Data Management

Support favors: Where do you draw the line?

Every IT pro has been asked by family or friends for tech support. Chip Camden says IT consultants have even more reason than regular employees to let this imposition raise their blood pressure.

People become involved in IT-related careers for a wide variety of reasons. The term IT covers a broad range of activities. But all IT people have at least one thing in common: They've been asked to fix a friend's or family member's computer. (Let me know if you're the exception.) Furthermore, the majority of these requests ("While you're here, could you just take a look at something?") come with the implied remuneration of $0. Maybe one beer. Two beers if it takes all evening. At most, a dinner.

While we all resent the imposition, IT consultants have even more reason than regular employees to let this raise our blood pressure. We not only make our living off this type of work, we could probably be doing more of it right now and collecting our hourly fee if we weren't stuck trying to figure out why Aunt Edna's sound card isn't pumping Bill Gaither's melodious voice out the speakers. No, Aunt Edna, don't worry about it — I'm sure it's something simple. Another hour or so... No more Coca-Cola cake, thanks.

Why do we agree to do these favors? Probably because we feel powerless to refuse. You could plead ignorance, but that's really hard for a geek to do. Or, you could lay the problem out openly, and state your hourly rate — if you don't mind being a jerk.

Family ties run much deeper in our DNA than monetary systems, and nobody wants to be the subject of Aunt Edna's gossip to Cousin Lulu: "He's a nice boy. He's supposed to know a lot about computers, but he didn't want to fix mine. Oh, I know he's busy and I didn't want to impose, but he certainly had time for a piece of Coca Cola cake, for goodness sake. These young people just don't appreciate Family."

Dealing with friends' requests for technical help can be even harder, because no matter what you do the friendship suffers. If you agree, you'll resent it and never like them quite as much as you did. If you don't agree, then you're putting them in their place — effectively saying "our friendship isn't *that* good".

It's even worse if your friend is a colleague. I have a much harder time deciding where to draw the line in those cases, because I might need their help someday. As long as it's just a "Hey, can you answer this question for me?" I'll usually just do it, figuring that the favor will be returned in kind or at least translate into good Karma. But these things have a way of getting out of hand. Next thing you know, they're saying "Just tell me if you don't have the time" — which is code for "We both know that I'm taking advantage of you, but if you object you'll be the bad guy. And you can't be resentful, because I gave you an out — albeit an uncomfortable one."

Even a paying offer can be an imposition sometimes. I was attending a school function, when the father of one of my daughter's friends came up to me and shook my hand. We've done business before, and I like the guy a lot. So when he began, "Say, how much do you know about..." my ears perked up. He continued, "... Access databases?"

"NOOOOOO!!!!" shouted a voice inside my head. Outwardly, I replied, "More than I ever wanted to."

He explained the situation: He was saddled with a client's Access app that was far too complicated for that piece of, um, software. Not being a database kind of guy, he was looking for someone else to take over the project. I felt really sorry for him, and was about to say yes — but being a good friend he could sense my distaste and let it drop.

See, that's how friends are supposed to behave. It's just as much up to them to avoid putting us into these awkward situations as it is up to us to figure out how to get out of them. Do you think that friends have a responsibility to be considerate, or am I just being a wimp?

I know you all have some juicy horror stories about free tech support gone bad. Please share them in the discussion.

Thanks to TechRepublic member reisen55 for this topic suggestion.

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Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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