The Perils of Amateur Tech Support

I am not an IT professional but I am technical enough to be called upon for computer support among my friends and family group. When it works I love being able to help people out but the experience is fraught with risks.  The diversity of things that can go wrong can be overwhelming and everything to do with computers seems to take much longer to fix than people expect. I have had the opportunity to watch professional support technicians in my workplace and once a problem goes beyond a certain complexity they very quickly go to the nuclear options of re-imaging disks or replacing hardware. Unfortunately these are not popular options when working with a family laptop that has has never been backed up. The biggest pitfall in providing amateur tech support however is the unwritten rule that once you attempt to repair a device anything that subsequently goes wrong with that device is now your fault, no matter how broken it was originally and no matter how much you acted in good faith to try and help.

I guess I have become a bit wiser (and a bit more cynical) over the years and I now make a conscious effort to think twice before jumping in to offer computer support. I still try to help but I try to be more realistic about the process. It has taken me a while to realise that often solutions that would make sense for me might not make sense for one of my less technically savvy family members. Sometimes replacing a device with a brand new one is the best choice. 

Here is a recent example: A relative asked me to look at an old desktop computer that their workplace was throwing out. They wondered if it could be used as a basic home computer for internet browsing and simple tasks. Here are the steps I took:

1. I brought the machine home and powered it up to find that it was a ten year old desktop with a weak CPU,  a slow hard disk and only 2 Gb ram. It had Windows 7 Pro installed on it (password protected). At least everything seemed to be working. 

2.  I knew I had to wipe the disk (the company should have done this before throwing it out) but then I needed to select an operating system for it. I discounted Windows 7 because it no longer receives security updates. I knew that Windows 10 would be painful on 2 Gb of memory so I looked in to some lightweight Linux distros. I even went so far as to boot up the machine with a USB version of Puppy Linux but then in a sudden outbreak of common sense I called STOP. If I install anything other than windows on the machine I am setting myself up for a lifetime of support calls about "how do I install" this printer or that piece of Windows software. I even discounted the more lightweight 32 bit version of Windows 10 because I knew that some programmes no longer support it. I installed Windows 10 64 bit  regardless of how slow it will run.

3. I thought briefly about trying to debloat Windows by removing stuff that isn't needed. You can even get a script that will do that. However I quickly realised that if I supply anything other than a standard installation of Windows then I risk getting support calls about why this or that function doesn't work. 

4. Slow and all as the machine is I knew that some improvements could be made.  Increasing the ram to at least 4Gb should reduce a lot of the disk churning and a wifi adapter would be essential for connecting to wireless internet. I also knew that both of these upgrades were within the capability of my relative to upgrade by themselves under my remote direction. An SSD would also make a big difference in responsiveness but it is marginal as to whether the expense is worth it. Also an SSD upgrade would definitely require my intervention to re-install / transfer Windows. My recommendation to relative: Try the machine as is. Buy and install the wifi adapter and ram to do the upgrade themselves. 

5. The relative is interested in genealogy and asked me to look at genealogy software. They mentioned a well known commercial product. I googled around and found a couple of free open source products that offered similar functionality as well as the ability to share data using standard file formats. I installed two free programmes and the free trial version of the commercial programme. I know very little about genealogy software but I quickly discounted one of the open source programmes once I realised that you need to be able to write your own scripts in Python to get the most out of it. The second open source programme looked a lot nicer and to my untrained eyes seemed broadly comparable to the commercial product but again the voice at the back of my head called STOP. If my relative uses the free product and encounters a problem it will be up to me to try and solve it. If they like the commercial programme and are willing to pay for it then any issues that arise are down to the company that provides it. 

So the machine is going back to the relative today with Windows 10 installed and in a working condition. I suspect they will quickly tire of how sluggish it is. The ram upgrade should help a bit if they choose to do it. 


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