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InterviewBITS: Family Tech Support

Robert Movin’s recent article “Switching My Mother to the Mac” (2007-04-02) generated a number of nice comments from people who had engineered similar switches for family members. That got me thinking about how many of us act as unofficial tech support for our Mac-using friends and family (and occasionally for Windows users as well). But I wondered how similar the experience was for different people, so I picked a few TidBITS readers and asked them to share how many members of their extended families they regularly provide tech support for. I also asked how they generally perform that support – in person, over the phone, or via remote control software – and what their last support job
was. And just so you know I’m in exactly the same situation as everyone else, I’ll lead off.

Adam C. Engst — Publisher, TidBITS and Take Control Books

My parents have an aging Power Mac G4 Cube and a 14-inch iBook G4 that they use for all the usual personal tasks. My mother also reads her work email from home at times and works on Word and Excel documents at home as well, transferring them back and forth to her PC by sending them to herself in email.

Even though they’re primarily PC users, my sister and her husband, who have a two-year-old son, recently bought a Mac mini with an iSight camera for video iChats; it’s a great way for the whole family to communicate, particularly with the little one (who wants to say that he also uses the Mac to look at pictures of rhinos). Plus, my aunt and uncle have a 20-inch iMac and a 14-inch iBook, and both of Tonya’s sisters use laptop Macs. I also provide personal email accounts for a number of relatives, mostly because I started doing it well before there were good free alternatives like Yahoo Mail and Google Gmail. On the whole, everyone is pretty good with their Macs, and I never feel as though I’m explaining the obvious.

Since my parents are local, they occasionally call with urgent problems, but more commonly, they invite us out for a weekend dinner with the warning that they have some computer questions. The last problem I solved involved Dad’s iBook refusing to boot normally. I couldn’t fix it, but I verified it was a hardware problem that would be covered by AppleCare. Luckily, I was able to boot the machine in FireWire Target Disk mode and make a full backup before Dad sent it in, since Apple replaced the hard disk along with other parts, even though that was almost certainly not the problem. Other relatives usually call with problems, although a visit to my aunt and uncle is never complete until I’ve answered any questions that have arisen since
the last visit.

Of course, Tonya uses the Mac constantly as well, and as much as she’s highly capable, she last worked in tech support before Mac OS X appeared, so I end up dealing with any unusual problems she runs into, along with maintaining our network, keeping the backup system working, and fussing with the Internet connection whenever necessary.

Peter N Lewis — CEO, Stairways Software

My parents and my sister both have Macs, and I regularly help my folks with tech support, although my Dad is pretty good at figuring things out himself. My most recent tech support job was purchasing a second-hand 12-inch iBook and setting it up for him (clean install of course, never trust a used computer’s installation!), and showing him how to use it in FireWire Target Disk Mode to transfer files to it from his old iMac.

I do most of my support in person as my folks live only a short distance away. Tech support over the email or the phone is always a challenge, and most problems can wait a few days until I next see them.

Naomi Pearce — Owner, Pearce Communications

Both my parents use Macs, and my brother and random extended family members are also Mac users. Thankfully, my brother splits parental support duties with me, almost all of which take place over the phone.

The last situation I remember having to help them with was fixing the settings when their DSL goes down; every time it drops, the settings in the DSL modem get all flubbed up.

The most interesting note regarding my support-providing experience actually stems from a turnaround moment. My husband and I noticed that one of the MacMania cruises left from San Diego, which is within driving distance from my parents’ house. We thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience to take them on a cruise, in style, and let them peek into our world a little bit. Cruises allow taking a vacation together without being too together or too apart.

So, after months and months of lobbying to convince my mother to go (another story altogether), we hiked the gangway to one of the most wonderful vacation experiences ever. Mom and Dad were encouraged to experience the inimitable Andy Ihnatko’s Mac OS X overview sessions, and Janet Hill’s “Life is Good, iLife Makes it Better” class. MacMania classes are relatively small, so people can ask questions, even outside of class should a question dawn later on. Participants are essentially in a week-long computer camp at sea, with the teachers right there, and I know for sure my father availed himself of the experts outside of class.

And now that you ask about it, I just realized that I haven’t received a support question since that MacMania trip. So, anybody who fancies an Alaskan adventure, particularly if their parents need Mac class and they’re also interested in Aperture and real photography, might want to consider trying a last-minute sign-up for May, while there are still glaciers to see! Of course, the Panama MacMania looks fun too.

Chris Pepper — [Chris Pepper babysits Unix systems at Rockefeller University for a living, and is still pleased and amused that a Mac is the best tool for his work.]

My least computer-savvy family member has a grape iMac, which replaced a Mac Plus, largely because it would still run Word 5.1a. Her discomfort with the computer is best encapsulated by this quote:

“I know the computer isn’t really going to blow up on me, but I like the mouse because I know if it did it would just blow my hand off, while if the whole computer blew up, it would really hurt me, just like my car would kill me if it blew up.”

Her last few questions were: “Why can’t I print?” Answer: Restart. “Why is my computer frozen?” (Luckily a rare occurrence.) Answer: Restart.

She normally apologizes when she calls me at work, and sometimes calls my work voicemail at night to avoid disturbing me, but she’s so stressed that everything feels like a crisis, especially since she tends to avoid updating her documents (teaching materials) until they’re needed.

My father, who has long read TidBITS, is, yes, Dr. Pepper. As a psychiatrist, he’s also an MD, even though he doesn’t really treat physical problems. So when I was growing up, every family gathering included at least one relative asking him about bunions or a bad back or a hurt finger. For a few years in and after college, when I still went to lots of these events, I briefly and shockingly became more popular, as those same relatives instead asked questions about what computer they should get, what the Internet was, or why their PC was misbehaving.

David Shayer — iPod Software Engineer, Apple Computer

My wife, my sister, and my mom use Macs. My kids use PCs, because they think more games are available. When they decided to get PCs instead of Macs, I told them they were pretty much on their own for tech support. They’re pretty smart and are usually able to resolve their own problems.

My sister is pretty tech savvy and rarely needs tech support.

My wife can usually figure stuff out, and when I have to help her, being next to her so I can see the screen is invaluable. I occasionally have to help her with work email problems, because the IT people at Stanford can be slow.

My mom is a very smart person, but just isn’t computer savvy. I usually can’t see her screen, since I generally help her over the phone. She doesn’t know what specific user interface elements are called, but she knows the terminology, so she starts randomly throwing in “window” and “desktop” thinking she’s helping, but she actually confuses me more. I suppose I should try Fog Creek’s Copilot or other remote assistance software.

Last night, my mom called with a Quicken question. As far as I could tell she was doing the same thing I do, but not getting the same result. So obviously she was doing something different, but I never figured out what.

Apple Stores are a godsend, because anyone can go in and get free, competent technical advice. This lets me redirect casual friends to good tech support without feeling like I’m abandoning them. Unfortunately, around here the Apple Stores have become so popular that you have to make a reservation to avoid long waits.

Last week, by coincidence, I met a dozen newly hired Apple Geniuses from around the country, who were in Cupertino for their initial training. I was impressed by how smart, dedicated, and serious they all were.

Eric Ullman — Director of Marketing, Mark/Space

Not as many members of my extended family use Macs as I would prefer. It’s somewhere around half: My mom, my in-laws, brother-in-law’s family, one step-sibling’s family. On the PC side are my dad and his wife, brother’s family, my two other step-siblings’ families.

The step-siblings have knowledgeable users who handle support in those families, and my dad and his wife use their small business support person. I am the IT guy for everyone else, including the PC users (either you get computers in general, or you don’t – the same troubleshooting principles apply to Macs and PCs alike). I also provide “weekend support” for the five PCs and one Mac at the small office where my wife works and for many of my Mac-using friends.

Most of my help-desk-type support can be done over the phone, but I also make use of VNC and Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection for Mac. Networking and certain difficult or multi-computer issues require an on-site presence.

The most recent support I provided was for my best friend of more than 20 years, who just switched to the Mac. Specifically, I helped him get a Windows-based flight bidding program for Southwest Airlines pilots working in CodeWeavers’s CrossOver for the Mac (works great, by the way). That involved work (though mostly corrective – he was off to a good start) with some trial and error involved, so I performed it in person.

A week doesn’t go by without handling at least two or three requests, though most take less than five minutes over the phone. I enjoy doing this kind of thing for friends and family, and covering the Windows issues certainly keeps me on my toes and highly appreciative of my Mac. I’ve also developed a general hatred of anti-virus/spyware “solutions” on the Windows platform.

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