After finishing a brochure design for my client and hitting Command-S, I noticed something odd. Instead of saving to my iMac, my document saved to the bootable clone on my external backup drive. Curiosity turned to horror as I realized my Macintosh HD icon was gone from my desktop. Heart pounding, I texted Mike, my IT guy: “Need you now, wyd?”
“I’m here,” he responded. I exhaled. Thank God.
When I left my corporate advertising job to freelance full-time from my home near Philadelphia, I luxuriated in the freedom of being my own boss, but I quickly discovered that some needs can’t be satisfied solo. There’s nothing like the hands-on expertise of a pro who intimately knows the ins and outs of the technology I use.
I provide creative services and marketing consultation to hospitals, and my tech needs are fairly straightforward. My hardware doesn’t have to be the latest, but it must support current versions of the software I use and provide the RAM and storage I require as a graphic designer. I need both on-site and cloud-based backup systems, scheduled to run automatically. And I want a trusted resource for occasional troubleshooting and advice. I no longer have the safety net of an IT department to turn to. Instead, I have Mike.
After my urgent text, he sent me a link to download TeamViewer, software that allowed him remote access to my computer. Once he connected, he entered my backup drive which was mounted on my desktop. I watched breathlessly as he moved through my system and opened folders I rarely touch. His voice in my ear was gentle as he prompted me to enter my password. Moments later, my reverie was broken as Mike confirmed my fears. “You’ve been working from your bootable clone for the last three days,” he said. My hard drive was gone, my 27-inch iMac reduced, effectively, to a monitor.
The pandemic changed employment, forcing millions of people to pivot to working from home. According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21.8 percent of employed persons surveyed teleworked because of the coronavirus in November, up from 21.2 percent in October. These figures don’t include freelancers or employees already working remotely pre-pandemic.
Even if your setup is limited to a laptop, printer, and cloud backup account, the fact is, computers crash, apps freeze, and files go missing. If you work from home, having go-to tech support is valuable. When you are self-employed like me—it is vital. If I can’t work, I don’t get paid.
When my iMac died in July, Mike helped me order a new one, customizing the features to suit my personal needs. Because of the pandemic, Apple shipments were significantly delayed. I kept working in the meantime, thanks to the redundant backup systems he set me up with long before—something I’d never have known to do on my own.
Mike has been my IT guy for 20 years—a relationship second in length to my marriage of 30 years, and enthusiastically endorsed by my husband. Though I consider Mike mine, I’ve been willing to share him with my spouse on occasion.
We met at my last job. Mike worked for the IT company that served our art and advertising departments. After I left and started my home-based business, I called his company whenever I needed tech support, paying corporate rates for the comfort of his familiar face. Years later, when Mike went freelance, it was a no-brainer to go with him. His new hourly rate was less than half what I was paying previously, and more importantly, I depended on him. He was my guy.
I’d like to think it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship, but I know I am getting the better part of this deal. Mike eventually took a full-time, in-house job and gradually let his other freelance clients go. I asked him why I was lucky enough to remain his one and only.
“We’ve always had a good relationship, and you don’t abuse your privileges, so I don’t mind taking care of you. Though when you do need me, it’s usually when something’s on fire,” he said.
If there’s one secret to this long-term relationship, it’s this: I never cry wolf. Two years ago I made the colossal mistake of updating my operating system at 6 pm—an upgrade I had been pushing off for months despite Apple’s daily reminders. By 10 pm I was in a full-blown panic when none of my applications worked, even after reinstalling. From upstairs, my husband could hear me moaning in my office as I gave in finally and texted Mike. That’s another thing I love about my IT guy—he responds to my late night re-booty calls.
Mike remoted in. Like two detectives pinning our theories to the wall, we finally nailed down the source of my troubles—an older model Wacom tablet that was incompatible with my new OS. He stayed on the phone with me until 1 am, making sure everything was working before we disconnected. As my Adobe software reloaded, we talked TV and compared our latest streaming favorites. You’d better believe that when I got his invoice I paid it immediately and threw in a gift card as well.
If you are self-employed or working from home without an IT department, here are my tips for finding and maintaining a relationship with your own tech support provider.
Have a contingency plan. If someone in your household had a medical crisis, you know to call a doctor, dial 911, or drive to the nearest emergency room, right? Don’t wait until you have a tech emergency to formulate a plan. If you’re employed by a company with an IT help desk but are operating remotely, keep the contact information for at least one IT colleague handy. (Hint: not on your computer.) If you are without tech support, do some advance research to line up at least one resource that’s available during business hours. If you are willing to be flexible on timing, you can expand your options to include freelancers who primarily work nights and weekends.
Tap your network. So how do you meet an IT person these days? You can’t buy one a drink at a Genius Bar or swipe an app (ITinder, anyone?). Start with tech support options offered directly by your computer manufacturer or through authorized service providers linked to their site. You could potentially find IT help through online forums or Craigslist, but I prefer the security of a personal recommendation. Ask your network of colleagues, friends, family, and neighbors who they use or if they know anyone who works in IT. As an individual, your needs won’t be as time-consuming as those of a corporate client, so even an IT professional who is employed full-time may be open to freelancing after hours. With Covid-related layoffs, there may be a larger tech support talent pool available now than before the pandemic.
Respect boundaries. Because Mike has a day job I won’t call him at work, but I know he is receptive to a text, which I reserve for emergencies. If you have a non-urgent question for your IT person, reach out by email and indicate that in the subject line. When you have an issue that needs to be resolved quickly, remember the three P’s:
- Be polite. Your inability to get email or reboot your laptop may not be the only crisis your IT person is dealing with at the moment. Be the person whose calls they want to take.
- Be patient. Give your IT person at least three to four hours to respond before you reach out again.
- Be professional. Ask how and when your person prefers to be contacted, and respect that. Never invade their social media space with a request for help.
Do your homework. Before I ask Mike his opinion on a purchase or to troubleshoot a software issue, I do my own online research. Most software developers offer live chats and can remote in to help solve a problem, even at night. There are also countless forums where you can find solutions. Chances are, if you’ve encountered a problem after installing an update, others have too. Aim to be a low-maintenance client (you’ll save money, too).
Pay well and pay on time. When Mike recommends which brand of backup drive I should order, our interaction may be limited to a handful of texts, but I am well aware he’s done research on his own. I always insist he bill me for his time and expertise, and I immediately pay via Venmo upon receiving an invoice. He charges me $85 an hour, and I will gladly add extra or send a gift card in appreciation when he goes above and beyond. Remember: As an individual, your business is not likely to outrank your IT person’s day job or corporate clients, but if you are someone they enjoy working with, your relationship can gratify you both for years to come.