Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch

Can helping out, hurt?

June 24, 2005

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Does there come a time when “helping out a friend” can actually hurt? It seems that often times, when I agree to offer technical advice or assistance, things can go so wrong. While it certainly wouldn’t be any easier were this to happen with a paying client, when it happens among friends and family, the results can feel even worse. I am not talking about fierce recriminations among you and those you help, but more the wasted time and damage that can be done to your psyche if you don’t address the issues in a proper way. Friendships are strong enough to survive bad software; it is your self-confidence that can be weakened.

Reseller Hell

Today, I faced a typical scenario. A friend starting a new restaurant had asked me to help him create a point-of-sale system from scratch, rather than purchasing a complete system from a reseller. While I respect the knowledge that resellers have about specific “vertical” products, this was a small operation needing only one system and no need for training on the product, as my friend already had extensive experience in its operation. He purchased the software and intended to have me help him install it. With most products, this is no trouble, as my wide knowledge of various systems and my ability to decipher technical documentation is usually enough to carry me over except in the most difficult cases. Unfortunately, this was one of those difficult cases. What should have been a 2 hour installation stretched into a 3 day nightmare.

After we received the software and fought through a complicated registration involving hardware keys, activation phone calls and 4 long security keys to be entered into the system, we thought we were on our way. Try as I might though, I could not find the slightest information on installing the software. The manual clearly showed how to operate the software, but not one mention of installation or configuration. After losing several hours in a vain search, we began to think we were missing some important manual or CD that would supply the information we needed. Sure enough, this was exactly the case. After many phone calls and many explanations of our problems -- and many attempts to charge us for consulting time -- a missing CD was delivered and quickly answered all our questions. In fact, it was so clear my friend was able to complete the installation by himself since I had had to move on to another call. Finally we were making progress.

Sticking my nose in

It was at this point, though, that I began to wonder if “sticking my nose in” was not the correct decision to have made at the time. My friend’s confidence in installing the system was bolstered by my abilities with technology, but in the end, I felt as if I had let him down. I wondered if he would have traveled down this road had he not had me by his side. Perhaps he would have simply bought the system, had it configured by the reseller and gone to work instead of spending 2-3 days trying to figure things out.

Regardless of the cause, I still felt bad and my self-confidence suffered. Why couldn’t I figure this out? In this particular case, these recriminations are certainly not rational, but they effect me just the same. I pride myself on my ability to “get things done” and suffer a bit when systems and software frustrate me. Add this together with the fact that I was working for a friend and I find myself deep in doubt. For whatever reason, it just seemed worse –someone trusted me and I let them down.

Perhaps in the future, for both my sake and that of my friends and clients, I need to be more circumspect in the projects I take on. This example clearly shows that there are times when, unless I am 99% certain I can accomplish the task, I should leave the work to those with more specific knowledge.

Then again, to not help a friend in need seems wrong. Even if it is more trouble than it should be and you must suffer through bad software and support, I would find it difficult to not “stick my nose in” in the future. Friends should be there for one another even if, in some situations, my desire to help out, hurts.

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