Helping Friends

It’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting with my Grandkids watching Cartoons on the HDTV.  Well not quite…. I’m also listening to Yo Yo Mah play at the Kennedy funeral on my PC (scares me that I actually remember Winston Churchill’s funeral – I’m not that old, I was just a weird 9 year old)…. 

Of course I am ALSO surfing the ‘Net and looking through outstanding issues and now writing this Blog Post.   What a sad, pathetic Grandpa I am ….  At least I’m here with them – right ?

One thing that just went by me this morning is a Folder containing the bones of an application I started to do for a friend a few months back.  It makes me very sad because I let my friend down and never did finish the application.  Why?  Because although he asked for something that could easily be done with just a couple of One to Many tables and a Form and a Report for his wife’s office (for free of course) suddenly changed.  The statement “But the users don’t want to change their interface, so it has to look like the spreadsheet they’re using now and they also want the reports to look like the spreadsheets they are using now and they want to see the data by date and by Department on-screen and they want a bunch of validation and conditional formatting, etc., etc….  They wouldn’t handle any change…”  And on top of that he wanted me to get it started and he would do most of the work (with my coaching of course).  Yeah sure.

A true Forms-based database, which is what they really need, wouldn’t be accepted.  Aaaaggh ! 

The commitment was made but then the specs changed – and changed dramatically.  What started as a simple application to help out a friend suddenly turned into a project of significant complexity or at least of enough complexity not only to take several hours to do (as opposed to a couple) but also was obviously leading into support and maintenance issues going forward. This was the classic “Tar Baby” (which I understand is a politically incorrect reference in the U.S (sorry but it’s the best description I can find) and for nothing. 

In the end I had a choice to piss my now ex-friend off now and cut my losses or go ahead and piss him off even more later.  I chose the former.

This is the most extreme example of this scenario I have been sucked into (I nearly always say “NO” up front).   At the same time it is something we who are apparently “Computer Guys” run into all the time if we aren’t careful.  The user has no idea how complex what their asking for really is.  Come to think of it paying customers have the same problem – and they’re getting worse and worse at that.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t help out friends and family, just that it seldom ends up being the satisfying, philanthrophic excercise we hope it will. And that’s unfortunate.


About Biggus Dickus

Dick is a consultant in London, ON Canada who specializes in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Office Development.
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2 Responses to Helping Friends

  1. Mathias says:

    Working with friends is tricky. You get exactly the same issues as with a regular customer (they’re all human), but you have much more to lose (I’d lose a customer any day of the week, but friends are irreplaceable) and the emotional aspect makes interactions more complicated. Plus, when you bargain with a customer, the rules are clear: it’s your job to make sure the job remains financially reasonable. With a friend, this boundary is non-existent from the start, and every time you push back, it’s out of “selfish” reasons – so saying “no” is guilt inducing. On top of that, things software have a natural tendency to just grow and grow, which makes it a recipe for frustration.

    As a result, I now tend to be cautious about these situations. I gladly do as a “freebies” things which will take me one day or so to complete at most. If it’s going to be more than that, I focus on getting the person started and providing good advice on where to get quality help. And I always try to get the friend to have to work on it, too. If everyone has to contribute, it reduces unreasonable demands… And I always have a discussion on mutual expectations before it starts – why I am doing this, and what would make it a pain for me, for instance 🙂

    This probably sounds very cold – but then, a happy relationship with my friends is invaluable. It’s really saddening when everyone tries to help, works a lot, and everyone ends up frustrated.

  2. Dick Moffat says:

    “It’s really saddening when everyone tries to help, works a lot, and everyone ends up frustrated.”

    Whether the project is for a friend or for a client. But as you say, the friend IS more important. I’ve always said about clients “You’re their hero until your a bum.” Sad but too true.


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