The hidden powers of the common printer

It may seem like an innocent piece of equipment, but the office printer can uncover hidden weaknesses in hardware -- and personnel

Behold the mighty printer: Integral to a business, used by all, and with the power to incite chaos if it quits working.

But its powers don't end there. It can be fickle enough to keep an IT department busy for days unraveling a hidden hardware mystery -- or be a determining factor in whether or not an employee gets fired.

Here are some real-life stories from IT pros, published in the anonymously written InfoWorld Off the Record blog, in which a printer plays a major role.

IT pros, if you have an on-the-job experience to submit, send your story to offtherecord@infoworld.com. We'll send you a $50 American Express gift cheque if we publish it.

Credit: bahri altay
Hardware problem #1: It's a clue, but to what?

The high-profile nature of a printer means that any problem is a big one. Users are angry. IT is sidetracked. Finally, the mystery is solved -- sometimes by way of a surprising tech issue.

Take, for example, the story of two printers that get installed at the same time. One works dependably; one doesn't. The IT department spends days reconfiguring settings, swapping out cables and ports, sitting by the printer and the queue watching the print jobs to find patterns. Bupkis.

But the printer is not the problem: It's a heretofore unknown wireless print server. Days of troubleshooting are finally solved. And after heroic efforts, nobody outside the IT department can fully appreciate the efforts. Users just know it's fixed.

Credit: iStockphoto
Hardware problem #2: Back to the basics

The users are hovering, and if the problem isn’t fixed soon it could impact the company's bottom line. But the solution is elusive, puzzling, and seemingly complicated -- then turns out to be basic.

There's the story of a remote printer that's scheduled to process work orders overnight for the repair crews to have immediately the next day. It's an efficient system -- until it breaks.

IT runs tests, verifies the logs, but can't pinpoint the problem. Finally, someone stakes out the printer overnight. VoilÀ, mystery solved! The custodial staff would finish their nightly cleaning and turn out the light -- and the printer, which was plugged into an outlet controlled by the switch. At least it was an easy fix.

Credit: Gunnar Pippel
Hardware problem #3: The fallible human

Unfortunately, printers are tangible. Users can fiddle with them, load paper, change settings -- which automatically makes them experts on how they work, right?

A printer at a warehouse randomly goes out of whack, printing lines on top of each other and skipping other lines until the document isn't legible. The IT pro and the foreman hatch a plan to catch the problem in action, which includes the IT pro racing 100 yards and up two flights of stairs to no avail.

Then they notice a worker go up to the printer and repeatedly press a button, and a few seconds later the printer goes crazy again. When confronted, the worker explains how "Pushing that button makes it print faster." Not even close, buddy.

Credit: iStockphoto
Hardware problem #4: Pesky pests

Cleanliness is next to godliness, or in some cases: Cleanliness is next to not grossing out the IT person.

The call: Maintenance on a printer located in a food factory -- routine enough.

The tech's horrifying discovery: The printer is filled to the brim with cockroaches, ants, spiders, and specimens from the rest of the bug kingdom. The food particles trapped inside were tasty, apparently. Also shocking, the finding was a surprise to the factory's floor supervisor.

Tools needed: Face mask, gloves, strong stomach, and a resolve to never return to that location again. At least that last part is easy.

Credit: iStockphoto
Personnel problem #1: The 'not my problem' approach

The printer can bring to light unsavory employee characteristics. The worker in Cubicle 2 may seem hardworking and conscientious -- but think again.

At a steel mill with round-the-clock shifts and a problematic printer, the tech gets called in on a weekend to figure out what's going on.

Upon arrival, the tech discovers employees sitting around playing cards and determines that one of their chair legs caught on the cord and unplugged the printer. But did any of the workers think to look at the power cord before calling the tech? "Not my job," is the reply. You’d better believe the tech billed for that call.

Credit: iStockphoto
Personnel problem #2: The 'I won't stop until I get what I want' approach

Similar to apathy is the relentless attitude of some employees, ignoring rules and stopping at nothing until they get what they "need."

An IT pro is woken by a 2 a.m. call on a Saturday morning. The after-hours calls are supposed to be for emergencies only. The shift operator insists such is the case, since he can't print his production lineup, and he got supervisor approval to make the call. But the evidence says otherwise. The printer is flashing a message to load legal paper. And the only job in the queue is for a hockey pool schedule.

It turns out the operator never did get approval and is given a few days off without pay. But the IT pro still loses hours of sleep.

Credit: iStockphoto
Personnel problem #3: What were they thinking?

Sometimes, troubleshooting leads to discoveries of what employees are really doing on the company's dime.

A legal secretary calls about a printer that won't print. For starters, she's selected the wrong printer: the one in her employer's office. And she's printing pictures from a raucous pool party. The days following find HR resending policies regarding personal use of office equipment, as well as the arrival of a new legal secretary.

Then there's the teacher who often worked late. Fixing a printer, the tech finds out what kind of "work" the teacher is doing after-hours, then becomes private detective and makes a report of the teacher's browsing history for the principal. Proper workplace behavior is indeed rocket science to some.

Credit: iStockphoto
Personnel problem #4: Anger management needed

Adversity can bring out the best or worst in people, and a printer not working right is certainly cause for frustration. But the workplace is not where basic anger management skills should have to be taught.

A field service tech is called to fix a customer's printer ASAP, since a deadline is looming. The tech leaves early and braves a winter storm to get to the site, but in the midst of fixing the printer gets a Marine-style dressing-down from a vice president for taking his parking space.

After a trip to the proverbial woodshed by a supervisor, the VP apologizes to the tech for his behavior. Great -- and maybe one day the VP can wear big boy pants.

Credit: iStockphoto
Share your story

Write up your own crazy-but-true tale about managing IT, developing apps, supporting users, a humbling moment, or a time when something went very right.

Send your submission to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish your story -- anonymously, of course -- you'll receive a $50 American Express gift cheque.