Eyes, JAPAN Blog > The 10 Most Common Requests I Get as People’s “Computer Guy”

The 10 Most Common Requests I Get as People’s “Computer Guy”

Sean Wcisel


There are some career choices that affect your life in unexpected ways. I’m referring to jobs and interests that tend to make you people’s “______ guy”. Growing up I would hear people say things like “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got a guy for that”, and I always wanted to be That Guy. I’m sure most mechanics, doctors, lawyers, accountants, anyone with a good employee discount, and guys with trucks know exactly what I’m talking about. And I’m happy to say I’ve achieved my dream. I am … [drumroll] … your Computer Guy!

I know several people who can’t stand being sought out regularly for help and advice by friends and family members. After all, they wouldn’t still make those “NO I WILL NOT FIX YOUR COMPUTER!” shirts if people weren’t buying them, right? I’ve certainly never felt that way. I’m usually very happy to be able to help as long as people understand that depending on the situation, their problem may not always be my first priority. I’m glad the people I’m close to have taken the opportunity to use my experience and resources to help them out of a jam. I also learn massive amounts from helping people work through their problems. In fact, it may be the most useful learning tool I’ve had over the years, so thanks for that!

It’s very interesting that being the Computer Guy is such a generalized role. I was a Computer Science major in college, so my classes dealt almost exclusively with writing and debugging software. Yet people (sometimes correctly) tend to assume that I can help with an entire spectrum of other computer-related issues. That’s certainly not always the case, so here are a list of ten of the most common requests I get, with a small breakdown of roughly how helpful I can actually be.

1. My computer is running slow / has a virus

Frequency: Only about five times a year, and declining quickly. This could be because Microsoft is getting its act together and selling operating systems that are no longer the computer security equivalent of swiss cheese. It could also be that people have just been dealing with malware for so long that they’ve gotten a little smarter about their internet usage.

How qualified am I?: Fairly so. I’ve dealt with this quite a bit over the years, especially with friends and family (the Vundo viruses kept me pretty busy in 2006-2007). My interest in computer security has given me a reasonable understanding about the nature of computer viruses, which makes it somewhat easier to track them down and remove them.

Favorite resource(s): msconfig.exe, safe mode, various IRC channels

2. “It keeps doing this weird thing…”

Frequency: About once a week.

This question encompasses things like noisy hard drives, disappearing emails, files that “won’t delete”, and other general annoyances.

How qualified am I?: Of course this varies widely depending on the problem. More often than not if I can help, it’s because I’ve run across the same problem before, or know someone who has. To be honest, in many cases I just google the problem and paraphrase the information I come up with. If my education does give me an advantage in this category, it’s the ability to quickly fire through possible solutions. Of all the items on this list, this is the most likely to elicit a shrug and an “I’ll look into it”.

Favorite resource(s): Google, log files, luck

3. Do you have a ____ Cable?

Frequency: About three times per year, usually just after I’ve thrown out or given away my only cable of that type.

How qualified am I?: More than I should be. I have several cables for devices I’ve *never* owned. I’ve only recently organized and labeled assorted parts and cables, so I usually know right away whether I have the item in question. Pair that with the fact that I’m often too forgetful or indifferent to make an effort to recover my cables after lending them out, and I’m your guy.

Favorite resource(s): My closet, wire cutters, a crimping tool

4. Which _______ should I buy?

Frequency: About once a month

How qualified am I?: Although this is probably the easiest one from a technical standpoint, it’s also the one I’m probably going to be the least helpful with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for lack of wanting to help. It’s just that most of the work I do involving computers is done on a terminal. For those of you not familiar with the term: picture the DOS command prompt, or all that green text that flies around on a computer monitor whenever a movie or TV show wants to communicate that a character is a “computer whiz” without just having them wear a name tag to that effect (in my case watching me work would be infinitely less entertaining). But I digress…

Usually these questions relate to hard drives, laptops, and gaming hardware. Hard drives are something I know a bit about, if only based on anecdotes my friends have told me about how they had to come in to work on a Saturday because “[brand name] hard drive failed, and it wasn’t the first time“. Laptops are a little easier for me, though again I can’t really recommend particular brands. I’m confident that I can match certain specs to a person’s budget and planned usage to a point, but the best I can do is usually coming up with three or four “good” options.

Regarding gaming hardware…I’m not even almost the best person to talk to there. Granted I may know more than your friendly neighborhood octogenarian, but I’ve never owned anything that could be considered a respectable gaming computer. In fact, at the LAN parties my university’s Computer Club hosted, I usually volunteered to watch the cash register, sell concessions, answer questions, etc. That’s not to say that I don’t like video games. I’ve always just been content to wait three years after the release of a game, when my friends would sell me their now outdated hardware for next to nothing. Most of the decent computers I’ve owned in my life were acquired using similar vulture-like tactics.

Favorite resource(s): My friends from college, Newegg, Tom’s Hardware

5. My torrents are running slow

Frequency: Surprisingly rare. Rather, I usually just make recommendations when one of my friends off-handedly complains about slow download speeds.

How qualified am I?: I can usually at least discover the root of the problem, though I’m not always able to correct it. Like many of the items on this list, this is just something I’ve picked up through personal experience and general troubleshooting. I suppose understanding what all the “advanced” settings in a torrent client do helps to a degree, but the impact my professional experience has on the situation is relatively low.

Favorite resource(s): Azureus/Vuze, transmission

6. Do you want this old computer?

Frequency: Thankfully, all the time!

How qualified am I?: I’m exactly as willing to take most things as my wife will let me be. I can generally find a use for something (if only to scavenge parts). As I mentioned above, this is how I’ve acquired nearly all of my higher-end computers. Since most of my computer usage is very light on system resources, I’m usually able to get by with fairly old equipment. In fact, I’d say the biggest issues I have with older computers that I re-purpose (usually as servers or debugging environments) are heat, noise, my wife’s evaporating patience as my desk and closet start to overflow, and excessive electricity consumption.

I also have a small collection of “classic” hardware, which is outdated to the point of being fascinating (or ironic, depending on how iconic the device was in its hay-day). Naturally these take up more space than newer computers, so many of them are sadly the first to go in a purge.

Favorite resource(s): The foreigners in Fukushima who move here, buy a new computer, then leave after two years and need someone to buy their laptop off them.

7. I can’t access _____ website at work.

Frequency: Up to twice a week

How qualified am I?: So-so. I took several networking classes in college, and I’ve also worked professionally with over-zealous firewalls and paranoid IT staff. Unfortunately once the decision is made to limit access to certain web sites the system is usually locked down to prevent the average user from circumventing the firewall. My actual ability to help is somewhat limited when a proxy is needed. I have a personal server at home, but I rarely (certainly not “regularly”) leave it running during the day. I tend to hesitate to recommend free public proxy services to people, since I can’t attest to their legitimacy. I also try to avoid directly suggesting that people should blindly shrug off security measures taken by their IT staff, for obvious reasons.

Favorite resource(s): PuTTY, ssh tunnels, a Unix-based terminal, the server I keep at home

8. How can I begin learning about programming/web design/game development/computer security/etc.?

Frequency: Roughly twice a month

How qualified am I?: Very. I imagine almost anyone who has spent time in this field could be at least somewhat helpful. After all, someone who doesn’t know where to begin learning to write software isn’t going to get very far! And there are many more resources available now than when I started just a few short years ago. I have a massive folder in my bookmarks which consists solely of beginner-level tutorials and forums on dozens of topics. I keep many of them around for precisely this sort of question (and, admittedly, for the occasional refresher before beginning a project). I’ve also done work tutoring in a number of different contexts, and answered plenty of beginner-level questions on sites like allexperts.com.

I think of all the questions on this list, this is the one I enjoy hearing the most. It’s also probably the question I’m best at answering, since I genuinely enjoy helping and encouraging people who want to begin writing software. I don’t know that I’m always helpful in my advice, but I’m almost always at least willing to take a stab at it. In fact, if you’re reading this and are at all curious about this field, please don’t hesitate to ask!

Favorite resource(s): w3schools, cheat sheets I’ve collected or put together over the years

9. Can you get me a copy of Office/Photoshop/Windows?

Frequency: Maybe once every three months.

How qualified am I?: Well, that all depends. Of course I know where to obtain pirated software keys (which is usually the aim of this question), but people seem to fail to realize that there are also many extremely sophisticated and extremely free software packages out there that perform just as well or better than their expensive counterparts. I’m going to try to avoid a rant about the merits of Open Source software here. If you’re not sick to death of that debate by now you should count yourself among the lucky few. However, I’ve found through personal experience that while many of the open source alternatives do take some time to adjust to (Windows -> GNU Linux, MS Office -> Open Office, Photoshop -> The GIMP), they are almost always completely adequate for my needs.

Favorite resource(s): the GPL, and occasionally a torrent client (only for legally appropriate reasons, naturally).

10. “Blue smoke of death” situations

Frequency: about six times a year

How qualified am I?: Well, by this question I mean situations in which the computer seems to be on its last legs. Its panicked owner has tried every conventional method available to pull things back together, but to no avail. That is to say, they’ve tried everything barring methods that they (wisely) believe might make things worse if done incorrectly. In other words, these are the big problems. And I’m the last resort.

Generally in these cases my professional and educational experience once again take a back seat to the fact that, for better or worse, I’ve simply been around or worked with computers for almost every waking hour of my adult life. In terms of education, I took exactly one class that dealt with hardware (the most likely culprit in many cases) in college. Furthermore, that class only involved very basic circuit design concepts. On the other hand, I’ve had to revive my own computers from some pretty nasty problems over the years.

In short, I’d say I can usually be counted on to track down the cause of a problem, though my success rate in actually fixing these problems isn’t phenomenal. Usually in cases of hardware dying I just don’t have the resources (tools, parts, knowledge, time) to dedicate to the problem. Fortunately these situations can provide for some very useful learning experiences, so I hope to improve in this aspect over time.

Favorite resource(s): A screwdriver, a multimeter, little baggies to keep the screws in so I don’t lose any, (and when all else fails) a soldering iron

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