Ten tips for handling a techie

PC fixer

Steve Cassidy provides no-nonsense advice on how to deal with the chap fixing your computer

Hello. You’ve been given this to read because you’ve recently asked a friend or neighbour to look at your PC, and you’re a bit puzzled by the leisurely pace at which the process has gone since they sat down in front of your machine.

You probably know this person by reputation – other friends will have identified them as a professional in the IT business, or as a "whizz-kid". Incidentally, I’m 50 this year and people still call me a whizz-kid, so quite clearly the term tells you more about the speaker than it does about the subject.

Be that as it may, I’ll explain to you why it is that so-called whizz-kids may well be completely stumped by the state of your humble home computer, which should at least give you something to read and fuss over without interrupting whatever it is they’re doing. If this starting point surprises you, then it’s probably as good a time as any for me to hand you the first in what will be ten snippets of wisdom.

1. Leave him alone

Fiddling with a "home computer" can require levels of concentration so high that your civilised conversational gambits will be utterly ignored. By far the best thing you can do is go outside and mow the lawn or wash your car and wait for the whizz-kid to resurface.

Don’t make smart remarks about them not being as clever as they think they are

It’s perfectly possible for a professional networks person to spend their entire working life using products with names that look similar to the ones you use, without them ever having seen the kind of problems that you encounter every day. However, if they’re really good this won’t present too much of a challenge, because (so long as there’s another working computer they can use) they’ll be pretty good at looking things up on Google.

If you spot them doing this, don’t make smart remarks about them not being as clever as they think they are. If you really do feel obliged to offer snark, then at least wait until you’ve seen how many words they type in as a search term: if it’s four, then go back outside and continue washing the car; if it’s six or more, go back outside and wash their car too.

2. Provide refreshments

How long should the process take? What is a reasonable expectation? First answer is: at least an afternoon. Be prepared at the very least to cook them a meal or make them a sandwich, before you ask them to start. Asking "what do you computer people eat?" at 9.30pm, or failing to invite them to the family table while you’re eating, is what’s known in the IT business as being a "luser", and it’s likely to cause them to weigh up whether the loss of reputation attendant on just walking out on you is greater than the reputation gain from fixing a nasty hardware or malware problem.

And yes, the term "luser" is both a portmanteau of "loser" and "user" and a dig at the ambiguity of "user" status: people who only "use" things such as PCs often "use" useful people such as computer nerds, but we IT professionals are attuned to this subtle form of social abuse, so make sure you avoid committing it.

Most mid- to large-sized companies put plenty of preparatory effort, and behind-the-scenes defence, into their computer investments. That money – spent mostly in good design decisions and humming boxes in the server room – is paid back in the speed of recovery from even the faintest echo or tiny rumble of the kind of earthquake that can strike a home PC. What I’m trying to impress on you is that just because you see these IT people lazing about at work, and just because most end-of-day problems are magically fixed the following morning, don’t be fooled into expecting that these same people would take the same time to unravel the mess that’s on your home PC.

3. Don't expect miracles

As an exercise, guess just how many files there are on the average Windows home computer. Ask your friends (the non-computer ones at least) to guess too. I’m not going to tease you: it’s between a quarter and a third of a million – and that isn’t only your photos or music tracks. In any case, for a network guy there’s very little difference between the files that make up the computer’s software library and your pool pictures from Tossa de Mar.

Unless you’ve been unusually tidy and well informed then just finding the places where you’ve scattered a trail of odd files may take a couple of hours in bad cases. If it turns out you’ve been using the password-storing features of Internet Explorer, Firefox and the like, and therefore have no other separate record of your logins to... well, these days, actually to everything, then asking him to magically retrieve all those passwords for you before he does anything destructive will at least double the time he requires, and will triple it on a Saturday because you won’t then be able to ask for or test the new passwords, since most e-commerce services don’t run a Saturday helpdesk. And no, I don’t want you to write in and send me a list of the ones that do just to prove me wrong.

4. Be prepared for skeletons in the cupboard

If you’ve gone so far as to set up multiple user accounts on your family PC, then make sure that you have a list of all the places your family visits regularly on the web, and that you also have some idea of what your family gets up to while they’re seemingly just sitting there quietly clicking the mouse.

I’m not saying this is mandatory – the way you run your family is up to you – but make no mistake that the IT guy now sitting at your PC stands a high chance of discovering not only how you think you run your family, but also what your family thinks about it and whether they’re sticking to your rules or not. This is the real reason why I advised you to go out and wash the car: my stated reason still applies – namely, these guys work better when they’re left to concentrate, but if there should prove to be any skeletons in the family closet then you need to allow this hapless computer guy the room to discover them, decide whether any of them are material contributors to your problem, and then whether to bring them to your attention or not.

That actually demands quite advanced skills in psychology and diplomacy, skills that we network people seldom have any formal training in, and which the popular perception of us promoted by programmes such as The IT Crowd suggests that we’re unlikely to be congenitally endowed with either.

5. Don't demand a running commentary

Don’t hover or cross-examine. Showing an interest in the tools these guys are using, and following closely how they do what they do, is all very laudable, but asking anyone to narrate what they’re doing while troubleshooting is both a basic error and an irritant.