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.
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
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
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
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.