IT Helpdesks: Theory And Practice

I keep a pad of frequently called numbers near my office phone- there is a number next to a label called “Helpless desk”.

In theory, this is how our helpdesk works.

  1. I go to a web site and fill submit a problem request form.
  2. It gets routed electronically to someone who addresses the issue.
  3. The helpdesk ticket is closed, I am notified by email, and merrily continue to perform my job.

In practice this is actually what happened this week. I got an email from a white hat hacker who informed me that a particular perl script we use on our site has a vulnerability, and that an update would take care of it. I got the update, but sadly found out that the script was in a directory that our IT department had installed it, and the directory permissions were set that prevented me from making any modifications. Permission issues seem to always happen. So here is what happened..

  1. Monday, I go to the helpdesk web site, start filling out a form, before realizing that the form uses an arcane JavaScript windwo lookup in our LDAP to get my contact details when I enter an email address. Unfortunately, this only works in Internet Explorer on a PC, so my Mac browser crashes. Have they not heard of cookies?
  2. Rolling across the room to a PC, I start over. I never understand why I have to provide a room number and browser version when I am reporting a web site issue, but I must comply with required fields. So now they know I use IE 4.x (not). The problem description text area input field is about the size of two matchbook covers, and backspacing does not work.
  3. Since this is a security issue, I made sure to cc: the guy in charge of that area. Maybe it will light a fire.
  4. I get an email notification that states my ticket has been created.
  5. Four days pass and I almost forget about it. What can be the problem? Changing permissions on a unix server is a task that should take someone, oh, about 140 seconds at the most, and most of that is directory navigation.
  6. So this is what I learned about our helpdesk. The form establishes an electronic paper trail, but to get it done, you have to track down the right people and harass, beg, bribe, whine. I start by calling and leaving un-returned messages, sending emails, and eventually bothering the poor director of the helpdesk who gets just as frustrated with the various technical departments.
  7. That failing, I start walking the halls in the IT area, and prowl until I can find the right person. The challenge in this game is that they change either titles or names every few months.
  8. With some luck, in a week or two, maybe more, I get an email letting me know the ticket is closed. Sometimes tat even means the issue was fixed.

And that is how help happens. Oh, if I were only root on the server, I would not only not bothering them, I’d not be griping here.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Cog,

    I feel so ‘busted’ after reading your help desk rant… it is all true. In defense of some of the more understaffed situations of the world, we (IT people-without-horns) would love to provide true technical support of the nature you describe. Instead, too much of our day is spent handling situations where some well meaning user has screwed up their PC so badly that re-constructing system files, deleting spyware, removing exe’s, and following up on phishing victims dominates help desk activity…and heaven forbid that the call comes from a Ph.d (who only uses e-mail)…our immediate reaction is, “Oh, you have a Ph.d., please, don’t touch anything!” And you MUST be joking about allowing root access to the server… one misplaced rmdir command? Arggggh!

    As I end my weak defense here…outsourcing help desk activity is becoming more popular…and as an added educational benefit, it should spawn an increased demand in foreign language studies for those who choose to use it!

    As for me, I give our 1 to 3500 student ratio, help desk a lot of slack… (but love venting over the lack of support).

  2. Thanks for writing Paul, and have to say this is largely a vent not at the people of the IT help desks, but more the larger faceless entity they end of representing and the poorly managed, poorly structured organization (here) they work in.

    In fact our help desk department did everything they could, they took the request, logged it and sent a notice to the appropriate staff. The problem is that the various IT departments that these things are routed to seem to have no accountability to the users or the help desk folks (and this is an IT department for a central office where there are no students),

    So may hats are off to the folks in the trenches dealing with thousands of requests– it is the malfunctioning organizations I rail against.

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