Are you the IT guy for family and friends?

As an InfoWorld reader, chances are you're the go-to person. Here's how to keep from spending all your leisure time on other people's problems

Support is a top IT cost center these days, one we're all focused on measuring and reducing. Yet one aspect of IT support doesn't appear on any budget or balanced scorecard: the amount of time we spend supporting our friends and family with their IT issues. Let's call it "personal IT."

Most IT professionals, consciously or not, spend a big chunk of time on personal IT support. Fifteen years ago, this meant teaching our loved ones how to use computers. Ten years ago, it meant showing them how to use the Web. And today it has exploded: how to deal with viruses and spyware, how to get e-mail on mobile devices, how to manage photos, videos, music, and more. The hours spent aren't really quality time and don't really help advance your career. It's inefficient time by definition – and life is too short.

What an ungrateful cad, you must be thinking. That's what friends and family are for – unconditional love and IT support. Like helping raise a barn in the old days: You don't question it, you just do it.

But what if you could cut out a week's worth of inefficient hand-holding each year? It's pretty easy – just put some discipline and process into it. Develop a system for when to say yes and no and to what.

Start by evaluating resources and capabilities on a client-by-client basis. Case in point: migrations. This was always the big kahuna, the big time suck. What computer should I buy? Can you help me set it up? How do I move all my files and programs over from my old machine? (I hear you groan.) And FYI, folks, it's already September – back to school, the holidays are coming up, time to buy a new computer.

Last night I had a nice dinner with my dad, who's been talking for a while about wanting to switch over from his PC to a Mac. The conversation started the way it always does, with me being skeptical, because I know that any change, upgrade, or migration always requires more support – so why do it if the current setup is basically working?

But last night with my dad, I had a revelation. The barriers to migrating to a Mac aren't as high as they used to be. He mostly surfs the Web anyhow, uses Web-based e-mail already, and can easily export his Excel spreadsheets to Google Docs, where they'll be backed up automatically. Furthermore, since many of his friends have switched to Macs, he'll have that support network in place.

In fact, the more I thought about it, I realized the Web is creating a "migration dividend" for those of us who used to spend lots of time supporting migrations to new machines. Gosh, where will we spend it now? In that spirit, here are my quick rules for personal IT support efficiency:

1) Encourage use of Web-based capabilities and applications that make issues such as machine migrations, backup, and security less problematic.

2) Don't upgrade software just because the vendor's trying to upsell you. Stick with the old, working version as long as you can. Especially Windows XP.

3) When in doubt, try adding more memory (guess that Vista upgrade was unavoidable).

4) If you see a snake (imminent danger, such as hardware about to fail), be decisive and kill it. (This point comes courtesy of Jim Barksdale, the former Netscape CEO.)

5) Avoid customization. Really, I mean it.

6) Encourage friends and family to prioritize their use of technology, especially focusing on the technology they'll derive fun and pleasure from (because life's too short to spend a lot of discretionary time on the work stuff).

7) Make sure they're also tapping other available IT support resources, such as knowledgeable friends or their IT department at work.

8) Get them to explicitly define the urgency level of any given support request. Do you need to drop everything and drive over? Can it wait till the weekend? Can it wait until never?

9) For all hardware and software purchases, when they ask you what to buy, have them read Walter Mossberg's reviews first. Then when you have the discussion, they're up to speed and closer to a decision point, with smarter questions about trade-offs and preferences.

10) Don't be stingy with your time; be stingy about what you spend it on. Focus on getting leverage – for example, what can you do that truly empowers people over time versus temporarily mending a problem or fixing an issue that doesn't exist?

That's it from me. I bet many of you have your own hard-won lessons, though, so send them along. If you have time.

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