“can u help” :: Howto win at Friend-Tech-Support-Roulette

Being a techie isn’t always easy. The technology, yeah, that’s easy, but the social implications can sometimes be tough.

I recently got a rather flashy camera and, seeing it round my neck, a guy at an event asked, “Can I ask you something about cameras?”

It was, of course, a rhetorical question – there was no polite way to point out that I just bought the camera, I don’t consider myself an authority on other people’s attempts to take photos, and in fact, I don’t really understand photography very well. I certainly don’t consider myself “a photographer”, and the only photos, I’ve ever taken that I think are worth looking at, are landscape photographs – not photos at weddings, clubs, family gatherings or whatever else they’re fantasising about when they ask me vague and open ended questions…

But as a techie, I’ve had to suffer through these types of questions for about the last decade.

The problem with this kind of question, is that the moment you help them, you’re taking responsibility for someone’s problem. That person will come back to you to ask you how to set it up, to ask you how to do things, to ask you what “secrets” or “tips” there are, if you can do maintenance for them.

Now, a reasonable line of thought – to most people at least – might be – “oh, sure I wouldn’t help anyone, but you know, if a friend really really asked, of course I’d help where I could”. The thing is, being roped into helping a friend, is a painfully quick way of turning your friend into a non-friend.

Sign at Access Space Sheffield
Sign at Access Space Sheffield

But this is boring! Let’s look at some real life examples I’ve had, and why specifically they’re unhelpful!

them: tim, i cant figure out why my computer isnt playing sound and i have a feeling gits something really easy and stupid….

me: I only have one answer: is it muted

them: im using youtube, that is not on mute. my volume control on the laptop keyboard is on, up and not muted, and the sound thing in the bottom right is not muted

any other ideas

me: not really

them: i thougth you were the comupter whiz :P

fix it tiiimmmm :P

There isn’t any more context to this – this is my entire conversation with them verbatim.

Not only is their grammar really depressingly poor, they seem to think it’s my job to help them fix their problem. Do you notice any “please” or” thank you”‘s in any part of the conversation? I don’t have any kind of special friendship with the other person – is there any suggestion of why I should help them? The last two lines are particularly patronising – an attempt to belittle my ego to stoke up some “competitiveness” to fix their problem. Um, “no”.

Now actually, this is not an exemplary response on my behalf, I could have handled it much better.

The correct answer is always to deny, right in the first place, that you can help at all. Once you offer help once, then you’ve implicitly offered your help for everything from the person’s camera, to their computer, dishwasher, and work photocopier.

If I’d responded straight away:

  • me: “Sorry but I only do paid work, my standard rate is £85/hour.” (Follow up: “and I only charge in one hour blocks!”)

or even better:

  • me: “Sorry, I only know about Linux, what distro is it running?” (Follow up: “sorry, I only know about Debian!”)


  • simply not responded,

I wouldn’t have had to deal with any of the subsequent technical questions, and I wouldn’t have committed myself. There are some slight risks with each option, but I think the odds are worth the risks.

I do actually know know Debian well enough to support it without just saying “reboot” and banging my head on a wall, and there are sufficiently few friends running it, that it’s a risk I’m happy to take. Equally, there’s a risk someday, that someone will happily agree to pay me £85/hour to look at their Windows problems, but at least in that case I’d be getting some compensation for the tears.

The thing is if you know about all these things, or enjoy googling their problems for them, then it can be ok – with Debian, I know that the logs will be there, that I can run things verbosely, and that I’ll be able to understand where an issue is. Occasionally, with a nice user it can be very rewarding, usually your users won’t be so great at communication, and won’t make you feel appreciated. Understandably, they’ll have a tiresome time with something, it’ll be frustrating, scary and they’ll feel like they’ve wasted a lot of time with something not quite working how they wanted it to, and they’ll be somewhat upset. It’s not that hard to understand.

However once you build up a number of users, you’ll need to bear in mind that there will be “a person” will hold you responsible for any of these problems – whether or not you had anything to do with them. When they don’t understand the problem, and don’t care to understand the problem, they’ll assume that the virus scan or “system upgrade” you did on their system last week has caused their monitor to flicker more, their shift key to stop working, or better still, for that important document they need urgently to disappear. This is when you know you’re doing desktop support for someone for free, and this is when you’ll wish you’d told them that you didn’t know anything about Windows (or computers, printers, cameras, phones or fridges).

Consider this message from someone I hadn’t spoke to for ages:

Hey Tim! How are you?

I have a little favour to ask Im trying to do $SomeoneElseIHadntSpokenToForAges a cd for their birthday with photos/ videos etc from the past few years and I was wondering if you could possibly send me some of your videos??

Me and $TheirFriend had a look today and these were the ones we liked:




And do you possible have one of the $ThisSpecificTimeAtThisEvent? That would be hilarious! Thank you xxx

right i have to go! if you have a few mins to send me the videos it would be very much appreciated, my email is user@user.com

Speak soon xxx

Now this isn’t *that* unreasonable. It sounds like they know it’s a favour, they say “Thank you”, they say “appreciated”. There are some kind of weird bits like – they want to use stuff I did as a present for someone else, as a present from *them*, which seems a bit weird to me, but hey, whatever.

Now the difficult bit is that these videos were shot and encoded in some arcane raw video format, that means that each of rather low quality videos they asked for as really large, and are stored on a mass of poorly labelled DVD backups. How do you actually send someone a 3GB 640×480 file? Whatever the answer, it’s non-trivial, but I started to investigate what was required (in my spare time around my other commitments). It was going to happen (slowly but eventually), but then I got the message:

tim have you honestly not had 5 mins spare to send me those videos?

At which point it dropped to the lowest priority. I considered explaining/arguing with the user, explaining that it’d be at least two hours of my life spent doing shit to make it happen for them.

I realised I had the most to lose – in terms of my time, and the easiest thing to do was to ignore it and get on with my life. So that’s what I did.

Now to be fair, the fault should be bourne by me twofold – firstly for ever suggesting I might even look into it – for talking to them after they asked, and secondly for not communicating the work involved. I don’t actually feel, however, that the latter is really the issue – I didn’t feel they had an appreciation for my time, and I’m not sure communicating what was involved would have helped in any way.

From their point of view, the snarky comment was completely the wrong way to frame such a question – it questions my integrity, suggests I’m lazy and vastly devalues my time – are any of those aspects, actually motivational to people, or is it simply intended to humiliate the person?

“Urgent” is sometimes added by users to their requests to their ‘helpdesk friends’ who unwisely talked themselves into the role.

There is a phrase in some circles:

Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine

It’s not in any way universally agreed upon, and many poor friends have spent many hours trying to help their friend find the important document they saved in the wrong folder or with the wrong file name, however sometimes people can assume that because it’s important to them, it’s important to you.

In industry, there’s a general desire to serve the client, and shitty clients are sometimes suffered simply because it’s worth it to pay the bills, but these aren’t the clients that get the best service. When one is doing someone “a quick favour” there is no such motivation, and getting into providing tech support to friends and colleagues can quickly degenerate into this – as as demo’d here:

Alice wrote:

Bob has a major problem which is blocking his e-mail. Even after consulting the internet, we are unable to resolve it.

The problem is that which is outlined at:

<a link to a page showing the error message>

However, the “<error message Bob keeps getting>” message blocks everything else to do with MailProgram and prevents us from doing anything. We need advice about where to press on the screen to change this.

Could someone contact Bob asap? He has urgent messages to send out.


Now, if you look at that, it’s actually got some really good things:

The users have clearly tried to resolve it, and the description of the problem is actually relatively effective in suggesting where the remedy might be suggested.

The downside is the language used. Now users, usually, aren’t managers who know how to value people helping them, or masters in communication, so expecting perfectly formulated requests is unrealistic, however this clearly has some issues.

“major problem”, “need”, “asap”, “urgent”

The “major problem” is not actually a technical one, from a technical point of view, it’s probably a trivial clicking of “OK” buttons. The problem for the user is that they wanted to do something but can’t, and have other constraints in their life.

In this particular instance, once I’d brought my blood back to body temperature, I dealt with the issue and wrote this response:


Thanks for getting in touch.

By the looks of it you were almost there. So close! I think you just needed to click the “$specificaction button” and then the “$specific-action button” in sequence. (ie one after another). Well, that’s what I did anyway and how I would have thought it would work. I’ve no idea why it happened in the first place or didn’t work for you.

Anyway, you were well along the way! I’m really pleased to see that you had had a crack at fixing it and were also able to explain the issue very quickly to me via that link. It was very helpful as I knew what it was about and how to fix it instantly, even if actually making it happen at your end took a few extra minutes. :)

Let’s be honest and be clear to specifically praise the things that were done right. Heck, probably one of the reasons they were so wound up is because they tried to fix it themselves and failed – we want them to keep trying!

I do, however, feel quite upset by the tone of the email. I know it’s frustrating when things don’t work, especially when it’s been affecting one for some time, and I understand it’s easy to feel stressed out when you’ve tried everything and have things you need to do.

Let’s be gentle and non-confrontational – rather than directly accusing somebody, explain how I feel and be clear I can empathise with how it is for them.

When I see the word “urgent”, I assume there is a critical situation where my assistance is instantly required.

For example: someone has sustained a life threatening injury and I am required to inform and/or liaise people to ensure everyone is kept up to date and that all the logistics are dealt with appropriately.

This is “urgent”, because there is a situation which is absolutely essential that I attend to THIS INSTANT, breaking through business meetings, dates, meals etc. Clearly this is quite disruptive, but in an “urgent” situation, one doesn’t stop to think about this, because help is needed instantly – it simply can not wait five minutes.

Let’s be detailed in what was wrong. This could have possibly been clearer, but the sense of urgency is what is pervasive in the message, there’s no need to split the message.

I know it wasn’t intended, and I know you can do better. You’re good at doing this ‘right’ and I know it was just a little slip up so take a deep breath, take this onboard and get some sleep. It’ll work wonders. :)

Let’s re-enforce that we have faith in them, not pile and pressure or “blame” and defuse the situation as gently as possible – tech support is stressful enough without actually having to actually get involved in an argument.

Anyway, every semi-technical user has had someone ask them to help, and my advice to you is:

  1. Run away
  2. Run away
  3. If you’ve not run away, set your limits – (“I know nothing about printers or iPhones”)
  4. Run away
  5. Offer to bill them at your “standard hourly rate of £85/hour”
  6. Sneak away whilst they’re not looking
  7. Pretend not to know about computers
  8. Politely decline to get involved
  9. Be happy to tell your best friends and all your acquaintances that it’s too much like work
  10. Be happy to fall our with your best friends and acquaintances over a file they can’t find.


Just run away.

Seriously, the best to win at Friend-Tech-Support-Roulette is not to play.

Do the right thing.

How does free software take over the world? What happens now?

I love free software, I owe a lot to the free software communities and I care deeply about them. However, I am a realist and a pragmatist, so I’d like to ask a question that’s been bothering me.

Free Software has proven itself technologically, and proven itself in terms of creating an efficient working environment for developers, however, people never seem to mention the end game.

As far as I can see, free software has proven itself as “useful” from a developer’s point of view, “fun” from a power users, and “morally good” from a free software advocate’s point of view, but for general users, the benefits are less distinct – why would a user, pick free software, over non-free software?

Not why “should” – I’m very capable of explaining of benefits that most developers see (they won’t be tied in, they can fix stuff, pay other people to fix stuff, etc) but I’m actually trying to understand it from a non-technical user’s point of view, what they would actually get out of free software that they’d prefer, and trigger the mass adoption of free software?

As far as I can see it, users is motivated by:

  • What is best for them.
  • What is easiest.
  • What works.

(with various socio-economic decisions involving price, based on the situation.)

Do people envisage that in the future, users will see “free software” as the “ethical choice” – in the same manner people buy fair trade food stuffs, or why some people make lifestyle choices and go vegetarian or vegan?

If you were to imagine a sci-fi future where, free software was “standard” in the general populace, why would that be? Why would they have come to that point? Would they have all understood technology to the point required to understand source code, or would they choose free software for some kind of abstract reason?

I’d suggest that we’ll never see more than about 10% of users really ever choosing to use free software for ‘ethical reasons’ – fair trade branded items are far from being the most popular, and other “ethically” motivated product lives, in this country at least, have also not succeeded in dominating a market.

But “winning” is hardly defined as having 10% of everyone, and whilst ostentatiously, popularity is not the free software movements main goal, and hasn’t been for many years, RMS has recently been focusing more on this area.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts – do leave a comment if you have ideas.

If you can explain a rational and pragmatic scenario, in which free software becomes *preferable* to End Users, I promise, next time we meet, to buy you a beverage of your choice (under £4).

Problem: How long will it take to fix it?

As a geek, one generally gets good at fixing things.

An interesting thing about technology, as opposed to say, carpentry, is that generally it’s very very small things that have significant implications. Frequently you spend a lot more time looking for the problem than you do actually implementing the solution.


  1. The symptoms: your website is taking a long time to load
  2. Diagnosis: check reproducibility, check server load, check for user error, check server error logs, see strange message in them and google.
  3. The problem: there’s a memory limit in the webserver program that’s set too low
  4. The solution: double a number in a config file and restart the webserver program
  5. The fix: do the solution (takes less than a minute)
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.

One of the downsides of this, is that it’s really difficult to predict how long it’s going to take you to fix something. If fixing the problem is quick, yet correctly diagnosing the problem is much more time consuming, things can be frustrating for end users who ask the perfectly reasonable question:

When will it be fixed?

which as you can see doesn’t really have an easy answer – by the time you’re completely sure you’ve correctly diagnosed the problem, you’ve probably already fixed it.

Someone on reddit very eloquently summed up how you should explain the situation next time:

“Imagine you had lost your keys. You have no idea where they are. Now, tell me, when will you have found them?”

Inspired by a post on /r/sysadmin