An Open Letter to Anyone Asking Me For Computer Help

by

So you’re having a problem with your computer, eh? Yes, you’re right, I do know something about computers and yes, I was a computer science major. Will I fix your problem?
I’ll certainly try. I’m more than happy to help you to the best of my ability. You’re a friend and I’m glad I can help you. I know you’d do the same for me and in all likelihood, I’ll be hitting you up for free financial/legal/medical/automotive advice in the near future. I happen to have an area of expertise and I genuinely don’t mind helping you out.
That said, here’s some friendly advice that will make this experience as painless as possible for both you and me:
1. I probably don’t know the answer off the top of my head. So please don’t get annoyed if I can’t answer your question if we happen to be at a bar, driving around town, or anywhere else I’m away from my computer. You may be surprised to discover that my first step will almost certainly be searching Google. My only real skill in this situation is that I have enough domain knowledge to follow the directions I find on Google.
2. Speaking of Google, I’d really appreciate it if you would try searching before you ask me. I get a lot of computer-related questions, and it’s somewhat aggravating when the answer to your question comes up on the first page of search results. Don’t spend all day, but take five minutes and do a search. If you happen to find your answer, you’ll save us both time, and you might even learn something cool that you’ll be able to apply in the future.
3. If Google doesn’t solve your problem, feel free to ask me. However, please understand that it’s nearly impossible to diagnose a large percentage of problems over the phone or through email. I know you feel like you’ve described your problem adequately, but it’s actually very difficult to accurately describe a computer problem if you’re not exactly sure what to look for.
4. If I drop by to work on your computer, please don’t talk to me the entire time. I know you’re just being polite, but your problem is likely somewhat tricky and I need to concentrate. I almost certainly have never run into your particular problem before, and if I have, it’s not something I fix every day. That means that I’m probably going to need to read up on the issue, and my reading comprehension goes down the toilet when you start telling me about your weekend.
5. However, if you feel like bringing me a drink or a snack, that would be very much appreciated.
6. Please be realistic about the time it will takes to fix the issue. This isn’t the movies – I’m not going to type super-fast for thirty seconds and fix everything. I need to figure out the issue and then work on a solution. It might take half an hour or even an hour. So please don’t invite me over when you have to be somewhere in twenty minutes.
7. If it does take longer than you expected, please don’t repeatedly apologize about taking up my time or ask me to stop because “it’s taking too long.” I really do appreciate your concern, but this doesn’t help at all. First of all, I had a pretty good idea of how long it would take before I came by and I scheduled my time accordingly. Secondly, by the time you say this I’m probably already engaged in the problem and I hate nothing more than leaving problems unsolved. I’ll let you know when I get fed up and decide to quit, but until then, let me be the judge of whether I’ve done enough.
8. On the other hand, please be realistic about my time. If I tell you I can’t fix it in any realistic amount of time, don’t guilt me. If it’s going to take three hours to fix, guess what – I have stuff to do. There are people who get paid good money to fix complex issues like this, and I’m not one of them.
9. If I can’t fix it, comments like “I thought you knew computers” really don’t help. I know the software I use i.e. mostly Unix programming tools, not desktop publishing software written for Windows 98. There’s a lot of software out there and I know the intricate details of a very small percentage of it.
10. Here’s another unhelpful comment: “I thought you majored in computer science.” Computer science is not about fixing computers. It’s much closer to math than it is to tech support.
11. Finally, and most importantly – don’t keep rebuilding your house in a flood zone. If I get done solving your problem, please listen and follow any advice I have for preventing the issue in the future. Nothing is more annoying than solving the same problem over and over, especially if it can easily be avoided. In college I recovered at least three papers for a girl who lived next door. Every time I told her she needed to install anti-virus software, and every time she ignored me. I’m happy to help, but everyone’s altruism has limits.
Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Great. So what seems to be the problem?
UPDATE: Thanks everyone for all the feedback! There’s also a discussion going on at programming.reddit.com if you’re interested.

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50 Responses to “An Open Letter to Anyone Asking Me For Computer Help”

  1. Dan Says:

    I also tell most people I won’t help at all until they try rebooting as that solves 80% of all windows problems.

  2. Kartik Says:

    Why don’t you share the story that brought this on 🙂

  3. Ben Says:

    If there was only a single story, I would share it. In reality, there are hundreds of stories from helping friends over the past few years. Ever since freshmen year of college, I’ve played technical support for just about everyone I know.
    The thing is, none of the stories are that bad by themselves – my friends are generally very understanding and thoughtful with my time. But, over the years, I’ve noticed all these little things that people do or say while I’m helping them that kind of drive me crazy. I thought I’d better make a list for them to read before I even come over…

  4. Dustin Says:

    I work in Tech Support and generally a techy guy, and I must say these are all spot on.

  5. Drewskey Says:

    I am the IMO at my job and I agree 100% with you. The normal conversation goes like this: Him/her “My email no longer is in the order that it has been in for the past two years, what happened?” Me: “What did you do?” Him/Her, (offensive) “What Do You Mean, What DID I DO?” Me: “Let’s just go see What YOU did.” After one click of arranging by received data, problem fixed and I become an IT god again. Sheep.

  6. Arya Says:

    Brilliant! Well put, thanks.

  7. Jenna Says:

    me myself am a IT god too, maybe some clients are practicing polyteism, right as we speak about IT support.

  8. David Says:

    You have read my mind. Thank you for putting this into words.

  9. Bob Dobbs Says:

    I sure hope you got some good booty for recovering that girls 3 papers.

  10. Michele Says:

    I was asking a close friend a computer question today and I suddenly realized I was getting impatient and bitchy about wanting an answer in a way I never would if I was asking about fixing my vehicle or something and yet in spite of it my friend kept trying patiently to solve the problem …. Yesterday another friend spent 1 1/2 hours on the phone helping me on another to-me major computer problem and I’m incredulous at his generosity with his skill and time. I realized a great deal of the problem was how limited I was in being able to describe my problem in the first place. Anyway, I’m very grateful for all the help and I will try harder to help myself first. at least I know to try to reboot before calling.
    Ugh. Just tell me what keys to hit

  11. Anonymous Says:

    “Just between you and I” should be “Just between you and me”. Thanks.

  12. murray Says:

    Spot on with number 6. I hate that assumption that it should only take you a few minutes to do what a mere human would take hours to achieve.

  13. RichG Says:

    Wow, does this ring a bell! But it’s worth adding that a good deal of blame for the crappy state of tech support belongs to techies, especially the top feeders at M$ who, if there were any justice, would owe a lot of tech support people back pay.
    I have a number of smart friends who are “trench walkers” when it comes to dealing with PCs, shuttling back and forth between their browser, email program, and WP with their heads down, lest something unfortunate happen along the way. People who try to do new things are often rewarded by feeling whacked upside the head. So learning and experimentation often comes to a grinding halt, replaced by fear & resentment. PCs also come loaded with crapware the day you buy them, built-in forms of veiled manipulation most users have little clue how to deal with. And when is the last time you saw an OEM sell a consumer PC with a rational backup strategy firmly in place?
    Then there’s the internet where things only get more twitchy, due to being surrounded by shady activity on all sides, much of it promoted and paid for by “legit” companies trying to spy on users for marketing purposes (we hope!).
    Software development is an obscure activity to the public at large, a fact which grants coders a lot of freedom to do as they please. Sad to say that’s a freedom that’s been abused in many instances, and not always by overt villains! If you understand the issues it gets a good deal less clear where the dividing line falls between the white, gray, and black hat types. Indeed, entire areas of software development start to look like a giant racket, notably the security related stuff.
    So before we get too steamed with end users, let’s take a moment to realize that many of them feel a bit shell shocked by what’s going on, especially the ones who didn’t grow up with PCs. It’s pretty telling that the responses which often emerges from tech support are “Talk to Company X, it’s their software that’s causing this problem!”, or my favorite: “You need to start over and reinstall Windoze!”

  14. anonymous Says:

    RichG
    First off he’s not talkin about working on a helpdesk like you mention in your last paragraph. He’s talking about acquaintances. I don’t think it’s out of line to ask someone to check the first couple of Google results for their problem/question.

  15. Kelly Says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Well written and too true. I’ve worked help desk, I’m now a unix admin. Yet I supposedly know all about anything that is even remotely computer related.
    I don’t tell people to go look for the answers on google though. Chances are pretty good that if they didn’t think to look it up first, they won’t find the answer. If they do find it, they won’t have a clue if it’s correct or not and if they try to follow it, they’re probably going to make things worse.

  16. p3rsil Says:

    That letter is so on target. I also currently work as technical support for a specific area of computers, dsl internet connection, and it’s incredible how so many people have computers and know nada about them. they expect us to solve all problems (magically!) and it’s mostly never their fault (in their minds). of course, not everybody is like that, but it sort of gets into you with time.
    I always say, in a world like ours where there are so many laws and stuff we have to get permits for, I think it would be fit for people having to get a permit to own a computer 🙂 You know, like a driver’s license, but with computers! Not knowing how to type on the keyboard and calling about one’s internet connection not working isn’t right!
    Anyhow, very entertaining read.

  17. RichG Says:

    Dear Anonymous,
    Believe me, I’ve done plenty of freebie computer favors for friends and family and know only too well what’s at issue here. More important, I’m really not disagreeing with anything that’s been said. I’m entirely sensitive to the fact that people can be mentally lazy. In fact I’ve called out more than one friend at on that score. While I’m happy to help friends who really are stuck, I have no love of being taken for granted.
    All I’m arguing for is some sensitivity to the anxiety many users feel about their PCs, and to recognize that software development culture, in particular, tends to be rather cavalier about exacerbating those sensitivities, and tends to be insensitive in it’s own turn about the potential for cultivating end user smarts. I’ve worked for a long time as a tech writer and trainer, and I’ve encountered more than one programmer who when introduced to an idea which would require only a little effort to make their program easier for end users to grasp has responded by saying “Users are gonna complain no matter what I do, so why should I bother?” I think the technical term for this a is having a piss-poor attitude.
    What I’m trying to get at is the fact that there’s more than a little dysfunction going on between coders & normal users as groups of people these days, and it falls heavily on tech support types, be they professional or amateurs, to sort out the resulting chaos. While they may be irritatingly self centered, this chaos isn’t caused by mentally lazy users at the bottom of the industry food chain because ultimately those people don’t control much of anything. Most of the responsibility for the current mess belongs squarely at the feet of techies, especially those high up the industry food chain who, unlike end users, really do bear architectural responsibility for the shape of computing today. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about tech support folks here. They’re a long suffering group which has inherited the often thankless task of putting up with shit coming from both ends of the spectrum! I have nothing but sympathy for these people. Indeed, I count myself one of them!

  18. Oldtech Says:

    Ask me for help, on your Microsoft Virus Magnet, and I will install SimplyMepis, because it is immune to the 500,000 Microsoft Virus Malware exploits, and doesn’t need to waste overhead running 7 protection schemes!
    SimplyMepis comes with 2000 programs, games, applications, Suites of tools, installs in LESS than 30 minutes, without suffering the 19 (or more!) re-boots seen in any 3 hour install of Microsoft crapware!
    Then, you have access to the full 20,000+ programs in the many GNU/Linux repositories.
    But, if you can’t comprehend simple instructions, what are you doing on a computer in the first place?
    That is the basic trouble. Folks who shouldn’t be on the road, are, because the technology is available, cheap.
    OK, as a technologist, with over 42 years experience on aircraft avionics, surface transport vehicle controls, mainframe and desktop computers, I can get your system running again, but, sometimes I see the wisdom of your taking break from the stressful rat race.
    Half of the human population is below ‘average IQ’, and may not be able to function in the high technology environment.
    How much effort must we expend on helping them to function in an alien environment?
    Before I can assist, you really need to take this red pill… http://linux.wordpress.com/welcome-windows-users/

  19. Me Says:

    If the girl next door at college is hot i don’t mind to help her.

  20. Scott Says:

    When someone tells me they think they have a virus on their computer, I tell them to:
    1. Pour gasoline all over the computer.
    2. Set it on fire.
    Poof! Virus is gone in just a few seconds!

  21. Pax Says:

    There’s a big difference majoring in computer science and beeing a computer technician.
    So the computer science graduee could have problems helping friends, while no problems in designing and handling big complex computer systems.
    Just as you described it in 9. and 10.

  22. patsy scott Says:

    I get your point perfectly. I had an ex-husband who couldn’t stop himself from giving a doctor friend of ours’ a list of his ailments every time we met. I never succeeded in making him understand that no one expects more than a polite reply to a “how are you?” – and that nobody’s on duty 24hs a day.
    Having said this, and being a technology outsider, I must admit in this part of the world (Spain) nobody (me included) quite understands the difference between a web designer, a SEO, a programmer or a computer technician. Here, you are all referred to as “informáticos”, and are either the wiz-kid son of a lucky neighbour who can actually design your website and fix your computer, or else a rather “greenish-complexion” guy who fixes your computer when it crashes in the office. I may be exaggerating a little, but I for one have a son-in-law who works with computers (and has actually been in Silicone Valley!) whom I pester from time to time when I get a pdf full of graphs I have to translate and I just can’t convert to Word – never got a reasonable answer or solution from him but I’ll keep on turning to him for help, I’m sure, in the future. In a way, it’s like having a doc or lawyer in the family. Technology is a bit like Greek to most of us outsiders, and you are the only interpreters around – even if our notion of your speciality may be fuzzy at times. Sorry.
    Is your complexion green, by the way?

  23. Norski Says:

    That was a trip down memory lane, but I liked it anyway. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Besides being entertaining, this post is an opportunity for people outside the tech-support world to walk a few steps in the TS shoes.

  24. Anonymous Says:

    That was a trip down memory lane, but I liked it anyway. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Besides being entertaining, this post is an opportunity for people outside the tech-support world to walk a few steps in the TS shoes.

  25. Norski Says:

    That was a trip down memory lane, but I liked it anyway. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Besides being entertaining, this post is an opportunity for people outside the tech-support world to walk a few steps in the TS shoes.

  26. Anonymous Says:

    Yep, I especially love being blamed for any future snafus. “Well, you worked on it recently so therefore it’s your fault it’s broken again”…
    And explaining that since I swapped your power supply (for free, of course) 11 months ago, it’s hardly likely that I’m responsible for your crashed hard drive today.
    Seriously, Ive had a few friendships end this way, so I rarely agree to look at friends’ computer problems any more.
    Take it back to BestBuy

  27. Anonymous Says:

    Yep, I especially love being blamed for any future snafus. “Well, you worked on it recently so therefore it’s your fault it’s broken again”…
    And explaining that since I swapped your power supply (for free, of course) 11 months ago, it’s hardly likely that I’m responsible for your crashed hard drive today.
    Seriously, Ive had a few friendships end this way, so I rarely agree to look at friends’ computer problems any more.
    Take it back to BestBuy

  28. Anonymous Says:

    ultravnc singleclick (http://www.uvnc.com/addons/singleclick.html) is a gift from god. but scary for the average computer ignorant just explain before what they know what will apen after they’ve run the exe

  29. omega Says:

    my favorite was “dont say ‘this is taking too long'” that drives me crazy

  30. adam Says:

    Well put! All points are spot on. I got the “I thought you knew computers” once; he’s had to pay to get his computer fixed ever since.

  31. Jeff Says:

    My favorite was at a birthday party last year:
    You know computers, right?
    Yep.
    Great, my phone stopped working.
    A phone isn’t a computer.
    Why? They’re all just a bunch of chips.
    Right, I fixed a bag of nachos last week

  32. Kyle Ingrelli Says:

    AMEN! I love reading blogs that make me think “Hey! Someone is in my mind typing what I think!!” I’d say the biggest thing that gets me frustrated is people who cant help themselves. As you said, the solution is usually found by searching google for 5 minutes. This isn’t only true for computer issues, but true for virtually any problem you could have. Step 1: SEARCH GOOGLE! Keep up the insightful work, fun reads indeed.

  33. Nick Sunshine Says:

    great post, you are a mindreader 🙂

  34. Will Treasure Says:

    this is completly irrelevant, well almost,
    i hate it when people say “Half of the human population is below ‘average IQ’,”
    because it just screams captain obvious to me.

  35. Jach Says:

    Ah, I’m not even as high up as a major and I still have friends and family asking me all the time to fix their problems, and when it takes longer than a few minutes they get irritated. Also, 90% of the help I give requires me to be at their computer, because they can’t properly document the problem over email or IM. (A recent one just involved installing Flash which somehow got uninstalled.) Even if I do know the solution and can tell them over MSN or email, half the time they don’t even do it! It’s like they don’t care their computer is crap and infested with spyware and viruses.
    It also doesn’t help that I’ve grown accustomed to Linux. Thus Windows problems make me mad as they either wouldn’t happen or would be easily fixable in Linux.
    The “I thought you knew computers” remark is the worst. I’m going to start threatening people never to help them again if they say that.

  36. Joe Says:

    Wow, did a noob write this? Reminds me of my slow-ass co-worker who doesn’t know crap about computers but has an job in IT. I would fix any PC problem in less that 30 minutes. No google required unless I was searching for a driver or piece of software.

  37. Matt` Says:

    Joe, you seriously think you can diagnose and solve any problem that can occur on a computer within 30 minutes?
    I just recently had someone ask for computer help because their PC had been royally fucked over by some viruses (poor thing had a firewall as its only protection) and logging on initiated a flood of error messages about everything from missing system files to broken services.
    Couldn’t even open Windows Explorer because it had some how been added to the watchlist of “DEP”, a windows service designed to block nasty programs from running, so opening any windows/folders was out.
    I battled with it for a while before realising that even if I managed to rid it of malware (a tall order in itself) the system was so torn apart that it would probably be quicker and easier to reinstall than to track down and fix every piece of virus damage.
    Rescuing their files (using DOS to copy everything in Docs and Settings onto a portable hard drive) took a fair whack of time, as did reinstalling (sans Windows disks – there weren’t any, had to use Dell’s restore tool) plus restoring said files, and of course throwing in some antivirus software so I don’t have to do it again a few weeks from now.
    Google used to look up some DOS syntax so that it would copy any and all folders, archives, system files and hidden files, and to find out how to access Dell’s restore tool, I take it you don’t have all of that memorised either

  38. Doug Says:

    A friend forwarded this link to me, and I have to say it is spot-on!
    As a fellow Linux (and Windows) techie, I run into the same issues. Thank you for injecting wisdom and humor into the topic.
    And, yeah, Joe is just a troll. Ignore him. 🙂

  39. Bill Says:

    I’m your best friend. I’m the guy to whom people turn with the simple problems (like the email “issues’ described above) when IT puts them on the waiting list. I have no formal training in anything computer, am a math dullard, and really don’t know what I am doing. Yet, with a little common sense, and a quick Google if necessary, I can rectify most of the problems that make the users recoil in horror. Besides, if I break something, I just tell them to call IT!

  40. aerobrePef Says:

    Sono newbie,
    voi abbia fresco e nuovo lavoro xD
    A donna era desideri a ritrovamento corsi di formazione professionale .
    Dell tutti corsi corsi formazione finanza e in pubblici singoli offre!
    E …. Noi non poteva raccolta positivo pagine dove presenti corsi di aggiornamento.
    Puo essere colto non abbastanza 😦

  41. Wczasy Says:

    Heh… I don`t like help with PC!

  42. david solomon Says:

    Sounds weird ….people searching for ways to get help on the internet to solve stupid PC problems….dont be a miser and get a vendor ….or some computer geek friend to do the job !

  43. david solomon Says:

    Sounds weird ….people searching for ways to get help on the internet to solve stupid PC problems….dont be a miser and get a vendor ….or some computer geek friend to do the job !

  44. david solomon Says:

    Sounds weird ….people searching for ways to get help on the internet to solve stupid PC problems….dont be a miser and get a vendor ….or some computer geek friend to do the job !

  45. Computer service toronto Says:

    People always call geek when they gave up.

  46. Blackhat SEO Says:

    As a fellow Linux (and Windows) techie, I run into the same issues. Thank you for injecting wisdom and humor into the topic. Great post brother!

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