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Because I'm a programmer, people constantly ask me to fix their computer.

How do you handle this situation? Do you make exceptions for relatives, friends and coworkers? Do you charge people for it?

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closed as off topic by Mark Trapp Sep 16 '11 at 2:27

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Someone who knows how to fix computer problems. –  Mason Wheeler Sep 20 '10 at 0:04
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I normally just fix them. –  tenpn Sep 20 '10 at 10:20
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@tenpn: Must be your first time, have fun fixing them again. –  gAMBOOKa Sep 20 '10 at 12:45
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obligatory: xkcd.com/627 –  ioSamurai Sep 21 '10 at 3:06
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I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. -- Thomas A. Edison. –  Lie Ryan Sep 28 '10 at 1:26

60 Answers 60

You can try, but some of these people will be the ones that call the monitor "the computer" and not know what the funny little box beneath the desk is. It's probably not worth the energy to clarify. But, sometimes a metaphor can help:

If the computer was a car, the programmer is the one that configures how and when it burns the fuel in different situations before it leaves the factory. The "computer guy" is the mechanic that repairs the car when it breaks or tunes it for speed, or perhaps does an after-market modification.

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If it's close friends or family, I just tell them fixing configuration problems isn't my thing, and while I can do it, I can't do it as efficiently as somebody who specializes in this. I also point out that I won't get to it for a while, and point out they're better off going to a hole in the wall computer store & asking them to fix it.

Anybody else, I tell them basically the same thing, but emphasize the 'efficiency' thing, and point out that the people who do specialize in this, charge less than half the hourly rate I do.

In the rare cases where they continue to ask, the focus is turned to how can they find a person who does specialize in this type of thing, and I'm all to happy to help them with that (always for free).

This has been a very effective strategy for me.

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I handle such requests by fixing the computers in question. The requests are rare enough that they don't take up much of my time, and besides, I happen to enjoy mucking about with computers.

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If it's family or close friends, I fix it if I can, or if I can't I promise to deal with the problem until it's solved (Okey, bring it to me ... sure, just leave on your way' in the mornin' and I'll look it up. I don't think it's serious, but if I can't handle it, I'll take it to ... and you'll get it on Wednesday, latest. I'll give you a call if something needs to be replaced, but it looks like it shouldn't.) Refund usually comes in the form of apfelstrudl on delivery :-)

For pretty much all others, I either help them with a piece of advice or two (which in a lots of cases does help with the problem) or advise them where it would be best for them to take the machine, and so on. Quick internet searches included. And I really don't mind helping people if I can (I don't think most of us in these community sites mind helping, after all.)

Apart from the above, most people don't ask ... although I have the reputation of a "computer guy", I don't however have one of a "chatty guy" - so most never get a chance to ask :-)

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Every time I fantasize about telling people to go away, and every time I end up giving in because they're family/friends/girlfriend(I wish :p ). But I have to admit that it's hard to argue against this set of people, so I do have a hierarchy that goes something like this (from the most willing to help to less willing):
girlfriend > family > friends > Hitler > co-workers.

A girlfriend is a no brainer, and friends are usually polite enough about it, and ask only on rare occasions. It's the family members who are the most pushy, but, well... I'm sure it wasn't very fun for your mother to cook for you for 18 years, I suppose you can return the favor, within the limits of it not getting in the way of other things...

But strangers have no business asking you for help, and that includes co-workers. Just charge an outrageous fee and tell them you'll get to it in 2 weeks. That should take care of that.

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It's usually an ID10T error. But normally, its a hardware or software issue. So as a website programmer, I simply say "Sorry I only work on websites. Besides, it sounds like a hardware issue, you need a hardware tech, and I don't know anything about that anymore."

Yes, I normally have to make exceptions for friends and family members.. but it irritates me. I almost always will procrastinate on it, since it is low-priority to me.

In Retrospect, get yourself a T-Shirt that says "I wont fix your computer."

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Like it or not, you have to make exceptions for family members, in the end they're family, right? When it comes to other people I used to invent some kind of excuse. Anything from "I'm extremely busy at the moment" to not answering their phone calls.

The problem isn't helping them it's 1) you help them once and afterwards you're their official tech support 'dude' and 2) if something worse happens that you did not expect they will kinda blame it on you. In the end I like to keep my distance from them.

I'm gonna link a very funny post from TheOatMeal assuming you have't seen it already. Enjoy :-) http://theoatmeal.com/comics/computers

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+1 for family exception. try{ fixComputer(); }catch(FamilyException $f){fixComputerBecauseTheyAreReleated(); } –  Chris Sep 20 '10 at 14:13
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I just tell anyone who's not family that I don't touch other people's computers because half the time I make the problem worse. Seems to work. –  romkyns Sep 21 '10 at 23:29

Just say, "If you're interested, I'll draw up a quote for you." That usually either makes them a little less interested or makes you a little more spending money. The other option is asking for a favor in return.

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Here's what you do:

  • If it's a Windows box say, "I only know how to fix Macs".
  • If it's a Mac say, "I only know how to fix PCs".
  • If it's a Linux box say, "You're a Linux user... fix it yourself!"
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@mouviciel, tell him you too just switched, from mac to windows, and don't want to remember any of the ugly past. –  Nivas Sep 20 '10 at 9:59
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Tried that. Blows up in your face when these three types of people are from the same group. –  MAK Sep 20 '10 at 10:11
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Excellent comment about the Linux box.. +100 :-) –  Geek Sep 20 '10 at 13:18
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@Alexandru: "Oooh... that's a PowerPC based MacMini. Sorry, I only know the Intel ones." You can always find an excuse. –  Dan Moulding Sep 20 '10 at 19:53
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The funny thing is that when everyone in my family who had a computer used a PC, I had a Mac, and once everyone got Macs I'd moved to Windows. So I don't even have to lie. –  Robert Rossney Sep 20 '10 at 23:18

In the past I've been fairly amenable to helping friends and family with computer problems (hell, I had to go visit my Great Aunt every time daylight savings changed to update the clock on their VCR).

The worst is going to try and sort out the "family computer" which will usually be virus riddled and have no current security software. It's worse if they have a teenage son as I'll invariably come across their stash of illicit image and movie files that they've hidden away somewhere, and thus end up in the middle of that mess. Disillusioned many a parent.

These days I'll tend to maintain a 15 minute rule. If I'm there and I can fix it in 15 minutes then I'll do it (no charge, even with my customers). I see it as good will. Usually uninstalling any software they don't need, and running ccleaner will clean up a lot of problems. I'll also do a quick scan with stinger and if I find anything let them know that they need to take it somewhere to get more thoroughly looked at.

A lot of the time the simple fact of the matter is the computer is too old and it's not gonna get much faster than it is already.

Aside: I once correctly diagnosed a computer problem my barber was having as a faulty keyboard from the description he gave me during the haircut. Still had to pay for the haircut mind you...

The one exception to the rule is my parents. They always get free computer support 'cause afterall, they supported me through uni and all, so they might as well get something back for it. (Mind you, when I was working from home, I did end up threatening to invoice my Dad if he kept showing up during work hours.) I've also got a reverse VNC system set up so I can remote connect to their desktops to see what's going on.

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My parents ask me this most often, and I always help them. They paid for enough things in my life that I feel the least I can do is keep their computers up and running smoothly.

For everyone else I say "sure", then I take 5-10 minutes and do as much non-permanent damage as I possibly can. I uninstall features, add extra logins, change device settings, and change path variables. Eventually, I say "I give up", and they pay someone else to fix their now /really/ broken system. So far, nobody has ever asked me to fix their computer twice.

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this is offensive. –  Reigel Sep 20 '10 at 7:53
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Offended whom? You can think that is bad action but I can't see any offense here. –  bigown Sep 20 '10 at 13:01
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+1 Accurate answer. a nasty response, but an interesting one noentheless. Oh, and stay away from my computer! –  Moshe Sep 21 '10 at 4:09
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Wow.. What would you do if someone asked you to watch their children? Agree to do so, but then set them on fire? (only for a little while, so next time they will use a REAL babysitter!) –  mpeterson Sep 21 '10 at 4:37
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Programmers are so judgemental. Yes - of course I tell them that "I'm not very good and that I may mess things up", but they tell me to go ahead and try...once. –  Alan Sep 21 '10 at 21:21

Had the pregnant spouse of a friend of a co-worker call me about a printer problem. Finally, I had to tell her to return it and sat on the phone for what seemed like an hour just listening to her sob. Now I tell horror stories about all the computers I've screwed up. I hate working with: hardware, networking, security, and other people's code. Pretty much in that order.

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I usually tell them they need to upgrade.

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Happend to me and most developers so many times, what I try to do is to explain the difference between software and hardware and around 50% times I heard that "You are worthless computer engineer if you can't fix computer." I know they said it in frustration because they thought by calling me they will get their job done for free :-P

Sometimes people laungh when I say that even I cal hardware engineer when I face any hardware engineer. :-(

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It's better to pretend you don't know anything about computers.

WHY?

Check out here.

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If it's family, I just play dumb (it just confirms what they already thought).

If it's friends, I tell them life's too short to do what I hate - and that's why I started charging friends.

Any body else, "No".

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I will try to fix the computer, and usually I'm failed, because I'm really a programmer not a technician. Next time, they'll think one more time before asking me again.

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For family members and close friends I usually respond by simply fixing the problem, or at least having a look it. I might grumble about being the PC maintenance guy to myself or on Twitter, but I certainly wouldn't consider charging - if it get's to the point where I think it would take that much of my time then chances are the problem is such that I can simply explain that they should take it to a specialist. I wouldn't take apart someone else's PC for the same reason I don't like to build systems for other people, as I don't want to get the blame for any damaged components.

I find that nearly all problems referred to me are either a slow running computer, or an infected computer where they haven't replaced / purchased the trial AV software that comes pre-installed on most PC's. In both cases, it's usually not that big a deal for me to fix things - I just leave the computer switched on in the corner of the room running whatever diagnostics / clean / repair software it needs to while periodically checking up on it.

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I just try and fix it for them.

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Tell them, it is like asking a psychiatrist to do a brain surgery.

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@MAK - let them :-) –  Stephen C Sep 20 '10 at 10:29
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Though in most cases it's more like asking a brain surgeon to fill out a Cosmo survey. "What the hell is lip liner? Why do you have all this crap in your bathroom??" –  intuited Sep 21 '10 at 4:33

Say you'll fix their computer. Then open their temporary internet files folder and then look totally shocked when you discover the obligatory hardcore porn images that are bound to be there. They probably will be too ashamed to ever ask again... :)

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I just ask them to clean my shower in exchange:

http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2006-02-01/

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Most programmers are knowledgeable in computer Hardware and anyway most problems often involve solving operating system failures in Windows, Linux or Mac OS X etc... People from the "outside" view computer science as a whole that incorporates programming as well as electronics and embedded systems.

Personnally I help family most of the time but since I've graduated I find it harder and harder to find the time to help friends, and even family about their daily software problems which to windows users are legion... Sometimes there will be hours of troubleshooting included to solve a problem of compatibility between two products that have been bought by the person initially with no knowledge of whether or not they are actually compatible...

So it depends on the selfishness of it, if I'm asked whether or not I can help build a machine and install the stuff on it and the other person actually sticks through the whole process then I don't feel like I'm being used. It's all about giving and receiving.

If you feel you're being used then something's wrong. If I were you I'd just advise buying thrice the price outdated hardware from Apple to those who are really helpless so you won't ever be bothered again :D.

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I give them the example of a dentist, a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon (e.g. would you go to the first if you had a broken bone?) People who ask you to fix their computers are unaware of the distinction between programmers, hardware engineers etc (and the specializations therein).

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I give them a visiting card (made for the special occasion) and I ask them to schelude an appointment to talk about the problem. End of the story.

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For Windows:

Person: Blah, blah , blah .... (describing their problem). Me: I don't know the solution to this. You need format. Person: Great, can you do it? Me: No. I don't know how things work on Windows 7. Person: Oh, you run Linux right? Me: Ehm...well, yes. Person: Ok, thanx anyway.

For Ubuntu:

Person: Blah, blah, blah... (usually asking how to make their desktop very cool) Me: I don't remember, google it.

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"Desktop? What's that?" –  SamB Sep 21 '10 at 21:16

I have an amazon.com wish list. I do genuinely like helping people, however I feel my time is worth something. Where accepting cash may not feel 100% appropriate, sending them my Amazon wish list has worked very well for me.

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I actually turned this problem into a small business. I don't make much with it at this point, but it is definitely worth it.

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Here's a win-win:

I have a 12-year old son, so I tell people that my son will fix their computer for $20-$25. Then I tell them to bring the computer over.

I help my son resolve the problem. He learns a little more about computers, makes a few bucks, and has some "job experience".

Folks don't mind paying a kid for something they'd expect for free from me. And I don't have to go to their house.

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Do they actually fall for that? –  Seun Osewa Sep 20 '10 at 17:06
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That's awesome :D ! –  James Poulson Sep 21 '10 at 7:53
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That's child labor. ಠ_ಠ –  RegDwight Sep 23 '10 at 13:42
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@Job: He created a startup and is now too rich to work on PCs. I have asked my wife to make more of these PC "technicians". We are getting right on it :) –  jm01 Jan 27 '11 at 21:24
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@Job When people tell you about their computer problems, just reply with "Could not reproduce!" –  Maxpm Mar 6 '11 at 5:18

People who have computer problems run windows. As I ditched Windows back when win98SE was all the rage, I can safely affirm that I known absolutely nothing about windows (though it's not absolutely true about XP, I never even used an actual Vista/7 machine).

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Oh, occasionally someone who's not running Windows has a computer problem; it's just that they usually end up dealing with it mostly on their own. –  SamB Sep 21 '10 at 21:23

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