SOML Stories: A New Segment

While I was in France, I had a stressful, crazy, and very typical of my life set of problems happen to me. As the other instructors of the workshop watched the whole thing unfold, they laughed and commiserated, and told me that I should write a book about my collection of stories, so that other people will feel better about these kinds of things when they happen to them. In the telling, it became abundantly clear that I get into these sorts of situations more than anyone else I know, and the more similar stories I told, the more I realized just how many I have. In any case these kinds of situations, while stressful at the time, have certainly made me into a person who is good at improvising solutions.

Well, I don’t much fancy writing a book, but I figured a new segment on this blog might be appropriate, along with “This Week In Zoology”, “Tough Questions”, “Cultural Differences” and “Bad Science”. If you find them boring, or if they lose some of their comedic value in typing, feel free to let me know and I’ll cancel it. For now, I’ll tell the one that prompted the suggestion that I write these down. Funnily enough, this one seems barely noteworthy in the light of the ones that have happened to me in the past: I’d rank it a 4/10 in how stressed I was, and a 3/10 on my crazy coincidence scale. Nevertheless, it is the story that started the idea for the segment, so here is my first “Story of my Life” Story: My struggles with the IT Department that does not think solving your problems is in their job description.


As I mentioned, I went to France in order to teach a workshop on bioinformatics to an international group of PhD students. Usually group leaders are supposed to be the instructors, but my boss delegated the job to me. I was feeling the pressure, as none of the other group leaders had delegated the job to a post doc. Furthermore, I was supposed to teach PhD students how to use software that I myself had barely ever used, and I am no bioinformatician. With the motto “fake it til you make it” firmly in mind, I set of for France dragging along two computers: one my own, and the other an office computer, with the very pricy new software we had just purchased installed on it.

When I arrived in France, I explained that I would need an internet connection for my workshop, as the software I needed to use only works through the internet, so I was directed to a room with an ethernet cable. That was where I discovered that I needed to have Administrator access to connect to the internet through an ethernet cable, unlike connecting through wifi.

One thing you need to understand is that I work in an institute with a micro managing IT department. Usually, group leaders have the Admin access to computers, so as to not overload IT with silly requests like downloading free software, or updating Word. In our institute, however, the IT jealously guards all of the Admin access, and apparently, don’t even trust us to connect our computers to ethernet cables.

No problem, I thought. I’ll just email the IT and explain that I need to connect to the internet, making it very clear that I am representing my group leader and so it is very important that I don’t look like a fool at this prestigious school. I only need to show them this software in the second half of the workshop, so I can work on my personal computer for a couple of days, plenty of time for IT to fix this for me.

They write back quite promptly. “We need you to connect to the internet in order for us to help you”. How amazingly helpful.

No problem, I thought. I have Wednesday morning off, and I only need this software to be working by Wednesday afternoon. I’ll just connect to the hotel wifi on Wednesday morning, open the Team Viewer, allow them to type in whatever they need to so that I can connect to the internet at the school, and no harm done.

Wednesday morning arrives, and I open the computer in order to connect to the internet. Strangely, I can’t seem to access my partition on the computer. I finally realize that, not having a main partition, and having shut down the computer and restarted it, I have to be connected to the internet in order to open the computer with my password. This was never a problem when I used the computer at home in Germany, but either because the computer “knew” it was out of the country, or because I was trying to connect to a hotel wifi, the computer refused to let me in.

Basically, I needed the internet to open my partition, and I needed to open my partition to connect to the internet.

There are three main partitions on this computer. One is the Admin, and the other two belong to people who have left the lab. One of those people now lives in the States, where it was the middle of the night. The other, was someone whose phone number I did not have.

No problem, I thought. I got back on my computer, and emailed IT again. I explained the situation, reminded them how important the workshop was, and said that the only solution I could think of was for them to give me the Admin password for this specific computer, just to open the partition and connect to the internet. I could then open the Team Viewer, and they could change the password immediately if they wanted to.

They replied: “You’re right, that’s the only way to resolve this, but we can’t give you the password, so we’re not going to help you with this”.

That was it. I could not call a supervisor, who could authorize them to help me. They would not look into the possibility of giving me a “mock” Admin access, one that expired or was cancelled after an hour, so that they did not violate the rule of “giving out” passwords. Basically, their last email to me could be boiled down to: “That sounds like a you problem”.

Now, I actually do start getting stressed.

I text the guy who lives in the States, on the off chance he’s awake at 3AM.

I get on the phone with another colleague of mine, and upon finally getting hold of her, told her to keep calling the other ex-colleague with a partition on the computer, to keep calling until she picks up, and convince her to give me her password.

In the meantime, I start guessing possible Admin passwords.

The first to get back to me was my colleague in Germany. She gave me the password, and I manage to get in and connect to the internet.

The problem is, as soon as I connect to the internet and try to switch users, the computer automatically disconnects from the internet so I can’t access my partition, and the expensive software is installed on my partition.

There’s no help for it. I waste one of the 4 precious licenses of this 10,000 euro software and install it again on the ex-colleagues partition. By now, there is no time left to get IT back online to fix my ethernet issue for me.

So, I spend my last 20 minutes before my workshop cleaning up my hotel room, as that is where I will have to hold my workshop now.

My students took it with smiles and laughter. The next day we finished the workshop in a Starbucks, with coffee and comfy armchairs. In the end it all worked out, and a perfectly decent solution was found.

The silver lining was that every other instructor who heard this story found a new appreciation for their IT, and felt bad for having bitched about them in the past.

And that is the first of my “Story of my Life” stories. Next time, I’ll tell one that was far crazier, one that makes this one look like utter peanuts.

If you have any similar kinds of stories that you might want to share let me know, email them to me, and I might feature some of the best ones in future posts.

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