Beyond repair…

On August 15th I entered what I thought would be a straight forward request with our computer help desk. Adobe Pro had started throwing errors and since the ability to read, edit, and sign pdf documents is more than than a once-a-day requirement in my job, I thought it might be nice to have that capability back.

I should have known it was not going to be an easy process when the confirmation email I got from the help desk had my name but described a problem someone on the other side of the country was trying to solve on their own machine. Actually, I should have known this process was going to be painful from the minute I discovered I was going to have to interact with the big help desk in the sky. Reducing the local service options and nationalizing IT help might have saved money but the user experience and wait times involved are appalling. At least I’m not paying for this service. Well, not paying for it directly, except for whatever of my tax dollars are being allocated for shitty IT support.

Over the last 13 days I’ve had three separate emails letting me know that Adobe was fixed and all is now well. All three of those emails have proven to be wrong, with the same inability to use Adobe continuing after each “fix.” This morning I was greeted with the 4th “we fixed it” email and discovered that not only does Adobe not work, but that the entire program has now disappeared from my computer. I suppose that’s one way to fix the problem. You can’t report a software error for software you don’t have. Of course I now have a two week and growing backlog of electronic paperwork that I need Adobe to process, so there’s that one small issue remaining.

I’m sure the men and women who work the Enterprise Service Desk are fine upstanding Americans who are doing great things for God and country. That, said, how it takes two weeks to fix an issue I could resolve on my home computer in less than 30 minutes simply leaves me with no option but to conclude that the “help” procedures for enterprise IT are broken entirely beyond repair.

Note: I should point out in fairness that just before I left for the day the issues was at long last resolved. At least tomorrow I know I can start clearing the backlog of Things Which Must be Digitally Signed. Sigh.

Pepperidge Farms remembers…

I’ve used carbon paper, but it had its last gasp as an office staple while I earning a diploma. I caught the tail end of using overhead projectors to show written documents to large audiences. I can even vaguely remember using a typewriter to fill in some formsPepFarm carrying the dreaded “must be typed” instructions.

Looking back on those items, they weren’t particularly convenient. Using them was time consuming and far from automated. Even so, I have to grudgingly admit that they worked and were all successful at conveying some quantity of information from here to there. What they lacked in convenience and time saving, they more than made up for in reliability. Unless the bulb burnt out, that old heat throwing overhead projector would keep trucking along essentially forever. That’s one of the many beauties of systems with so few moving parts.

By contrast, most of my morning today was taken up by what felt like an endless do-loop of software updates and enforced restarts that made my computer at the office effectively unusable. It made me briefly long for a return to dry erase markers and acetate sheets and when ideas were communicated at the speed of fax. I’m sure that kind of throwback would make me miserable in its own unique way, but in the moment, anything seemed better than spending another moment staring blankly at the startup screen while the machine drug itself through the motions.

By lunchtime whatever gremlins were afflicting my laptop seem to have satisfied themselves with the damage done. I gave getting on with the day the old college try. I really did, but the damage was indeed done. Oh sure, I spent a few hours after that mashing away at the keyboard, but as for how much really got accomplished, well, I won’t be the one to incriminate myself on that front.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Lack of purpose. I work in a place full of engineers. They can be a socially awkward group – not that I have a lot of room to talk. What I’ve noticed in my travels in and around the building is that it seems like none of them are even walking anywhere with a sense of purpose. No one walks like they have anywhere to go. They’re slouching down the halls, staying close to the wall, hands jammed in their pockets, avoiding eye contact at all costs, and generally unaware of anyone in motion around them. To those grown men and women I say pick your head up. Be aware of what’s around you. I assure you that your feet are going to remain right there at the end of your legs even if you take your eyes off them for a few steps. They’re not going to escape. However, it’s going to do you (and me) a world of good if you start walking around like you have some sense of purpose in life. In the meantime, I’m going to continue walking down the middle of the hallway, head on a swivel, and making you painfully uncomfortable in passing.

2. Violence. If there’s anything likely to stir debate in this country it’s the nature of the gun and the rights and responsibilities that go along with it. What I’ve never been quite comfortable with is how many people single out the gun as the problem without a moment’s pause to look at the real issue – violence. It’s fine to say that you’re sick of gun violence, but doesn’t that kind of statement imply by omission that you’re not sick of other types of violence? I’m not sure it would matter much to me if I were killed by a gun, a knife, a hammer, or a pointy stick as the end result is the same. Violence is violence. It’s my humble estimation that dividing violence by the category of tool used to carry it out is not only a bit naïve but also simply treats the symptoms rather than getting after root causes.

3. Office 2013. The productivity software on my work computer was “upgraded” to Office 2013 this week. I’m not a nuts and bolts software guy but it seems to me that upgrades should somehow be based on actually improving on the design and functionality of what came before. Instead what we apparently have is a new piece of kit that makes it harder to do the “normal” workhorse stuff, adds a few flashy “so what” kind of capabilities, and looks absolutely dreadful no matter whether you opt for a layout in “gray” or a vaguely more tinted “dark gray”. Oh I’m sure it still has the capacity to do everything I want it to do, but it doesn’t perform those tasks the way I want them performed – or at least not in a way that doesn’t require minute-by-minute consultations with the help menu and Google.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. 2:30 PM. Everyone gripes and complains about early mornings. Those have always been pretty easy for me, even before long commutes and unholy start times turned me into a de facto morning person. The mid-afternoon is the part of the day I dread. It’s the time that turns me into a near catatonic meat sack. By the 2:30 mark on the typical weekday, I can’t pour coffee down my throat fast enough to do much more than keep up the basic appearance of not being asleep at my desk. Forget about being able to actually concentrate on something, I’m using all available power to keep myself from going face first into the keyboard. Fortunately, most days by about quarter of four, things start looking up a bit, happily just in time for the drive home. Although that’s convenient and all, it would be awfully nice not to feel like a zombie for a good third of every shift. Sadly, thus far, “more coffee” has not been the solution.

2. Price drops. I’ve noticed on the last few things I’ve ordered online, that a few days after I fork over my credit card number, the same item is available on the same site for slightly less than I paid for it. Of course most of these business are reputable establishments and would probably give me the discount if I spent 45 minutes finding my receipt, calling customer service, and complaining to two or three levels of CSR. Usually, though, the general hassle involved isn’t worth it to save the couple of dollars I’d end up getting back for the effort. Sometimes knowing time value and opportunity cost is a real pain in the ass.

3. iPhoto. I think it’s obvious that I’m deeply committed to the Apple family of products. My iPhone talks to my iPad which talks to my MacBook Pro which talks to my Mac Mini which talks to my AppleTV. Everything digital is basically available through any device all the time. It happens without much behind the scenes interface from me. And that makes me happy. But then we come to iPhoto, Apple’s dedicated photo management software. I’ll confess: I hate it. Like a good fanboy, I tried hard to like it, but I really do despise this little piece of software for not giving me control of the underlying file structure and letting me organize my pictures the way I had them filed on my PC in 2002. In this one little thing, Apple has made my life infinitely more difficult. I don’t need smart albums, or tags, events, or social media integration. I just need my photos stored in a logical file structure with folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders that make sense to my OCD addled brain.

Been there, done that…

The thing that no one ever seems to want to understand or be willing to accept about productivity software is that it’s usually designed to meet a specific need. Word, not surprisingly, is a reasonably good piece of word processing software. Take away all the bells and whistles and right down at the center of its core functionality, it still lets you put words on a blank electronic page and then tinker with them until everything looks just right. Most people grasp this almost intuitively at some level.

The real problems creep in when things get a little more complicated… Like when someone decides to buy into an entire file-sharing and collaboration platform that’s closely integrated with the Microsoft Office family of products. When they use the platform as the programmers intended – it’s actually a remarkably effective and efficient way to manage your information. On the other hand, when you give this product to a somewhat aged group of people and tell them to start using it from a standing start, well, you’re pretty much just inviting things to end badly.

I’ve seen this story play out before. The first couple of weeks are going to go like gangbusters, but once the early adopters have had their fun, the rollout will slow to a crawl. After that, it will be a hand-to-hand fight to convince the 50% who are holding out that it’s worth doing. Eventually, it will die under its own weight and we’ll be stuck with another system that we’re halfway using. Yeah, this ain’t my first rodeo, cowboy.

Stick around long enough and I guess you’ll see history repeat itself over, and over, and over, and over ad infinitum. At least this way I’ll only have to act surprised with how things turn out, rather than actually being surprised that something so simple could go so badly awry.

Placeholder…

Jeff would love to write a real post tonight, but instead he’s busy upgrading his iPhone and iPad to iOS 5, playing around with a bunch of new features and apps, and trying to decide if he wants to set up an iCloud account. Rest assured, he is working hard to bring you the finest blog posts available and will be back tomorrow with his regularly scheduled edition of What Annoys Jeff This Week? Until then, bye-bye and buy bonds.

Outlook…

I’ve been operating on the apparently misguided assumption that Microsoft Outlook was the standard issue email client for federal offices everywhere since the dawn of time… or at least the last 15 years, whichever came first. At least that was my assumption until I overheard this conversation this morning…

Supervisor: Your inbox filled up over the weekend. Make sure you clean it out and move large files to your archive folders so they’re not taking up space on the email server.

Employee: It’s not my fault my inbox fills up. If people didn’t wait till the last minute to send stuff in, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Supervisor: But if you move those big files out of your inbox *pointing at the screen* we can solve the problem.

Employee: But I need those files.

Supervisor: I know, but they’ll be saved in your personal files so you can still get to them.

Employee: Well, I asked to go to that Outlook class but didn’t get in. This isn’t like the old Outlook so I need training and it’s hard to get into those classes. They’re always full. I don’t know why people can’t just spread out when they send stuff in…

Sigh.

Is Outlook really so hard to use that 60 people a month are signed up for training on how to schedule meetings and set up personal folders? I’ve been using Outlook since I got my first “real” job in the summer of 2000… Not like this is exactly a new piece of software we’re dealing with here. Sure, it’s been updated a touch now and then, but it’s still the same old Outlook that it has always been.

I guess the real question in my mind isn’t so much why that many people are signed up for training as it is how someone gets to be a 40-something year old career bureaucrat without knowing how to use email?

 

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.