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In my group of friends/family, I'm usually the go-to guy for anything that people deem tech-related, from cell phones to the Internet. When people ask me for help, I try to explain things and empower them, but I don't always get the impression that they understand the fundamental issues at play or even care to find out once they are able to get the device to do what they want it to (or in one-time cases like setting up a network, once I do it for them). At that point, no clever analogy or metaphor is going to educate them.

The problem with this is that when their network has "limited or no connectivity" or Windows doesn't boot, they need me to help them again.

Luckily for me, being a programmer, this sort of thing isn't my job, but I was wondering how you sysadmins and IT professionals deal with the tricky issue of explaining things to laypeople.

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2 Answers 2

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I always approach things from the point of view of the other person and the task they are trying to accomplish. They really will never care about how it works or how to make it work or how to fix it. It's analagous to a car or a will. They've got them, they need them, they use them, but they go to a mechanic or an attorney for their special skills.

Also, I often have people tell me that they "feel so dumb" when it comes to computers. I counter that by comparing whatever it is that they specialize in and my lack of expertise in that.

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Excellent, that's the way to go. –  Wayne Koorts May 2 '09 at 5:47

I always tell my friends/relatives that I don't know the answer to the problem and sadly cannot help. Otherwise six months down the line you're acting as sysadmin for half a dozen friends/relatives and it starts becoming a real drag of your time. This is better than having to say no later on at which point they take it as a personal insult and can lead to a falling out.

(I make an exception for a couple of close family members but as close friends they would not dream of taking advantage of my time and so it does not become a problem)

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I don't really mind helping people out, since it's usually not too hard to figure out the solution, but I just want people to understand and appreciate things and really know what they're doing instead of believing that I'm just a genius or a magician. –  dss_so May 2 '09 at 3:12
I'd give up on your obsession of education. Most people don't really care about this stuff, in the same way as there are things in the world that I'm sure you don't care about (I, for instance, have very little interest in the finer details of tax law). Revel in your status of "magician", and don't forget to regularly hint at your love of fine (chocolate|single malt scotch|whatever) while you're fixing their machines. –  womble May 2 '09 at 4:25
I agree with womble hint away while your helping. It's always worked for me. –  thing2k May 2 '09 at 8:07

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