Sunday, November 22, 2009

Back from the Dead

I now understand why a lot of people are frustrated with tech support. Specifically with Dell's Indian flavor of tech support.
Last weekend my computer suffered a crash. I am a technician by training and trade, so I was able to troubleshoot enough to know that this was definitely a hardware failure. Great! Having purchased a comprehensive warranty policy this means that it isn't really MY problem, but Dell's. Software would have been my problem and quite a headache, but this SHOULD be fixable with a simple swap of the broken parts... now, if only we could isolate the parts!

Little did I know...

I enjoy working on computers. I invariably learn something new and surprising. For instance: did you know that a dead memory-bank can cause your video-card to stop sending signals to your monitor? I didn't know that. It is counter-intuitive. There are processes that run every time your computer starts that are supposed to tell you if any of the critical hardware has failed... not being able to see the error messages seems like a pretty critical oversight of this process. Normally the visual warning would be accompanied with an audio cue: a series of beeps, to indicate the nature of the failure. My system gave no such indications. Just a blank screen.

Guess number 1: A dead video-card. Great! My system has two of those running in parallel mode. Unlinking them and swapping between the two should quickly identify the faulty card so that it can be replaced.

No change.

Ok, at this point I've done some testing. It is possible that both cards were affected by this crash, or perhaps even the graphics port on the motherboard. But we've traced the failure to the first step, so it's time to call in the people whose job it is to resolve these issues: Indian tech support.

In previous years there was a separate support number for XPS customers. XPS is Dell's hardcore line of computers. Intended for gamers and hobbyists, and the technicians were highly trained, proficient, and had impeccable English. I still have my own support number, but nine times out of then it apparently feeds into the same technician pool as all the other numbers as I soon found out. My first call actually started out positive. Within 7 minutes I was talking to a technician. Passable English, some strange phrasing, but competent. To his credit, he did warn me that they were updating their systems. Every few sentences he would ask to put me on hold "for 2-3 minutes." 5 - 10 minutes later he would be back. We went through my previous steps, swapping cards, running in single mode. Verifying the monitor works, and he agreed that it was unlikely, but possible that both cards fried. So that's where he wanted to start. So he asked me to hold while he processed the dispatch. Twenty minutes later a heavily accented Indian voice came on the line, informed me that it was "Glenn's" manager. He was very much willing to be taking ownership of my problem and would be happy to be giving me my dispatch number and if I would please be submitting to a survey about performance of technician it would be a quickly process of only a few moments thank you. Sigh.

My warranty provides next business day support. Normally Dell sends an e-mail with tracking numbers as soon as a dispatch is processed. I never received this e-mail so I called Dell again the following day. I didn't have the express code for my system, so I used the case number from my previous support call. And this is where I encountered my first taste of what 'normal' people must go through when they call for help.

The rep was bored, half-asleep, or drunk. All I wanted was confirmation that my replacement parts had shipped and their tracking numbers so that I could proceed to the next steps.
The rep said: Yes sir, I have the dispatch for the hard-drive here...
Me: Video-cards.
Rep: ... Yes, there are also Video-cards. And a hard drive.
Me: Oooohkay? What's the tracking number?
Rep: The tracking number has not been issued yet.
Me: -Incredulous Silence-
Rep: Uhm...The tracking number is .... -etc-

Not off to a great start. But at least I had a tracking number. FedEx claimed the package was already out for delivery, so I crossed my fingers and hoped that my gut feeling about the motherboard being the cause of my problems was wrong.
The package waiting for me at home was small. Too small. My video-cards are long, heavy beasts with giant cooling fans and copper heatsinks. This box weighed less than a pound and contained two bridge connectors used to link the cards together, a DVI-VGA adapter, a DVI-HDMI adapter, and a return waybill.

Back to the phone. After a couple of disconnects I get back into the queue. After thirty minutes we confirm that there is supposed to be a second package, but the tracking number doesn't match the FedEx format. The Dell order summary page lists it as in-transit.
Call to FedEx: Not a valid tracking number, and searching their system for my destination address shows only the package in front of me.
Call to Dell: After one hour we confirm that Yes, their system shows a second package in transit, but FedEx denies that it exists. This technician is also several percent more competent than previous ones and we run through some more troubleshooting steps and there will be another dispatch for the video-cards AND a motherboard. Swapping out a motherboard is a little more touchy than Dell will trust to even tech savvy customers, so they will be sending the parts to a local contractor who will contact me for scheduling the service.

I have developed a theory. I believe that the tech support centers in India have less computer stations than employees. Mr. Vladimir would ask me to hold, put the headset down, and disappear for 7-10 minutes while confirming details of my package which I was able to pull up on their website in seconds. I can only assume that he was waiting his turn on the single working computer in the building. I do want to thank him for sparing me the horrendous synth glockenspiel funk session stuck in constant loop for their hold music.

While on their website I pulled up the invoice for the original dispatch and discovered that the 2 video-cards, plus kit, is being billed at $844 and change. Over $370 per card! They didn't cost that much new! Luckily, the invoice only gets billed if I don't return the defective parts in a timely manner. Which is not going to happen unless I actually receive the replacement parts... So now the mystery tracking number and missing package has a more ominous quality.

Let two days pass. No update on the mystery package, FedEx still has no information, and Dell had updated the estimated delivery date from the 17th to the 18th... on the 19th. Sigh...
While having lunch the technician calls and basically tells me that I'm SoL on getting any reasonable times scheduled in the near future, and that early next week is looking sketchy too. And no, he doesn't do weekends. Fair enough. I tell him that I work fairly close to home and that my work is flexible enough that if he can give me a little warning I can meet him whenever he has an opening during the day, except for Friday at 12:30 where I have to be at another office in another city without fail. He'll call me in the morning to let me know what he can arrange.

Friday morning. I e-mail my boss and inform him that I may need to take an hour of personal time to meet with a technician. Two hours later he e-mails me and asks around what time I was expecting the call. "Before now," was my reply... with an eye on the clock. Two minutes later my phone rings.
"I can meet you there at 11:30." I reminded him of my need to be on the road, without fail, at 12:00 to make my appointment. ...
"Uhmmmm... let me make one call, I'll meet you there at 11:10."

Excellent luck! An early lunch, plus maybe a half-hour of personal time, and on the road to make my meeting!

I was at my apartment at 11:05. At 11:15 I ate my microwave burritos. At 11:20 I sat down on the couch and tried hard not to curse. At 11:25 there was a knock on my door. Apparently the technician had been speeding on his way to my place and got tagged by the cops. He was apologetic and went straight to work. Luckily my computer case is rather large and the motherboard is easy to extract. 10 minutes later we are trying to boot. No go. No change. Nothing. He starts trying some things, swapping cards in and out, but nothing is working. Time is ticking away. I call my office and apologize that I will most likely be later than planned. I luck out, no other meetings were butting up to mine and they were having a bit of an office party anyway. At 12:10 he starts packing up and tells me that he'll contact Dell for the next steps this afternoon. At 12:15 I race towards the Interstate. I make it to the office by 12:45. Disappointed in myself and unable to clearly voice my frustrations. It seemed like everything was out of my control at that point.

Fast forward to that evening. The technician calls me and tells me that Dell wants me to recontact their tech support and start over. He seems pretty upset by that approach and asks me to keep him in the loop.

So I call Dell. The first call disconnects after 5 minutes. There is a new wrinkle. The Dell system no longer recognizes my system's code and fails to forward me to the XPS department automatically. I now have to go through an extra 'data gathering' step where a standard rep assesses my system, needs, and forwards my call to a random department. Finally I get put in touch with Chris. Chris sounds like the technicians I USED to get and we start chatting about the situation. At this point I'm willing to try anything so we start working through all the troubleshooting steps again. Suddenly my system boots up normally, but crashes halfway through. My heart jumps! The catalyst had been the RAM chips! We started rotating chips in and out, with gradually increasing rates of success. Finally, my system started booting as if nothing had gone wrong.

My best guess now is that the memory slots on my old motherboard had failed. Apparently with this particular system configuration instead of causing a beep-code it just quietly causes the video bus to stop responding. Then the new motherboard had some machining oil or something in the memory slots, preventing the RAM from making adequate contact, causing the same symptoms as the old motherboard. Repeated removal and reseating of the RAM cleared the residue from the slots and allowed the system to work normally.

I have now tested and retested my RAM and everything is normal.

Buuut I've just received an e-mail reminder that I still need to return the defective parts!
That mystery shipment is still somewhere in FedEx hell, and Dell tells me that the department I have to talk to to get that straightened out doesn't open till Monday.

Let's hope they don't screw this up.

Thanks for letting me rant!

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