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How to Survive as the Family Tech Support Guy (or Gal)

How to Survive as the Family Tech Support Guy (or Gal)
How to Be the Family Tech Support Guy (or Gal)

    One of the most insidious pressures on tech-savvy people these days is the seemingly constant pressure to provide quick, top-quality computer and web support — to our families. If you happen to do web design, system administration, programming, or other vaguely computer-related work as part of your job, the pressure is magnified all the more.

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    It’s work we do out of love, and usually because we want our family members to succeed at whatever they’re trying to do. Most of the time, we feel more than a little obligated, since it was probably us that got mom to buy a PC, dad to upgrade to DSL, or brother to launch a website for his part-time weekend job in the first place.

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    But it’s a responsibility that can quickly grow to wreak havoc on our schedules. You soon find yourself barraged with calls, making house calls, and squeezing in last-minute requests. It’s like the freelancer’s worst nightmare client, except a) you’re not being paid, b) you can’t ask them to take their business elsewhere, and c) you’re expected to offer a lifetime guarantee.

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    Here are a few tips to help keep on top of demands for help from family members. Much of this is modeled after the way a freelancer handles his or her business relations, figuring that what works for a freelancer, who has to work hard to assure their client comes back with future jobs, ought to work well for us in dealing with our families, who (alas?) will keep on giving us work regardless of performance or attitude.

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    • Beware the Curse of Knowledge! The single most important thing to keep in mind when offering your services to your family is that you are a different kind of person than they are. Most people that understand computers well enough to be the “go to” person for their family’s computer woes are actually interested in how computers work and curious about what else it can do. Not so The Others; they’re in search of simple answers that don’t have to explain anything other than how to do task x. This can get frustrating — you say “click on the file menu” and they say “huh?” Don’t assume familiarity with even the most basic tasks (except the whole thing about not talking into the mouse). Don’t talk down to them, but keep it simple and clear. Try reminding yourself that this person gave birth to you/taught you to ride a bike/never told mom about the time you were smoking behind the gym/brought you into this world and can take you out/loves you despite your faults.
    • Get a brief. What exactly does your family member want you to do? Just like a designer wouldn’t start a project without knowing what her client’s needs were, you shouldn’t undertake a project for family without them taking the time to detail what they want. Otherwise you may find you’ve spent a lot of time on something that will never get used.
    • Schedule. Make the best estimate of how long the task will take and schedule it in just like a professional gig. It’s tempting to take on jobs for family members as either a) immediate-priority, drop everything tasks, or b) spare-time tasks. The first will cause stress and the neglect of other projects, the second will cause resentment in family members who feel you’re blowing off something that is really important to them. So let them know when you’ll be able to work on it, explaining that you’d like to give them the attention they deserve without distractions.
    • Learn to say “no”. It’s hard enough saying “no” to a boss or client, I know. But you have to be realistic, too — sometimes family work would be better served by someone else in your family (and boy will they appreciate the referral!) or by a professional. And sometimes you simply cannot find the time to do a good job.
    • Invoice. This doesn’t apply to all cases — when mom needs help setting up her new email account, for example — but some tasks are big and should really be done by a professional. If you happen to be such a professional, let your family member know that you can offer them a nice “family discount” but the job is too big to take on for free. Obviously you’ll want to use your judgment here, but don’t let yourself be taken advantage of — if taking on a task for a family member means you’ll have to give up paid work, you deserve to be compensated.
    • Know your limits. Don’t take on jobs that are too far beyond your own abilities. There’s a world of difference between figuring out how to install a new CPU on your own PC and doing the same on mom’s computer, screwing up, and depriving her of her online Boggle matches and email from her grandkids. Keep the experimentation at home and know when to turn your family member over to a pro.
    • Upsell. If you’re doing a logo for your sister-in-law’s in-home lingerie sales business, why not offer to throw in letterhead for half your usual price? OK, I’m just kidding — I suppose it is possible to take the whole “client relations” thing too far when dealing with family.

    Working for family can feel like extortion sometimes — it’s not entirely fair that everyone leans on you for help, and you have very little choice in the matter. Remember that, despite the frustrations, requests for help from family are a sign of pride in your accomplishments and a recognition of your value.

    Bonus Tip: install LogMeIn Free on all your family member’s computers and link them to your account. Then you’ll be able to log in to their computers from home and work on it just like you would if you were in front of the computer itself. This is obviously no good for problems when the computer won’t boot or there’s a hardware problem, but for little things like setting up email, updating a program, or troubleshooting a network connection, it’s just the thing. And it’s free.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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