In my first post about earlier jobs (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 1), I talked about my teenage jobs delivering papers, trying dishwashing, and even telemarketing, before talking about my first “real” job as a library assistant through my undergrad years. In the end, I said I would cover my law school years next, but in my second post (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 2), I realized that I hadn’t covered two other computer-related jobs I did while I was working at the library too, so I covered them.
But I did actually leave Peterborough for the bright lights of the big, err, medium city of Victoria. Bigger than Peterborough, obviously, but not like a giant metropolis of Toronto or Vancouver. It still felt “right-size” for me, as did the university.
Many people disagree about what law school is really like, ranging from a Paper Chase model of the Socratic method to an apprentice-style world of civil procedure and internships to a Law Review / moot court world of John Grisham-like-protagonist-wannabes. For me, Scott Turow’s One-L is the best portrayal I’ve seen at approximating real life at first-year law school. Yet despite those differences in views, everyone agrees on one thing – law school is expensive. More so in the U.S. than Canada, but even back in the late 80s, early 90s, it was still expensive for a graduate study area. I’d love to say that living at home for my undergrad and working full-time allowed me to save up lots of money so I didn’t have to work while at law school, but that is sadly not the case.
g. IT Support (internal) — While I was doing first-year law and living on-campus in residence, I also got a job working in the IT support area of the university. I can’t remember the exact number of hours, something like 8-10 a week I think. And because they were also switching over from a mainframe world to the new and exciting worlds of PCs and Macs, the corporate people were still figuring out what services to offer. One that they knew they absolutely needed though was handling software support for faculty and staff, an internal service to help the university run better in the transition. Individual departments could order whatever software they wanted, that was their call, but once it was installed, the IT group had to support it. Sometimes it was something as simple as getting something to print, other times it was conflicts in drivers or corrupted hard drives. But my bosses handled those problems.
What did I do? Installed software for the most part. Yep, that simple. I would go, type install in DOS, start the install program going, and then swap floppy disks as it worked through the install. It was slightly more sophisticated than that, as there were three other issues I started fixing at the same time.
First, I would clean up their file structure…if you have ever looked for anything in a Windows system in the last 10 years, you know that almost all docs are going to be saved in the My Documents area. That’s not just a preference, it was designed so that EVERYBODY knows that is where things are saved. You don’t mix and mingle program files and data files. But back in ’91, that wasn’t as clear to everyone who was not yet IT-literate. So people would think, “Oh, I can install software, it’s simple”, but then when it came time for installation, they would install Word program files in “C:\Betty\letters” despite the fact that Betty wasn’t the only one using the machine, the prog files shouldn’t go there, and they weren’t all about letters. That might not matter too much on your home computer, but in a tech support world for a university, if someone calls, we try to solve it over the phone first – and it is really useful if all the files are saved in the same place by default and not in Betty’s letter files. So we tried to standardize the installs.
Second, I started developing simple scripts that would create the same structures on all the machines for us. I also created docs on procedures that I shared with my boss for confirmation I was doing it right, and they thought they were so great, they had me turn them into instructions for other installers to follow, or that they could give to the various admins who insisted upon installing themselves.
Third, while I was there, I not only tested things, I gave them an extra half-hour of on-site support. Sometimes that was showing them how to print, tweak the settings, etc. Other times it was more open-ended, “Anything else not working the way you want?”. And I would find out that they hadn’t been able to print to one printer for months but never called it in, and so they were using floppy disks to move files over to a separate PC. Often times it was as simple as noting that someone turned off the mechanical print sharer and so the PC literally couldn’t “see” the printer.
My instructions, and the support work I did, made me start to really realize that what I thought were obvious things to do to improve processes and procedures were not obvious to others, or at least, not obvious to them that they should do them. For example, my bosses had been doing the installs for some time, but never thought to “write it up” in any form. I created the “mini-manual” for myself so I wouldn’t forget or mess up, particularly as the details were complex in some cases, but they not only didn’t necessarily see the need for it before I did it, they also didn’t have the time to do it. Value-added, but a “nice-to-have” for them and not a “must-have”.
For the “extra half-hour”, I was really surprised. While the other installers had taken the approach of “I’m here to install” and nothing more, I noticed that while I was swapping disks, the admin staff frequently would ask me questions that I could answer. Somewhat hesitant at first, they would then open up if I didn’t shut them down. And after about the third round of questions and answers, and probing, I’d suddenly find out that there was this whole other problem that they didn’t know what to do about it, and while they had a solution, it was a pain-in-the-butt. Yet they were just living with it. My bosses were tickled pink because the feedback on my installs was higher than other installers because I did more than my job required.
I don’t mean I was some IT superhero, I just mean that despite the fact I was paid a minimum salary and I was a student, not university staff, I took it seriously. I thought of ways to make it better. Mind you, my installs took longer sometimes as a result, and sometimes I even generated work for my bosses when I realized that it was something more technical than I could solve. But I at least diagnosed the problem for them, so later they could go in, confirm my diagnosis, and fix the problem in one visit. Solving their IT problem, not just giving a band-aid or Tylenol to get them through the day.
I confess, it is easy to see those trends in my work now, particularly as I’ve been a manager for the last 12 years. Back then, I just initially thought that others were weird that they hadn’t thought to do it on their own…wasn’t it just “obvious”?
h. IT Support (internal and external) – If my difference was starting to show in the first job above that I did for a year and had fun doing, it was really clear when I went back the second year. The IT people had opened a new “IT support office”, where half of it was people who sold basic PC hardware and handled printing, and the other half was manned by students like me who worked part-time providing tech support to both students and faculty/staff on university computer problems. Sometimes MAC, sometimes PC, sometimes mainframe. We wouldn’t solve problems at their home, but if it had anything to do with using something at the university, it was our role to respond.
Was I awesome at the tech support side? Not even close to the others. I was a bit more even — I was good with basic mainframe, okay with MACs, and great with PC. Others were often genius at one but would hand off the others to someone else. If two or three of us were working simultaneously, we usually had it covered. And if we didn’t, we’d take the info, and have one of our bosses call them back. Rare, but we could.
Yet the part that stood out for me was this stupid little extra task we had that was a major pain in the patootie.
The university sold copies of public domain software, like SPSS to the stats majors. Now, you would just go online and download it yourself. Back then, you came to the university, we would sell you the copy on a cost-recovery basis. What were our costs? Copying it on to several floppy disks in 3.5″ format, burning them, labelling them, putting them in an envelope, and including printed installation instructions. Where did we get those copies to sell? We had to make them.
And therein lay the rub. I’ll give you the solution, as it will seem obvious once you read it.
I would arrive at work, check the inventory, see that we were running low on SPSS or some comms software or something else, format some disks, make up some new ones, print some labels, make up a “package”, and have it ready to go when someone came in. This was ’91 — you did NOT want to have to make them wait while you did all that. And we would do it while we were answering other calls. Then when they came in and bought a copy, we would take their money, make a change from a simple little metal money-box (think small metal toolbox) with a $20 float in it, and send them along their way. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Except it wasn’t. Nobody knew how to make up the disks, there were no instructions around. There was no price list posted anywhere. The envelopes were on one side of the office, the disks on another, labels in another drawer, instructions on how to install weren’t pre-printed, and nobody knew we were out of copies of software unless they went to get a copy and found out we were out. No inventory system, no tracking, nothing. Oh, and no training. It was basically word-of-mouth between support workers.
Now, let’s be clear. We weren’t selling tons per week. There was no need for some sophisticated audit trail or control structure here. But by the third or fourth week, it was driving us all insane. And one quiet afternoon on a Friday, I’d had enough. So I just started thinking about how to make it work more easily and started organizing it.
- I grabbed the first piece of software disk, figured out how many disks it would take, created a subdirectory structure called something like SPSS 1, SPSS 2, SPSS 3, SPSS 4, etc. on the main machine, and organized the files under it. Then I went on to COMMS 1, COMMS 2, COMMS 3, or whatever. I fixed the file structure.
- I made up a simple one-pager that said how many disks each one took, and listed the directories for each disk. It didn’t even take a single page to cover ALL of them with the same procedure i.e. blank disks are stored in cabinet X, you need four for SPSS, 3 for COMMS, etc. Format the disks, copy the files from each directory over, add labels, done.
- I made up a price list to go on the front of each envelope — it had the university name and logo, the name of our group, listed the programs, what was in each envelope (instructions plus X disks), and the price. If they were buying multiple things, there was an option to add a total at the bottom. There was no tax, just add it up.
- I created a small procedures manual for the office:
- When you arrive, check the call log for outstanding tickets that you have an expertise in…answer any you can, with triage for ones you can answer faster than others to keep the outstanding ticket level down and bumping the ones you know need to go to the full tech support (our bosses).
- Check the inventory for sales and make up inventory for ones we sold that day;
- When you make a sale, put the “receipt” (i.e. the price list form) in the top of the metal box so we know there’s a sale, and can monitor sales/inventory.
Was any of that rocket science? Not in the least. Yet none of the other students were doing it. Nor were my bosses.
And yet, again, I got kudos for doing what I thought was simply obvious improvements. My bosses thought I was “outstanding”, and loved my initiative. And my coworkers? Over the moon because suddenly it MADE SENSE of what they were supposed to do. Did they all suddenly flock to doing it? Not completely, but it was better than we had it before. And less likely for cash-strapped students to be pocketing the cash and not recording a sale. Again, not high dollars, but basic bookkeeping.
As I said above, I can see why this was deemed to be different, but at the time, I just didn’t understand how things that seemed so basic, so simple, so obvious that not only could they be done by anyone, but that anyone could go ahead and actually do it. So I did. I wasn’t “fixing” things, I was just avoiding chaos cuz I was anal-retentive, or so I thought.