in this problem:
Once a process is in place it requires much more force to remove it simply because those running the current system are predisposed to want to keep it the same.
There is certainly a level of job and turf protection but I believe these get blamed for far more than they are actually responsible for when it comes to introducing more technology. At the heart of it all, even in IT, there is a closely-held belief that whatever you change is going to be more work not less. Probably because in the past we have done a terrible job of turning off the old way of doing things.
The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality isn't just with the IT department who might not want to replace an entire system or change anything that could mess up the rest of the infrastructure. End users and the people who hold the purse strings don't like change or relearning how to use things either. Remember the resistance to the Ribbon in Microsoft Office?
So try not to get angry at your IT department when you can only access your company website with Internet Explorer and Java installed. It's not entirely their fault.
4. We Have to Assume You Know Nothing
Sometimes, as a regular end user needing tech support, I get frustrated calling the support line and going through torturous conversations like this:
CS: "So your screen is blank but you have horizontal lines going through it?"
Me: "Yes, I see grey horizontal lines"
CS: "The lines are grey?"
Me: "Yes, as I said. They're like thick dotted lines, four of them at the bottom"
CS: "OK, are these dotted lines or continuous?"
Me: Please shoot me.
It's frustrating to go through multiple hoops and a scripted checklist with a tech support specialist when it feels like a waste of time. The uniform approach, though, makes sure nothing gets ignored -- and often tech calls are "recorded for quality purposes" so tech support reps have to go through all those steps, as painful as they are for both the caller and the rep.
Having been on both sides of this, I think there's room for tech support to not treat end users like they're idiots, while still (necessarily) assuming they could be.
5. IT Policies Aren't Arbitrary Rules
Turn on two-factor authentication. Use a VPN when you travel. Make your password secure. The IT department isn't trying to torture you. These are the best practices that cover both our asses and yours (and they're a PITA for us as well).
In some industries, these are legal requirements to protect everyone from the serious consequences of data breaches and the like. But even when they're not legally required, these policies help protect all of us.
6. We Know What You're Up To
Always assume you're being monitored, even if you're not sure.
7. We're as Frustrated as You Are
Sometimes we have to enforce policies we don't agree with, such as how frequently passwords have to change or which programs you have to use. The software and hardware we're all working with makes us pull our hair also. It's not that we really hate you but that the IT department and other departments tend to have a dysfunctional relationship. Big Men on Content says:
You break rules but hold IT accountable for them -- […] IT by charter is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the data and they do so by a number of means, many of which prevent you from doing whatever you want. So naturally you circumvent those rules (or turn a blind eye when someone else does) yet when a security breach occurs or a system fails because a rule was broken it is the IT manager responsible for maintaining it that is often the one to pay the price politically and professionally.
This is not to say that the IT department doesn't make mistakes or that the system couldn't be improved. While it might seem like a "you versus us" situation, though, I think we're all on the same side. We all want things to work...and, perhaps, to never need to talk to each other unless necessary.