I am a software engineer. That means a lot of things. It means I can write code. It means I can talk about servers and argue about what programming languages are best (Check out PPH for the standard measure for programming languages.) It means I can build a cool website or write scripts that help my wife manage photos. Do something annoying and I can hack your computer and make it belch every time you open the CDROM Drive. (Don’t piss me off or it can get uglier).
One thing I will not do is fix your computer.
I know there are a lot of you out there that fall into the same ‘known geek’ category. You are the guy that gets introduced as ‘knowing about computers’. The typical response from the party hearing this is, “great, now I know who to call when I have problems.”
No you don’t.
Asking a software engineer to fix your computer is like asking a GM automobile engineer to come over and look at your 1983 Volvo because it is leaking oil. Sure he understands the basics – cars have engines and oil pans and lots of tubes and stuff, and yes because he understands the general concept he can probably fix it. However, I am sure he would rather spend his time designing a more fuel efficient engine or a cool stereo system. Wait, I said GM, I meant a big freaking SUV that burns more gas than many small countries.
It might be that back in high school the geeks, nerds, the computer guys were always taken advantage of. We were the guys that got picked last in sports and the main source for lunch money for the jocks. We played in the band or hung out with the chess club. Some of us were on academic ‘teams’ that competed in Jeopardy like contests to prove which school had the smartest nerds. We were nerds and because of that people figured they could take advantage of us.
Guess what. Now we own you. All your data. Your precious pictures. Your Word Docs (bleh). Everything…..
Sorry. That was for a different article – world domination and all that. I still have a lot of pent up anger from losing some of those academic Jeopardy like ‘competitions’.
Anyway, I am at lunch with friends the other day at this nice little pastry shop that also does sandwiches and salads. The owner is from Poland and everything in the store is authentic and absolutely amazing. I could gain a thousand pounds eating there every day. It is a place where we go to eat lunch, then indulge in some pastry and all the time engage in deep, academic conversation about the world and what is wrong in politics and the environment etc. It is a lunchtime escape where I get to hang out with very intelligent, very cool people. In the middle of chatting about a couple of upcoming funding opportunities I get a call from a guy that I haven’t talked to in a year. Now, he is a great guy and a hard worker and etc. However, we aren’t really close friends or anything. We don’t do lunch. We don’t get together with the spouses and shoot the bull. I know him from a professional setting – one in which he did work and I paid him for that work.
The call starts like this, “Hi Justin, I’m having problems with my computer and you’re the person I thought to call.” If you are one of the computer savvy elite, that is not a compliment that is the sound of your lunch money about to disappear. I give him a bit of advice – try running a virus scanner. In general that is a good tip. Write it down. Unless you are a geek capable of setting up a firewall, locking down your home network and running Linux i.e. if you are normal person then in all likelihood you have several viruses, your Windows box calls a guy named Dimitry “master” and your computers are serving Russian porn, viagra emails or are being used to attack network infrastructure in small countries.
Ergo, every request to “fix my computer” should begin with “run your virus scanner.” That is usually a good out and a way to get them off the phone. Then you can ignore them when they call next time. If you are lucky they have a virus scanner. If you kicked a kitten on the way into work then darkness will overshadow you, they will not have a scanner and they will want to try to get you to second base with this line taken straight from my phone call:
“I was wondering if you would like to come over to my house and look at my computers and see if you can fix them.”
Typically, I am a nice guy. If a widow down the road has computer problems or if a local charity needs to piece together a wireless network then I am a sucker and there is no way I will refuse. If my mother calls me because the #$%! printer won’t work then no matter what I am doing she gets my time and I have to walk her through how to plug in a USB cable.
However, if you are someone who is:
- To lazy to search Google for your problem and try to fix it yourself…
- To cheap to pay a local shop to take a look at the virus you downloaded because you were surfing porn…
- To cheap/not smart enough to have a virus scanner/malware scanner…
- To lazy to call Dell tech support yourself (I don’t love talking to people in India either)…
- Have a computer from 1984 that you are trying to install Windows 95 on..
Then no, I will not fix your #$%@!#$ computer.
Currently, I spend my day with my brain engaged to a level that at times I have almost vomited. I am not kidding. When I have a computer problem at work I take my computer to Trent (IT superstar at COSL) – he is nice and he is paid to help me, well sort of. I am sure after he reads I will end up running virus scanners. Anyway, when I have a computer problem at home I ask myself why am I still running Windows and then I reformat the computer. My wife’s computer barely works most of the time and I really have to have a reason to work on a computer anymore – like there is smoke coming out of a drive (happened to a floppy drive of mine once). When I get home I spend a bit of time with my kids. They go to bed. My wife bids me farewell and then disappear into my office downstairs and write more code until I pass out and the drool pooling around my chin wakes me up sometime between 1 and 4 am.
So ya, I want to come to your house and work on your computer really bad. Even if you paid me the $150 an hour I have charged as a consultant (for jobs I really don’t want to do) I still have no interest in working on your computer. None. It isn’t interesting. It is painful and I know that not only do you not want to pay me but you are going to make me try to figure out a way for you to store all your digital photos from your brand new camera with a 4GB flash card on a 10 year old 500 MB hard drive because you are to to cheap and stupid to get the hardware you need to get the job done right. (You will also call me in tears when that 10 year old hard drive crashes and you lose all your precious memories of fluffy and the kids at the beach). I have a different rant on the managing digital photos/I don’t want to hear you bawl if you lose your pictures.
What do you do when you get a request, “to come over.” Unless the request is coming from a member of the opposite sex who is really hot and who will spend … wait my wife is going to read this …
Do not enter the home of anyone who wants you to fix their computer. Not ever. You will still be there three days later. The favor will turn into, “this is taking a long time, I and the wife are going to go out for dinner. Since you are going to be hear anyway you won’t mind watching the kids will you?”
Follow these tips and save yourself pain:
- Fake stupidity, tell them that you have run into the problem before, couldn’t fix it and so had to reformat the computer. DO NOT offer to reformat. I have reformatted computers for people. They always say, “there is nothing important on that computer. Just reformat.” You explain that it will never come back, not ever. EVERYTHING will be lost. They say, “That’s fine. Just do whatever you need to to fix it.” A week later you will get a call from that same person. They will either be in tears or totally irate because their recipes, email, ‘borrowed’ video games and other applications, pirated music, pictures, links to favorite [porn, gambling, viagra] websites and church knitting lists are all gone. “I didn’t mean that data, I meant it was OK to reformat all the bad stuff.” Reformatting a computer for a friend means that you get paid nothing, but get the joy of taking all the liability for their data. Somehow they get the right to be pissed when it is all gone. Fake stupidity, fake a migraine, fake whatever you have to and do not offer to reformat.
- You are very busy. You are a geek so you have a release deadline looming (with agile development everyday is a looming deadline so it isn’t a lie). Tell them that you would love to help but you are working 100 hour weeks and just can’t do it. There really isn’t any risk of being found out because you are a geek so you don’t go outside anyway.
- Do not give them your real email or IM account. If you can get a new cell phone number. Give them the hotmail account you use when you are forced to register on annoying websites. Remember plausible deniability is a free gift from the spam filters.
- I know you hate the Best Buy geek squad and/or the local computer shop because they are morons and you know way more than they do. However, THEY ARE YOUR FRIENDS. You might have to practice saying this without bursting out laughing, but try:
“You know, these new computers are just so complex. They are totally beyond me. Whenever I have a problem I just take my computer down to Best Buy/local shop and they fix it right up.” I know, I had a hard time typing it, but that line can save you hours of pain.
There you have it. My tips born of experience and anger.
I haven’t always been like this. I was once a happy, naive, helpful computer guy. The anger comes from years of being suckered into being IT support for everyone who has breathed air within ten feet of me. In college I spent a Christmas break trying to fix a computer for a relative. Of course the printer wouldn’t work with the computer because the computer was 10 years old and running some random form of DOS or Windows 3.1. No one ever wants to face the inevitable and realize that their computer is dead. No, they don’t want to go spend a few bucks for a new machine, but they are more than happy to waste your entire day. I am sure someone will tell you that there is Karma in helping others. I came down with the flu almost as I was leaving from fixing that computer and spent a week puking my guts out.
In a previous area where I lived I had some neighbors ask me to help them out with a computer problem. Their computer was slow, took half an hour to boot, wouldn’t run Microsoft Word, etc and they really wanted it to be able to play video games. I spent several hours working out the issues – problems caused because they didn’t have virus software, they installed the wrong drivers, they run Windows etc. I hacked through each problems and removed a bunch of crap they had added. Then then asked about the video games. I told them they would need a new computer to run the kinds of games they wanted to play. “Can’t you make it run faster so that I can run World of Warcraft [on my 386]?” Sure, I can just pull CPU cycles out of my ass. Upgrade the video card? No way that costs money. I spent about three hours tweaking on that stupid thing just to get it to a point where they could edit Word documents. Of course they wanted it fixed no matter how long it took and at any cost because well, it was my time and they weren’t paying for it.
A few months later I was doing some electrical wiring. I was comfortable with most of it, but the wire was outside and I was unfamiliar with local codes. Plus I would have to wire into the big panel on the outside of the house and getting electrocuted is not an exciting prospect.
No worries, the guy I just helped with the computer is an electrician. This is great I think. Karma has smiled upon me. I call him up. He comes over. We get everything wired up. The sun is shining. It is a beautiful day. It takes about an hour and we are done.
“That’ll be 75 bucks, I usually charge $150 an hour but since you are a friend I’ll do half today.” I start thinking about how I should have made his computer make farting noises every time he opened the CDROM drive and I am really trying to understand how “friend” translates into “sucker.”
I pay him.
He had the nerve to call again because his computer was having problems. I told him to run a virus scanner.