Like you, I earn my living from computers, and I love it. The great thing about my job is that I get paid to do something I'd probably be doing anyway, if I didn't have a job. The only difference is that in the latter case, I'd probably play more video games.
It may strike you as odd, then, given my proclaimed love for what I do, that I have recently begun lying about my profession when I'm asked what I do for a living. Why? It's got nothing to do with a lack of pride, I assure you. Instead it has to do with the typical response I get when I'm honest about my profession. Whether at a party, in a doctor's office, or a chance encounter at a grocery store, it always goes something like this:
"So, what do you do?"
"Oh, I write about computer programming."
"Really? You must know a lot about computers, then. Hey, can I call you sometime? I've got this computer in my basement, and it must be broken. I can't get it to do anything."
It always goes something like that: He can't get on AOL; she's got some game that won't run; their Internet is slow—really slow. If I had a dime for every time I've had a conversation similar to the one above, you wouldn't be reading this article today because I'd be retired in Key West right now.
I don't make house calls
I've tried everything else. At first, I'd politely refuse and suggest that the individual take some—to my mind—totally rational course of action like calling AOL's help desk or visiting the game-maker's Web site. I would usually get a confused and slightly offended look in response, but occasionally I'd run across someone who wasn't as willing to admit defeat. "Yeah, I already tried that. Listen, I'm sure it'd just take a second …"
I lie because I've learned my lesson: Honesty doesn't pay. Answer one question for the wrong person, and you'll become the personal help desk for him and his whole family. From my future sister-in-law who frequently calls with war stories about getting a hyperlink to open in AOL to the neighborhood kids calling me to complain that they can't get on Battle.net to play Diablo II and wondering if I can help, I can't get a break!
Maybe the problem is that I'm too nice. I know I'm missing out on big revenue opportunities. I could always just charge these people $85 per hour to come to their home, click the mouse a few times, spout some gibberish about how they don't have enough hyperdrive motivators, and then offer to "upgrade" them (run defrag and scandisk) for some exorbitant additional fee. I seem to have an ethical problem, though, with taking other people's money for doing something they could easily do themselves. That's probably why I couldn't cut it as a consultant. It's easier just to lie.
Psst. Hey, buddy, can you help me with some ice?
What, exactly, is it about having a technical profession that makes the average person think you can solve a computer problem for them on the strength of "I click the Internet and nothing happens"? Maybe it's that they simply can't get straight answers from anyone else, or they don't know the right questions to ask in a formal setting.
But I have to wonder whether people in other professions go through the same tribulations. What percentage of doctors tries to avoid providing free consultations by saying that they are janitors? Do refrigerator repairmen get this same sort of thing at parties? "Oh, hey, can I call you sometime? My icemaker isn't working right. I push the doodad down and water comes out."
I did actually have occasion to ask a refrigerator repairman (nice guy, knew more ice trivia than I ever wanted to hear) about that recently, while he was working on my icemaker. He said that he doesn't go to parties. Maybe that's the answer.