Every IT department has “regulars” – users who submit tickets so frequently they ought to be issued customer loyalty cards. Users whose computers spend more time on the help desk bench than on their desks. Users who use the Ash Ketchum approach when dealing with viruses worms and trojans (“Gotta catch’em all!”). Our regular was Pam, and these days she is mostly remembered because of her printer problem. Pam’s Printer became part of the office parlance – a colloquialism that to this day crops up in tech support tickets. But before the IT department immortalized her by coining a new expression she was already infamous for issuing verbose, and descriptive help desk tickets along the lines of “see me” or “computer broke”.
I’m mentioning this so you can get an idea of the type of a user Pam was. Absolutely clueless, uncooperative, needy, insignificant in the corporate structure, but at the same time privileged by association due to a position as an administrative assistant under a local VIP. Her problems were mostly trivial and low priority, but very frequently escalated to critical status via directorial fiat because Pam’s frustration and inability to deal with technological issues was immediately visible to the powers that be.
One day Pam’s printer broke. At least that’s what she claimed. The ticket she submitted in our system read verbatim: “new printer”. Pam never really grasped the purpose of the ticketing system, but then again 80% of our users had the same problem so we never really held it against her. In fact, our DBA was actually quite fond of Pam’s succinct messages. Even though Pam was in the top 1% of the most frequent users of said system, her submissions used so few characters that they took almost no space on disk. In this particular case, Pam has decided to spare us the needless troubleshooting steps and jumped straight to the resolution stage. The ticket body was what she decided was the best solution for her problem: namely a new printer. Why did she need one? Well, explaining that was obviously a waste of her precious time.
Naturally, as it was the custom, the help desk engaged in the ritual cat and mouse game of trying to get the user update the ticket with the proper information. If you have ever worked on the front lines of support queue, you have probably seen this conversation play out a thousand times over email, or ticketing system of some sort. It goes a little bit like this:
Updated by Help-Desk at 9:00am:
What is the exact reason for this request?
Updated by PAM at 9:05am:
Updated by Help-Desk at 9:15am:
What is exactly wrong with the device?
Updated by PAM at 9:17am:
it doesn't work
In theory, this sort of exchange can be carried on indefinitely without actual information exchange taking place. For some strange reason, users are very reluctant in volunteering troubleshooting information – their usual tactic is avoidance and misdirection. The best way to get information out of the user is to ask directly, and repeatedly. It works best during face to face confrontations or phone conversations because you can just keep repeating your question over, and over, and over again for 10-15 minutes straight, until the user realizes that attempts to change the subjects are futile and reluctantly agrees to read the error message of their screen. This tactic is not as effective via email. In the best case scenario, the user subjected to the “let me repeat my initial question one more time” treatment gets frustrated by lack of resolution, and actually calls the help desk, at which point he or she can be properly interrogated. At worst the email/ticket conversation keeps on going in this manner for days, or even weeks. Our usual policy is to c-c-c-ombo break these things whenever we see it happening, call the user on the phone and Spanish Inquisition the shit out of them.
Upon interviewing Pam, we determined that her printer wasn’t broken. It was streaking – as in producing unwanted vertical lines on printed pages. This was hardly a reason for a new printer. Nothing that good cleaning and replacing the toner wouldn’t fix. We have dispatched a drone with a can of air, a non-linting static free cloth, and a toner cartridge to Pam’s lair, closed the ticket and moved on to bigger and better things. Streaks were gone, and Pam was mollified for the time being.
Two days later, streaking issue returned with a vengeance. We have re-applied the same resolution as before, hoping for the best. The astute drone we sent out, dragged the replaced toner cartridge back to the IT cave and pointed out an interesting irregularity. The normally smooth, blueish transfer roll inside of the cartridge was now speckled with black clumps. Said clumps were toner deposits that fused to the surface of the roll and calcified into solid matter. Wiping the roll with soft anti-static cloth had almost no effect. The only way to remove these deposits to was apply a good deal of force and abrasive friction to the affected areas (or in layman terms, rubbing it really hard) which was likely to scratch or damage the surface of the roll.
What could be causing such toner deposits? Well, the desk-top laser printers are really not that complicated. Maintenance wise, there are really just two major “consumable” components that are likely to affect print quality: the toner and the fusing assembly. The fusers are only guaranteed to function properly for N pages but most consumers don’t give a fuck because N tends to larger than their predicted lifetime print usage. The only places that usually bother to replace fusers are corporate shops that kill half a forest every day. Here is the brilliant part:
Vendors such as HP like to sell their fusing assembly kits for older printer models at about the same price as brand new printers with comparable specs. So sometimes it is actually more cost-effective to just replace the printer… Unless of course you happen to work in IT. Then, fuser is usually the safer option. Why? Well, if you put a dozen new printers on your expense report, it is almost certain someone up the chain of command is going to have a conniption. To an average pointy haired manager, a printer is a robust commodity that once purchased is supposed to last at least one hundred million years. The need to periodically replace desktop and laptop machines, and even monitors is readily understood by most. Printers on the other hand… That’s a different matter. Put dozen of fusers on your expense report, and it gets rubber stamped and approved with no questions asked.
Considering that Pam’s printer was cleaned, and re-tonered just two days ago, I figured the culprit had to be a failing fuser. So I placed an order for a full on maintenance kit that includes the fuser, and a brand new set of rollers, springs and other junk. I broke the printer apart, and went through the entire kit, replacing just about every movable part. As I did this, I noticed a lot of weird gunk on some of the rollers and paper leads but I paid it no heed. After all, gunk is not an unusual thing to find inside of a printer. I made sure to wipe, clean and brush every surface and get the machine into a pristine condition. I installed in the new fuser and a new toner. I printed some test pages and the quality was nothing but immaculate – the white areas were as bright and clear as fresh snow, the black was as dark as the heart of our marketing director. The machine worked perfectly. I dropped it off at Pam’s desk and all was well… For about three days.
The same problem with streaking and weird deposits of toner on the transfer roll returned without a warning. At this point Pam decided that we are straight up trolling her and obstructing her work. So she logged a heartfelt plea with her supervisor, and her case got promptly escalated to the exclusive special status of “just get the damn woman a new fucking printer already”.
Powers that be command, we execute. Pam got a new printer post haste. It had all bells and whistles and it was delivered at no expenses spared using the normally verboten next business day delivery method wrapped in a bow and with a motherfucking cherry on top. We installed, tested, configure it, and set it free. We even sent The Intern to polish the front LED panel so that it would glow an acceptable shade of blue for her. Perhaps for the first time in her life Pam was truly happy. Not necessarily because she liked the new printer (oh no, she hated it because the buttons on the front were in different order and complained about it at length). No, she was happy because she could gloat, and brag to her friends how she won. Because apparently tech support is a battle of wits of some sort. Apparently our job in the IT department is not to resolve their issues and help them to do their jobs – no the users consider us mortal enemies, whose only mission in life is to obstruct their work and ruin their productivity. But such is life in the IT department. Every time a user sends you a personalized email thanking you for your help, you should make a note of it. That user has remembered your name, and he or she will now blame their next late report or other fuck-up on you. Why? because you were the last person to touch their computer and therefore you are responsible for all technical issues with that machine from that point on, until the next person fixes it. You get used to it. In fact, you take some comfort in it. If the user is happy, who cares what are the reasons. As long as Pam and her boss were content we could concentrate our efforts on supporting actual mission critical infrastructure.
I took Pam’s old printer and deposited it in the Magical Repository of Useless Junk also known as that empty cubicle next to my cubicle. Don’t go in there by the way, I hung up that avalanche warning sign there for a reason.
Two days went by and Pam’s new printer started to streak just like the old one. It is the same exact issue – vertical streaks down the page caused by toner buildup on the transfer roll. Pam and her boss were absolutely baffled, whereas I had a sudden epiphany. Lo and behold, I have identified the root of the problem. It was not the printer – we have definitely ruled it out by replacing it almost twice. The only part of the equation that did not change was Pam.
To confirm my suspicion I cracked open Pam’s new printer, and as expected I saw the now familiar gunk everywhere inside. It was a weird rubbery adhesive substance that was distributed evenly along the entire paper path. It looked clear near the manual feed tray inputs, and black near the back of the printer where it got dusted by the toner. Something that Pam had fed into the printer had to be depositing this gunk on the rollers. Since said gunk was sticky, it could easily be transferred piece-meal onto the paper, which would carry it into the guts of the printer, where it get heated up by the fuser and coated with the toner dust and flash-baked into the surface of the transfer roll.
I cleaned the rollers, replaced the toner, made sure the streaking was gone and then went to have a chat with Pam. A novice IT worker would probably try to interrogate Pam and ask her what has changed in her routine. Obviously Pam had to start putting something new into this printer about a week ago, seeing how she never had that issue before. But I knew better than that. Even if she could conceptually make a connection between a change of printing materials and print quality issues (which is doubtful, because Pam subscribed to the “technology is arcane magic that is not to be understood by mere mortals” school of thought), she would surely not want to let me pin the blame for this issue on her. So I decided to Sherlock Holmes it. It was a complete shot in the dark, but it was worth a try. After some miss-direction and small talk to throw her off the track, I launched my probe:
“So, how are the new self-adhesive labels you got last week?”
I had no clue if what changed was the type of labels she used, but it was a reasonable conjecture. I suspected something with an adhesive layer had to be involved, so I just made a wild guess. Pam immediately lit up:
“Oh, they are working just fine. They are same size and same everything as the old ones, but like half the price. I’m really glad I found them. Now if you guys could only figure out those printer issues we would be all set…”
She swallowed my bait, hook, line and sinker and incriminated herself without even realizing it. Problem solved!
We don’t actually provide Pam’s department with office supplies. They have their own budget for that stuff, and they purchase stuff like paper and labels directly from Staples or wherever. Apparently Pam decided to try a new cheaper brand of self-adhesive folder labels. I examined her bargain bin stickers and verified them as a likely source of the printer clogging gook. The issue was not immediately apparent though. If you printed a full page of labels at a time, nothing would happen. Pam however didn’t usually need to print a full page. Usually she would print 3-4 labels at a time, out of a page of 20. She would peel these stickers off and re-use the page for the next batch – as you should.
The problem was that the cheep new labels would often leave some glue behind once you peeled a sticker off. This was most likely a design flaw, or just a quirk of the cheep adhesive used in the manufacturing process. When you fed a half-finished page into the printer, the glue from the “empty” areas would rub off onto the rollers and gum up the works. I tried relating this to Pam but of course refused to believe me. This was to be expected – in her eyes, I was not only trying to pin the blame for the printer issue on her, but also undermining her thrifty cost-saving purchase decision for which she already gathered some accolades with her supervisors. Fortunately her boss proved to be more susceptible to facts, common sense and logic. When presented with orgy of evidence (Pam’s old printer, gummed up rollers, label sheets with gooey back-sides, etc..) he caved and told Pam to STFU and buy the more expensive labels. The streaking problem has never returned.
Since that incident Pam’s Printer has become a colloquialism we use to signify a Red Herring PEBKAC issue that ends up costing the company more money and time than it should, because it is being resolved from the wrong end. In Pam’s case, properly interrogating and vetting the user could have saved us a lot of effort. Pam’s problem was astonishingly easy to fix once we knew the actual source, but obtaining that knowledge was tricky. Sometimes it is easier to just make educated guesses about the nature of the problem throw replacement parts at it until something sticks than it is to try getting the exact details out of uncooperative user. That approach can be a costly gamble though. If you are lucky, you get it right on the first try. If you guessed wrong, the issue can quickly spiral out of control and become Pam’s Printer.
A little Spanish Inquisition-ing and Sherlock Holmes-ing early on, can pay off big time.