The stigma of being a computer guy

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May 3, 2007

Shaun Boyd wrote an excellent article about the Top 10 Reasons it sucks to be a “computer guy”, and not only do I feel his article was worth sharing, but wanted to share my experiences with this as well. The link to his site is actually going through a mirrored cache, since his original site seems to be taken offline thanks to the Digg effect.

My favorite bit from his article:

"So Shaun, what do you do for a living?"
Hesitantly, I responded: "I work in computer support."

The transition to silence was immediate. All eyes suddenly turned to me, raised eyebrows all around.
If you hadn't heard my response, judging from everyone's reaction you might think I said something
outrageous like I was a male stripper or a gynecologist ... but I knew the awkward silence would
soon be broken by an overwhelming outpouring of computer questions.

He hit the nail on the head about the whole “career-choice-inquiry” conversation ice-breaker. When I tell people that I’m a software developer, I get asked all kinds of crazy questions, usually about Windows. Why does it do this, why does it do that? I work on software, so I must have some sort of insider knowledge about every piece of software out there.

My favorite game lately is to hint strongly that they probably have a virus or trojan on their system causing the problem, or that it’s just a bug in Windows (more on that soon), and that they should transition to Linux or change completely to a Mac system.

The most common question I get asked lately is whether they really need to upgrade their computer to use Vista. My response is simple: “My geek friends are all abandoning Vista and switching to Linux or going back to XP – even after spending a boatload of money on hardware that’s only been out for a few months, the driver support hasn’t caught up yet, so you could spend $1500+ on a new system and have it run like a $200 piece of junk you pulled out of a dumpster.”

I usually encourage them to stick with XP, or offer to move them to Linux after explaining that ‘wine’ support makes using some of their favorite Windows-based applications much easier, lessening their worry about transitional problems.

I’ve been doing some form of PC support for more than half of my life now, everything from installing mouse drivers back in the old DOS days, to installing Linux on systems, to developing and maintaining web sites, to trying to debug why their home DSL suddenly stopped working (“I told them to cancel the DSL six months ago and it’s been working fine until just recently…“)

The people I run into usually let the conversation go this way:

Them: What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm an independent freelance software developer - I work on web sites mostly, E-commerce/shopping
cart kind of stuff
Them: Really? Wow ... How much would you charge to ...

… and usually end up describing a printer issue or wireless network problem, or ask my advice on an upgrade of some sort. As Shaun points out in his article, giving advice is risky because you become the target for blame if the advice turns out to be bad, or if their upgrade experience isn’t as magical as they dreamed it would be.

Still, charging money for what I do is a given, to the point where people expect to have to pay me since I roll out the redundant “independent freelance” description of what I do … Then again, I discount my usual rates, sometimes quite heavily (or completely) depending on the circumstance. For example, I work for my church for free, I don’t even ask for credit on their web site. Registered non-profit groups usually get $15/hr-$20/hr off my regular rate. Groups that claim to be non-profit may or may not get any discount. Complete strangers get the full hourly rate for programming or IT type work, unless I feel like being a boy scout or just get my name out there. The clock starts when I ring your doorbell, and it stops when I walk back out the door, or I’ll track it online with a time card application I wrote. Family gets me for free, and worthy causes tend to get me for free.

Lately though, I’m purposely tapering off what sort of freelance stuff I get myself into, and only look at projects I can complete in a day or two, so I might need to find a new answer to the old “What do you do for a living” question to avoid getting into long-term projects. Not that I’m opposed, but when working with/on computers is your career and your hobby, it gets difficult to draw the line of when to unplug. And knowing I’ll be a future dad some day, I’ll want to be sure to have a healthier lifestyle, and outdoor hobbies.

I’ve worked on systems quite happily for friends, family, and clients, and I’ve also avoided some systems like the plague because I know no matter how bullet-proof I try to make something, any problem with the system will be met with “Well, Ian was the last one to work on it…” or “It was okay until Ian did something…” I have this unnatural fear of being blamed for any little thing after I’ve done some work, so I try to go the extra mile lately of showing my clients “Look, see? It works, I’m done, finished.” If something worked perfectly when I left it last, and it’s been more than a week since I was there, and now suddenly it doesn’t work or something else has gone wrong, my natural assumption would be of course that you’ve tinkered with something, or downloaded something you shouldn’t have, etc. so of course I’m going to bill you to fix it…

One of Shaun’s other points was:

Your Assumed "All-Knowing" Status Sets You Up To Let People Down -- There is no common
understanding that there are smaller divisions within the computer industry, and that the
computer guy cannot be an expert in all areas. What makes things worse, is when the computer
guy attempts to explain this to someone asking for help, the person will often believe that
the computer guy is withholding the desired knowledge to avoid having to help.

I’ve personally hit this so many times it isn’t funny. People expect that you’re an expert in everything and that perhaps you’re just feigning disinterest in helping them to avoid some work. As a freelance developer, I get the attitude of “If you freelance, shouldn’t you be more willing to help with my problem to make some money?” Truth is, I work full-time at a contract position right now, so that means I get to be picky and scrutinize whether I really want to get involved in something ‘cause I don’t need to hustle for work like I used to. You work your butt off in an industry for 11 years building a name for yourself, and you’ll have enough people knocking on your door to keep the bills and rent paid, trust me. The extra work I do pays for getaway vacations, gifts for my wife, toys for the dog, gadgets for me, tickets to see Weird Al at the OC County Fair this summer, upgrades for the computers, etc.

Thankfully in my current contract position, I’m just a webmonkey, churning out HTML/PHP code for the time being for various projects. There will be opportunity to learn new things related to programming, but that’s all I’m seen as here - a code jockey. I don’t fuss with network issues, it’s not my role or responsibility to debug your Windows error, there’s a whole team of people across the hall who can figure out why your wireless keyboard doesn’t work.

As 2007 goes on, I believe I’ll be more firm about my position as a software developer, specifically web development, and not deal so much with hardware problems. This alone will free up more of my time to focus on my own projects and interests, and find that new outdoor hobby…