How to get into trouble
Come mettersi nei guai

May 29th, 2013
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How to get into trouble

How do you feel when you start a new job? Excited? Nervous? Scared? Happy?
I felt all those things when I was appointed junior the secretary in the maths department at one of the Colleges of London University. It was 1989, a long time ago, and I was only 21 years old. Many of my readers weren’t even born then :-)

My duties were fairly simple: distribute the post, greet students and provide information, answering the phone and typing letters. A piece of cake, really. That is, if English is your first language. When you have to perform all these tasks in a language that is not yours, and you feel insecure about, then even the simplest thing such as answering the phone can become a nightmare.

My probation period was three months, so in my head I kept saying: I must not screw up in these first months, and then I’ll be OK.
In my third week there, one of our top lecturers, Professor Taylor, asked Marianne, our departmental secretary, if she felt I was ready to type a mathematical paper. She said: “we could have a go.” Fateful words.

So, I was handed a dozen hand-written pages with normal English text interspersed with mathematical formulas, which I had to type into our computer. Now, it’s bad enough typing in a second language, it’s even more challenging when the hand writing is not clear, but if on top of that you also have illegible mathematical symbols, then guys, it’s not going to be an easy ride.

Still, I had a go, and typed the whole lot. When I handed it to Prof. Taylor my heart was racing. I felt this was an important test for me, on which my future as a secretary there depended.
He came back to me the next day, he was pleased on the whole with the result, but there were red crosses everywhere. Apparently I had mistaken the sigma symbol he had written by hand, for the delta symbol. And since the sigma appeared everywhere, he asked me to change all the deltas into sigmas.

No big deal, I thought. I will use the ‘search and replace’ command. In those days, computers weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. There was simply a black screen with white characters, no colours, no fancy folders, we must have had probably the very first version of Word that came about. There was no help-guide on the computer, you had to consult the paper manual. The problem was that when you tried to enter the characters on the ‘search’ prompt, you were only allowed normal characters, not mathematical symbols. So, I started trying all sort of combinations of alt+ctrl+shift keys to get those crazy deltas and sigmas to appear. Somehow, in the end, I managed it. I was able to enter the funny characters in the search and replace commands. But then the computer beeped and a red light flashed. I had never seen a red light before. The computer said something along the lines of: invalid/unrecognized command. Do you want to proceed?

I thought, let’s try it. And YES! It worked. It did substitute my first delta with a sigma. That was fantastic! So I did it again, and the computer beeped again and flashed red again. The words invalid/unrecognized command. Do you want to proceed? appeared more ominous this time, but I persisted. There was no command to replace all in one go, so I had to do them one at a time. After about a dozen changes, the computer crashed and I ended up with a black screen. The only sign of life came from the red light, which was flashing at the bottom right of the screen. It lasted for a few seconds and then it died.

image courtesy of fiverr.com

I turned around to look at Marianne, I just had this nasty feeling that something had gone wrong. And Marianne screamed. Her computer too had gone off. Oh well, I thought, it must be a black-out. But then the lights were still on in our office. “What happened?” she asked. I didn’t know. Somehow I felt guilty, but then I thought, OK, I may be responsible for my computer crashing, but not for hers. Little did I know… within minutes lecturers started rushing into our office to ask what was happening. Their computers had crashed and were not coming back on. Marianne called technical support, they came up to the department and tried to figure out why all computers were down. Then the top techie guy disappeared and later came back looking really stressed out. He said: “The mainframe is down. This has never happened before.” I didn’t even know what a mainframe was, but it sounded important. The head of department was in a panic, everyone was trying to do something to fix the problem and deep down I was wondering if I had contributed to this.

Well, an engineer was called from outside to come and fix the problem and after looking into it he said it was a serious fault. Then he explained to the head of department and senior lecturers, who were all gathered in our office, what he thought was wrong and how it would take 48 hours at least to solve the problem. I didn’t understand the technical jargon, but I raised my hand and confessed what I had done. I think the engineer felt really sorry for me and tried to say that these things happen, sometimes we didn’t know why mainframes crashed, and that what I had tried to do was an intelligent way to solve a problem, but it probably backfired.

I didn’t feel it had been an intelligent move. I was going to lose my job over this. Talk about paralyzing a whole department with over 40 lecturers because you crashed their computers. Marianne was shaking her head and looking at me. I felt so stupid and dejected.

But, I didn’t get the sack. I wasn’t even told off by anyone. People calmly took it in their stride. In our office, for 48 hours we simply did ordinary paperwork and used our typewriters instead. Many lecturers took the opportunity of staying at home for a couple of days, so all in all, it went quite well. I was so grateful and happy to have survived this incident, and lessons were learnt.

Have you ever made a big mistake at work? Have you got yourself into trouble? I’d like to hear your stories

Come mettersi nei guai

Come vi sentite quando iniziate un nuovo lavoro? Ansiosi? Eccitati? Contenti? Impauriti?
Io ho provato tutte queste sensazioni quando mi avevano offerto il lavoro di segretaria al dipartimento di matematica di uno dei college dell’Università di Londra.
Si parla dell’anno 1989, un sacco di tempo fa; avevo appena 21 anni. Molti dei miei lettori non erano ancora nati allora :-)

Le mie mansioni erano piuttosto semplici: distribuire la posta, dare le informazioni agli studenti, rispondere al telefono e scrivere le lettere. Facilissimo, se l’inglese è la tua lingua madre. Quando però devi occuparti di queste cose in una lingua che non è la tua, ti vengono certe insicurezze, e perfino le cose più banali come rispondere al telefono, possono diventare un incubo.

Il mio periodo di prova era di tre mesi, e dentro di me dicevo: devo cercare di non combinare guai in questi tre mesi, poi potrò star tranquilla.

Alla mia terza settimana nel dipartimento, uno dei nostri docenti più autorevoli, Professor Taylor, chiese a Marianne, la nostra capo ufficio, se pensava che io fossi in grado di batter al computer uno dei suoi articoli scientifici. Lei gli rispose: “possiamo provarci.” Parole fatidiche.

Così, Prof Taylor mi diede una dozzina di pagine che lui aveva scritto a mano, dove c’era del testo normale in inglese, mischiato a delle formule matematiche. Io lo dovevo trascrivere al computer. Ora, già di per sé non è facile trascrivere una lingua straniera, se poi la calligrafia non è molto chiara, la sfida si fa ancora più interessante, aggiungiamoci una serie di simboli matematici illeggibili, ecco, avete capito che non è più una passeggiata.

In tutti i casi ci provaii e riuscii a trascrivere il tutto. Quando lo consegnai al Prof. Taylor, il mio cuore batteva all’impazzata. Sentivo che questo era un test importante per me, e che il mio futuro di segretaria lì dentro dipendeva dal risultato di questa prova.

Prof. Taylor tornò nel nostro ufficio il giorno dopo, era abbastanza contento del risultato, però c’erano un sacco di crocette rosse dappertutto sui fogli stampati. Mi disse che io avevo confuso il simbolo sigma che lui aveva scritto a mano, col simbolo delta. E siccome la sigma appariva dappertutto, mi chiese di sostituire tutte le mie delta con delle sigma.

La cosa non mi spaventava. Avrei usato il comando “cerca e sostituisci”. In quei tempi però i computer non erano così sofisticati come adesso. Avevano uno schermo nero coi caratteri in bianco, nessun colore e nessuna cartella, penso che avessimo la primissima versione di Word che era uscita. Non c’era neanche il manuale all’interno del computer, dovevi per forza leggere il manuale stampato.

Il problema fu che quando provai a digitare i simboli dopo il comando ‘cerca’, il computer non ti permetteva di scrivere simboli matematici, ma solo lettere normali. Così provai un sacco di combinazioni tipo alt+ctrl+maisc per cercare di ottenere quelle strane delta e sigma. Alla fine ci riuscii. Ecco apparire i simboli matematici nei comandi ‘cerca’ e ‘sostituisci’. Quando però schiacciai il pulsante ‘invio’ il computer fece uno strano bip e una lucetta rossa lampeggiò. Non avevo mai visto nessuna lucetta rosssa prima. Il computer diceva qualcosa tipo: comando non valido/non riconosciuto. Vuoi continuare? Io dissi di sì. E funzionò. Finalmente la mia prima delta venne sostituita con una sigma.

Ma quella era solo la prima, ce n’erano parecchie da rimpiazzare, così ripresi con la stessa procedura. Il computer fece di nuovo bip, la lucetta rossa lampeggiò ancora. Le parole comando non valido/non riconosciuto mi sembrarono più inquietanti la seconda volta, però continuai. Purtroppo non c’era un comando unico per rimpiazzare tutte le delta, le dovevo sostituire una alla volta. Dopo una dozzina di sostituzioni, il computer si piantò e mi trovai di fronte uno schermo nero. L’unico segnale di vita veniva dalla lucetta rossa che lampeggiava, in basso a destra dello schermo. Durò per pochi secondi, poi morì anche lei.

image courtesy of fiverr.com

Mi voltai verso Marianne, avevo questa terribile sensazione che qualcosa fosse andato storto. Marianne lanciò un urlo. Il suo computer pure aveva fatto crash. Ah meno male, pensai, ci dev’essere un black-out. Però le luci in ufficio non si erano spente. “Che è successo?” chiese Marianne. Non ne avevo idea. In qualche modo mi sentivo in colpa, ma poi pensai: OK, posso essere responsabile del mio computer che si pianta, ma non del suo. Se solo avessi saputo… Entro pochi minuti alcuni docenti arrivarono nel nostro ufficio e chiedevano che cosa stesse succedendo. I loro computer erano tutti giù e non si riaccendevano. Marianne chiamò l’ufficio assistenza tecnica, e vennero subito. Il responsabile sparì in un altro ufficio e poi tornò con una faccia stravolta. Ci disse: “Il mainframe è giù. Non è mai successo prima.” Io non sapevo cosa fosse un mainframe, ma aveva l’aria di qualcosa di importante. Il capo dipartimento era in panico, tutti cercavano di fare qualcosa per risolvere il problema, e dentro di me mi chiedevo se io avessi in qualche modo contribuito a tutto questo.

Così venne chiamato in soccorso un ingegnere elettronico specialista di quei computer, e dopo che ci diede un’occhiata disse che c’era un guasto serio. Iniziò a spiegare al capo dipartimento e ai docenti senior, che erano tutti radunati nel nostro ufficio, quello che era successo, secondo lui, e come ci sarebbero volute almeno 48 ore per risolvere il problema. Io non capivo i termini tecnici, però alzai la mano e confessai quello che avevo combinato. Penso che l’ingegnere abbia provato compassione per me, in quanto cercò di dire che queste cose posson capitare, e che a volte non sapevamo perché i mainframe si guastassero, e che quello che avevo cercato di fare era una mossa intelligente per risolvere un problema, ma che purtroppo si era ritorta contro di noi.

Io non sentivo certamente di aver fatto una mossa intelligente, tutt’altro. Avrei perso il mio lavoro a causa di questo. Stavo paralizzando l’intero dipartimento di matematica con ben oltre 40 docenti, ero riuscita in qualche modo a far saltare i loro computer. Marianne mi guardava e scuoteva la testa. I miei giorni erano contati.

Per fortuna però, non mi licenziariono, nessuno mi rimproverò neanche. Tutti quanti la presero con filosofia. Nel nostro ufficio, nei giorni successivi ci impegnammo a fare dell’ordinaria amministrazione che non richiedeva l’uso dei computer, come archiviare pratiche, fotocopiare documenti, oppure battere le lettere a macchina. Parecchi docenti che non avevano lezioni, decisero di stare a casa per due giorni, quindi alla fine, andò tutto per il meglio. Che sollievo fu per me, l’aver sopravissuto a questo incidente di percorso . E imparai anche la lezione.

E voi, avete mai combinato dei grossi errori a lavoro? Vi siete messi nei guai? Mi piacerebbe sentire le vostre storie.

14 Comments to “How to get into trouble
Come mettersi nei guai”

  1. Stefania says:

    Hahaha , Martina, this is the kind of trouble Clara would have done in my mind :D

    I must confess (hoping my boss doesn’t read this :P ) I’m quite skilled in covering my traces when I make some unforgivable mistake. I don’t know, I think I’m a natural since I’ve never seen something similar from any member of my family or friends. Instead, my friends used to come to me when something wrong happened to them… by them!

    In order to avoid this kind of issues, I try of course not to get in troubles, but sometimes it’s not easy at all :D

    A little detail as a new-British resident: talking on the phone with local people is not a simple task, at all! In my opinion, I mean. You got to deal with a number of different accents which sometimes are not easy to decipher because of the phone “communication issues”.
    I guess that once I will be able to perfectly master people on the phone I would say I’ll be 100% ready to get the UK passport :D

    • martina says:

      You got it Steph! Talking on the phone to someone who doesn’t speak your language is the most difficult test. Because there are no visual cues, no non-verbal communication you can rely on. And I’ve made plenty of mistakes then.

      But even face-to-face. One of the lecturer at work once asked me for some “Tippex” and I gave him some “Tea bags”!

    • Yes – this would have been a great mistake for Clara to make. And Miss Shake Your Bum might have figured it out and told on her! Or maybe Miss SYB was too stupid to work it out…

      • martina says:

        It’s funny, as a lot of mishaps Clara experiences are actually based on my own life. When I was in my 20s I thought I had a little black cloud following me (a bit like the Addams family) because no matter how hard I tried, I often got into trouble ;-)

      • Stefania says:

        Hahaha Pauline, you’re right! You know, I thought *the same* thing!
        That is a point to Martina, it means her character personalities really have found a way into our hearts :)

  2. Oh my, so funny! You were no doubt giving it a top secret command! (My husband’s job actually partly involves making sure hackers don’t break into things by using weird character combinations…)
    I’m so glad they didn’t sack you. Marianne sounds like good character material though.
    And this is super-timely, since I have a 6-month probation period for my new job and I’ve been thinking, I musn’t screw up until after that!

    • martina says:

      Six month probation period is quite long these days, but you will do fine, Pauline.

      I think the best thing is never to think “I must not screw up”, because somehow the mind attracts the very thing we don’t want. I’ve learnt that at my own expense, several times.
      Just tell yourself something along the lines of “I’m going to do great in my probation period. I’ll be fantastic!” instead ;-)

  3. Ah ah ah… Grandioso… Non credo che potrei riuscire ad eguagliarti, cara Martina… In questo caso sarebbe stato difficile.
    Ammetto che anch’io quando faccio qualcosa di nuovo, soprattutto se devo rendere conto del mio lavoro a qualcun altro, sono sempre molto tesa… E qualche piccolo pasticcio lo combino sempre. Però riuscire a bloccare un intero dipartimento di matematica per due giorni… Devo migliorarmi per arrivarci.
    Ma – a parte gli scherzi – il tuo post mi sollecita una diversa riflessione che riguarda la capacità di trasformare i piccoli impedimenti della vita in occasioni positive. Che è quello che hanno fatto i professori del tuo dipartimento, che invece di arrabbiarsi con te (in fondo non avevi che cercato una soluzione creativa a un problema-atteggiamento che è solo delle persone intelligenti) hanno preso la palla al balzo, godendosi due giorni di meritato riposo.

    • martina says:

      Hai perfettamente ragione cara Giulia. Anche all’epoca mi aveva fatto riflettere come nessuno, dico nessuno si fosse arrabbiato per quello che era successo.
      Si erano spaventati, all’idea magari di perdere il lavoro fatto (grazie a Dio, non c’era stata nessuna perdita di dati), ma poi hanno colto l’occasione per usare quei due giorni per fare altro – chi si riposava, e chi magari passava tempo con la famiglia.
      Noi stesse dell’ufficio amministrazione abbiamo fatto piu’ tea-breaks del solito ;-)

  4. Lisa says:

    Well done you for confessing – not sure I would have felt so confident. And obviously a great teaching post because you were brilliant when I worked with you. When I started at the HGMP it was a year’s probation, but they never sacked anyone even though they had a whole year to discover what they were like!!!!
    I wrote my degree dissertation on the first version of Word aswell. The main thing was to back the thing up to disk (the small hard ones not the floppies – technology was moving forward!) cos if the screen went blank for whatever reason, you did not get your work back!!!!!!

    • martina says:

      Thank you Lisa for your kind words. I learnt a lot on that occasion, and in the future jobs too. My ex boss used to say: not task is too small that cannot be screwed up. And he was right. It’s often the small things that get overlooked because we take them for granted.

      I also remember the disks we used to back-up stuff – we had the floppy ones in the late 1980′s. I once got one of them stuck into the drive and we had to call the technical team out again. Maybe it was that particular desk that was jinxed!

  5. Don says:

    About the same time I was working as a service engineer of primitive word processors in West London. One day a call came in from Barclays Bank in Plymouth, a secretary had reported that her word processor was dead. Off I set on a 460 mile round trip to fix it. When I arrived I quickly established what the problem was. The power was turned off at the socket! The secretary went bright red, I wrote it up as a blown fuse much to her relief – everybody makes mistakes, me very much included! At least that trip was an easy fix with a long lunch break!

    • martina says:

      And I guess that after this experience you learnt your lesson: before setting off on any long car journey to fix someone’s computer problems, you probably had learnt to ask on the phone: can you please confirm that your PC is plugged in?

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