20 year old advice on helping people with computers is still relevant today

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/08/11/20-year-old-advice-on-helping.html


One thing I learned a long time ago is that a computer expert is going to assume you know something you don’t know, and will leave out the step that involves that thing. Or they will use jargon that means nothing to the beginning user.

Edit: I see several step are about this very thing. Good for him.


It’s fairly timeless advice, because it is about interpersonal skills, not technical ones…Let the other person knap the flint, do try to do it for them…


I hope Phil is doing okay. Too many brilliant technologists disappear. He’s apparently “well”, but has been off the radar for years.

I’ve done this in support, but only to people self-righteous, self-proclaimed experts who have already tried “everything”. If they can answer a question I’d normally ask at the end of the troubleshooting session, we’ve saved 10 minutes (minus the 3 minutes we lost while they list their credentials), if they can’t, we start from the beginning.


That list forgets the most obvious one:

“Hello, IT. Have you tried turning it off and on again?”


I support a lot of users at my site and I just flat out tell them, we can spend 30 minutes trying to figure out what happened and maybe fix it, or you can spend 5 minutes rebooting. And 99% of the time rebooting fixes their problem.

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On the other hand I understand the impulse to avoid rebooting. I often have half a dozen tools open with various scripts, spreadsheets queries and workflows in varying states. A five minute reboot can often translate to me losing 45 minutes picking up where I left off. 15 minutes saving, not saving, renaming and making notes., 5 minutes to reboot, 5 minutes reopening all the tools and 20 minutes muttering “Now what-in-hell was I working on?”

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What about the old fashioned way?

I used to work at an IT helpdesk company.
One day I spent a good half hour helping an old guy who couldn’t get any sound; I tried everything I could think of, settings, drivers, the lot.
Eventually he shouted, “I’m taking this bloody machine back to the shop!”
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Yes. That bloody salesman didn’t sell me any bloody SPEAKERS!”




I’m glad the support I have to do is minimal and mostly deal with troublshooting of systems and networks. I know I don’t have the patience.

It fixes their immediate problem. It doesn’t address their trepidation about “Well, what’s to prevent the same thing happening again? Do I have to keep rebooting several times a day?”

I’ve been the de-facto tech nerd around my joint for lotta years. Not b/c I want to, mind you, but b/c I grew up under a comp scientist, and thus am I cursed. Anyway, in my experience helping folks, the root problem is almost always some combination of: 1) lack of education of computing basics on the part of the user, and 2) user lacks any desire to know or learn about what computers can do for him/her. The former, while regrettable, is somewhat understandable. The latter, especially for people that rely on computers for their very livelihoods, day in and day out, is really sad. Point being: it frankly doesn’t matter how you approach helping someone that’s stuck. If they don’t wanna know, and don’t care to learn, then you can be as nicey-nice or meany-mean as you want to…it won’t make a difference one way or the other.


It does make a difference. If you’re nice instead of mean you might get invited to their next birthday party.

So you have to fix their computer and give them presents?

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Um, we are IT. We don’t actually want to go to a party. We’d probably just end up fixing somebody else’s computer while we are there.

I appreciate this !!!

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