How I Some Times Fail

From: keramida
Subject: Patience with Windows users, or “How I some times fail”

Adamo mentioned in passing, while writing about this year’s OneWeb day, that he really dislikes being asked to “fix” Word.

My involvement with computers started some time in late 1993, and I have been in the same place far too many times. The overwhelming majority of acquaintances and members of my wider family don’t really understand what “I am trying to work as a computer programmer” means. They also assume that if you “work with computers” you are, by definition, the best person to ask about Microsoft® Word™ or about that little flashy MSN emoticon set they are trying to install on Microsoft Windows.

Some times, I manage to reply in what I think is a slightly more constructive manner than “Get the f* out of here”. Yet, there are still times that, hard as I may try to be patient, I fail in spectacular ways. This Autumn marks my 15th year of involvement with computers, and I am still a bit unsure about the right™ way to handle this sort of thing. My selfish part tends to reply to Windows requests in a very dismissive and blunt way: “I’m sorry but I don’t use Windows. You will have to find someone who does”. My personal bane is, however, that I like helping others. I have been posting to mailing lists & Usenet groups since practically “forever” (in my case “forever” means “since I found out about email & Usenet”). Barring the occasional stupid question I posted about things I was unfamiliar with or unsure about, I have even managed to answer a few of them!

There are times, however, that I completely and utterly fail to be patient with Windows users. I can tolerate the occassional question from my immediate family members about table layout in Microsoft Word. I can almost endure through questions about fancy flash-based “media players” that crash, slurp a huge amount of resources and crawl to a halt, or otherwise malfunction. But my patience with Windows questions wears down very fast; probably too fast. This tends to introduce a fair amount of tension in my relationships with relatives and friends. Even when they do not explicitly ask me to “fix their Word installation”, I feel that I am often on guard for the potential of this sort of request and carefully wording my way away of the potentially dangerous subject. This is where suckage beings to trickle in…

I don’t like spending any amount of time working with Windows™. I mean none at all. Even having to wait for the logon screens of the average “desktop” to stop throwing random flashy stuff at me makes me very impatient.

I also feel uncomfortable with the blunt, brute way of reply that goes something like “Yes, I know some things about computers, but I won’t fix yours”. People who are friends, close relatives or loved ones may take this too personally, and this is something I feel bad about.

It is rather unfortunate, and one of the “problems” I have had for a long time, but this year’s OneWeb day marks yet another year that I’ve been online without having any sort of idea that would get both me and my (friends|relatives) out of this dilemma.

14 thoughts on “How I Some Times Fail

  1. adamo

    It gets better worse:

    – You are into computers, right?
    – Yes
    – I have this problem with Word
    – I do not know anything about Word
    – So what did they teach you five years in the University?

    I think you have three choices for a (partial) solution:

    1- Immediate family members: Either they understand and do not bother you again, or they do not and you decide that this is (unpaid) family support. After all, family supports you in many other ways also.
    2- People who are willing to change. You can teach them how to search and help themselves (and others). You may even try to “convert” them.
    3- None of the above: Avoid them, and if you cannot do otherwise suggest that a payment of €50 per hour is expected. Do tell them that if in 10 minutes you have not found what is wrong, you are going to format their machine and that backup is their responsibility and not yours.

    However, the real problem is a fourth category: People who know people you know. “Hi, I am a friend of your brother / sister and s/he suggested that you can help me with this problem…”

  2. Philip Paeps

    This is eerily familiar…

    I’m still looking for a good formula to work myself out of conversations like the one adamo comments.

    – Hi! You’re a computer person, can you fix this?
    – I’m a computer person but I don’t work with that kind of computer.
    – What kind of computers do you work with then? Are you an Apple user? My [relation] has an Apple too (…)
    – No, I work on embedded computers
    – (blank look) But you write software…?
    – Yes, I work on operating systems.
    – …

    And it’s all downhill from there. How do you wiggle yourself out of this conversation without being rude or without launching into a many-hour explanation which helps the listener not at all?

  3. betabug

    Carefully cultivate the image that your level of computer expertise is too sophisticated, too much “in the clouds” or “the ivory tower” to know anything about stuff like “Word”. When asked what you do (or what you use instead of “Word”), go on explaining the shell, pipe-redirection, the modal editing world of vi (or lisp customization of emacs, should you subscribe to that particular bad taste) or if it’s your level, even the memory usage optimization algorithm you’d been working on. Explain it in a serious voice, with absolutely no irony or “joking manner”, with lots of details right till their eyes glaze over. Then change the subject to something like football or cooking and people will grasp that subject change like it’s the lifeline when they fell into the sea off that arctic icebreaker.

    People will give up on you and what your family members will say is “yeah, my $CLOSE_RELATIVE knows a lot about computer stuff, but you can’t really use him for fixing this basic/important stuff, he’s too far out”. Your mileage may vary, but it orks for me.

    @adamo: “backup is their responsibility” … since these people likely haven’t ever heard the word “backup”, I never liked this approach. Having to care about their data safety when they themselves were much too incompetent to care themselves, that was really one of the things that got me to leave the field of computer support.

  4. adamo

    Backup is their responsibility. So, if you lose their data just because they did not tell you they needed it before the backup / format routine, they will not call you up again. Nasty I know, but it works.

  5. keramida Post author

    adamo: The post was actually triggered by a stupid web page that forced my father to use a ‘flash player’ to access some MP3 files. The MP3 files were readily available for download, and they play fine in any audio player. But there was direct download link on the web site. Only a flash player that brought his laptop to its knees every single time. I eventually found some time to read the page source, locate the XML file that the flash player was using for its playlist, reconstruct the direct MP3 links and fetch the audio files with a tiny shell script.

    For immediate family members, I feel it is my responsibility to help them with their queries, even if they are time consuming. The tricky bit is then the “extended” family wants the same level of support too.

    Friends of friends of acquaintances of friends, are “strangers” so I liked the €50 per hour rate. I think I’ll try to see how well this works. Time isn’t exactly a commodity to be spent on mundane tasks without at least some sort of compensation.

    philip: Heh! I know, I know… Conversations like this one are quite typical of the “isn’t all software the same” mindset :/

    One of the things I’ve tried to do in the past few years is to convince, at least my immediate relatives, that all software is “equal”, and that there are variation and themes of a great diversity. I’ve (unsuccessfully, so far) tried to use is a comparison of Computing with Medicine. Some people seem to “get it” easier when I say things like:

    “If you have an ulcer, you don’t expect a heart surgeon to treat it, right? Well, with my own field it’s the same. If you have a Windows problem, it’s unrealistic to expect a UNIX person to fix it.”

    This doesn’t seem to always work as well as I originally expected, though. Pathologists seem to be a fatal flaw in the metaphor I was trying to use, and sufficiently smart people are quick to point that out.

    Very interesting comments so far :)

  6. Andy Kosela

    Yes, comparing IT to Medicine is a good one. I use it also to explain the principles behind professionals and specialists in general. Even in the UNIX field you really can’t be an expert in every branch of it. Oracle Database administrator and DNS administrator are a whole different breed, and both of them can work in the UNIX environment. So to ask DNS administrator to fix an Oracle database integrity problem would be like asking a plumber to fix an electricity problem.

    Computing is so complex these days you can’t really master it all. I usually explain to people that I work in the FreeBSD environment and therefore I know next to nothing about Windows environments (although I can fix 99% of their problems :). “Huh? What is FreeBSD?” “*Do you know Linux?” “Yeah, I heard about it” “*So it’s a similar system with a different mascot :), completely different from Windows” “Oh, OK”.

  7. stavrosg

    I am lucky enough to have enough competent computer users in my extended family that they do not bother me much about that kind of problems. They used to, and I would gladly accept, but only for my close relatives, the rest only got a polite decline. And then some of them grew up and took the burden themselves :P.
    Now I have the luxury of choosing who to help, and when.
    And yes, most of them do stop asking when I say “Uhm, I don’t know – I don’t use Windows anyway”.

  8. Geekwad

    When I explain “I haven’t used windows in more than ten years,” my inlaws just get a confused look on their faces. How can you have a computer without the windows? It just doesn’t parse for them. Eventually I had to say, “Look, Bill Gates doesn’t support Windows 95 anymore, and neither do I.” I don’t think they understood what I meant by that remark, but they seemed to catch my meaning.

  9. Ceri Davies

    Heh, my pet peeve is:
    – so what kind of stuff do you do?
    – computers
    – oh, what kind of thing?
    – High availability clustering, relational databases, storage…
    – Oh, databases. I used to work with Access…

  10. Michael Iatrou

    Well, family and close friends deserve my time, my patience, my “best-self”, even if that requires messing with the “worst software”. For the rest, it’s the personal “taste” that comes first, and this is priceless. So, “I am very busy these days, but have you tried Ubuntu?”. You may not “win”, but it’s fun playing in your court.

    M-x set-pedantic-mode

    P.S. “Note” to “self”: overusing \”””\” (“doublequotes”), neither provides “context”, nor helps to cross the language “barrier” and insinuate “more” than you write. “Oh,” “well…”

  11. keramida Post author

    adamo: That’s, uhm, “interesting”. At least some of the tools shown in the blog post are nice. I didn’t know what process explorer or the other system tools Mark Russinovich mentioned are, and I most certainly don’t know what each DLL does, but this was an intriguing read… Thanks :-)

  12. adamo

    The reason I posted Russinovich’s article was its second sentence: “Given the importance of the customer […]”

  13. nuclear

    Ha, the reality of this post hit me like a brick in the face.
    I’ve been there so many times… especially the expectation that I must know how to do this and that on word/excel pops up continuously. My standard response is just a spartan “I wouldn’t know how to do X, I don’t use windows/office/whatever”; it generally works. When I happen to be in a good mood, I tend to *try* and help my parents, but that’s all.

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