Would you ask a doctor for free advice? Would you ask a mechanic to “just take a quick look”?

I’m not going to get too much into the back story of this, because it’s not completely necessary and it’s not nice – and don’t feel like having defamation brought against me!

There was a recent situation I found myself in where I was at a business as a client and mentioned I worked in IT while there consuming said businesses services. This then led to being asked a couple of questions, being shown their system, making some suggestions and that, I thought, was that. Cut to a day or two later, I received some emails from this business asking for my advice and help on something, which I provided, along with the assistance of my better half, who is also in IT. Issue wasn’t exactly resolved, but it had certainly progressed to a point where they would need to look at getting a professional to come and look at their system. But this business was certainly further forward in getting their problem resolved than they were previously.

As part of this, I realised that I’d spent quite a few hours (around 8 or so) assisting them with their IT needs. If I’d been in the consulting space, this would’ve been quite an expensive venture for them. But I wasn’t. I was just “someone who was in IT” that they felt they could ask these questions of.

I’m finding more and more, the minute you mention you’re in IT to anyone – be it friends, family, other businesses – they seem to think that gives them the right to ask you questions about their own IT issues.

I’m going to have to say – I take a bit of offence to this.

Another example – in a taxi. Mentioning that I work in IT. First thing out of the cab drivers mouth “Oh, I’ve been having some issues with my phone, would you mind taking a look?”

Well, yes. Yes, I would. But I also want to get home and I don’t want an argument.

Why is that people in IT get asked to look at things, with no consideration for the fact that the person you’re asking is a skilled professional who should be charging you for the use of those skills?

To put it into perspective:

  • If you bumped into someone, and they mentioned they’re a doctor – you wouldn’t ask them for free advice regarding a health issue you’re experiencing, would you?
  • If you were having a family gathering, and a new partner of a family member mentions they’re a mechanic – you wouldn’t ask them to “just take a quick look” at your car, would you?
  • You’re providing a service to someone at a business, and they happen to mention they’re a plumber – you wouldn’t ask them to just pop out back and help you fix up something that’s been bothering you for months with your toilet, would you?
  • You meet someone at an event, and discover they’re a hairdresser – you wouldn’t then spend the next 30 minutes picking their brain about ways you could make your hair better, different ways to style, products you should be using or get them to give you a quick makeover, would you?

So then why – for the love of all you hold holy – do you think it’s perfectly okay to do this to anyone who mentions they’re in IT?

I work 5 days a week – sometimes 6 or 7 if I have overtime work that needs completing. On my time off, I would rather be doing *ANYTHING* that isn’t related to what I do for work. Sure, I love my job – yes, sometimes I do more than I’m asked to, because I enjoy it. But I do that because a) it’s part of my job sometimes and b) I’m getting PAID to do it.

My other issue with this is that “IT” is a very, very broad field. IT encompasses so much now – administration, support, procurement, project management, development, logistics, general management. Thinking that every single person who is in IT has the skills and capabilities to fix your end-user, non-enterprise, non-standard device or system is somewhat ridiculous.

I haven’t done desktop support for 4 years – I am purely focused on server administration. Sure, there are some similarities, and I can support my own systems perfectly fine…but it’s not what I do by trade. So being asked to help fix someone’s PC, or help them do something on their phone – while I might have the skills and knowledge, it is so far removed from my current work that unless it’s something that I’ve either a) done previously for work (which would be a long time ago) or b) be on a device that I’m personally familiar with because *I* own one or use one…there’s a good chance I’m not going to be able to help.

Saying “I’m sorry, I can’t help” gets you exceedingly harsh looks or (in some cases) vitriol from the person asking. I find this exceedingly offensive, because there are a few reasons you could be saying no. You could be saying you can’t help because you don’t want to. You could be saying you can’t help because you actually can’t – what is being asked of you is something you’re not skilled in. You could be saying no because you don’t want to break something – I’m certainly guilty of this!

And that’s just it – we *shouldn’t* feel guilty. We are experienced, skilled, educated people in a specific field of expertise. We shouldn’t feel guilty for not offering our services and our extremely precious time, for free. We should be able to stand up and say “I’m sorry, I can’t really help you with that” without feeling that pang of guilt.

This isn’t to say we’ll say no every time – some of us will gladly help friends and family. But I wholeheartedly object to perfect strangers or passing acquaintances expecting me to give up my time and knowledge and expertise for nothing more than maybe the possibility of a “thankyou”.

I’m worth more than that.

4 thoughts on “Would you ask a doctor for free advice? Would you ask a mechanic to “just take a quick look”?

  1. spm

    Ah this one. Sadly.
    There’s a few tricks with managing this problem I’ve found.
    1. First and Foremost: you don’t work in IT. You’re a senior sysadmin who supports various Windows servers that run an organisation of $x thousand people. Or you’re a firewall admin who manages firewalls that protect some 25+ Federal Departments; Or you’re a web server sysadmin that looks after web servers that have hundreds of thousands to millions of users scattered around the planet. etc etc etc.
    Be more specific, and blind ’em with science. You haven’t lied, or mislead, you’ve started on a story that’s more interesting than “IT”, and into an area they’re going to be totally clueless about. Thus, any conversation can be lead into anecdotes about work, not “can you fix my PC”.

    2. If they do ask, laugh it off. “ahaha, Mate, I wouldn’t have a *clue* where to begin. I look after servers that support thousands of users. No idea about the desktop side.”
    But don’t leave it there, point them in a direction they might be able to get help:
    “You might want to try one of those small business IT support places. They’re ideal for helping folks like yourselves.”
    This tactic has the advantage that you *have* helped them, now the next step is in their court.

    3. Maybe they’re still keen, so hit them with the cold hard reality of what an IT Pro like you *really* costs. “Look, I can probably help a bit, but it’s outside my speciality and frankly I get charged out at $250/350/450 an hour. You really don’t want to waste your money on me having a look at it. Get one of the small IT support business instead, they’re far more reasonable.”
    Notice the implication that if they want you to look at it, you’re going to charge, and charge like a wounded bull. Hell, if they call you on it, you can either flatly refuse, or get a more official contract of some sort in place and earn a few hundred bucks.

    4. Say no. “I appreciate you have a problem, but I’m here as a client of your business, not you as a client of mine.”
    Fortunately, I’ve never had to get this far. Usually by #3 they’re scared off the reality of what they’re asking.

    Frankly, I will not support family or friends with their PC problems any more. Too many bad experiences. Just nope.

  2. slee

    @spm IMHO you’re way too nice with response stages #1 and #2. I don’t consider those necessary at all. The issue here is that they’re digging for freebies, not whether you’re able/willing to help or not. I see no reason to be friendly with anyone that is willing to abuse their relationship (whatever kind it is) with me in that manner. Regardless of whether they’re family or not. Life’s way too short to surround yourself with shit people.

  3. Kate in Brissie

    this was happening all the time to me when I visited a friend. No, I didn’t want to try to set up their wireless network with all the shitty hardware they bought that wasn’t compatible. I spent hours doing it and was frustrated. Now I refuse.


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