Why Does Family Tech Support Leave Most Tech Folks Feeling Anxious?

As someone who works in tech, one of the only universal truths is that when a family member asks us to help them with their personal computer, it will fill us with anxiety. Hell, we even made a Nerd Merit Badge about it. You don’t really see this in other fields and so we end up feeling pretty guilty about not being helpful. Don’t get me wrong, we want to be helpful, but in any other task besides helping with their computer. 

I’ve been trying to figure this out for quite some time and I finally think I’ve figured part of it out. 

  1. They don’t actually understand what we do. Many of us use a single computer as a tool to help us build or run other things. We don’t set up personal computers for other people or help them with their personal computing problems. They just know that we do “computer stuff" and in their world, computers are the things on their desk. In reality, they probably use a computer just as much as we do. 
  2. They don’t have a mental model of what it is their computer is actually doing (even at a high level)
  3. We aren’t confident we can make them happy in the end (it seems like almost no civilian is happy with their computer). At best things will just be a little less horrible. 
  4. Learned helplessness, maybe taught by the IT department where they work. They don’t think they can understand it so they don’t try. They just memorize steps you tell them and don’t know what to do when they don’t work. They also tend to zone out when you try to explain at a high level how things work. They need to take ownership in what they need to know and learn it. 

As a way of expanding on “they don’t actually understand what we do", I want to give an example comparing what I do with another field where I have some experience. 

Say you are a carpenter and one of your relatives needs to install a door and asks you to help them. You are a carpenter and installing doors is part of what you do. Since most people understand the purpose of a door and whether or not you installed it successfully, you are confident you can indeed install the door and leave them happy with what you did. You install the door, they see that the door does indeed open, close, lock and keeps the weather out. You both call it a success and they happily use the door for the next ten years. They can see and feel and understand this thing you just did for them. 

Now take me and what I do. I am a web developer who can help you build a custom web application to run your business. I use a single computer (mine), a Mac, to do my job. A family member comes up to me saying their Windows laptop takes forever to boot and they can’t do anything on it anymore. There is no real known quantity of success in this situation except maybe they’ll be able to do stuff again? Helping consumers with their computers is not what I do. The only real difference between me and them is I have GRIT and know how to use Google. I can’t help them. I don’t even know where to send them for help. But it will probably end up with them not believing I can’t help them. 

So, since I really want to be helpful to my family and make them happy, here is what I can and can’t do:

  1. I can and am happy to help you build a custom web-based tool to help you do something you couldn’t previously do. This is what I do for a living.
  2. I can and am happy to help you set up your home network (mostly)
  3. I can and am happy to help you move furniture bodily or with my truck
  4. I can and am happy to help you install drywall and trim out a room
  5. I can and am happy to act as unskilled labor for pretty much anything else you need help on
  6. I can maybe help you with your Mac-based consumer issues and questions. I’m a Mac “power user" but I don’t know everything there is to know about how consumers use their computers. It’s probably best to start with the hands-on help at the Apple store since they are experienced at helping consumers do consumer things with their new computers. I truly believe that using a Mac as your personal computer will lead to an overall increase in your happiness when it comes to personal computing. It doesn’t mean you will have zero problems, but your overall happiness will be lifted. 
  7. I can’t really help you with your Windows computer problems. I haven’t used Windows as a tool in over seven years and have no idea where to start. I also have decided that Macs make me happier and you should listen to my advice to use them ;)

How can I help?