University operators provide frontline for campus information, technology help
Sometimes, before 8 a.m., Sharon Abernathy has answered 200 phone calls.
Abernathy, one of 12 people who works in Information Technology’s Operation’s Center, spends most of her time answering the University of Louisville main telephone line and fielding Help Desk questions. The Operations Center is staffed from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends, holidays, snow days — every day. It never really closes. Even during the four hours each day when someone is not in the center, emergency service is available. UofL Today recently talked to Abernathy about her job.
What is it that you do at UofL?
My primary function is to answer Help Desk and info calls. I also monitor the enterprise systems.
You monitor the enterprise system? What does that mean?
When I come in the morning, I make sure the systems are up. I log in to Blackboard. I make sure Unix is up. I check GroupWise. That’s what I mean by monitoring the system.
What is an ‘info’ call?
It’s just like someone calls in and asks to speak to you. They’d give me your last name and I’d go in the database and find the number so I could connect them with you. They may even ask for a student number. They may call and want the College of Arts and Sciences or the registrar’s office, anything like that.
How many calls like that do you get a day?
Generally we receive anywhere from 400 to 500. Info, you have to realize, takes only about a minute or so. Help Desk takes a little longer.
From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., I’m the only person here because my coworkers come in at 8. On a regular day, I might answer about 10 calls between 6 and 8. But if it snows or there’s bad weather out there, I may answer about 200 or 300 info calls by the time 8 o’clock gets here.
What’s the weirdest call you’ve ever had?
The weirdest call? I can remember getting a call where someone wanted to know why the flag was at half staff. I happened to know that, but if I didn’t, I have the ability to call over and ask public safety to try to get an answer. They have called in and asked ‘What’s UK’s number?’
Is there a time of year that’s busier than the rest?
The busiest time of the year is the beginning of the semester. Our call counts for the beginning of the fall semester were 5,617 calls. We answered 3,703 info calls.
What kinds of questions? ‘When does class start?’
Yes, and Momma and Daddy will call. Momma wants to know, ‘Has he checked in? Is he in his room? I can’t reach him.’ We get those kinds of calls.v
How do you answer them?
I give them to the front desk of the residence hall and the front desk can let them know if he’s checked in. If it’s an emergency where, ‘I have to get in touch with him right now,’ we transfer them to public safety.
Another busy time of the year is right after Christmas break. This year it was particularly bad because we had wintry weather that week. Normally fall is the busiest time, but this January we had 7,003 information calls that first week, and 2,543 Help Desk calls. Of that 7,003, the vast majority was, ‘Do I have to come to school? Do I have to come to work?’
You have to really understand the weather policy.
Definitely. Sometimes they don’t realize that we have to wait on the provost to make that decision, and they ask, ‘Why can’t you tell me?’ We can’t. Normally it’s 5:30 a.m. before we know.
How does that whole process work with being informed about school closures or class delays?
The provost will make the decision. Once the provost makes the decision, they will call in to the Operations Center here and they will give us a password and we’ll change our message on our (recording). It’s also posted on the Web and it also goes out on text message to their cell phone, if they’ve signed up to get UofL Alerts. They should receive a text message on their dorm phone and also an e-mail through GroupWise.
Talk about the Help Desk. How do you prepare for that? You have to know a lot of stuff.
Yes, we have to know a lot of stuff. I started out in the computer room 21 years ago, so I have a technical background in computers. We have training and a database we can search — a knowledge base — to help us refresh our memories. Some things, like passwords, they’re just repetition. Sometimes we consult our ‘deep-pocket’ support.
We also have a tool where we can remote into a caller’s PC — with their permission — to actually see what the problem they’re having. We go out and Google a lot of information.
Sometimes we refer them to our face-to-face Help Desk, iTechConnect, and they can help. iTechConnect is good for students who have a laptop question or people who need help with their mobile phones.
Are most of your Help Desk type questions computer related?
Yes. Most of our calls have to do with passwords. For one reason or another they can’t get into the system. They could have been locked out, they could have forgotten the password… .
We get GroupWise questions. We get people trying to get connected on the wireless system. Password and wireless are the majority of our calls. But we can get a call on almost anything. Any type of problem you’re having on your PC or with your PC, you can call the Help Desk. There’s going to be somebody who’s going to be able to assist you with that problem.
One thing that we are exposed to that we’ve never been exposed to before are X-boxes and other game systems. Students bring their game systems and they want to know how to get them on the network. Parents are really upset when they can’t connect. We have a set of instructions about how to help them with that.
You said you answer questions about cell phones?
Yes, and now that we work directly with iTech Connect, we can become familiar with iPhones and Blackberries and Droids and, soon, I’m sure iPads. Now we can see how you get your wireless, how you get your GroupWise e-mail and everything like that on those devices.
Basically you have to know more than a little bit about everything.
Yes, a jack of all trades and master of many. That’s working the Help Desk — and it’s always changing. That’s the nature of info tech. It’s not stagnant. It’s always moving.