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How much support do you provide to unapproved equipment?

On the $GROUPNAME mailing list (that's a NJ-based SAGE-local group) someone asked for help putting together a policy on how much effort Sysadmins were permitted to spend on unsupported hardware/software that users asked questions about. We have much to say about this issue.

The question was as follows:

I have a user who has his own Treo 600. He is having some problems with it, and has come to me for help. I'm looking for some sample policy statements where support for unapproved equipment is discussed. [...] I don't want to be draconian about this, but I do need to draw a line somewhere.

You got it absolutely right. You shouldn't be draconian, but you don't want this drowning person to drag you down too. Imagine if "being helpful" delayed your other projects. How embarrassing it would be to have to tell your boss why an important project was delayed because you were working on something that he/she isn't paying you to fix!

When I worked at Bell Labs we had an official, but unwritten, policy about this: We could work for 60 minutes on unsupported equipment and even then only if there we no other pressing issues.

This policy started in the days of funny PC video cards that required a driver for each program. One of our PC technicians had spent an entire day trying to debug a video driver issue and failed. He was trying to be nice. However, at his salary it would have been cheaper to give the person a free video card that was on our list of supported cards.

Some important things that made it work so well:

  1. Our supervisor supported us. They agreed that 60 minutes was reasonable for unsupported equipment.
  2. We told people about the time limit at the START of working. If you tell people once you get to the time limit, it just looks like you're giving up and making up an excuse.
  3. We told people the limit was 30 minutes. At the 60 minute mark, we looked like heros for trying so hard even though we'd failed to fix the problem.

The instructions to the sysadmins was to actually take your hands off the keyboard and back away from the computer then say, "Gosh, this isn't on our supported list of (whatever). But I tell ya what! I'm in a good mood today, so I'll give it my best shot for 30 minutes and if I can't figure it out, I have to give up. ok?" The customer would always agree.

Before this policy: Our boss would get angry phone calls complaining that something couldn't be fixed. Of course, this put him in a difficult situation because an angry person doesn't want to hear, "Oh yeah? Well, he wasn't even supposed to be helping you!"

After this policy: Our boss often would get love notes from users saying, "Gosh, he worked on something for a full hour and I know he wasn't supposed to but I want to recognize his great effort! Thanks! You have a great staff!" (and that was for situations were the task WASN'T successful!)

It isn't about the time limit, it's about how you sell it!

Posted by Tom Limoncelli

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