Fun with Qunu

A few weeks ago I discovered a great service known as Qunu. Qunu is a Jabber-based service which allows anyone to offer or request free technical support. Most of the support relates to, but is not exclusive to, open source applications such as Linux, Firefox, PHP and MySQL. I’ve been using it mostly to help people. In fact, I don’t think I’ve asked for help once. I guess that’s appropriate since I don’t have computing problems, because I avoid or solve all of them on my own.

Now, I’ve never had an official tech support job, but I’ve helped friends and family in the past. Like most people, I’ve also heard the stories about tray loading CD-ROMs used as cup holders. Helping people on Qunu is a bit more pleasant. Due to the nature of the service anyone who finds out about it probably has a good bit of technological knowledge. The natural filtering of the riff-raff and the Jabber nature of the service are probably the only reasons I’m still using it.

Anyway, through trying to give tech support to people via Qunu, I have discovered something. Even the people who have a moderate level of technical knowledge suffer from other ailments make it very difficult to effectively help them with technological problems. It almost seems that in most cases, people who don’t have enough knowledge to solve their own problems can not be helped by others.

The first problem I’ve noticed that people have is a complete failure to communicate. One guy typed slower than a turtle in a tar pit. Other people do not speak or comprehend the English language very well. I don’t begrudge them not being fluent in the only language I am fluent in. In fact, it’s more my fault for not speaking more languages. However, if you don’t know a language well enough to talk tech, don’t request tech support in that language.

The worst is when people are simply not capable of using any language to accurately describe their problem. One guy specifically said he upgraded his Ubuntu, and it took me a good five minutes to realize he did a clean install, not an upgrade. Sometimes not only can they not convey their problem, but they can’t express information to me. I ask them to divulge information which is necessary for me to help them with their problem, but they do not know how to tell it to me with correct words. I am forced to guess at their precise meaning resulting in wasted time.

In fact, when it comes to transmitting information, failing to communicate isn’t even half the issue. Many people have no idea what hardware they have, they don’t know how their network is configured, they don’t know what software they are using or they don’t know how to read log files. One guy wanted me to troubleshoot an Ubuntu laptop that wouldn’t boot. He was talking to me via Firefox running off an Ubuntu live CD on that very same laptop. He didn’t have another computer in his house. People often don’t know or are unable to acquire information necessary to fix their problem.

The last disease people have is inability to follow instructions. There are a set of basic skills needed to execute any task. If you want to teach someone to play baseball, you would hope they already know how to throw and run. You can’t really help someone with an advanced task like baseball if their fundamental skills are non-existent. A good example is last week when a guy I was helping did not know how to edit a text file. All he had to do was comment out line number 81. He didn’t know how to edit the file or use vim, let alone actually find line number 81.

Don’t let this make you think that everyone on Qunu is stupid. In fact, about half the time I offer my services it goes relatively smoothly. My point is that trying to troubleshoot a technical problem through the filter of a lesser being is incredibly difficult. If you have a critical information system you absolutely must have a competent individual, with adequate tools, on-site, or else you risk disaster. And even people who are moderately knowledgeable about technology often do not have the necessary skills to take advantage of expert technical support.

It really makes you wonder, what is the point of tech support? If someone is unable to solve the problem on their own, then the only real solution is to have a professional physically show up with tools in hand. People who are knowledgable enough to utilize real tech support can solve their own problems and don’t need it. I say we’ve got to stop handing people food and start teaching them to fish.

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One Response to Fun with Qunu

  1. Helmar says:

    Excellent points, all of them, and certainly food… uhmm… fish for thought for us at Qunu.

    No matter how sophisticated the medium or skilled the expert, if the person on the other side isn’t vaguely on the same level, it all breaks down – and it could even be your mother. ;) It’s really difficult to handle such cases, but all that we’re left with is a concerted effort to educate the masses – Qunu is just one more available medium, and we’ll be doing our best to reduce ‘dud chats’ to a minimum.

    The language issue will be dealt with over the next few code rollouts, but we can’t teach people communication or comprehension skills.

    At the end of the day, speaking from an expert perspective myself here, as long as the majority of chats aren’t as you just described in your article, the few where you really shake your head won’t weigh in too heavily.

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