Tech Support Stories Part 2

Tech Support Stories Part 2

Since folks seemed to like the first one, I figured I would do another one. These are just interesting stories from my whole time doing IT-type work. Feel free to subscribe via RSS but know that this isn't the only kind of writing I do.

Getting Started

I grew up in a place that could serve as the laboratory calibration small town USA. It had a large courthouse, a diner, one liquor store infamous for serving underage teens and a library. When I turned 12 my dad asked if I wanted to work for free for a local computer shop. My parents, like girlfriends, friends and a spouse in the future would be, were worried about the amount of time I was spending in the basement surrounded by half-broken electronics.

The shop was on the outskirts of town, a steel warehouse structure converted into offices. It was a father and son business, the father running the counter and phones with the son mostly doing on-site visits to businesses. They were deeply religious, members of a religion where church on Sunday was an all-day affair. Despite agreeing to let me work there for free, the son mostly didn't acknowledge that I was there. He seemed content to let me be and focus on his dream of setting up a wireless ISP with large microwave radio links.

Bill was put in charge of training me. He had been a Vietnam veteran who had lost a leg below the knee in the war. His favorite trick was to rotate the fake leg 180 degrees up and then turn his chair around when kids walked in, laughing as they ran away screaming. He had been a radio operator in the war and had spent most of his career working on radio equipment before getting this computer repair job as "something to keep myself busy". I was put to work fixing Windows 98 and later XP desktop computers.

This was my introduction to "Troubleshooting Theory" which Bill had honed over decades of fixing electronics. It effectively boiled down to:

  • Ask users what happened before the failure.
  • Develop a theory of the failure and a test to confirm.
  • Record the steps you have taken so you don't repeat them
  • Check the machine after every step to ensure you didn't make it worse.
  • Software is unreliable, remove it as a factor whenever possible.
  • Document the fix in your own notes.
  • If you make the problem worse in your testing, walk away for a bit and start from the top. You are probably missing something obvious.

Nothing here is revolutionary but the quiet consistency of his approach is still something I use today. He was someone who believed that there was nothing exceptional in fixing technology but that people are too lazy to read the instruction manual. I started with "my PC is slow" tickets, which are basically "every computer that comes in". Windows 98 had a lot of bizarre behavior that was hard for normal users to understand. This was my first exposure to "the Registry".

The Registry

For those of you blessed to have started your exposure to Windows after the era of the registry, it was a hierarchical database used in older Windows versions that stored the information necessary to configure the system. User profiles, what applications are installed, what icons are for what folders, what hardware is in the system, it was all in this database. This database became the source of truth for everything in the system and also the only way to figure out what the system actually thought the value of something was.

The longer a normal person used a Windows device, the more cluttered this database becomes. Combined with adding and deleting files creating fragmentation on the spinning rust drives and you would get a constant stream of people attesting that their machine was slower than it was before. The combination of some Registry Editor work to remove entries and de-fragmentation would buy you some time, but effectively there was a ticking clock hanging over every Windows install before you would need to reinstall.

In short order I learned troubleshooting Windows was a waste of time. Even if you knew why 98 was doing something, you rarely could fix it. So I would just run assembly lines of re-installs, backing up all the users files to a file-share and then clicking through the 98 install screen a thousand times. It sounds boring now but I was thrilled by the work, even though copying lots of files off of bogged down Windows 98 machines was painfully, hilariously slow.

Since Bill believed in telling people they were (effectively) stupid and had broken their machines through an inability to understand simple instructions, I took over the delicate act of lying to users. A lot of Windows IT work is lying to people on the phone trying to walk a delicate line. You can't blame the software too much because we still want them to continue buying computers, but at the same time you don't want to tell the truth which was almost always "you did something wrong and broke it". I felt the lying in this case was practically a public service.

As time went on I graduated to hardware repairs, which was fascinating in that era. Things like "getting video to output onto a monitor" or "getting sound to come out of the sound card" were still minor miracles that often didn't work. Hardware failures were often showing up with blown capacitors. I lived on Bill's endless supply of cups of noodles, sparkling water bottles and his incredibly collection of hot sauce. The man loved hot sauce, buying every random variation he could find. His entire workstation was lined with little bottles of threatening-sounding sauces.

The hardware repairs quickly became my favorite. Bill taught me how to solder and I discovered most problems were pretty easy to fix. Capacitors of this time period were, for whatever reason, constantly exploding. Often even expensive components could be fixed right up by replacing a fan, soldering a new capacitor on or applying thermal paste correctly. Customers loved it because they didn't need to buy totally new components and I loved it because it made me feel like a real expert (even though I wasn't and this was mostly visual diagnosis of problems).

When Windows XP started to be a thing was the first time I felt some level of frustration. XP was so broken when it came out that it effectively put us underwater as a team. After awhile I felt like there wasn't much else for me to do in this space. Windows just broke all the time. I wasn't really getting better at fixing them, because there wasn't anything to fix. As Dell took over the PC desktop market in the area, everything from the videocard to the soundcard were on the motherboard, meaning all repairs boiled down to "replace the motherboard".

That was the end of my Windows career. I sold my PC gear, bought an iBook and from then on I was all-in on Mac. I haven't used Windows in any serious way since.

High School CCNA

While I was in high school, Cisco offered us this unique course. You could attend the Cisco Academy inside of high school, where you would study and eventually sit for your CCNA certification. It was a weird era where everyone understood computers were important to how life was going to work in the future but nobody understood what that meant. Cisco was trying to insert the idea that every organization on earth was going to need someone to configure Cisco routers and switches.

So we went, learned how to write Cisco configurations, recover passwords, reset devices and configure ports. Switches at this point were painfully simple, with concepts like VPNs working but not fully baked ideas. These were 10/100 port switches with PoE and had most of the basic features you would expect. It was a lot of fun to have a class where we would go down there and effectively mess with racks of networking equipment to try and get stuff to work. We'd set up DHCP servers and try to get anything to be able to talk to anything else on our local networks.

We mostly worked with the Cisco Catalyst 1900 which are models I would see well past their end of life in offices throughout my career. This class introduced me to a lot of the basic ideas I still use today. Designing network topology, the OSI model, having VLANs span switches, how routing tables work, IPv4 subnetting, all these concepts were introduced to me here and laid a good foundation for all the work I was to do later. More than the knowledge though, I appreciated the community.

This was the first time I discovered a group of people with the same interests and passions as me. Computer nerd was still very much an insult during this period of time, when admitting you enjoyed this sort of stuff opened you up to mocking. So you kinda didn't mention how much time you spent taking apart NESs from garage sales or you'd invite just a torrent of abuse. However here was a place where we could chat, compare personal projects and troubleshoot. I looked forward to it the 2 days a week I had the class.

To be clear, this was not a rich school. I grew up in a small town in Ohio whose primary industries were agriculture and making the Etch-A-Sketch. Our high school was full of asbestos to the extent that we were warned not to touch the ceiling tiles lest the dust get on us. The math teacher organized a prayer circle around the flagpole every morning as close to violating the Supreme Court ruling on prayer in school as he could get without actually breaking it. But somehow they threw this program together for a few years and I ended up benefiting from it.

The teacher also had contacts with lots of programmers and tech workers, which was the first time I had ever had contact with people in the tech field. They would come into this class and tell us what it was like to be a programmer or a network engineer at this time. It really opened my eyes to what was possible, since people in my life still made fun of the idea of "working with computers". Silicon Valley to people in the Midwest was long-haired hippies playing hacky sack, not doing actual work. These people looked way too tired to be accused of not doing real work.

Mostly though I appreciated our teacher, Mr. Bohnlein. The teacher was an old-school nerd who had been programming since the 70s. He had been a high school teacher for decades but a very passionate Mac user in his personal life. I remember he was extremely skilled at letting us fail for a long time while still giving us hints towards the correct solution. When it came time to take the test, I sailed through it thanks to his help. The students in the class used to make fun of him for his insistence on buying Apple stock. We all thought the company was going to be dead in the next 5 years. "The iPod is the inferior MP3 player" I remember stating very confidently.

He retired comfortable.


One call I would get from time to time was to the Chicago Playboy office. This office was beautiful, high up overlooking the water with a very cool "Mad Men" layout. The writers and editors were up on a second level catwalk, with little "pod" offices that had glass walls. They dressed great and were just very stylish people. I was surprised to discover so many of the photographers were female, but I mostly didn't interact with them.

Playboy was on the top floors

The group I did spend time with was the website team, which unfortunately worked in conventional cubicles facing a giant monitor showing a dashboard of the websites performance and stats. I remember that the carpet was weirdly shaggy and purple, which made finding screws when I dropped them tricky. Often I had to wave a magnet over the ground and hope it sucked up the screw I had lost. The website crew was great to work with, super nice, but the route to their offices involved going by just mountains of Playboy branded stuff.

It was just rack after rack of Playboy clothes, lighters, swimsuits, underwear, water bottles. Every single item you could imagine had that rabbit logo on it. You see it a lot around, but I've never seen it all piled up together. Beyond that was a series of photo studios, with tons of lighting and props. I have no idea if they shot the content for the magazine there (I never saw anyone naked) but it seemed like a lot of the merchandise promo photos were shot there. The photo pipeline was a well-oiled machine, with SD cards almost immediately getting backed up onto multiple locations. They had editing stations right by the photo shooting areas and the entire staff was zero-nonsense.

The repairs were pretty standard stuff, mostly iMac and Mac Pro fixes, but the reason it stood out to me was the weird amount of pornography they tried to give me. Magazines, posters, a book once (like an actual hardcover photo book) which was incredibly nice of the IT guy I worked with, but felt like a strange thing to end a computer repair session with. He would give these to me in a cubicle filled with things made of animals. He had an antler letter opener, wore a ring that looked like it was made out of bone or antler along with a lot of photos of him holding up the heads of dead animals.

The IT field and the gun enthusiast community has a lot of overlap. It makes sense, people who enjoy comparing and shopping for very specific equipment that has long serial number-type names along with weirdly strong brand allegiances. I had no particularly strong stance on hunting guns, having grown up in a rural area where everyone had a shotgun somewhere in the house. As a kid it was common for every visit to a new house to involve being warned to stay away from the gun cabinet. However hunting stories are a particular kind of boring, often beginning with a journey to somewhere I would never want to go and a lot of details I don't need. "I was debating between bringing the Tikka T3 and the Remington 700 but you know the recoil on the T3x is crazy". "Obviously it's a three-day drive from the airport to the hunting area in nowhere Texas but we passed the time talking about our favorite jerky".

I often spent this time trapped in cubicles or offices thinking about these men suddenly forced to fight these animals hand to hand. Are deer hard to knock out with your fists? Presumably they have a lot of brain protection from all the male jousting. I think it would quickly become the most popular show on television, just middle-aged IT managers trying to choke a white-tailed deer as it runs around an arena. We'd sell big steins of beer and turkey legs, like Medieval Times, for spectators. You and a date would crash the giant glasses together and cheer as people run for their lives from a moose.

Once after a repair session, while waiting for the L, I tripped and some of the stuff in my bag spilled out. This woman on the platform looked down at just a thick stack of porn magazines sliding over the platform and then at me. I still think about what she must have thought about me. It's not just that I had a Playboy, but like 6, as if I was one of the secret sexual deviants you read about on the news. "He looked like a normal person but everywhere he went he had a thick stack of porn."

Shedd Aquarium

One of my favorite jobs in the entire city was the Shedd aquarium. I would enter around the side by the loading dock, which is also where many of the animals would come in through. Almost every morning there would be just these giant containers of misc seafood for the animals packed into the loading dock. It was actually really nice to see how high quality it was, like I've eaten dodgier seafood than what they serve the seals at Shedd.

It did make me laugh when you'd see the care and attention that went into the food for the animals and then you'd go by the cafeteria and see kids sucking down chicken nuggets and diet coke. But it was impossible not to be charmed by the intense focus these people had for animals. I used to break some of the rules and spy on the penguins, my favorite animals. There is something endlessly amusing about seeing penguins in non-animal places. Try not to smile at penguins walking down a hallway, it's impossible.

The back area of the aquarium feels like a secret world, with lots of staircases going behind the tanks. Often I would be in a conversation and look through the exhibit, making eye contact with a guest on the other side of the water. It was a very easy place to get lost, often heading down a series of catwalks and down a few stairs to a random door. Even after going there a few times, I appreciated an escort to ensure I didn't head down a random hallway and into an animal area or accidentally emerge in front of a crowd of visitors.

The offices were tucked away up here overlooking the water show

I worked with the graphic design team that was split between the visuals inside the aquarium and their ad campaigns. It was my introduction to concepts like color calibration and large format printing, The team was great and a lot of fun to work with, very passionate about their work. However one part of their workflow threw me off a lot at first. Fonts.

FontExplorer X Pro 7.0.1 - Download for Mac Free
Spent a lot of time figuring out how this software worked

So I, like many people, had not spent a lot of time thinking about the existence of fonts. In school I wrote papers exclusively in Times New Roman for some reason that was never explained to me. However in design teams buying and licensing fonts for each employee and project was a big deal. The technology that most places used at the time to manage these fonts were FontExplorer X Pro, which had a server and client side.

Quickly I learned a lot about fonts because debugging font issues is one of the stranger corners of technical troubleshooting. First some Adobe applications hijacked the system font directories, meaning even if you had injected the right font in the user directory they might not appear. Second fonts themselves were weird. TrueType fonts, which is the older format and the one a lot of these companies still dealt with, are at their lowest level "a sequence of points on a grid". You combine curves and straight lines into what we call a glyph.

Most of the fonts I worked with had started out with the goal of printing on paper. Now many of those were being repurposed for digital assets as well as printing on paper, which introduced no end of weirdness. Here are just a few of the things I tried to help with:

  • Print and screen use different color modules
  • DPI for print and PPI for digital aren't the same
  • No screen is the same. The differences between how a digital asset looked on a nice screen vs a cheap screen wasn't trivial, even if we tried to color calibrate both

In general though I liked working with designers. They often knew exactly what they wanted to get out of my technical assistance, providing me with a ton of examples of what was wrong. Their passion for the graphic design work they were doing inside the aquarium and outside was clear with everyone I spoke with. It's rare to find a group of people who truly enjoys their jobs.

My primary task though was managing and backing up the Mac servers onto tape. For those who haven't used tape backups, it's a slow way to backup a lot of data that requires a lot of testing of backups (along with a good storage system for not confusing people). I quickly came to despise running large-scale tape backups. The rate of errors discovered when attempting to restore backups as a test was horrifying.

The tape backup was overall a complete fucking disaster. There were two tape drives from IBM and way too often a tape written by one drive wouldn't be readable by the other one. The sticker system used to track the tape backups got messed up when I went on vacation and when I came back I couldn't make heads or tails over what had happened. Every week I stopped by and basically tried anything I could think of to get the tape backup to work correctly every time.

Then I did something I'm not proud of. The idea of them calling me and telling me all their hard work was gone was keeping me up at night. So without telling them, I stuck an external 3.5 drive with as much storage as I could afford behind the server tucked away and started copying everything to the tapes and the drive. The IT department had vetoed this idea before but I did it without their permission and basically bet the farm that if the server drives failed and the tape didn't restore, they'd forgive me for making another onsite backup.

I found out years later that their IT found the drive, assumed they had installed it and switched over to backing up on disks in a Drobo since it was much easier to keep running.

United Airlines

Another frequent customer of mine was United Airlines. They had a suburban office which remains the strangest designed office I've ever been in. There was a pretty normal lobby, with executive offices upstairs, a cafeteria and meeting room on the ground floor and then a nuclear bunker style basement. Most of the offices I went to were in the basement along cement corridors so long that they had those little carts with the orange flashing lights zooming down there. It sort of felt like you were at the airport. You could actually ask for a ride on the carts and get one, which I only did once but it was extremely fun.

The team that asked for technical support the most was the design team for the in-flight magazine, Hemispheres. They were all-Mac and located in a side room with no windows in this massive basement complex. So you'd go into just this broiling hot little room with Mac Pros humming along and zero airflow. The walls were brown, the carpet was brown, it was one of the least pleasant offices I've ever been in. Despite working for an in-flight magazine, these people were deadly serious about their work and had frequent contact with Apple about suggested improvements to workflows or tooling.

It was, to be frank, a baffling job. The United Airlines IT didn't want anything to do with the Macs, so I was there to do extremely normal things. I'm talking about applying software updates, install Adobe products, things that anyone is capable of doing without any help. I'd often be asked to wait in a conference room for hours until someone remembered I was there and would ask me to do something. Their internet was so slow I would download the Mac updates at home and bring them into the compound on a hard drive. I've never seen corporate internet this slow in my life.

It wasn't the proudest I've ever been of a job but I was absolutely broke. So I would spend hours watching the progress bar tick by on Mac updates and bill them for it. I tried to do anything to fill the time. I wrapped cables in velcro, refilled printers, reorganized ethernet cables. It was too lucrative for me to walk away but it was also the most bored I've ever been in my life. I once emptied the recycling for everyone just to feel like I had done something that day, only to piss off the janitor. "What, is this your job?" he shouted as I handed him back the recycling bin.

The thing I remember the most was how impossibly hard it was to get paid. You would need to go to the end of this hallway, which had an Accounts Payable window slot with an older woman working there. Then you would physically submit the invoice to her, she would take it and put it in an old-timey wooden invoice tracking system. I'm talking sometimes months from when I submitted the invoice to when I got paid. I would borderline harass this woman, asking her on the way to the bathroom like "hey any chance I could get paid before Christmas? I gotta get the kids presents this year."

I didn't have kids, but I figured it sounded more convincing. I shouldn't have bothered with the lie, she looked at me with zero expression and resumed reading a magazine. At this point I was so poor that I had a budget of $20 a day, so waiting months to get paid by United put me in serious risk of not being able to pay my rent. In the end I learned a super valuable lesson about working for giant corporations. It's a great way to get paid as long as time was no object, but it's a dangerous waiting game to play.


Colleges hiring me to come out and do specific jobs wasn't uncommon. Setting up a media lab was probably the most common request, where I would show up, set up a bunch of Mac Pros with fiber and an Xserve somewhere to store the files. This was fine work, but it wasn't very exciting and typically involved a lot of unboxing stuff and figuring out how to run fiber. The weirdest niche I found myself in was somehow I became the go-to person for Jewish schools in the Chicago suburbs.

It started with Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie, IL. I went in to fix a bunch of white MacBooks and iMacs and while I was there I showed the teachers how to automate some of their tasks with Automator.

Automator was a drag and drop automation tool that let you effectively write scripts to do certain tasks. I showed them how to automate some of the grading process with CSVs and after that I became the person they always called. Soon after, I started getting calls for all the Jewish schools in the area. To be clear there are not a lot of these schools and they are extremely small.

On average I'd say somewhere around 200-300 students in each school. Also they had pretty intense security, probably the most I'd seen at a high school before or since. To be honest I don't know why they picked me as the Mac IT guy, I don't have any particular feelings about the Jewish faith. The times when the schools staff would ask questions about my faith, they seemed pleased by my complete lack of interest in the topic. As someone who grew up with Christian fundamentalist cults constantly trying to recruit me, I appreciated them dropping it and never mentioning it again.

I loved these jobs because the schools were well organized, the staff knew everyone and they had a list of specific tasks for me when I showed up. Half my life doing independent IT was sitting in waiting rooms while the person who hired me to show up actually came and got me, so this was delightful. I started doing more "teacher automation" work, which was mostly AppleScript or Automator doing the repetitive tasks that these people were staying late to get done.

It wasn't until one of the schools offered me a full-time job that I realized my time in IT was coming to a close. The automation and writing AppleScript was so much more fun than anything I was doing related to Active Directory or printers. It had started to become more clear with the changes Apple was making that they were less and less interested in the creative professional space, which was my bread and butter. This school was super nice, but I knew if I started working here I would be here forever and it was too boring to do forever.

That's when I started transitioning to more traditional Linux sysadmin work. But I still think back fondly of a lot of those trips around Chicago.