I decided to write this article when a small dispute started over a humorous tech support note I shared on Google+ in which a customer asked how it could be that when she added a shortcut to a movie to her USB-stick the movie would only play on her computer, but not on anyone else’s.
The reply used an analogy with fur coats saying that while the coat itself won’t fit in your purse, a note saying that the coat is in the wardrobe would fit. But then again, the note would only be helpful in your own home, but not for anybody else’s home or wardrobe.
Now, I mostly thought the question and reply was funny, and didn’t think too much about it. The dispute that started revolved around the question whether the joke was mysogynistic, how it’s probably the same people complaining about the lack of women in some tech circles while at the same time being condescending and patronizing when it comes to a perceived tech-unsaviness as well as how the question asked really isn’t a dumb question and whether we can assume that knowing how a shortcut works is actually something we can consider basic knowledge.
In my experience the main problem we have here is the discrepancy between the technically savvy and those that are not – and this is a problem I see all the time.
As a software developer you are automatically the computer wizard of your family, circle of friends and probably the workplace (depending on where you work).
The simple truth is that about 80% or more of the problems people ask me to fix are stuff that I have only a vague idea about. I just google it. There’s no wizardry involved, nor do I use some secret knowledge I learned in my training or work experience.
The main problem is that I’m so used to computers and the way they work, that it seems all so natural and unquestionable to me that I simple can’t imagine how you would *not* know it. I just used shortcuts so often that I can’t even imagine that you don’t know what they are and how they work. And this is true for a lot of problems that other people are having.
And since the knowledge difference is so great at times it’s hard to find the common language denominator of asking and explaining that both parties can work with. When supporting someone on the phone sometimes it takes me a long time to find out what the actual problem is because the other person and me use a completely different language to describe what’s happening. The difference between „Is the computer running?“, „Has Windows booted?“ and „Did the application start?“ is clear to me, but it sometimes is not to someone who just uses a computer when they have to.
This is frustrating at times. I’m not blaming the other person, I’m just saying. It is frustrating, because I want to help, but it can be hard getting there.
Sometimes it’s really frustrating though and that’s when people start coming to me for more or less *all* the questions that are somehow computer related just because they know what I do for a living. This ranges from converting CDs to MP3s, questions about setting up their wireless network, formatting in Excel and Word and what computer they should buy.
I guess this is where some of the passive-aggressive humor is coming from. I’m glad to help anybody who has a problem, but I’d also like you to listen to what I explain to you and remember it. I can’t remember how often I tried to explain to someone at an old job what the difference between the internet and the intranet was, just to be cut off short each time with something along the lines of „This is too technical for me.“ This person was in no way stupid, she just didn’t want to know. She’d rather call me once in a month or so to say that „you need to reboot the internet“. And no attempt to try to explain to her that while I appreciated the confidence she put in me to have the power to reboot the internet, that was nothing I could really do.
We’re living in a split society where one half is so used to technology and how it works that they simply can’t imagine that the other half doesn’t know how to do the things that we do. And that leads to misunderstanding, miscommunication and frustration on both sides. When my mother or my mother-in-law look at a computer they see something completely different from what I see. They see the internet when I see Firefox. One time we had to explain to my father-in-law that the password he used for his mail account was not the same as the password for his wireless network and that when he told us his wireless password we really wouldn’t have any access to his mail. While this was so completely clear to us, it wasn’t to him. For him it was just passwords.
In the end this is not a technology problem. It’s a general problem that you notice when you’re so used to something and move smoothly within a system without any problems that you lose sight of the many small things that are not immediately clear to someone who doesn’t live in the system the way that we do.
What I always try to do is to explain to someone that computers are in no way magical. I didn’t learn what I know by learning it, but by using it. The truth is that unless you go into your system settings and screw around with them chances are unlikely that you can break something. The first thing to teach to people is to not be scared to break something and encourage them to play around hoping that this will make them more confident to try to solve problems themselves first and only come to ask for help if that didn’t work out.
And that is all.