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Help desk on the home front a drag

For techies, requests from family and friends for computer aid can be an unwanted part of the profession.

Several times a month, software developer Brendon McCaulley gets put in the position of family computer guru.

When he's not working at his regular job at a large telecommunications company, a relative will beg him to help fix a computer glitch. The number of such requests have grown this year amid virus and spyware plagues--and they can wear on McCaulley. "I deal with computers all day at work," the Frisco, Texas, resident said. "I come home in the evening, (and) I have to deal with relatives' computer problems."

McCaulley is one of many information technology professionals who get hit with pleas to help family members and friends with problems such as infected PCs. In fact, the topic recently generated numerous comments on Slashdot, the online forum that caters to computer geeks.

"I hate it when my aunt says to me, 'Mike, I've got a problem with my computer. My scanner...'" one person wrote on the site. "First off, I dislike the headache I get when trying to fix things, when I could be doing something fun (i.e., playing pool). Second, I hate that I feel an obligation to work because she's my aunt."

Acting as computer doctor for acquaintances can lead to awkward situations, a commenter named Paul said. He offered to help his daughter's Sunday school teacher with a Web site access problem and found the computer's logs full of porn sites blocked when she was at work. Meanwhile, one of her teenage boys was doing homework nearby. "I think she had a little talk with him after I left," Paul wrote. "Can you say 'uncomfortable?'"

One reason IT pros may find themselves in these positions is because companies selling personal technology products are pushing consumers to solve their own problems through manuals or Web sites, and customers seem reluctant to do so. Half of consumer technology buyers report that "self-service" tools do not work for them, according to recent research by the Service & Support Professionals Association and consulting firm Tech Strategy Partners.

At the same time, most customers balk at the idea of paying for support. "The majority of today's consumer technology customers don't want to pay extra for technical support but demand high-quality, affordable products. This presents a real challenge for the companies that serve this market," said J.B. Wood, president and CEO of the SSPA.

Why break out the checkbook when you can turn to a knowledgeable relative for a little free labor? One Slashdot commenter said he or she had to give up a side job of building computers to sell to relatives and friends. "I've had enough of giving out lifetime free tech support," the person wrote. "I traveled to my home town for Thanksgiving and spent about 10 hours of my long weekend fixing computers for friends and family."

McCaulley lays the blame on the technology companies. "Software vendors should provide more support for their products," he said. "That way, people don't have to turn to their relatives for help."

Still, not all computer professionals give their advice or time grudgingly. "I consider it a trade of sorts," one Slashdot commenter wrote. "For example, my dad is a lawyer--and a damn good one. I fix his computer for free, no questions asked. When some big bad corporate bully comes picking on me for no apparent reason (aka a big overcharge on a bill or a denied insurance claim), I turn my dad on the end, it all works out, I think."

The Slashdot forum generating these comments initially was devoted to asking what people in the IT field do for side jobs. Although much of the discussion focused on the toil of helping friends with computer problems, some interesting nontech activities surfaced.

One person drives a forklift, another fights fires and yet another helps build houses for nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity. "I'm a computer nerd by trade, but I'm a carpenter by heart," the person wrote.