I am a geek. A hacker. A smart dude. I think a lot of myself, and once in awhile it’s warranted. Which is why, when my Internet phone service stopped working I called and complained, and when I didn’t get the answers I wanted, or a smart-enough-sounding tech support person on the phone, I haughtily canceled my service. At least, I tried. This is a story of pride, prejudice, puppies and pie. Humble pie, that is.
We demigods of the Internet are a noble bunch, geeks whose time has come. It is our world now – information is power and all the information in the world flows through our hands – and just as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility.
Or, to put it another way, with great knowledge of computers comes suicide-inducing calls from your in-laws who want to know how to attach a file-thing to a wossname with a doohickey.
Or, to put it another way, if you’re one of the people who want to correct me by saying “Uncle Ben never actually said that, it was a narrative caption in Amazing Fantasy #15“, then this article is probably for you.
And we take the suicide-inducing phone calls, and mostly we fix the wossname with the doohickey, interspersed with a few grumbles and sighs, and when we hang up we mutter to ourselves “why oh why don’t they read the manual?”
Cast your mind back to the last instruction manual you actually read. Think now of the troubleshooting guide, that two-page bullet-pointed affair nestled toward the back of the book that makes us all chuckle. Remember the first bullet? “Please ensure the device is connected”. Ah, good times, chuckle chuckle.
You know how it is when you get your new gizmo, all wrapped in cellophane, batteries to connect, leads to plug in, menus to configure. Mmm, gadget heaven. Oh yeah, and those pesky instructions. We don’t need those. We’re clever. We can work it out.
I acquired my Internet phone service from Vonage in April of 2004. I had moved into a new apartment and wanted desperately to not give Verizon any money ever again in my whole life so I chose to get cable Internet service and plug the phone into that. By all accounts it was as good as a regular phone. And it was. It was amazing. It was like the phone service I knew I always wanted. Flat-rate pricing. Up-to-the-minute call history. Voicemail online and via E-mail. Forwarding, conferencing, virtual phone numbers, area codes at my beck and call. Simply put, I was impressed, and I was sticking it to Verizon at the same time. Heck, there weren’t even taxes on my bill. I was sticking it to the man!
I bought a shiny, new cordless phone, ensuring it wouldn’t interfere or be interfered with by my Wi-Fi network, unwrapped it, threw away the manual and plugged it in. It all worked flawlessly. You know that feeling you get when something just works exactly as it should? Well, maybe you don’t because it doesn’t happen that often… but if you do, that’s how it felt. And that made me feel good.
I enjoyed flawless telephonic wonderment until November of 2005. I received an E-mail from Vonage regarding their 911 service, which required me to inform them of my physical address so that were I to dial 911 the operator would know where I was. Internet telephony being IP-based, I could be in Miami for all they knew, and I wasn’t, I was in Brooklyn, so I told them so.
Then, precisely a day later, my line went pear-shaped.
Every call was mired in fuzz and static. Occasional whining noises. The line was unusable beyond belief. Obviously, after making the necessary configuration changes to my line to enable the heretofore non-existent 911 capability, Vonage had obviously completely screwed my line up.
I tried everything first of course, dutifully unplugged everything and put it all back together, put the Vonage router in front of the Internet router instead of behind (topologically and geographically), tried using it with the computers turned off, the whole nine yards. I did my due diligence before asking for help, as any self-respecting hacker should.
Then I fired off the tech support E-mail. Forged in years of Usenet abuse, I meticulously described the problem as well as my attempts to fix it and check all the connections. A couple of days later I get the reply, which basically told me to make sure the device was connected to the wall, connected to the Internet, blah blah blah. Canned response, bleuch.
Now, you and I know every time we send an E-mail to tech support – any tech support – it’s like those fishing games at the funfair. You know you’re going to win something, but it could be anything from a bendy flower that used to resemble a daisy to that massive five-foot Finding Nemo fish your kid would drool over. Tech support is the same deal, it could be a twenty year-old dropout with attitude working nights or the guy who invented the transistor, you never know what’s coming back at you but generally you expect them to know slightly less than you about everything. That way, when they can actually help you you’re pleasantly surprised.
So when I received the afore-mentioned E-mail I didn’t explode, I merely reiterated the E-mail in very short words, less detail, and sent it back along with a note that maybe we could have someone call me on my cell phone and work with me to fix it.
No dice. More E-mails. More cut and paste replies. Bleuch.
Thanks to a busy Christmas season I pinged and ponged a few more messages along these lines all the way through January, with no improvement in the line. Finally, exasperated, I tried to cancel my service. And, of course, in the spirit of post-bubble customer service I wasn’t allowed to. I filled out the cancellation form only to get a voice mail from Bob in Marketing telling me they’d love to cancel my service just as soon as they could talk to me and make sure I was absolutely sure I wanted to cancel and – get this – they want to call me.
On the phone.
On the broken phone.
(This is the part where a cleverer writer would summon up a textual way to convey a flashback, maybe ripples or wobbly lines. However, I’m not that writer, so just rewind with me to 1998.)
It’s 1998, and I’m in dot-com heaven. My little Internet business was growing fast and I moved out of the home office into a perky almost-downtown store, office in the back, a little Internet cafe on the front and I was going to be the first Web host on the high street. Come host with us, work on your site, get free help!
I had enjoyed horrific dial-up service from Nynex, followed by gloriously inconsistent ISDN service from it’s Bell Atlantic successor, so I decided to wire the place with the company I trusted for my servers: Verio. I had read a lot about DSL and although I was a bit of an early bird I decided to risk it, after all it was a tenth the price of a T1 back then and it meant not using Verizon, Bell Atlantic’s new evil incarnation. I rented the store in May I think, and the DSL was ordered immediately.
It was finally ready in August.
That’s right. August. I paid rent for three months on the only Internet cafe in New York with no Internet.
Verio did their part, but Verizon took months to pull copper from the pole. Turns out the neighbourhood is overloaded and everyone’s sharing copper and DSL was just too new, it just wasn’t a smart purchase and I paid dearly for it. I never forgave Verizon, which is why I ended up getting Vonage all those years later.
So the business opens and it trundles along. That DSL line connected my Web business in the back as well as all the public computers out front. It was an amiable, friendly kind of place; we were really trying to put a friendly face on the Internet, which at the time was a mystery to most people and I wanted to change that in my small corner of the world, so we ran a real cozy place. I shared the office with a few guys from time to time; other amiable, smart, friendly dudes who also wanted to get out of the home office.
One such guy was Josh. Josh is great. Quintessential hacker. Will gladly trade in a job for half the pay if the atmosphere is better. I watched him quit a ridiculously well-paying consulting gig at the height of the dot-com craze simply because he felt he wasn’t really doing anything there. He would stomp into the office at the end of the day, sigh, look at me and say just one word. “Meetings”. So he quit.
Josh is just an all-round great guy, grounded, centered, will drink, be merry, and if needed, will rescue puppies.
And rescue a puppy he did.
Walking home one night he spied said puppy lost and forlorn in an empty lot and rescued him. Cute little Border Collie mix. Damned cute.
But Josh, like me, lived in a Brooklyn apartment that didn’t sit well with puppies, so puppy, who became known as “Archie”, moved into the store. Kind of like a mascot. Archie would run under customer’s chairs, eat their shoe laces, poop on the carpet, all that cute stuff puppies do.
Josh would drop Archie in the shop in his way to the city in the morning, and I’d open up an hour or so later, take Archie for a walk, get some coffee and get down to business.
One day, I came to work, opened up, took Archie for a walk, got some coffee and got down to business. Except I couldn’t. Internet was down. Now this happened occasionally, and usually a router reboot would fix it, but not this time. Being a self-respecting hacker I tried everything. Unplugged everything and put it back together. Scoured the Verio support section for DNS changes, downtime alerts, checked the Internet traffic monitor, the whole nine yards. I did my due diligence before asking for help, as any self-respecting hacker should.
I called Verio finally, and they also tried everything. Pinged the router with great success. Had me “recycle” the router, which is a fancy way of saying turn it off and turn it on again. To my disgust, they had me check that the LAN cable was plugged into the router and into my computer. Needless to say, it was. They even made me check the cable for physical defects, which I did, except for the part where it ran behind the filing cabinets which I deemed to heavy to move and therefore obviously serving as iron gate protection to any wires strung behind them.
Hours pass, frustration grows. I’m not the sort of person to shout, but I was livid on the phone. Customers wanted to give me money, and we were turning people away. Finally I jack it in for the day and decide to come back the next day with a fresh head.
The next day comes and we tear the network apart. Every computer is unplugged from the network save mine, and we manually reset everything on the others, maybe sixteen or so at that time. Mine runs on its own cable direct from the router, everything else goes through the hub. We buy a new hub. Every trick we know is thrown at the network to no avail. More phone calls to Verio of course, letting them feel my wrath.
Finally, I decide to change out the LAN cable. I unplug the cable from the router, carefully pulling it up from under the carpet until I get to the filing cabinets. Those things were huge. And heavy. Walked them both out a few inches and pulled the cable through.
I’ve never deflated like I did right then. See, Archie was a chewer. He’d chew customer’s shoe laces. Chew the carpet. Chew a bone. Chew pretty much anything. Even, if he has the taste for it, a LAN cable. Yep, miraculously, Archie had managed to get his cute little Border Collie mix snout several inches behind the filing cabinets and chewed through the cable. Why he couldn’t chew a piece that was in plain sight I’ll never know but there it was in my hands, frayed wires hanging from their protective gray wrap, limp and lifeless.
“Please check that the device is connected.”
It took me three days to work up the courage and humility to call Verio and apologise.
Back to 2006. Vonage wants to call me on the phone. The broken phone. I can’t cancel until Bob from Marketing can sleep at night knowing I really, really want to cancel. Out of sheer desperation I call tech support on my cell phone, hoping it’s not over my minutes. There’s no way I’m paying phone bills to fix my phone, I mean, Vonage is still charging me every month and I can’t even use the service!
I get put through to an Indian tech support service, assumedly in India. The Indian chap, who tells me his name is Chuck or something equally improbable, listens to my harangue and starts reading the canned responses off his screen. Now I haven’t had much to do with all this Indian outsourcing business, I don’t call customer service very much but I’d heard that more and more companies were outsourcing to India. I’m sure Chuck is very intelligent and can read his canned responses as well as any Western Hemispherian can, but frankly I’d had enough with the company and now I was being forced to do business with a guy whose accent was so thick it wouldn’t fit in my thick-slice toaster.
Chuck finally broke out of boilerplate and started talking human at me, and we ended the call with him pleading with me to try a different phone before I canceled, he was sure it was the unit, not the line. Whatever. It happened right after the whole 911 address malarkey and dammit this is a very expensive phone that worked perfectly fine until the 911 service was turned on.
Screw it. I decided to call Bob from Marketing on Monday, and elected to enjoy the weekend.
I went for a walk and to my delight Radioshack had opened up a store a few blocks down. Like a kid to candy I wandered in, eyeing the robots, fruitlessly requesting an RF adapter for an Amiga 500, pondering a pre-amp for my turntable when lo and behold I come to the telephone display. Now, if you’re anything like me, you know how it is in Radioshack. You have to buy something. Nothing much, but something. So on impulse I bought the cheapest, nastiest, corded, Radioshack-branded $9.99 telephone they had.
“This’ll show Chuck”, I gleefully mumbled to myself.
It took me over two weeks to call Vonage and apologise.
To this day, the coincidence of my fancy phone deciding to up and quit the day after I enabled 911 service still plagues me, and in all honesty I have lost a little sleep over it. It bothers me. Maybe there is a god. And maybe he hates me.
Or maybe the universe just wants to remind me from time to time that no matter how smart I think I am, no matter how much experience I put under my belt, no matter how much my all-powerful knowledge and affinity for technology smooths my path… once in awhile even I will need to ensure that the device is connected to the wall.
My car’s license plate is one of those silly vanity plates that are funny for a week or so and then lapse into simple vanity. It reads “PLZ RTFM”. When I bought it, it was for everyone else. These days, it’s mostly for me.
I’ve now gone to great lengths to re-educate myself and my staff that no-one – including us – knows everything, that we all make mistakes, and hopefully we provide better than average technical support to our customers, I know that every time I get one of those suicide-inducing calls I grit my teeth and think about the time a puppy ate my Internet.
I’ve grown softer, and I’ve rekindled the joy I used to get passing on knowledge or helping someone overcome a problem. With great power comes great responsibility, and it’s in all of our best interests to encourage users and customers to fend for themselves, but call us when they’re in trouble. That’s why we’re here, that’s what we do. This stuff is our responsibility, and we should be proud to get the call. We wrote the code, we created the software, and we’ll stand by it and make sure you get every penny’s worth out of it.
I still don’t read the manual, but I don’t throw it away either. I keep it, I keep them all, they have a little box they all live in and I assume they’re comfortable.
I actually have one framed and on display, it’s a four-page user manual for a $7 thick-slice toaster. I used to think it was pointless, and I displayed it as an homage to Wonko the Sane and his enlightenment upon reading the instructions on the side of the box the toothpicks came in.
It actually has a section labeled “How To Toast Bread”, in which according to the manual there are six steps. Step one?
“Plug power cord into 120 volt AC outlet.”