I will not fix your freaking computer

I've been thinking a lot lately about my side-project/hobby work that I do on computers at home, and I found myself extremely frustrated by what I've been asked to do over the last few years.  You see, I love computers, I adore technology, and I find myself wide-eyed and giddy when I get a new toy to play with.  I've been that way since the time I was about 8 when I plugged the non-business end of a Photon gun into the game port on my Commodore 64 computer and subsequently fried the motherboard (and thoroughly pissed off my dad).  I've always loved figuring out how things work, what breaks them, and how to fix them.  That thirst for knowledge still holds a strong place in my life, and I really enjoy learning something new as often as possible.  Computers are sort of a conduit through which I garner new information - much more than I would otherwise without them.

But through the years, I've realized that my hobby for fixing computers has mostly become my curse.  I know quite a lot about working on and fixing computers.  And because people like friends of my family, or friend-of-a-friend acquaintances hear from someone I know about computers, I get a lot of requests for help.  Some of my wife's patient's families have asked for my help, and if they offer to pay me, I'm happy to do so... But the problem is, they ask me to take a look at their computer, or do favors for them by testing and/or replacing hardware, software, etc. without any mention of offering to pay me for my trouble.  I don't go to the doctor with a sore throat and expect him to diagnose me without paying for it.  And I certainly don't take my car to the mechanic to find out what a problem is and expect them to plug it into the diagnostic computer for free.

I've been getting paid for fixing computers since I got a job as an IT Helpdesk analyst when I was a Junior at Pitt in 2001.  I spent 3 years learning a ton about the basics of computing, and my experience gained was much more valuable than the paltry $10/hr I earned those 3 years.  I learned the most I could, but also got in the habit of doing favors for people with no expectation for a favor in return or payment.  Since then I've also learned a lot about how people should get paid for the work they do, and it sounds selfish but I don't work for free any more... at least not without a good reason.

It's unfortunate that my computer skills conflict with my relationships with people, but I imagine anyone with a particular high-demand skill goes through the same problems. Someone asks you to help them out, but you really don't want to be cornered into a situation.  It plagues me with guilt if I tell someone no, but at times it's the only way I can keep my sanity.  I read an article recently regarding this idea written by Josh Olson.  I won't paste the title of it here because it's got the f-bomb in it, but if you're not afraid of a little gratuitous use of swear words (this guy does write violent film scripts), I highly recommend reading it.  It's an interesting take on why he feels threatened by his friends because he feels like everyone wants something from him.

Drawing the line when it comes to personal and professional life is sometimes very difficult.  I do think that helping my friends is a good thing, and I honestly don't mind helping them out if it can save them a whole lot of trouble in the process.  A great example I can think of that happened was with my buddy Mr. Misanthropology.  He had a severe melt down of the Windows 2000 installation on a laptop he used for work at the time.  He knew the drive wasn't dead yet, but he couldn't get into the operating system to copy his important work files off of it, and wipe and reinstall everything.  I was able to help him using a few little tricks I learned along the way, and a boot CD with Linux distro called Damn Small Linux. We got it running on his laptop, dumped everything he needed to an FTP server on a re-purposed Xbox I had, and we were able to get him back up and running that night.  I was glad to help him out, and had no expectation of him being obligated to do anything else for me in return.  The challenge and successful outcome were my reward, and I was satisfied by that experience.  I recently read a fantastic article that talked about how to manage geeks. I won't go into it too much, but it's very enlightening about how geeks think the way they do, and why it's important for non-geeks to recognize our behaviors.  It's been a long time since I read something that really nailed my demographic in terms of fleshing out why geek stereotypes are a result of bad business practices, and how so many companies fall prey to bad behaviors.

I'm having trouble finding a way to close this article out.  But I feel a bit of catharsis from writing about these things that weight heavily on me at times.  There will be days when people take advantage of you, and occasionally that's OK.  I think it's part of being a human being to be exploited.  Take a look at McDonald's ad campaigns.  They take advantage of kids all the time, and our country's waistline is much worse for it.  I'm sure I've taken advantage of someone else without realizing it at some point in the past, and to those of you I have I apologize... but I'm not going to look at your friend's computer.


  1. I'd like to point out that I haven't shown up at your door with a computer in tow in over four years. I think you done learned me a thing or two along the way...especially to never carelessly fdisk. I do admit to having asked questions more recently.

    I think your main problem here is that you have an extremely marketable skill. Depending on the computer gremlins lurking about, a person might need help from someone like you a few times a year or more. With someone like Justin, a little help here and there is useful for installing new outlets or fixtures. Now that I'm out of college, I don't really have people pounding down my door for a 5 page essay on the Romantic poets. My most commonly exploited skills are grilling and mixology...neither of which is needed all that often.

  2. I think the most important thing that I can do outside of fixing a computer is teach a little bit on how to do basic troubleshooting stuff. I truly believe it's crucial to know those tricks that likely fixes or at least makes it easier to diagnose a problem. It's empowering to be self-sufficient. I'm glad and proud that you've learned something from me along the way. Technology has become too ingrained in our lives and culture to not know how to handle BSoDs or hiccups. I do definitely believe in swapping favors - like working on a computer for someone to replace an alternator on my car, or fix a light-switch.

    I know I've got a long way to go with my skills as a writer, but that's why I enjoy doing the book club, and writing a blog. I most likely wouldn't have done those things without motivation from you on doing those kinds of things. For that I'm grateful because it challenges me to grow in areas that I have a lot less experience.

  3. Please make sure you post all of your computer specs. There is also nothing worse than asking a question about computer hardware and not giving the details of your hardware. Also let us know if it is an OEM (pre-built) computer. I recommend including all components and not just the ones that may be in question, for example:

    Motherboard make and model
    Video card
    Monitor (primarily LCD/CRT, size, resolution and refresh rate)
    Power Supply


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