It doesn’t pay to be the computer guy

This weekend I ran across a post by Shaun Boyd called Ten reasons it doesn’t pay to be the computer guy [link has gone away]. He begins with the observation that if you’re “the computer guy,” most of your accomplishments are invisible. Nobody consciously notices things working smoothly. In fact, if you do a great job of preventing problems, people will assume you’re not needed. After discussing being unappreciated, Boyd goes on to complain about unreasonably high expectations people have of “the computer guy.”

These are valid complaints. However, they somewhat offset each other. Yes, much computer support work is invisible, but the firefighting aspects of the job are very visible and often appreciated. Other computer careers are less visible than desktop support and do not have the same potential for positive client interaction. Security may be the worst. Nobody ever notices the lack of security problems. The only potential visibility is negative.

I think the problem is not so much a lack of visibility but a natural incentive to concentrate on the more visible aspects of the job. It’s natural to do more of what is rewarded and less of what is ignored. Troubleshooting is often immediately rewarded by the gratitude of clients. (“My computer was all messed up and you saved me. Thank you, computer guy!”) Preventative maintenance and infrastructure improvements are appreciated only in the long term, if ever.

These challenges are not unique to computer careers; cure is usually more appreciated than prevention. The other problems Boyd lists are not unique to computer careers either. For example, he mentions the lack of appreciation for specialization.

There is no common understanding that there are smaller divisions within the computer industry, and that the computer guy cannot be an expert in all areas.

Every industry has its specializations, though specializations within the computer industry may be less widely known. Maybe specializations are harder to appreciate in newer industries; not long ago the computer guy could be an expert in more areas. Another difficulty is that computers are mysterious to most people. They find it easier to imagine why there are different kinds of doctors for eyes and ears than why there are different kinds of computer guys for desktops and servers.

Boyd makes one point that is almost unique to the computer industry: rapid change devalues skills. Every industry experiences change, but few change at the same rate as the computer industry.

Thanks to the constantly declining price of new computers, the computer guy cannot charge labor sums without a dispute. … desktop computers are always getting smaller, faster, and cheaper. It’s possible to purchase a new desktop computer for under $400. If the computer guy spends five hours fixing a computer and wants $100/hour for his time, his customer will be outraged, exclaiming “I didn’t even spend this much to BUY the computer, why should I pay this much just to FIX it?”

When people in other professions complain about how their jobs are changing, they’re usually complaining directly or indirectly about the impact of computer technology. But the rate of change for those who use a technology is usually less than the rate of change for those who produce and support it.

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6 thoughts on “It doesn’t pay to be the computer guy

  1. I think the real lesson here is that it does not pay to be in support or service industries. Most IT people I know don’t like to think of themselves as tradesmen or service workers… yet they are.

  2. In some surveys, you see that older people (40 something) are leaving IT en masse. We also have fewer students in our IT programs. Finally, it has gotten somewhat harder, in my experience to recruit experienced IT people.

    The net lesson, here, is that IT as an industry is just not all that important. Having an IT engineer twice as good as your competitor will not help your bottom line, much.

    Yet, I don’t entirely buy the “rapid change devalues skills”.

    I haven’t used Windows in about a decade, but I still help family members with their Windows problems. I understand the foundation. It does not matter which Operating System you use, my knowledge is transferable. Obviously, there might be, one day, a paradigm change in how Operating Systems are designed. But still, a lot of my knowledge will carry over, I’m sure.

    The fact that things change, a little bit each year, maybe a bit more than other industries, is not necessarily a negative. It means that there are new things to learn all the time, and it should make the job more interesting.

    Yes, IT people complain that they don’t want to be learning new tricks, but that’s probably just a sign that the IT people we get are relatively lazy, unqualified and have a poor education to begin with.

    The good IT people I have known don’t complain about learning new technologies, they love that part of their job.

  3. Hi John. Thanks for the thoughtful synopsis and expansion of my original article. It’s always surprising to me how people keep re-discovering my piece about what it’s like being the “computer guy.”

  4. I would have to argue that the it guy (or contracted out service) is in fact a big invisible part of the company which can hugely benefit profits if they know their stuff. A bit like the tea lady but also starts or stops everyone’s working day with a button.

  5. An honest computer guy trying to service home users is in a dead end occupation. For that matter, even the very small businesses are not going to be much better.

    The $400 machines are THE problem for someone trying to make money at that. It’s not just a good point. You simply can’t put much time in a machine without having to discuss the “I should have just bought a new one” issue. Shaun is dead on on that one.

    I ran a consultancy for 3 years and I started out with residential support as part of my business. I learned very quickly that was a horrible idea. You leave a residence after spending WAY too much time for what you can realistically charge and they spin right around and put the crapware you just removed back on the machine…and blame you for the problem….demanding you come back or give them a refund.

    No thank you. I dropped residential support and told all my businesses we put file servers in their business and we re-image workstations at the first hint of trouble. I also emphasize to businesses that work machines should be work machines.

    Those jobs began to actually be worth the time.

    You made some good points though.

  6. looking at salary comparisons of different industries, it definitely *pays* to be the computer guy, whether its appreciated or not.

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