In a pickle with your PC?

Students and staffers at OIT help desk come to the rescue

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- OIT help desk, how can I help you?" Every few minutes someone sitting in room G25 in the basement of 87 Prospect Ave. utters that greeting, followed by questions that often go like this:

"You received an error message that says what exactly?"

"Then what did you click?"

"Now what does the screen say?"

Jen Whiting, left, works with sophomore Ellinor Quay  

Help desk manager Jen Whiting, left, works with sophomore Ellinor Quay to answer a question. She says a team approach helps the staff handle the many and diverse inquiries.


With patience, persistence and often a dollop of humor, the dedicated students and staff members who inhabit this room at all hours of the day and night are taking calls from the frazzled and the frustrated, those having trouble networking computers using Windows 2000/XP and those who can't figure out how to send an e-mail.

"Sometimes you tell the person, 'OK, go to the start button,' and they say, 'There's no start button on my computer,'" said Kristina Maletz, a member of the class of 2005, recalling one type of caller who dials 258-HELP regularly.

The employees of the technical support center at the Office of Information Technology's help desk are available to answer questions from anyone on campus, as well as alumni and parents of incoming students, 24 hours a day, except for weekends. (One person is on call during weekends for emergencies.) More than 1,000 calls and 120 e-mails can come in on a hectic day, three times the typical load. Between four and seven people, a mix of students and staff members, are on hand to answer calls and e-mail queries.

  Senior Khalil Sullivan

Senior Khalil Sullivan, an English major, uses his knowledge of computers and a calm demeanor to help callers resolve their problems.

Most of the pleas for help come in the form of phone calls. (E-mail queries are received at <>.) The busiest times are at the start of the school year, when a virus is circulating or before Dean's Date, when students call because they have lost a file -- and no, they don't have it backed up. "Those are difficult calls," said Khalil Sullivan, a member of the class of 2004. "Sometimes you have an irate caller; the way to counteract that is knowledge," he said. "But I'll put them on hold if they're irate, so they can calm down a bit. People say they're going to throw away their computer. My biggest complaint is with students who ... "

" ... expect us to push a button and make things work?" Maletz chimed in. Her phone trilled. "OIT help desk," she said politely, donning her headset.

Maletz's caller, a faculty member in the humanities, was alarmed. Her Internet browser was on a pornography Web site and she could not change it. Maletz quickly deduced that her computer was afflicted with a contaminant that behaves like a virus, using a pop-up window to change the computer's home page and prevent the user from undoing its work. Maletz calmly walked the caller through several steps. Five minutes later, the computer was back to normal. "She thought her computer was going to self-destruct!" Maletz said.

'My computer is typing on its own!'

Some of the most skilled help desk workers are equal parts computer whiz and psychologist. Paul Maurer, the second shift manager, often wears both these hats.

"I have told people to get up and take a break from their computer," said Maurer, who spent four years in the Army doing computing and military intelligence work. "One woman called and said, 'My computer is typing on its own!' She was writing a book, and I asked her how long she had been working, and she said eight or nine hours. I said, 'Why don't you take a break? Get some coffee?' She called back later and said her computer was fine.

"When people get very frustrated they rush. A stressed-out person clicks everything as fast as they can, and the more you click, the slower your computer is going to go. So I'll ask, 'What kind of dog is that barking in the background?' or 'What music are you listening to?' That way I become a person, not just a voice."

Jen Whiting, the friendly, no-nonsense manager of the help desk, looks for employees with "humility and a willingness to not know everything. We need people who are willing to learn constantly. It has to be OK with you to be corrected. If you fake it, you're going to give out a wrong answer."

A total of 45 students each work at least seven hours a week at the help desk. They are hired in the spring of their freshman year, put through three days of intensive training and deemed ready to don the headset at the beginning of their sophomore year. Full-time staff members, of which there are six, are always on hand as well. Whiting's goal is to have nine out of 10 calls picked up in less than a minute and a half.

The busiest times of the day often depend on factors like the weather -- sunny days mean fewer calls -- and class schedules (laboratories that meet in the late afternoon account for a slowdown during that period). As students arrive in the small, bare-bones room to start their shift, grabbing a free sticky bun if it's Wednesday, they greet staff members and other students, then quickly pull on a headset and get to work. The room has the quiet hum of many conversations going on, but it is frequently punctuated by questions called out to colleagues. Cooperation is essential, said Whiting, because no one can know everything about computers. "It often has to be a team approach to find the answer," she said. Staffers often look up answers in online manuals and on the OIT Web site, which has answers to 61 frequently asked questions.

Sullivan, who typically staffs the phones for 15 hours a week, is, of all things, an English major. He sought out the position because "I needed a good job, and I can type fast." Plus, he likes learning about computers. "I'm not scared of them," he said.

'How do I get on the Internet?'

The most common calls to the help desk ask: "I've got this virus -- what do I do?" or "How do I get on the Internet?" Also common are questions about using e-mail.

One of the most notorious complaints comes from callers who have knocked a can of soda or a mug of coffee all over their keyboards.

"We get three or four of those a week, and the worst thing is, they don't tell you," said Sullivan. "They call and say, 'My keyboard isn't working.'" Eventually, when subjected to questioning ("Has anything unusual happened to your computer lately?"), they will confess. (For the record, the best thing to do if a spill occurs is to unplug your computer immediately, turn the keyboard upside down, let it drain on a towel and take it to hardware support. Do not resort to a blowdryer, as one caller did.)

Then there are the repeat callers, who seem to have the help desk on speed dial. "Some people honestly just want to talk to someone," Maurer said. "They call with the most minute problem, and they probably knew the answer anyway. If they didn't call for a week, we would be worried."

Eighty percent of the calls received by the help desk are resolved by employees at the technical support center. The other 20 percent are referred to other computer-savvy helpers on campus: the OIT Solutions Center at the Frist Campus Center, where malfunctioning computers with hardware problems are attended to; the residential computing consultants, students in each college who make house calls on troubled computers; the two full-time staff members who answer questions about business applications like PeopleSoft; the six members of OIT's software support office; and the 80 computer experts on staff in various campus departments.

Information on campuswide computer problems, such as outages in the e-mail system, are posted on the OIT Web site (<helpdesk.princeton. edu/home/>).

For Marianne DeVuono, who is the assistant to the dean at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the help desk is a great resource when she's in a jam.

"I call over there, well, some weeks it's frequently," she said. When she had a problem downloading forms from the Internet or when she needed a new e-mail account set up right away, the folks at the help desk bailed her out.

"What seems complicated to me is very quick to them, and that's what makes me feel reassured when I call them," DeVuono said. "They are able to bring it back to me in layman's terms, and that's very helpful."


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