Desktop Support Specialist Learned Programming on IBM Mainframe

Harriett Epstein, desktop support specialist, troubleshoots problems Wesleyan employees may encounter with their computers.
Posted 09/15/06
Q: When did you come to Wesleyan and for what department?

A: I came to Wesleyan in July 1998 as a desktop configuration specialist for the PeopleSoft Team in Information Technology Services.

Q: Explain what a desktop support specialist does.

A: It is the responsibility of a desktop support specialist to perform trouble-shooting and remediation of software and hardware problems on computers and peripherals and install and configure new desktop computers and peripherals. We also provide support/coordination for special projects requiring technical expertise within supported departments and ITS.

Q: Who are the other members of the desktop support team? How many student-workers does the office employ?

A: Phil Dean, John Hammond, Sean Gomez, Shawn Hill, Todd Houle, and Ben Jackson. Each desktop support person has access to one or more student workers. ITS employs students in many capacities including the helpdesk, the store, classroom and lab support and more.

Q: What led you to be a desktop support specialist?

A: Desktop support is my second career. For 20 years I was an analysis/portfolio manager/trader for the Travelers Investment Management Co. (TIMCO). Our group at TIMCO had the first PC on the market, an Apple, and then the first IBM PC. There was no such thing as desktop support and I learned applications and operating systems from documentation, vendors and books. Desktop support was a natural second career given my background with computers. Previous to being at Wesleyan I was a desktop support specialist with a specialty insurance company.

Q: What is your background with computers? Are you self-taught or is this something you learned in college?

A: I started programming in college on an IBM 1620 mainframe that was as big as the office I share with Ben Jackson and Sean Gomez and as powerful as a calculator. When I went to college in the 60s, personal computers had not yet been invented. I taught as a graduate assistant the only undergraduate computer course offered at the University of Connecticut and used the mainframe in my graduate work. At TIMCO I did lots of programming on the mainframe in FORTRAN, FOCUS and BASIC. Then when PCs were invented I started using PC-based applications such as LOTUS 123 and Turbo BASIC. I have taken several programming and application courses and one PC hardware course but I am mostly self-taught. I enjoy learning by solving challenging problems.

Q: What are your degrees in?

A: I got my bachelor of arts in math education from the University of Connecticut School of Education in 1969, and a master of science in statistics also from UConn in 1971.

Q: What are typical concerns Wesleyan employees have with their computers?

A: E-mail, MS Office Suite, printing and home computing top the list of employee concerns. Recently, spyware/malware/adware has been one of the biggest challenges that concern us all at Wesleyan. By clicking on what seems to be an innocuous Web link, one can install programs that run in the background. These programs will spawn many processes that will use system resources and render the computer non-functional.

Q: Are the issues you deal with pretty standard or is every visit a new challenge?

A: Most printers, laptop and peripherals purchased through the Wesleyan Computer Shop have been tested in the Wesleyan environment and are pretty standard. Printers and computers purchased outside of Wesleyan may have incompatibilities with our systems. Non-standard computers, laptops or desktops, are very time consuming to work with since we may not have ready access to standard images and device drivers. The biggest challenge is the hand-held device including smart phones. These devices come in so many different models with rapidly changing technology. We often haven’t seen a particular device when asked to install and configure to work with Wesleyan systems. We have found that some do not provide the functionality people want or expect within the Wesleyan environment.

Q: Can you think of an example of a computer issue that really stumped you, but later you were able to overcome it?

A: Many times I can’t solve a problem without doing some research. One recent issue was setting up the Blackberries to download Wesleyan email. The first Blackberry was easy but the second was not. I found that during the first installation some information was stored on the Blackberry server that was suppose to make subsequent installations easier. I knew what information needed to change but I had to work my way through the Blackberry customer support tiers to find a person that understood the issue and could tell me how to solve it.

Q: How many “customers” do you see on an average day? How do you prioritize your work load?

A: On average, probably six or more in person and more on the phone or by email. I try to schedule part of my day with non-urgent requests, such as newer equipment to those who have older working equipment. My first priority is to work with those who can’t perform their job functions and remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

Q: Do you perform regular equipment maintenance on all machines or do most people just call in when there is a problem?

A: Some maintenance is done automatically. For example, Microsoft updates and security patches are pushed to faculty and staff computers from a central server. The same is true of updates to Norton Antivirus. We do not have a regular maintenance program but I check on the health of a computer when ever I visit one. Most problems are not maintenance problems and people call, email or submit issue to my queue.

Q: If a new employee is starting at Wesleyan and needs a new computer, what is the process to get that employee a machine and all of his or her software and network connections?

A: The purchase of a new computer rather than a used must be approved and a budget number provided. I will work with the user department to determine if the customer needs a laptop or a desktop and order the equipment through the store. The store provides me with the computer complete with standard image which will already have most commonly used Wesleyan software, such as, the MS Office Suite, Eudora and MeetingMaker. When a new employee is entered into the Human Resources system, a process is initiated that includes ITS operations setting up accounts for standard Wesleyan systems. I will then customize the computer by naming it, adding it to the Wesleyan domain, adding user accounts, adding the computer to inventory, setting up our back-up system, configuring email and MeetingMaker and installing and configuring any additional software or hardware. I then setup the computer on the customer’s desk and try to meet with them on their first day on the job.

Q: What are the most positive aspects about your job?

A: I enjoy working with all the different staff and students and seeing them succeed. The ITS team is great and have a great relationship with my office mates Ben and Sean. We often get return visits from ITS student alums who have gone on to successful careers.

Q: Do you personally use a PC or Mac?

A: I have always used a PC at home. Some of the applications I use, such as Microsoft Access, are not supported by a Mac.

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?

A: I’m an outside person. I have a rowing shell housed in the Jaycees Community Boathouse in Hartford and I’m a coxswain for the Hartford Barge Club rowing out of the same boathouse. Rowing fills my mornings from 6 to 7 a.m. After work and on weekends I try to cycle four or five days a week on group rides with various cycling groups. My real passion is alpine skiing and I’ve skied all over the United States, Canada and Europe. I’m hoping for early snow in the mountains.

Q: Where did you meet your partner, Jeff?

A: People get a kick out of finding out that Jeff and I grew up four houses apart on the same street and went to the same schools. He is a competitive rower, strong cyclist and fearless skier.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor