CompSci academic thought tech support was useless – until he needed it

'They were basically using Emacs for their OS, and a custom LISP script to read email' – what could possibly go wrong?

On Call Welcome once again to On Call, The Register's chronicle of computing crises that your fellow readers corrected and recalled in sufficient detail to share with us all.

This week meet a reader we'll Regomize as "Declan" who, in the 1990s and 2000s, provided IT support services to a university's Computer Science department.

"My job ranged from doing desktop support, to maintaining the departmental website, and sometimes just getting to code up some random system that an academic had dreamt up," Declan told On Call.

"Given the department had the word 'computer' in the title, it was surprising how varied the competence level was across the academic body when it came to computers," Declan added. "There were some really smart people who used computers in 'interesting' ways, and you never quite knew what you were going to find when you arrived at an academic's office to 'help with their email'."

One such visit turned out to involve a chap who was "basically using Emacs for their operating system, and their mail client was a custom script they'd written in LISP." Figuring out why their email wasn't arriving is a story for another day.

Our present tale concerns the segment of Declan's users who resented the very existence of the IT team. As computer scientists they felt the money spent on Declan and his colleagues could be spent on other matters. Some were not shy about sharing that opinion.

"One rather vocal academic stood up in an all-department meeting one time and berated the IT staff in front of 400 staff members, claiming that not only did he not need IT support staff, but whenever he logged a support ticket, we were ignoring him," Declan recalled.

The head of IT asked his team to investigate if that was indeed the case, so Declan and his colleagues asked the angry academic to reproduce the issue by logging another ticket.

The academic complied. But no ticket arrived.

A search of server logs was the next step.

Which produced a result. The academic had lodged a ticket. And a few others.

But they were all sent to an email address that started with "heldesk@".

Not "helpdesk@" with a "p".

The academic's email client remembered the incorrect address and automatically inserted it whenever he sought assistance from the team he didn't believe should exist.

So much for academic rigor.

"The academic was informed of his mistake, and true to form, rather than apologize for accusing us of being a waste of money, claimed the whole problem was not his fault, because he had injured his arm, so he couldn't be expected to type accurately," Declan told On Call.

On Call broke a hand a few years ago and found it surprisingly easy to type with only a middle finger. If Declan wants to identify his angry academic, we'll offer a demo.

But we digress. Declan said the incident produced an upside, because the head of the CompSci department "tended to side with the IT staff a bit more after that incident, so it wasn't a complete loss."

Have you worked with a supposed expert who turned out to be anything but? If so, send On Call an email that describes your experience, and it may be your turn to have a story appear on a future Friday. And yes, we did check that the email address in that link is correct. ®

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