171

I have a rather common problem for people in my field of study (computer science). The problem is this: People, especially relatives, ask you stuff about their computer-related problems, for example: "What kind of anti-virus program should I install?" or the much more frequently asked "Can you cleanup my PC?" one. I really dislike such questions, because they have nothing to do with what I study or what I will do for a living in my career later on. Also, it sucks that some family members or even my landlord assume I can help them just because I study computer science.

It feels like others are totally ignorant and just assume you are a genius and know everything about anything related to something about "computers", regardless of what it is. This gets especially interesting if you get questions about rather exotic programs that you have never even seen yourself beforehand.

The fact that I get such questions bothers me a lot, as it is assumed that I can help to fix their problems, regardless of what I have or want to do. Also, I feel isolated as a "geeky" person, a weirdo, by asking me such things without talking to me about anything else. It feels like what I do is a minor thing.

So: How can I fix this? My targets are these:

  1. Tell those people, who expect me to help them with their totally random problems, that I'm not their personal technical support for their printer or whatever
  2. Do 1) without hurting their feelings a lot, I'd rather tell them that I'm just not competent enough to fix their problems, however, this is not an option due to my field of study. (Note: I already tried this and it was ignored, because "I know that, because I study computer science")
  3. Still have them feel like I'm a helpful person, but not a magician

14 Answers 14

175

As a computer scientist myself, here are the avenues I have taken:

When asked to fix a Bluray player at a holiday gathering...

"I can look, but your guess is as good as mine. I know how to write software, not fix hardware."

When asked opinions on software I know nothing about...

"Yeah... I know nothing about this. I would try looking for reviews on CNet (or another source you can provide for them)."

When asked to fix the "thing that the computer is doing"...

"I can barely fix my own computer. I can look at it and see if it's something I've seen before, but you might have to take it to a professional."

What all of these answers have in common is that you admit you probably aren't going to have an answer for them, but you provide them with somewhere to go next to find help.

As a computer scientist, you've probably noticed that we Google things... a lot (and usually end up on StackOverflow, for that matter). We generally have a good idea of where we can find answers on the internet - because we do it so often!

Providing your friends and family with information of where they should be looking maintains your ability to still sound helpful and supportive, while training them to be sufficient in finding this info for themselves, without depending on you.

Alternatively, not teaching them how to find the info themselves (saying "I can't help, sorry") will likely leave them feeling like you DO know the answer and just don't want to help (because in their minds you know it all)! This is why walking through the exercise just a few times with them is worth the taken time, even if it's still a but frustrating.

If they keep asking you, remind them:

"Remember what we did last time you had a question like this? I'd try that."

Plus, in the words of good ole Einstein:

"Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it."

53

As a young professional software engineer, I know exactly what you're talking about. Even though my job is planning, structuring, creating, and maintaining digital software products, my family and friends always come to me with any problems related to any electronic device.

... and honestly, I normally have an answer. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.

So when I know the answer, I help, because I enjoy helping. If you actually want to feel helpful, always respond with answers that you can immediately come up with. Some times I literally just read them a Google Search Result. No big deal. I'm way better at finding relevant info than most of my family, so I don't mind doing so.

The important part is knowing when to say no. And that's when fulfilling their request is inconvenient for you or you don't really know. For example, I suck at using printers.

When someone asks me a question about them, for example, I say something like:

Sorry, I honestly have no idea. I don't have much experience in [Topic X]. You can probably figure it out with some online research. In fact, I've never even done anything with [Topic X]

This normally reminds my family that I don't know everything about all things electronic. If they don't believe you, reassert your position, and just say that if you could truly help, you would. For example, I'll literally tell people that I cannot make printers work, because I have no idea how to troubleshoot them. I almost never use them, either, as I don't own one.

Or, if the problem is inconvenient:

Sorry, this issue requires more time than I have, and I'm not really an expert on it anyway. You might have to consult with someone who knows more.

Again, if they don't believe you, reassert your position. You're not lying. Some people, I understand, may be difficult. You, however, cannot fix that and their feelings being hurt really isn't caused by you at all in such a circumstance.

I hope that helps. Like I said, if your family can't understand you not knowing something or don't believe you, that's a deeper issue that you simply can't control.

  • 2
    If you normally have an answer to their questions, why does it matter if their questions relate to your job or not? If someone asked me "can you reach that off the top shelf for me" I wouldn't respond with "well I can, but I really only write software for C++". I think OP's problem is he gets asked questions he doesn't know the answer to, but people assumes he does because of his profession. – ESR Jan 15 '18 at 0:19
  • @EdumundReed It is rude to assume that someone knows everything about a subject because they work in a related field. Period. Whether or not the assumption is correct really doesn't matter. The problem manifests physically when the person making the assumption does not consider that those who aren't in my field cannot do basic technical support. What if you had a friend that was convinced you were the only person who could grab an item off a shelf because you manufactured counters? – Clay07g Jan 15 '18 at 2:32
30

Welcome to IT! I know of mainframe operators, DBAs, and other IT specialists who get bombarded with this kind of question all the time. Much like doctors, lawyers, etc., we tend to be seen as some kind of altruists who love nothing more than helping people with their problems.

In your case, "sorry, that's not my field of expertise" is a good response. Also, I've used "That's sounds like a Desktop Engineering problem; I specialize in [x] - I call the Desktop Engineering folks myself when I need help." I've also used with my family "Sorry, I don't do tech support. I do this all day long at work already and don't have any desire to do it on my off time." When someone gets insistent (if it's family), I'll add, "So, do you want to come to my house and do your job for free for a couple hours? Because that's what you're asking me to do." Obviously that's a little hard to use with non-family, so I don't recommend it there.

I'd recommend learning of a local company that does support, such as Geek Squad. There are lots of others as well. I'm at the point in my career where I can honestly say "it's been a long time since I did anything like that; you're way better off calling Geek Squad. Yes, it'll cost some money, but you're dealing with people who do that full time. I don't even do it part-time, so you're much better off with them. Now, if you want software installed on 15,000 devices, give me a call. I can give you my consulting rate and we can talk about how to get your enterprise set up for that and save you a couple million dollars." That gives them a place to go and establishes that you do something very different than what they're asking.

PS. These questions never go away, sorry. It's part of the IT magic. :)

  • IT: yes, lawyer: sure, doctor?? I would hope that I doctor wouldn't just be like Sorry Mr.Doe but I am not your personal doctor and will not be helping you with your drowning problem. – JBis Aug 3 '18 at 19:08
  • @JBis I think this is a little extreme, although it does make a point. I more think of family gatherings than a true emergency. "sorry, Dan, you should have your family doctor look at your rash, rather than right here at this reunion." – baldPrussian Aug 3 '18 at 20:23
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    Gotcha. Thanks. – JBis Aug 3 '18 at 20:25
18

I have a slightly different take to all the answers here.

I've been a software developer for over 10 years now, and I very rarely get any requests like this anymore. How? By adopting a couple of simple methods.

1) Say yes, of course I'll take a look, but I'm really busy until <some date in the future, normally 2 weeks will do it>.

Or, as alluded to in some of the other comments...

2) Depending on what they do as a job, say yes then in the same sentence ask them to do something for you. My favourite ones have been plumbers (yeah, I can give your laptop a look, bring it round and while you're here, would you mind taking a look at my boiler? It's been making funny noises...), designers (yep, I can help you move your files from your old Mac to your new one, in return, a friend of mine needs a website designed...) and family members (ok, but it'll take a few hours, I can come round and set up your TV / computer / iPad, I'll be round at <whatever time you know they normally eat dinner>.

The general idea here is to make them realise that your time is not free. Most people value their trade more than others because it's what they make their living doing, so when you suggest that they carry on their work day in return for you helping them with something, the majority of the time they suddenly figure out how to do things for themselves.

This is a gamble because some of the time, that plumber or designer is going to say ok, and you're going to have to figure out how to help them, but on the plus side, you will get something out of it.

So to answer 1, 2 & 3, you don't need to inform them that you're not their personal technical support, you need to make them realise that you're not willing to do it for free without coming out and saying it. That way, you still seem helpful and you're not bluntly refusing them so shouldn't hurt their feelings (it does depend on how you phrase things, but that's just life)

16

Although it may come off as rude, my method has been quite successful at nipping it in the bud.

Here's an excerpt from a conversation I had with a relative, who is a teacher:

If I could solve your problem in 2 minutes, I would love to help. Unfortunately, your problem requires hours of effort and thus, stress. Outside of my working hours I enjoy my downtime (watching movies, having a drink, etc.) which is so precious to me. I am open to exchanging favors (bartering) if your have services to offer that (1) I need and (2) are of equal market value. For example, I would love to exchange tech support in exchange for you tutoring my children this Summer, or perhaps an expensive bottle of Scotch of my choosing. Now because you are family, I am prepared to give free verbal advice every Friday after work. If I am still of sound mind.

16

Software Engineer for 30 years here.

My standard response is "I don't know anything about that." That's almost always true. I get paid for my ability to figure computer things out, not for knowing everything there is to know about them.

Of course family doesn't take that for an answer. And honestly perhaps they shouldn't, as I don't hesitate to go to my lawyer father when I need something done with the legal system (and he doesn't hesitate to help if he can).

Honestly my saving grace with the family is that most of them are Apple-heads. Since I don't develop software for Apple products, I can honestly and legitimately claim utter ignorance for any of their Apple-related issues.

And finally I should mention immediate family. There is no logic in the universe that can save you from being free tech support for your wife. Believe me, I've tried and still have the scars. Anything tech-related that breaks in your own house not only must you fix, but you're in big trouble that it broke in the first place. If your kids have issues and you don't help, they'll just complain to her, and then you're back in the doghouse. Don't bother trying. This is just your lot in life.

One piece of household mitigation I can't recommend highly enough: If you have Windows boxes, create separate Admin and User accounts, and do not tell anyone in your family what the Admin password is. If they "need" to install something, it's gonna have to wait until you get home. I was reinstalling Windows on 3 boxes at home every 6 months before I instituted this.

13

With or without humor?

Buy or make a T-shirt that says "No, I will not fix your computer" Having a comment about how they can bribe you is optional. ^^

Jokes aside, as an actual IT guy, I have set rates for "off-the-clock" requests, and when anyone asks me to fix stuff that is outside of work-scope, I quote them my rates and indicate what times I can make appointments. I might offer a family/friend discount of some random very slight amount, but otherwise, they pay to play.

For those who do not specialize in "fixing computers", I would suggest a simple, "Sorry, I'm a specialist in 'x', I actually don't know how to fix computers."

11

Turn it into evangelism

I'm not Windows based myself. And I leverage that hard to dodge my way out of those kinds of tech support questions, which IME are almost always on Windows platforms. And sorry to pick on Windows here, but this tactic works so darned well.

Right off the bat, I say I don't know much about Windows because I abandoned it years ago. I just couldn't get it to work right, and I was spending too much of my day fighting Windows instead of doing the work I am there to do. Since they themselves are having problems right now, this always elicits an "I can relate" or "can't argue with that".

I elaborate, "Finally Tech support handed me a Mac..." And the techsupport-request part of the conversation is over. And usually, the person Does Not Want to be evangelized, and starts looking for a way to exit the conversation, and at this point I'm all too happy for them to find one. Otherwise, sure, I'll talk about the advantages of going Mac or even if their computing needs are modest enough that they can be met by a tablet (as is often the case these days).

I don't care avout evangelizing Mac, I care about getting them out of my hair -- and if they can find a platform that doesn't drive them nuts, that means they won't be bothering me much.

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    This seems like a dangerous game to play, imagine if someone does buy a Mac because you recommended it? You'd be their IT slave forever, since you are both the Mac ambassador AND specialist, and if they spent a lot of money based on your recommendation they'd be pretty entitled to your help – Maxim Jan 12 '18 at 16:26
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    @Maxim have you actually tried that? What happened when you did? I did it with my close family (the ones I can't blow off), and it works. Cut em down from about 1 a month to <1 a year. – Harper Jan 12 '18 at 17:10
4

I generally tell people what I would do (without actually doing it for them). I'm a firm believer in the teach a man to fish principle. If you straight up answer their question, they learn nothing but that you are a source of fixing problems they don't want to (or don't know how to) deal with. If you teach them how to solve their own problems, they learn something and a life skill.

I might say... when I go to buy computer hardware, I generally look at one of these sites for reviews and then pick something based on their recommendations. Or I might say, I'm not sure how to fix that, have you googled the error message?

I'm being helpful without taking over the responsibility of solving their problem for them. If they need more hands on help and aren't taking the hint (and you don't want to help or don't have the time), I would refer them to a local computer store like Best Buy, etc. Someone there would be glad to explain things to you and make a recommendation or they will diagnose and repair your computer for you if you don't want to learn to diagnose and fix it yourself.

4

I have worked in IT for 17 years, I can promise you it never goes away.

Over the years I have built up a collection of standard responses:

Can you fix my computer?

That's not the area of computing I work in, sorry. Have you tried PC World?

or

Yes, I charge £50 flat rate plus the cost of any parts and an additional £25 for each hour's labour. (or whatever rate is slightly above average in your area) Do you want to make an appointment? PC World are a bit cheaper than me.

Can you answer this question?

Sorry, I only work with computers, I'm not actually a computer myself. You could try Google, or PC World?

Can you recommend a computer?

My own computer is highly specialised and very expensive. I don't really know anything about standard computers, you'd be best talking to PC World.

4

What worked for me is being brutally honest, is telling everyone: "I hate fixing computers." Don't say something like, "I don't really like to...." because you really need to communicate the emotion of the hate you have against this kind of activity.

After people know how you feel about this, they will be very hesitant to ask you to do it. Because now they're asking you to do something they know you hate doing. The burden must be on them.

The trick is, when to bring it up. What you have to do is to bring this up before they ask you the question to help them with their computer. That way you can bring it up without projecting that emotion on them, because you need to project the emotion on the activity. Most of the time this is easy enough because most people won't outright ask you for help but start up a conversation which steers to their computer problems. If you feel the question coming you can drop your line like, "yeah really hate fixing computers, what I do for a living is so far from that." Before they even state their computer problems. Once you've dropped that bomb people back off. Because they know your position but you haven't stated that you hated helping "them", just in general that you hate fixing computers.

With family you helped before this will be harder. But at some point you have to tell them you really don't like doing this activity. Maybe help them find a smart 16 year/old you can trust that can make a quick buck fixing their computers.

(Because I love helping people, just not with computer-problems.)

4

I tell them,

"I don't fix anyone's computer anymore besides my Mama's. Sorry. It's just that whenever you touch somebody's computer, no matter what you did, it could be you plugged in a mouse, when that thing breaks the next day, it becomes my fault. It becomes 'You touched it last!'"

I then explain to them how I used to fix folks' computers, and I still would if I had to eat, but now I don't because it becomes a nightmare. "Don't take it personal. I just don't do it anymore."

Finally, if they ask you questions you can answer, well, answer them. People in all fields get asked questions. Mechanics - "Hey Bob, my car makes this funny noise..." Doctors - "Hey, Doc, I got this pain on my left side..." You have a skill and people will ask you. Policeman - "Hey Ociffer, I was speeding in 1982 and this radar cop said...what do you think...or, Hey, Do you know such and such, they pulled me over yesterday. Can you help me out?" ComputerGuy - "Hey, Can you do some of your magic on my computer?"

You have a skill that I am sure you asked people lots of help with, and I am sure there are other areas of life you do the same. We are all interconnected. And we all have stereotypical ideas about other people. Who cares? Maybe you do fit the stereotype.

Just answer them and if they want real work, tell them about Mama. And if it is Mama that you won't help, then you have other problems.

3

Like several others here, I've been in the same situation; doing a PhD in robotics somehow translates into being able to do anything from doing virus scans, to repairing surface mount electronics inside phones.

It came to a head with three colleagues who had all broken their phone's charge ports within a few weeks of each other and didn't want to pay the corner store $200 each to fix a broken charger. After soldering a couple of Micro-USB connectors, they started buying junk electronics (solar phone chargers, Apple Lightning cables, 1TB thumb drives) in bulk from China, asking if I could solder the plug back on the end of one, and then expecting me to repair boxes of 30+ of them, presumably for resale or some other application I wasn't told about. Some unkind words were exchanged on both sides.

Nowadays I just help out as much as I'm prepared to: showing someone how to use a soldering iron or thermocouple welder, or outright saying I have no experience with X brand of phone, or that I don't have the tools to dismantle Y tablet. Once they realise that it'll take effort on their part to fix a $1 part, they quickly lose interest in doing so. I still get asked for help with problems I can genuinely help with like stepper motor drivers, but it's one of the situations where developing a reputation as being unhelpful can be quite a useful filtering tool.

  • 1
    this is more a comment than answer? – jiggunjer Jan 12 '18 at 5:41
  • @jiggunjer I think it also answers the question because he explains his field, and describes how he tells those who asks him similar question about his line of work, even lending some of his skills if he could. It answers the OP's number 1,2 and 3 points. – Mr.J Jan 12 '18 at 6:41
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    @Mr.J actually he doesn't "describe how he tells those who ask him". Mentioning his own field is unrelated to points [1-3]. So, not an answer. – jiggunjer Jan 12 '18 at 7:46
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    Hello @Nathan! This stands to be a pretty low-scoring answer. to improve it, I'd suggest a couple things: Directly answer the question being asked and explain why your answer will work. I understand the history in the explanation but others may not find this answer to be very clear. The last paragraph, for instance, sounds like a good course of action; I'd recommend phrasing it in such a way as to make it a recommended course of action. Of course, feel free to take this feedback and either use it or say "screw you, BP, I'll do what I want" or somewhere in between. – baldPrussian Jan 12 '18 at 17:05
3

To answer your question.

I too have this kind of question, and what I tell them to put simply is,

"Sorry, but my field of work is creating software, not fixing computers."

which is usually followed by their question, "aren't you a computer science student?"

I follow it up immediately with my explanation what on what computer science does in the most simplest words to describing our field of learning.

But do take note:

We are software developers, and as such we do rely on a working computer to do our work, what happens if YOUR computer breaks down? will you tell yourself

"I cant fix this because I am a computer science graduate."

Yes we are software developers, we create and fix software, but it should not limit us up to that point. We should also know how to maintain our own system, to do some quick checkups and repairs and to know what parts need fixing or not. Google is a quick solution for this, just learning the basics of hardware troubleshooting is, at most times, the solutions to the problems of others as well. At that point, you may tell them that their motherboard maybe broken, but you cannot repair the motherboard.

protected by Community Jan 12 '18 at 9:40

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