In any company, the person who wields true power is not the CEO or even the chairman of the board. It's the help desk.
The help desk technician sets up the computers, bestows Internet access and configures e-mail accounts. New hires are warned by colleagues to get on their good side. Most office workers have the help desk extension number seared into memory.
But with the reliance on technology has come new frustrations between help desk technicians and those who rely on them in order to do their jobs. Most offices have witnessed the shouting matches between the secretary who can't send e-mail and the help desk technician who claims to be "working on it," then disappears for hours.
"It's a role that hasn't been defined in terms of how one behaves socially," said Judy Douglas, a nurse who briefly served as the de facto help desk for her department at Manhattan's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. "It's not an employee-employer role. Often the people are in the same position. But that computer guy is a powerful person. Because of that, there has been a lot of hostility."
Heroes or Heels?
The help desk drones claim to tire of answering inane and irrelevant questions from the office masses. They say they get subjected to tirades and irrelevant complaints from those who really just don't understand how to operate a computer. For instance, the guy who furiously swears he has no idea how his documents keep ending up in the trash, or the woman who is sure there is a way to "take back" an e-mail already sent. Don't even get them started on people who forget their passwords.
To others, the help desk technicians are bitter, underpaid computer hacks with attitude; the grease monkeys of the information superhighway. Like mechanics, they know things the masses do not, which gives them power. And that power makes them dangerous.
"I will always try to be nice to computer people," said an art director for a Manhattan-based magazine publisher who has tangled with the help desk a number of times. "Unfortunately, some of them have attitude. They are not thrilled to be working for you. You always feel like it's a separate team, and they are not on your side."
But computer technicians say they are unfairly called on to fill in the gaps of the general public's ignorance of technology, or they are held personally responsible for every computer glitch.
"People have always looked to computers as something mystical and they attach a fear to that," said Patrick Cullen, a systems analyst at a New York publishing company who has "had words" with several co-workers over computer problems real and imagined. "So they rely on the help desk people, and they don't like the fact that they have to rely on the help desk people."
Help Desk Humor
The problem is reflected in popular culture. Saturday Night Live's Jimmy Fallon has a recurring character called Nick Burns, The Computer Guy, who verbally abuses the less technologically inclined. The comic strip Dilbert has made a cottage industry out of assaulting the technological know-nothings who dwell in the corporate cubicles.
The Internet, not surprising, is home to many Web sites of "Help Desk humor," where denizens of the profession trade stories and advice.
Douglas herself has created an elaborate Web site based on her experiences at the help desk. She brutally satirizes those who don't know a computer file from a hole in the wall. Her targets include those who claim to have no idea how their documents keep turning up in the trash, and those who ignorantly insist all their computer problems will be solved with more memory.
The site also contains "advice" to Help Desk mavens on how to screen out idiotic callers. One sound bite features Douglas responding to a caller, in her most sincerely helpful voice, "There is nothing wrong with your computer, you just need an IQ over 50 to use it."
On her Web site, www.columbia.edu/~jd23/cybernurse.html, Douglas has gone so far as to outline some of the characteristics that mark the "hopelessly computer challenged:"
Computer always on due to fear of having to restart it.
- Requests gizmos and gadgets - i.e. "mouse leash" or "disk cozy."
Avoids eye contact when talking about computers.
"It's all true," she said. "It gets to the point where its like explaining to your mother how to do call waiting. Either you know it or you don't."
More Ying, less Yang
But for those who need the help of the computer folks, there is nothing funny about it. It often comes from a difference in priorities, said the art director. She said she has more than once seen tensions break out into shouting matches between the members of her department and the help desk denizens.
"If we do it, we are in trouble," she said. "But if you have them do it, you could die first."
At least one help desk consultant is willing to shoulder some of the blame, with a caveat.
"The help desk doesn't do a good job communicating expectations for the level of service they can provide," said Bill Wilborn, a technology consultant and board member of the Help Desk Professionals Association, an organization seeking to promote the status and visibility of the help desk profession.
Wilborn thinks the tension is caused in part by corporate management who may not know enough themselves about technology to understand what role the help desk plays in the overall operation.
"You have users out there who want things in a time frame that the company can't afford to provide," Wilborn said. "If you want me to get back to you in two hours, I have to have a staff large enough to get back to you in two hours."
Don't Ask; Don't Tell
But some also say the help desk is persecuted, too, by colleagues who see them more as computer educators than computer technicians.
"I get at least two questions a day from people who want advice on their home computers," Cullen said. "It's basically free advice. As a professional, I could get paid for that. You want to have a good relationship with them, but they are not going to understand that you have to keep it separated."
And while technological ignorance prompts people to run to the help desk in the first place, nothing bothers technicians more than being asked to explain the problem, Douglas said.
"When you go in to solve a problem, you view it as time wasted when they ask what's wrong, because they don't really want to know," Douglas said. "The truth is you get more and more resentful. They don't really want to know."
Douglas' department at Columbia Presbyterian has since hired a full-time help desk person, letting Douglas off the hook as the resident technology consultant. But she claims to still carry the scars of her days battling the computer illiterates.
"There will always be that person who will call you up and say, 'I had the Internet in my computer this morning, and now it's gone,'" Douglas said. "You almost want to punish them."