Are you tech support for friends and family?

Many geeks end up doing tech support for their extended family and friends. That’s true for women, with added dimensions. Because women are often expected to do a lot of free labor already in the home, for family, in various caretaking roles, and for schools and local community, adding another job to our plate can really suck. We get the second shift as women, and then the third shift as geeks. Or, if you’re in a non-techy job, you might be that person in the office who can always fix the printer or get spyware off your boss’s computer, you might not be acknowledged or paid for your technical expertise and work – which I believe is especially a problem for women.

It’s a problem for me at times. Yet for me as a feminist, and a basically nice person, I want to support others, especially women, who can benefit from my tech knowledge. It’s payback, too, for all the times co-workers gave me advice, or ex-boyfriends fixed my laptop despite a breakup. It’s important for us to fix things in a way that teaches rather than mystifies & obfuscates. Doing tech support well is useful, empowering activism.

Do you find yourself in this position? Are you on call 24/7 for your mom-in-law’s broken net connection and your great-uncle’s mail merge and your kid’s teacher’s wiki page? How do you handle balance and boundaries?

21 thoughts on “Are you tech support for friends and family?

  1. wrabbit

    I have more of the opposite problem. One of my major incentives to become more skilled when I was younger was my mom calling her self-taught “techie guy friend” every time there was a problem with our shared desktop (at the time) and letting them have free reign over it. I used to get so pissed off when he wouldn’t tell me what he was doing to the computer. Oh the joys of being underestimated. It wasn’t until recently that I convinced her to let me handle it.

  2. Leigh Honeywell

    My dad pays me market rates to keep his office computers (and his access to them from home) up and running.

    I convinced my mum, brother, and sister to get Macs, and now they don’t bother me pretty much ever for tech support. It’s awesome.

    I have had exes get back in touch with me just to ask computer questions, though, which kinda burned.

  3. Skud

    I had to move to another country to get out of doing Internet tech sup for my family! That came after about a decade of me saying, “I don’t use Windows. I don’t have IE. I don’t have Outlook. I cannot see your screen and do not know how to use your software. Call your ISP.”

    These days I don’t really do tech sup for anyone, though I’ll answer questions on IRC etc from time to time.

    1. Leigh Honeywell

      After basically ten years of doing support for my dad, the fact that I don’t run Windows myself doesn’t even matter any more – I can troubleshoot most of his issues from memory, and if not, I have remote access to all his machines :)

  4. Mary

    Female members of my family seem to largely seek tech support from their male partner, which is its own kind of problem, but not personally my problem. I do the vast bulk of sysadminly chores in my household, which is probably more uncommon in a double-geek female-male relationship (anecdata to the contrary welcome though) and I should be better about claiming credit for them in our unofficial ‘chore wars’. (I know about the website, we’re not signed up though.)

    1. Steph

      It’s actually a very similar situation in my house — which I thought was probably unusual, but after seeing your post I’m not so certain.

      I’m not doing sysadmin type work as part of employment at the moment (the hubby is), and I do enjoy fixing things, those variables probably affect the scenario.

  5. maria

    Sometimes I just pretend not to know, which sounds terrible but in many situations, people just expect you to do it for them and never actually learn.

    I do try to do more tech support for people who normally ask their boyfriends. Just to show them they don’t have to run to dudes automatically for help. I also catch myself doing the same thing sometimes and then I realize I can fix it myself or I can figure out who to actually ask (ie, genius bar, actual tech support, etc).

  6. Bene

    Sadly, I currently live at home, so there’s no good way to get out of being tech support and no good way to establish boundaries–the guilt trips are just too much. I’m considered the most knowledgeable anyway (even though the Bene Brother has some skills of his own) and more willing to answer questions.

    As Skud notes, I may have to move to another country to get away.

    1. Skud

      Whereabouts are you? Canada’s a nice destination :) But the important thing, really, is incompatible timezones.

      1. Bene

        I’m currently in Wisconsin, but shortly jumping ship to a UK graduate program/me, so I will be conveniently six hours ahead. Will screw up my online RP opportunities, but terribly convenient for answering Mom’s endless questions about life/the universe/everything at my own leisure.

        Mr Bene is a Brit, so we have considered Canada as a potential alternative living location for the future.

  7. Olivier

    Not always tech support, but I find I often get roped into being the defacto web dev for family & friends of family. One of these days I hope they’ll pay me. Now accepting cash, visa, and gingerbread cookies. ^_^

  8. Jennifer Jacobs

    I am consistently asked by my friends to help them troubleshoot their web issues. While I was happy to help them, it is a very time intensive process, something that is difficult to do for no compensation after a point. Because they are my friends I don’t feel right accepting money from them for this service, so I’ve found a middle ground. I provide tech support and tutorials and in exchange, my friends make me dinner, (which is ideal if you’re a poor grad student). It’s been a great arrangement that’s expanded from me working with one individual to patch up specific problems to larger group meetings. I give mini tech lessons on different topics and then afterward we all have dinner together. So far it’s been working out for everyone.

    1. Bene

      I agree with Liz, that’s ace. I may have to keep that in mind as I am going forth into Poor Grad Studentdom.

  9. Verily

    I found myself getting roped into that sort of thing at every workplace I’ve been at in addition to being unofficial helpdesk for my immediate (and sometimes not so immediate) family and friends.

    It’s odd, because I’ll get job “opportunities” wherein they find out I have computer experience, but they don’t want to hire me with that sort of title, so they’ll hire me as just the average joe, expect me to do the entirety of that job, and pay me just “a little extra” to also do any IT/web design work that comes up on top of it. And it’s never really been worth it.

    I mean, it’s not really okay when your boss starts asking you to design and coordinate her daughter’s birthday invitations for free, when everyone else at your job title level and pay only files papers and answers phones. Mostly I handled that one by quitting shortly after. I’m still sort of unofficial helpdesk for small issues at my current job, even though we have a dedicated IT company to call, but it’s so much easier for someone on my team to say “Hey, how do I fix this?” to me and have me set it up in ten seconds than spend 2 hours or more on back-and-forth emails to the IT guys trying to have them diagnose it remotely. One of these days I will just get a real tech job.

    With the family/friends thing, I’m pretty direct about the “if I have time” bit. I like to help them out, but constantly troubleshooting wireless issues or Windows having a breakdown or setting up new equipment and programming their telephones, etc… gets time consuming. If it’s an emergency, that’s one thing, but otherwise, it can probably wait until I have my situations sorted first. Also, we don’t tally it, but I think in general I do end up trading favors with people, basically, so I might set up a computer and someone will help me fix my flat tire or buy me dinner at some point. So it all kind of evens out.

  10. PharaohKatt

    Once my parents realised that my brother wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, they started calling on me for tech support. But my dad is pretty good with computers, so it didn’t happen often.

    Ever since I started seeing my partner, though, they started calling on Him for tech support. This has nothing to do with the fact that He’s a man and everything to do with the fact that He’s a computer genius who can code circles around the most experienced coders. So He does the tech support at home too.

    1. PharaohKatt

      I should add, though, that ever since my partner got sick of my boss fucking things up on the computer (they’re good friends) He gave me admin access and now I’m the work tech, and I get paid extra to do the website and stuff like that. Most of the errors on the workmachine are caused by employee stupidity, and this is a store comprised entirely of geeks, so I’m often hanging my head in frustration.

      I think they just don’t want to learn how to use a Mac. Bastards :P

  11. Jacinta Reid

    My mother used to call on my husband for tech support, despite the fact that my skills, both technical and communication, were more advanced than his, and I usually ended up fixing her computer anyway, right in front of her. Then she would thank my husband and rave to her friends about his expertise.

    Since my husband died last year, my mother has not called on me for tech support once, and although I find this a tad weird (As I found her previous behaviour a tad weird) I am NOT complaining.

    I do the odd fix or fiddle with the computers of a few friends, but it is not so much a “Called in to fix their computer” as a “can you see what’s wrong with this?” I think that is because most of the people I have that kind of relationship with at the moment are at least as adept as I am.

  12. Mackenzie

    When we used Windows, I was. I switched the family to Ubuntu when I went off to college (right after I started using it) so I wouldn’t get tech support calls anymore. It’s worked great! After 2.5 years, I finally got my first tech support call from Mom. She wanted to know how to insert a table in OpenOffice.org Writer. If she’d known it was called a table, that probably would’ve helped her figure it out on her own.

    Oh, though of course I do tons of IRC tech support.

  13. Amas

    My mother used to call on my husband for tech support, despite the fact that my skills, both technical and communication, were more advanced than his, and I usually ended up fixing her computer anyway, right in front of her. Then she would thank my husband and rave to her friends about his expertise.

    Since my husband died last year, my mother has not called on me for tech support once, and although I find this a tad weird (As I found her previous behaviour a tad weird) I am NOT complaining.

    I do the odd fix or fiddle with the computers of a few friends, but it is not so much a "Called in to fix their computer" as a "can you see what's wrong with this?" I think that is because most of the people I have that kind of relationship with at the moment are at least as adept as I am….

  14. betsyl

    i do tech support for my mom. my sister and her partner are a mac household, so they’re on their own. my dad, however, asks my sister’s partner (who is of the male persuasion) (but is a mac geek) for help with his windows boxes before he asks me, and i’ve been doing windows support since… 1994?

    however, there is the part where if i call him on it i will end up doing all the family tech support rather than about half. which i’m not excited about.

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