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Stupid user tricks 7: True tales of extreme brain fail

Ah, users -- if it weren't for them, technology would work so well.

As anyone who works in tech support knows, the most common cause of computer-oriented trouble is a little thing called user error. Sometimes, the mistakes people make are so absurd, all you can do is laugh.

[ For more real-world tales of brain fail, see "Stupid user tricks 6: IT idiocy loves company." | Find out the 12 most dreaded help desk requests which of our eight classic IT personality types and what those IT job postings really mean. | Get a $50 American Express gift cheque if we publish your tech tale from the trenches: Send it to [email protected] ]

We've tracked down six such tales of embarrassing brain fail. Read them, have a laugh, and -- most of all -- be glad you weren't the one who had to deal with the fallout.

And remember: While some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the stories, unfortunately, are all too real.

Stupid user trick No. 1: Cloud storage strategy gone wrong

Cloud storage can be a valuable tool for a business -- except, that is, when the business grossly misunderstands how cloud storage works.

Just ask the guy who picked up the pieces from our first tech fail. Dwight Zahringer, CEO of development firm Trademark Productions, was working to build a new website for a Detroit-based financial company when he came across an unexpected item in a public FTP folder.

"In our intake and review of [the old] website files, we found a suspect directory," Zahringer recalls. "We found a number of financial documents, pictures, and personal documents."

Personal photos in a public FTP folder? Eek. We can only hope they weren't, shall we say, too personal.

Private sightings aside, Zahringer knew he had his work cut out for him. He and his team started digging and discovered the rogue files all belonged to -- who else? -- the company's CEO. That, lamentably, was only the start of the saga.

"Upon further inspection, we knew that there was a very good chance [the files] could have been indexed in search engines, having been a part of the public root. Indeed, many of the documents and images were," Zahringer says.

How'd Mr. CEO manage to put his personal stuff in the company's public FTP folder? Simple: The company's IT guy told him to store the files there, so he could access them from home.

"The CEO did not trust a hosted free application like Dropbox," Zahringer explains. This, evidently, was the IT guy's solution.

Zahringer set out on a mission of damage control, quickly pulling the files and doing some server-side programming to stop further indexing. Of course, stuff on the Internet spreads like wildfire -- and extinguishing the flames is often easier said than done.

"There were instances of his personal photos showing up in Google Images," Zahringer says. "They were also reposted at other sites around the Web."

Beyond that, one of the CEO's personal real estate contracts had been repurposed as a downloadable template on some third-party sites. Long story short, it was one seriously hot mess.

"While we were able to limit any damage, embarrassment of the CEO was unavoidable," Zahringer says. "It also cost the CEO an additional $6,000 for our services to help with the matter."

The moral: Always ensure your cloud storage is secure before uploading private documents. If your storage is in the same place where your website files live, it's safe to say other people can see it. And if your IT guy tells you otherwise, for the love of GOOG, fire him.

Stupid user trick No. 2: A whale of a fail

These days, everyone seems to be in love with social media. But while a tool like Twitter can help your company connect with clients, it can also make your company a global punchline in less time than it takes to say "A plus K."

We've seen plenty of social media disasters play out in real time, like the recent instance where an employee at British company HMV posted colorful commentary about corporate layoffs from the company's official Twitter account. For Brian, a manager at a Michigan-based IT support firm, those cases hit close to home.

In the early days of Twitter, Brian had set up an account for his company and entrusted it to an intern. Tweeting seemed like a mundane task, after all, and this eager college senior was more than up to the task of sending out a few cheery updates and responding to basic customer queries during the day.

"To be honest, I didn't think twice about it," Brian says. "Of course, this was back before Burger King and Coke and everyone else in the world was using Twitter as a CRM platform."

Brian's plan seemed to be perfect: The intern appreciated the real-world responsibility, and the Twitter presence was one fewer item crowding the staff's overflowing responsibility list.

"It was a perfect setup," Brian says, "right up until it wasn't."

The transformational moment came when Brian's intern reached the end of his semester and, thus, his internship with the company. The intern's workstation was cleared and reset -- but the company's Twitter password, as it turns out, was not.

"Evidently, the kid had been logged into our account from his personal laptop, too," Brian says. "That was my oversight."

The oversight became apparent when Brian -- who had taken over tweeting after the intern's departure -- noticed some profanity-laden updates showing up in his company's stream. He wasn't the one typing them, and it didn't take long to figure out who was.

"When I called him up, he swore up and down that his roommate had gotten onto his laptop and been the one who did it," Brian says. "Regardless, it was my company's name being dragged through the mud."

Luckily, the damage didn't draw too much attention and Brian was able to delete the tweets and reset the password before anything worse went down. But even if he managed to erase the evidence, the lesson is something he won't soon forget.

"We still have interns help with social media at times, but now, they never know the password and only have access from a secure system in the building," he says.

The moral: Social media may seem silly, but it's effectively a public voice for your company -- and outsiders have no idea who's doing the typing. Keep careful track of access to your accounts and be sure to reset passwords before an active user departs.

Stupid user trick No. 3: The executive plug

Company presentations seem to be magnets for tech-oriented failures. Often, though, it's not equipment malfunction but user error that's the root of the problem.

Adam Root (yes, that's his actual name) knows all too well about the joys of user error. Root -- now CTO of social marketing software company HipLogiq -- was working as a developer at a major insurance company when he got a memorable call from a panicked exec: "The projector isn't working and I need a techie, stat!"

The exec, Root realized, was in the midst of delivering a presentation to the senior-most members of the company. Root rushed to the conference room and, within seconds, realized what was wrong.

"The VGA cable was connected to his laptop but not to the VGA wall input, which in turn connects it to the projector," Root recalls.

Yup -- the age-old stupid user trick of forgetting to plug the damn thing in.

Rather than rub in the silliness of the mistake, Root took the high road and helped cover up the executive's slip-up. Before connecting the missing cable, he switched the display to a different input and pretended to fiddle around for a few minutes -- making it look as if there were some legitimate problem and letting the executive save face.

Root's discretion did not go unnoticed. "While watching me, he realized his mistake and came up later to thank me for not making him look like an idiot in front of his superiors," Root says. "He even gave me a spot bonus."

The moral: As Root puts it, "With knowledge comes power. Don't use your intelligence to make others look stupid; instead, make them look like heroes and you will be rewarded for it -- if not monetarily, at least with karma."

Stupid user trick No. 4: Back that thang up

File this next fail tale under "reasons why executives should never attempt tech support."

The gang from Conduit Systems, an IT management firm based out of New England, got a call one day from a high-ranking exec at one of their client companies. The exec breathlessly explained that he had accidentally deleted a file and needed to have a backup restored right away.

This was back in the era before remote access was common, so the Conduit crew had to hop into a car and rush out to the company's office, about an hour away. Evidently, 60 minutes was too long for the ailing executive to wait.

"When we showed up, he was in the process of restoring what he thought was his file back to the server," says Dan Tully, Conduit's executive vice president. "He said, 'Don't worry about it. I've already got it started and should be good to go.'"

Famous last words: Tully and his team decided to stick around, and it was a good thing. A few minutes later, calls started pouring in from the company's end-users -- all of whom were suddenly unable to access their files.

"We knew something had gone awry," Tully says.

Sure enough, the brilliant executive had decided to restore the entire volume of the backup instead of just the single file he needed. But wait, there's more: Instead of pulling the backup from the previous night, he had grabbed a backup from the same day, only one year earlier.

"Needless to say, it was somewhat disruptive to the workflow," Tully laughs. "People often have just enough knowledge to feel they have the confidence to go ahead and try something on their own, but instead of a quick turnaround, they usually create a mess that requires the better part of a day to rectify."

It took a few hours, but Tully and his team were able to hit "undo" on the executive-level damage. Though the entire company lost out on half a day's productivity, the Little Manager Who Couldn't got his missing file back in the end.

The moral: Just because your title is seven words long doesn't mean you're an expert in everything. If you aren't an IT worker, set your pride aside when something goes wrong and let the pros do what they're paid to do.

Stupid user trick No. 5: Mail me once, shame on you ...

Corporate email is fine for sending quick messages or light file exchanges, but moving entire gigabytes of data? Yeah -- not so much.

Of course, users don't always know that. J. Wiltz Cutrer, Jr., owner of IT consulting firm TechKnolutions, got a call one day about problems with a client's Exchange server.

"We discovered a user had been trying to send an entire disc image -- a video over 600MB in size -- attached to an email," Cutrer says.

What do you do when you send a 600MB email and it doesn't go through right away? Try, try again. The user re-sent the message four more times, then asked multiple coworkers to try sending it as well. By the time all was said and done, 12 emails with 600MB attachments were piled up in the mail server.

"The attachments not only crashed the Exchange server cluster [but] also crashed the archive system. Made for a fun day flushing the files out!" Cutrer jokes.

The company, Cutrer discovered, did not enforce a hard limit on file attachment sizes, instead giving users cheery warnings that large attachments weren't supported and shouldn't be sent. Whoops.

The moral: Friendly warnings aren't enough. If an action can bring your system to a halt, don't give users the option to do it. Given the opportunity, one of them invariably will.

Stupid user trick No. 6: The customer is not always right

As anyone who's ever manned the help desk can attest, computer users say the darnedest things. And they're always convinced they're right.

In the late '90s, Mike Ellsworth -- now a managing partner at Social Media Performance Group -- helped develop a Web-based sales application for marketing research firm ACNielsen. One day, a frontline customer support rep sent a call his way. The woman on the line was boiling mad because she couldn't get the application, which required dial-up access to the Internet, to function.

"I went through all the standard questions regarding the software and hardware and even asked her to look behind the computer to see if the phone line was plugged in," Ellsworth says. "'Yes,' she said irritably. 'It's plugged in -- your stupid application just doesn't work.'"

After investigating every possible cause he could think of, Ellsworth decided to honor Occam's razor and go back to square one: He asked the caller if the other end of her phone line was actually plugged into the wall jack.

"After a moment of silence, she said, 'Does it need to be?'" Ellsworth recalls. "I guess she thought she had wireless access years before it was available."

The moral: Don't give users too much credit. If there's an absurdly simple explanation for a problem, no matter how insultingly obvious it might seem, there's a good chance it's right.


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