You and your worthless, useless and destructive system can rot in the coldest reaches of cyber-hell! -- e-mail from a customer *** As a tech support worker at a Toronto Internet service provider, Ryan hears daily from ranters, screamers, criers and abusers. Violent messages do nothing to darken the strangely luminous aura of geek calm that radiates from him as he stares at his monitor, blinking like a cat in the sun. He returns to his in-box. "That's nothing," he says, smirking. "Hold on and I'll find you a really good one." Dingy mall Ryan is one of the 130 people who work at this tech support office housed in the basement of a squat brick building the colour of refried beans in a dingy strip mall in Etobicoke. Like Ryan, the 30 technicians on the day shift are mostly male and in their early 20s, a hodgepodge of jeans and ball caps, striped sweaters and blank stares.
It's 8:42 am, and already the phones are ringing incessantly. A salty smell of starch from a McDonald's box makes the low-ceilinged office feel suffocating. A recent promotion brought 10,000 new users in one month, and the system, trying to expand fast enough to accommodate everyone, is experiencing a lot of turbulence.
Today, two major servers are down for the third day in a row, and, according to Rachel, the manager, in about an hour the phones will be going "apeshit."
She's confident they'll be able to handle it, though. "I only hire people who can deal with people well. If they can't, forget it."
New breed This is the new breed of tech support staff, more therapist than techie. As the consumer base for Internet service has grown exponentially, people have made an emotional investment in being connected, part of our 24/7 culture.
When that connection is lost, geeks are the gatekeepers, and they've got to be ready to talk down (not down to) desperate people.
Trouble is, these guys aren't particularly good therapists. They make under $20 an hour and they're not exactly therapist material.
They really don't care about us unless we're particularly ignorant, warranting a good mocking session over lunch. The rest of us all sound the same, wanting to be plugged in and online right now. It's nothing personal, but when we call them they just want to get it over with.
Collectively, they field about 1,000 calls and receive about 500 e-mail queries on an average day. Most calls take about 10 minutes, but some can last for as long as an hour. Give a therapist that kind of caseload and you can bet he or she'll get blasé about the whole thing, too. And why shouldn't they?
"No one notices us except to yell at us," says Warren. "The VPs come down now and then, but they just walk by. We don't bring in revenue. We just hold down the fort."
If in doing so they amuse themselves by telling stupid-client stories over a few Jolt colas on break, good for them. They may mock us, but they don't hate us with the wounded contempt of techies past.
"I feel sorry for customers, " says Darren. "Anybody who knows computers won't need us, but those who do really do."
It's looking like that kind of day now as Rachel looks around, verging on frantic herself, to make sure Ryan is at his station. It's 9:34, the system is still down and poor Rachel has broken out in a rash.
Sir, sir, hold on... good... click the right mouse button... good. Hold on... Amidst this chorus of disembodied voices, she spots him waiting, quietly surfing www.superbad.com. She sighs with relief.
"He has this innate ability to bring people down a level," she says.
Gentle techie Maybe it's Ryan's youth that allows him to be so benevolent in his disdain. "It feels like the end of the world for these people," says Ryan. Even customers who are especially blunt don't faze him. He points to an e-mailed complaint: "Does the phrase quit the fucking bullshit mean anything to you incompetent fucks??????????"
"See, the basis for the complaint is still there," he says. "He's paying his $20 for a service and he doesn't think he's getting it."
Ryan is young enough not to care that this e-mail could have been written by the same asshole, beer-guzzling football player who antagonized his predecessors in high school.
A kindlier, gentler techie has emerged -- born into technology, not ostracized for understanding it -- who is, on some days, our last hope before we experience a nervous breakdown. Consider the fact that you're handing that responsibility over to a 21-year-old kid, and you can hardly blame them for smirking a little.