Doctor in the House

After my wife and I had been dating for about a year, she came to an interesting realization. I had been “helping” her friends and family – along with my own friends and family – with their various computer problems and sundry technical woes for quite some time.

One day, she said to me, “This must be what it is like to have a doctor in the family. Everyone asks you for advice when something goes wrong.”

I heard the slurping sound of somebody’s years of digital photos being sucked into the “bit bucket” as a hard drive crashed somewhere in the distance. I shook my head and tried to focus on what my wife was saying.

Looking at her fondly, I said, “No. It is nothing like being the doctor in the family. When you are the doctor in the family, you don’t have someone telling you during dinner that they had a pain in the abdomen and decided to give themselves an appendectomy, but that it didn’t work out very well so could you please take a look at it when you get the chance, but it’s not urgent, really. Just when you get the chance?”

She seemed to agree. She could not recall a friend or family member who would foolishly remove their own appendix without the added benefit of a medical professional’s assistance.

But in technology – no offense intended toward the well-meaning users – every day unprepared people walk into a swamp of technical glitches, intending to find a way to make life more fun or efficient, but rarely with a really good understanding of the alternatives and potential headaches. You see, being a Geek-in-Law, you are straddling a strange gap between consumers and professionals. Your family often insists on straddling that gap along with you.

And you heroically leap into the technical swamp to try to help. Often you don’t question whether any of you should be playing in such a swampy mess to begin with.

On the one hand, you are a technologist, an engineer. And the work you do has a significant impact on people. You use professional tools to do your work, and to help move things forward. You have skills and experience that are not generally available to most of (ahem!) your family. You have technical opinions which are, hopefully, based on years of useful technical experience. You’ve seen this problem before – whatever the problem of the day happens to be.

On the other hand, technology, software development, information services – all of these fields are evolving ad-hoc each day. There is no licensing requirement for professionals. Many of the tools, methodologies, and skills are rarely very similar between any two technology professionals. To make it more complicated for the poor Geek-in-Law, the same tools that you use are also readily available at your local consumer electronics store, to anyone with a credit card or a little cash. You don’t need a permit to buy a new hard drive, but maybe you should. 🙂

So if your cousin wants to self-diagnose the abdominal pain being experienced by his ultra-portable laptop computer, or figure out why his wireless keyboard no longer accepts his emphatic keystrokes, all he has to do is run a few Google searches and then march off to the surgical supply store (you know – the local consumer electronics store) to find himself some tools. Generally, the problem is that he “needs a new computer.”

Right? 😉

That’s where the Geek-in-Law comes in. Things don’t go well, and they call you when “the Internet is down.” You chuckle, secretly imagining the world-wide catastrophe that would need to occur in order for “the Internet” to really and truly be “down.” Then you remember those thirteen really important DNS servers that, if attacked, actually would … effectively take down the entire Internet. And you shudder, wondering if your family realizes how precarious our technology really is.

Don’t worry – you won’t be out of a job. For better or for worse, oftentimes the Geek-in-Law will be called to join the surgery. Perhaps just as a consult, or perhaps to do some hands-on work.

And so it goes. Technology deployed, problem solved, the Internet marches on.