After Hours

I'm a mortician--what do I know about computers?

What do you do when people are constantly asking you to fix their computers? Check out the strategies that Builder.com members have devised for dealing with free computer work propositions.


Builder.com members offered a largely sympathetic response to my recent article "You must know a lot about computers, then…." In the article, I vented some frustration about always being asked to fix the computer problems of friends, family, and even the occasional total stranger who discovers that my line of work involves computer programming. I knew before writing the article that this is a widespread source of grief for all technical workers, not just developers. It turns out that other professions have the same problem.

Doctors and mechanics aren't immune either
In retrospect, it's not surprising that mechanics get much the same treatment as developers do. "I used to be an auto mechanic," said member williamsbyron, "and that was the worst. People would make indistinguishable noises and ask, 'What is wrong when my car makes that noise?' How should I know? You don't even know what make the car is!" Williamsbyron now works as a developer for Briggs & Stratton and said things haven't changed much: "I get a never-ending flood of engine and computer questions."

In my article, I wondered specifically if doctors also find themselves in similar situations. I didn't have to wait long for an answer. Member mikesb is a physician as well as a self-taught techie. "I get hit with both types of questions!" mikesb said. "I get asked for prescriptions for antibiotics, etc., all the time—and to fix computers and install software. I have learned, like the author, from hard experience, to decline such requests with whatever degree of firmness is required."

Good way to network
However, as several members reminded me, pro bono work—if you can stomach it—may be a good way to build up a network in case you ever need a new day job. Member single– buzz.builder.com is shouting to the mountaintops, "I'm a programmer!" in hopes of finding a new job. (Can I get a finder's fee if you're hired as a result of your appearance here?)

Barter is another possibility if, like me, you can't bring yourself to charge people for doing something they ought to be able to do themselves. Just make sure that you're getting enough out of the relationship for your time. "I have a friend who's been building and maintaining Web sites for local bars and restaurants for four years," said Marty. "He's lucky to get a free drink once in a while, and yet they expect him to host and maintain their sites, update their schedules every week, maintain an e-mail account, print their e-mails and bring them in! He figures he's building up 'goodwill' that will eventually land some paying work, but after four years, he should know you can't eat a goodwill sandwich!"

Marty also said that there's a sort of double standard at work, noting that those who constantly solicit free help from developers "wouldn't dream of taking [their cars] to their dealership or mechanic friend for a free service, or asking their plumber buddy to pop over and unclog their toilet for free."

Give in and consult…
You can always just charge the people with legitimate problems and make some spare cash, rather than go through all that trouble to avoid saying "no." Quite a few freelance consultants apparently got their start this way. In addition to Marty, members rheanes3, Brian.Biby, and cswearingen are all now charging people for their time. More power to you folks, I just can't bring myself to do it.

Of course, that may not stop you from getting cornered into giving away free help. Builder.com's own Shelley Doll relayed this all-to-familiar story:

"Just last night, at about 10:00 P.M., a woman I wrote a Web application for called me because she 'clicked on Media Player, and no sound came out.' After 10 minutes of trying to explain that I was working on something else, and then 25 more minutes of trying to explain that Media Player is just software and you have to have music in it to play, and that there's volume control on your speakers and your computer, she offered, 'You don't mind me calling you like this do you?' When I repeated the bit about how actually, I was working on something for another client she replied, 'Thanks—I know you don't mind.' I don't think it really matters if you're nice or not. As soon as they know someone in 'the biz,' there's no escape."

Or tell the biggest whopper you can dream up?
On the other hand, you can just have fun with it, wearing your "No, I will not fix your computer" t-shirt with pride. Or you might make up an occupation when asked—an approach that, incidentally, doubles as great entertainment when you are stuck at a get-together with people you don't know and possibly don't want to know better.

Member rpmcaninch said he used to tell people at parties that had a cake-baking business that only made two flavors of cake. "'We only make boysenberry and chocolate right now, but we're thinking of adding peppermint if things go right…' and so on, I just laid it on thicker and heavier as I went. Nobody asked me for anything."

By far the funniest solution I heard was proposed by ewoychowsky, who said, "Claiming to be a janitor is good, but I think I'll tell people I'm a mortician. That should stop any further questions about my job." Unless, of course, you happen to meet a rabid 'Six Feet Under' fan….

Tell us what you think!
Do you embrace helping others with their computer problems as a business opportunity, or is it an aggravation you'll go to any lengths to avoid? Post your opinion in our discussion below.

 

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