Technical Support from Hell
The story is true, only names and details have been changed
to protect the guilty and confuse the innocent.
The name on her office door said Ms Hollowtree – Technical Support. One of the visiting salesmen claimed to have been introduced to her at the local golf club under the name of Mrs Green, but to all the other staff at the Centre she was known as Holloway, after the prison.. There was no Mr Green in evidence however, and the only things she appeared to live with were several Siamese cats. This was generally considered to be quite appropriate, taking all things into consideration, though possibly unfair to the cats.
I first heard of her when she accused Dave, the chief support engineer, of molesting her. The really interesting detail here was that she was disowned by the entire female workforce of the Centre. Their reasons were quite simple, they knew how Dave treated them, and they knew how Ms Holloway treated everybody.
Roz in Customer Relations put it plainly, if unsisterly. “It’s not just him she’s putting at risk, it’s us as well. Most of the men here are reasonable, and I get on well with them. But what if one day we do get some creep trying it on with us. Who’s going to believe me when I complain, with people like her throwing unjustified allegations about.”
Roz’s views seemed fairly common. There were basically three opinions about Holloway. Her own was that she was the epitome of glamour and desirability. The other women considered that she was a poor judge of her own qualities. The men’s opinion was unanimous. Given a choice of an evening out with Holloway or a week with Nora Batty, they would have chosen Nora’s wrinkled stockings any day.
I didn’t take too much notice at first, office politics always seemed a rather pointless game to me. I just made a mental note always to make sure I had a chaperone with me if ever I had to have anything to do with her.
It was a couple of months later that I discovered chaperones can’t protect you from everything. I and my two junior proggies were putting in the new release of the System Software, our job was to update the fairly extensive mods that the Centre required to the new release. Each morning we got one hour on the machine to run a prepared set of tests, then we spent the rest of the day going through the results.
We had a tight timescale, and the pressure was on. Unfortunately the pressure came through Ms Holloway. As customer support we had to liase with her. Every day she came round and required of us the results of our tests, not an easy thing to do when you’ve only just walked back into your office. One of the proggies sorted out the piles of results, one went to make the essential tea, and I fielded stroppy questions with decreasing patience, and ever more desperate courtesy.
It came to a climax one Tuesday. We were due to deliver the completed software by Thursday, and our hopes were high. We should have known better of course, there were two faults. Fortunately we got back to the office before Holloway arrived. Jim went to make the tea, Tony sorted out the results and I just had time for a quick look at them before the door opened.
It was a strange thing about Holloway. She always came into a room looking defensive and subdued, then she would suddenly start on the attack, perhaps as a form of defence against a hostile world.
I should have expected it, I suppose, but I was too busy thinking about the bugs, so without thinking I answered her question straightforwardly and honestly. That was a bad mistake.
“We’ve got two faults. One is a straightforward faulty error message, we’ve just got to check through a set of source code libraries for a missing parameter, but the other fault is really serious. We’ve got a process crashed with corrupt code, and it looks like the privilege protection has failed somewhere on some other process, and the problem is we don’t know which one. So Jim and Tony are going to look through the other processes that were running, to see if they can find anything strange, and I’m going to look through the corruption to see if I recognise anything. The first one to get stuck goes and tackles the other error.”
Her nose suddenly went pink, and I realised my mistake. Never discuss unnecessary details with people like her, it only gives them more things to disagree with you on.
“Why doesn’t one of you tackle the faulty error message, and the other two work on the corruption?” It was a question, but her voice made it into an accusation.
I tried to make my reply friendly and reasonable, “Because I think we stand a better chance of solving both problems this way.”
It didn’t make any difference. Her voice started to rise.
“I think you should put one of your people to deal with the error message!” It wasn’t a statement of opinion, it was a challenge. Her nose was bright pink now, and the glow was beginning to spread to her cheeks.
I tried to duck the challenge, “I’m sorry, I disagree.”
“We’ve got to have this software by Thursday, why won’t you do it?”
I made the real mistake now. You should never loose your temper with a fool, and I did.
“I will do it, if you will sign a written declaration that you will take full responsibility for it, if the system is not ready on time. If you’re not prepared to do that then I’ve got to do everything I can to ensure that it is ready, and I’m sorry, but in my opinion this is the best way.” I smiled in the most aggressively nice way I could, stared back at her nose, and dared her to call the bluff.
She wobbled her lower jaw for a few moments, not in tears, but in incoherent fury, then turned and slammed out the door.
We looked at each other for a moment, then shrugged our shoulders and got down to work.
After an hour or so I admitted defeat, and gave up. The other two seemed to be on the trail of something, so rather than distract them I had a look at the other problem. It was even easier than I‘d expected, just a search through the error message source code, and the fault was obvious. One quick edit, and I left the compiler running while I turned back to the others.
They had found something all right, and it fitted in with what I’d seen, so that it actually made some sort of sense of the corruption. We followed it through, and an hour later found the bug, lurking in the heart of one of the system calls.
Jim went to prepare a celebratory brewup in the kitchen, Tony waited to check the compile, and I went reluctantly to liase with Holloway.
I knocked on the door, put my head in as cheerfully as I could, and said, “We’ve fixed the system corruption problem.”
Three people looked up. Holloway with blank hostility, my boss and his tech support sidekick with the embarrassed relief of someone interrupted in the middle of an encounter they desperately wanted out of.
“Ms Hollowtree was telling us she was concerned that you seemed to be refusing to handle some faults.” My Boss’s voice made it very clear that she hadn’t quite put it that way to him. Carol, the tech support sidekick, gave me a quick smile of encouragement, at least she was on my side.
“What about the other fault though, the error message?” Holloway didn’t give up that easily.
“Oh, that’s all right. We followed the procedure I described to you this morning, and it was fixed about two hours ago, just as I said it would be.” I saw the look on my manager’s face and withdrew.
Carol filled me in afterwards. “It was perfect,” she said, “You couldn’t have timed it better. She was just in the middle of making a formal complaint about you, when you walked in. She was saying you had refused to fix a fault. It was wonderful watching her face.”
It got me a lot of brownie points in the department after that, and a lot of respect from Roz and Co. Holloway never tried it on with me again after that.
I still think I was wrong though. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. It’s true that any accusation she did make against me would have been weakened by her own behaviour in the past, and I’m satisfied I was morally in the right. But going down to her level isn’t very efficient when dealing with people like her. It’s not scoring points by insulting people that matters, it’s winning, and you don’t do that by losing your temper.