update: how can I turn down training requests from my clients?

Remember the letter-writer who asked how to turn down training requests from clients who wanted her to basically train them in how to do her job (#4 at the link)? Here’s the update.

I want to thank you for your advice. You redirected my aimless thrashing around and laser-focused me on what I needed to do. It’s an impressive skill, and I’m deeply grateful to you.

I wrote begging for help, after agonizing for hours over the phrasing of how to turn down yet another technical training request. The chief difficulty was I sounded unhelpful because I could not offer any reasonable alternatives, and I was overthinking what should have been a simple and straightforward, “I can’t offer that.” Reasonable people handled that fine. At the time, I was dealing with unreasonable people.

Your suggestion to soften the message with something I could do for them was timeless advice, broadly applicable to many tricky situations. “I can’t do X, but I can suggest Y.” In short, a perfect answer. The problem was I could not think of Y. There is no (useful) documentation. There are no classes. I don’t mean expensive, or inconvenient, or obscure. I mean not available anywhere, for any price. (There were some, at one time, but that time is long past.)

Someday, perhaps soon, these products will fade into oblivion, but that day is not yet here. I had more work coming in than I had bandwidth for, and the least-fun tasks had to go.

Some commenters suggested I claim to lack the skills or temperament to train. As training is sometimes necessary, I couldn’t claim incompetence. Temperament is another matter, and I’ll use this excuse once I find phrasing that doesn’t make me sound misanthropic.

Some commenters suggested creating training materials to forward in lieu of training. The effort would be massive, on par with writing several books. And honestly, the people requesting training want training, not documentation. It would be less effort to just do the training.

I loved the comment that compared it to a patient demanding the doctor explain how to diagnose the illness without having to bother with medical school. That commenter got it.

I also appreciated the comment that said it is incredibly difficult to refuse to help and still come off as a nice person. That was truly the crux of the matter. Despite mixed results, I do attempt to be a nice person.

One commenter told me they would fire me and hire someone else. In my overworked state, this sounded pretty good, honestly. Truth is, there are only a handful of people who do what I do, and I am one of the best. (Astutely, you may note this is not a difficult accomplishment in a small pool.) I’m sure some did look, but they’re still sending me checks.

Some suggested I charge enough money to where I’d happily do the training. There are reasonable ranges for this. My number was not in a reasonable range. When I imagined asking them for it, I also saw them rolling on the floor laughing and scream-crying.

So, what practically happened? First step was I grew a spine and decided to accept the inevitable consequences. Second, I got really clear on what I was and was not willing to do. Third, I tamped down any simmering resentment at obvious attempts to gun for my job; my “job” is to support them. Fourth, I made peace with the training I was already doing, by reminding myself that well-trained employees then give me the most interesting and challenging problems to solve.

There were four types of people, and I handled them differently, using suggestions from Alison and the commentariat.

The first group was reasonable people, largely non-technical. I used phrasing similar to Alison’s. “I don’t offer training, but I’d be happy to take care of this for you if it happens again!” A little pushback, but eventually they agreed it would be less painful to just let me handle whatever came up.

The second group thought they could pick this up easily with a few pointers and didn’t like taking “no” for an answer. I always started with the truth — it takes a serious commitment to understand. When that didn’t work, I usually put them off with a few breezy phrases, a non-sequitur, or a perfectly-timed coughing fit. If I was absolutely certain they didn’t have the budget for it, I sent a quote. If they were lucky enough to own some documentation, I forwarded that, knowing it was useless without more context. My mental health improved so much that I have yet to find time to question the ethics of any of this.

The third group asked for appropriate training that made sense in the broader context. I cheerfully obliged.

The fourth group was the scourge of my work existence. These people were hired specifically to do what I do, or get as close as practicable. They were persistent, and they knew enough to be dangerous. Maybe you can relate if you have a peer that constantly asks you for help with their job, or if you’ve ever been forced to train your replacement. I’m going to group these employees together and nominate a representative for the collective, who I shall dub “Wonder Boy.” (Forgive any contempt the nickname might imply. While he was endlessly frustrating, it’s not my intent to infantilize him.)

Wonder Boy had a special blend of ignorance and charisma. He was not very good, but believed he was. This is not a swipe at his ego, which was not outsized. This is just the truth as plainly as I can put it to you. I regarded him with affectionate exasperation. I made bank fixing his well-intentioned mistakes. I spent some of that bank treating him to beers and enjoying his charming company. I very much liked Wonder Boy as a person, despite his habit of hiding ineptitude by taking credit for my work.

Wonder Boy, you must understand, was coping as best he could in an impossible situation. Responsible for X but lacking the very specific skill set to do X. I had a lot of sympathy for his plight, but not nearly enough sympathy to train him. To get him up to speed would first require an ego bruising delivered in the form of a training proposal spanning months and costing several times his annual salary. I was neither keen to propose this nor execute it. Most concerning was the idea that despite my best efforts, he’d break something expensive, and then exclaim, “But Letter-Writer taught me to do that!” I considered increasing my rates. I considered increasing my liability insurance limits. Nothing about this sounded fun.

As with the others, I tried to set expectations. I sent whatever meager resources were available. I repeated, “That’s not something I can go over in a few hours.” He usually countered with, “Yeah, but I need to know, is Wednesday at noon good for you?” I never got to the point of avoiding him in the halls or screening his calls, but I did have fantasies about becoming invisible.

Alas, I never did find a foolproof method of dealing with him. The gentleman I nominated in particular was unfortunately fired; I don’t know if the reason in any way relates to the training requests. I like to imagine they budgeted for one position and when it became clear he would need me in perpetuity, they cut back. But maybe he painted a phallus on the CEO’s car; I really don’t know.

In general, the Wonder Boys tend to move on after some time. One changed focus to project management. One left for greener pastures, or he was laid off, or he left for greener pastures before layoffs. One morphed from technical contributor to de facto business analyst, pretending my work is his. One complains to management about the lack of support. I continue to work with some. Wonder Boys continue to ask for training. Wonder Boys think what I do is easy.

{ 165 comments… read them below }

  1. Lumos*

    I read this while picturing LW as Meagara and Wonder boy as Hercules at the beginning of the movie. Well meaning, but completely untrained in what he needed to do. I’m glad your mental health has improved so much OP!

    1. EmbracesTrees*

      Yes. I don’t know what LW’s job actually is, but I really really want them to cease it immediately and write stories for a living (also *so very easy* to those who *think* they can do it well).
      That was a delightful read!

  2. Danish*

    “yeah but I need to know”
    Strangely, that doesn’t change your inability to teach the material in a short time frame!

    As the saying goes, “oh to have the confidence of a [Wonderboy]”

  3. Peanut Hamper*

    My mental health improved so much that I have yet to find time to question the ethics of any of this.

    Stay golden, LW!

    1. Hannah Lee*


      That was perfectly said! I think I have a bit of a “dealing with difficult idiotic people” work-crush on this LW.

    2. GammaGirl1908*

      RIGHT? “My mental health improved so much that I have yet to find time to question the ethics of any of this” was the best line out of several truly impressive turns of phrase.

      1. Tired and Confused*

        I would love to read a book by this LW on ANY topic, this post is just fantastic. And the definition of Wonder Boy? Chef’s kiss!

  4. Siege*

    I have met a number of Wonder Boys, ranging from the people who want to do what I do because at the very top, twenty years ago, you could make 6 figures doing it, to the people (male and female) who assume that because I, a woman, do it, it must be easy, to the people who just have contempt for me personally and therefore assume that I am not good at my job and my job is not hard (my job is currently composed of elements of 6 full time jobs in three widely-different fields; of course we don’t have the best social media presence in the world, it’s a full-time job). I currently work with 1.5 Wonder Boys, and I spend a lot of time making them my boss’s problem. Here’s hoping my full Wonder Boy makes good on her threats and leaves the organization in April!

      1. Siege*

        There’s a full Wonder Boy, and then there’s one person who just doesn’t like me, so some of his behaviour is Wonder Boy, around my professional skills, and some, around the fact that we get along exactly like a house on fire, is that he’s a snobby jerk. It averages to a half.

    1. ferrina*


      I worked with a senior VP Wonder Boy who was convinced that he could do my job because he could operate the basic software (which was designed to be user-friendly) but didn’t know any SOPs or Best Practices. So he ended up creating things in the software that he’d parade publicly, then companies would slowly start leaning away from us. At one point I was tapped to clean up his mess….two months later I turned in my resignation.

  5. mlem*

    LW, I love the way you wrote this update. You break everything down clearly and engagingly while remaining kind even about the people who frustrate you.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I also appreciated the compassion that the LW had for folks, even the Wonderboys. They’re in a tough situation, particularly because there’s no obvious path to getting expertise in the job. (Which is not the LW’s problem to solve).

    2. Budgie Buddy*

      Here I was thinking that it was entertaining because they read the comment section to filth and every paragraph was dripping with disdain for the people who make their job difficult the sheer amount of paragraphs skewering Wonder Boy in particular (who to be fair is also trying to do an impossible job and has no idea his drinking buddy thinks he’s a total buffoon)

  6. Antilles*

    When that didn’t work, I usually put them off with a few breezy phrases, a non-sequitur, or a perfectly-timed coughing fit. If I was absolutely certain they didn’t have the budget for it, I sent a quote. If they were lucky enough to own some documentation, I forwarded that, knowing it was useless without more context. My mental health improved so much that I have yet to find time to question the ethics of any of this.
    I don’t see anything wrong ethically with any of this. First off, you started with a true and legitimate explanation that they refused to accept; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. That’s enough of an answer right there. But even setting that to the side, all of the options you mention are totally reasonable.
    -Dodging the question is simply recognizing that there’s no sense in getting into an argument that you know will lead nowhere. No point in fighting a battle that you can’t win.
    -Offering a higher quote that you know they won’t take is simply standard surcharge pricing – I charge more for doing work at midnight than during normal business hours, I charge more for a service I don’t normally provide, and I also charge more if you’re going to make my life miserable.
    -Forwarding the documentation is basically giving them exactly what they say they want of “I can pick this up easily with a few pointers”. You’re so confident you can figure it out on your own? Alrighty, if you say so, here’s the documentation!

    1. Danish*

      Exactly. I get that it feels unethical because LW knows she’s giving them something that will not at all solve the problem, but on the other hand, giving in would ALSO not solve the problem – if it is not possible for a person to pick the material up in a few hours, then LW spending a few hours training them is ultimately as Unhelpful as forwarding them documentation they don’t have the context for. The latter just saves everyone a lot of time.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Agreed. This all seems pretty darned reasonable to me. This type of training is not something the LW offers, and has no obligation to offer. Heck, I think it’s not awesome that these places apparently want the LW to train someone to do their complex, technical work so they can pay that person to do it instead of hiring the LW! I get it, but it’s kinda rude.

      1. Zweisatz*

        Yeah it’s odd because in the environment I work for you clearly hire somebody either for troubleshooting/fixing or for training, but besides saying a quick “oh the error was xyz”, nobody is expecting the troubleshooters to be trainers.
        And yes, it is kind of rude to ask them to make themselves obsolete if that’s not part of the agreed-upon service.

        A developer can tell me the script isn’t working because I forgot to close the bracket, but it would be absurd to then ask her to teach me FORTRAN to get rid of her.

      2. Manta Ray*

        Ding ding ding! This was my thought, too — the underlying problem also includes the companies thinking they can get it cheaper. Glad to see the LW held firm against that nonsense!

      3. tamarack etc.*

        Indeed. I missed the original post, but when I went back (before I read the update) my main thought was that maybe the OP could *partner* with someone who specializes in training. OP refers to trainer-friend, and maybe gets a referral fee or whatever. Given how much more arduous the training is than the clients imagine, it won’t cut into the OP’s business. And the training tasks are in the hand of someone who actually enjoys training!

    3. Lily Potter*

      Regarding surcharge pricing – I had a manager years ago advise me on this one. He said that if a job sounded like a huge hassle and something I’d rather pass on, send a wildly inflated quote. The amount needs to be high enough that the huge hassle suddenly becomes fiscally worthwhile and/or high enough that the customer finds someone else to do the job. Totally ethical.

      1. Don't do this*

        This is a terrible idea.

        Because let’s just say that your client accepts your inflated price.

        You don’t want to do it (regardless of price), so you won’t do a good job. You’ll be miserable and so will the client.

        Just say no.

        1. TeapotNinja*

          I’m pretty sure people who know they can do a job, but would rather not, all have a price where they rather yes.

          I’d work for Elon Musk for about a 10x multiplier, as an example. I would work for Donald Trump for a 100x multiplier, one year’s salary paid in advance with a contract clause saying if I leave or get fired at any point I get to keep the money.

          1. LarryFromOregon*

            Tr-mp would still sue you to recoup most or all of the advance payment. Better specify that in the event of any dispute, he pays attorney fees for both parties.

            On second thought, it’s still not worth it, because he’d likely ask you to do something illegal, and when you refuse, tell F-xNews that you did do it, and should be locked up.

        2. shedubba*

          The point is that the wildly inflated price is high enough that the person/company doesn’t mind doing the work at that price. If you wouldn’t do it at any price, this is a bad route to take, but in Lily Potter’s situation, that wasn’t the case.

          1. Alternative Person*

            This part right here. My field has a heavy freelance/contracting component. Some jobs I’ll pass on because the payment is too low for the work being asked, sometimes I’ll accept a lower rate because the job is easy/convenient. If I quote a wildly high rate for something because of the inconvenience/difficultly involved (or in some cases have been offered one), well then more fool them for paying it in the end.

        3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          You missed this bit: “The amount needs to be high enough that the huge hassle suddenly becomes fiscally worthwhile”

          Artists do this at shows, too. Put up something eye-catching that you don’t actually plan to sell, but if someone is really willing to pay $VeryHighAmount, sure, you can buy it! But it needs to be a VERY high amount. Like, when my wife was selling things that were mostly in the $50-100 range, the eye-catcher was priced at $800. At that price, she was willing and even happy to sell it and make another for next time.

      2. Rick Tq*

        “Wildly inflated” can mean using the usual multipliers to account for fixed price risk:
        – Take the number and double it
        – Add another 50% if not normal business hours
        – Bump the time unit up one level
        As an example: if a job will take one hour best case but the customer is a pain and wants it on the weekend?
        Bid 3 days of work.

  7. starsaphire*

    The beauty of this situation is that it applies to so, so, so many fields. From medicine to art to graphic design to…

    Great job for sticking to your boundaries, LW! May you survive all the WBs out there with your sense of humor intact. :)

    1. Generic Name*

      I know! I’m dying to know what the field is. I’m a consultant, and we’ve definitely had clients who hired us and then ended the contract when the decided that they could do our job just fine. They couldn’t, and when you don’t, fines from government agencies come into play, but hey, not our problem anymore.

      1. Gerry Keay*

        SAME. I am just itching to know what skill set this is about. I don’t need to know, the story is great and has applicable advice on its own, but I WANT to know.

        1. Inkognyto*

          Probably old software on some old ancient computer or device that runs something really important like in banking. They hate updating stuff for fear it will break and the cost of re-writing it.

          I removed some as/400 software stuff from my resume 10+ years ago as I’d get calls on it wanting me to take a job for a few weeks in another state.

          I was like ‘nope’ we just hacked that shit together I’m totally not trying to solve your issue.

          1. T. Boone Pickens*

            I was definitely picking up some COBOL software vibes. I know a couple COBOL consultants. They make wheelbarrows of money.

            1. Blue Moon*

              My friend’s mom is a COBOL consultant. She spends a few months every year fixing things for an international bank and the rest of the year traveling the world.

              1. TechWorker*

                Hmmn maybe I should pick up some COBOL! (Not claiming it’s easy but I am used to reading piles of legacy c code and maybe it’s not miles away either…)

              1. SHEILA, the co-host*

                Maybe not COBOL specifically but another old/arcane (and even more niche) programming language is my guess.

          2. 22 weeks today*

            I was definitely thinking AS 400. I worked in life insurance and we used that 40 years passed when it was released, simply because it worked and the cost of updating was truly insane especially for a smaller organization.

          3. Loredena*

            Same. I removed any references to as/400, RPG or Synon/Cool2e. I even really enjoyed working in the latter at the time but I never want to touch it again! It’s always contract shops at a low hourly rate too. Sure I’d love to leave my salaried with benefits job for that!

        2. whingedrinking*

          I’m assuming it’s not this, but I can imagine it being a skill akin to a language. Someone very easily could say, “Teach me enough to write an email”, and not understand that it can take months of study to get to the point of being able to write, “Good afternoon, I regret to inform you that my pants are full of bananas and I will require the assistance of a well-trained monkey” if you don’t know that those are the particular words you will need.

      2. FD*

        To me, it sounds like a technical product that’s used for only a very specific field–the sort of thing where the LW learned it over years and years of working with it, but even if they WANTED to distill that into a quick training session, they really couldn’t.

        A relative of mine has been involved in hiring people who work on machine assembler code for specific projects and he’s complained about how the powers that be want ‘super stars’ who want to work for the next Google, whereas getting good at this job takes years and the people who are really good at it are…very comfortable spending a lot of hours working on arcane details nearly no one understands or cares about. It’s not the kind of thing people can learn in a few months of a bootcamp.

        1. Sloanicota*

          I am reflecting on this (I’m also a freelancer, so it’s of interest). I agree no freelancer should have to put themselves out of a job. I thought it was a bit odd that there are people who apparently do want to learn this system, and OP wants people who can do this training on her behalf because she has more work than she needs, but she’s not interested in, say, hiring someone – perhaps the best positioned of these people who want to learn – to provide this service. It can’t actually be impossible to learn this system, right? But if it truly is, then I think the “I can’t help you, but here’s a suggestion” technique might be “have you considered switching to another system with more supports / that’s more intuitive / whatever?” That actually seems more helpful than redirecting people to support documentation that you already know won’t help.

          1. FD*

            If it’s a sufficiently arcane technical system (similar to the COBOL or AS 400 stuff people were saying), so much depends on it that companies won’t replace it until or unless they really, truly have no choice.

      3. Frog&Toad*

        I think it’s something like Powerbuilder…something I know how to code but don’t want to do anymore either!

      4. AICP*

        Wow are you my coworker? That one’s a classic at my job, accompanied by an 11th hour request months down the road when the client inevitably fails because they don’t know what they’re doing and government regulation kicks in

  8. Cristinutria*

    This was such a great letter! I laughed at “My mental health improved so much that I have yet to find time to question the ethics of any of this,” “maybe he painted a phallus on the CEO’s car.” This was so enjoyable, glad LW came up with something that helps keep the idiot Wonder Boys partially at bay.

  9. raincoaster*

    I, personally, cannot WAIT till Wonder Boy writes in, griping about how someone refuses to give him the information required to do his job. Sounds like he was set up to fail, as if the CEO sent him to Niagara Falls with a teacup to get water.

    1. Lilas*

      Yeah I do get the impression that WB was working under conflicting/impossible directives, and just kind of floundered because of that.

      1. Sloanicota*

        It sounds like there’s a widespread misunderstanding of whatever system this is LW works on, that it’s not as complicated as it is. I do feel really bad for WB if he was told to learn the system and it’s somehow impossible to learn.

  10. Tuesday*

    I’m dying to know what you do, OP! (But you are right not to tell us for your own anonymity’s sake!) For my own entertainment I’m choosing to picture you as one of the last handmade lace makers in Burano. This update was very entertaining and I’m glad that everything has worked out mostly for the best!

    1. Abrewyet*

      I was thinking about the movie Space Cowboys the entire time. I’m going to have to go back and watch that one again!

    2. Gumby*

      I was going with iron lung maintenance except it is usually individuals rather than companies that would need to hire for that work. But it’s definitely an extremely small, very specialized field that is very necessary for the few people who still use them. Though I could be wrong on the level of specialization – perhaps anyone with a mechanical bent could do some or all of the work. Not going to look it up right now because it would mess with me accomplishing work today.

  11. misanthrope*

    I must give you major props for being able to manage the Wonder Boys of the world.

    Frankly I find those types of people insufferable and extremely difficult to work with.

  12. Meep*

    As someone who works in a very niche (but now very important) field inside a very niche (but wide-reaching) field of engineering where there are probably 10 experts in the world and I have met all of them, I totally feel this. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I know far more about the average Joe who needs our services and some (especially the PhDs) think they can learn it far easier than they can. I was thrown into the deep end with access to two of the foremost experts when I absolutely needed them. You can definitely learn it, but expect lots and lots of crying.

  13. Lurker Extraordinaire*

    OP do you have a blog? Published any books? Write for TV? I just … want more of your prose!

    This was glorious.

    1. Brain the Brian*

      I would really like LW to take over the writing at any of the local TV news stations near me. Good heavens, have the scripts there gone downhill lately…!

  14. HDL*

    Definitely one of the most entertaining updates I have read here, and I’ve read a lot of updates. Letter-writer is an excellent writer and should continue to write. I would love to match your skill at writing, but I will not ask you to train me on it.

  15. Bookie*

    “My mental health improved so much that I have yet to find time to question the ethics of any of this.”

    I nominate the above as Best Quote of 2023.

  16. Informal Educator*

    I would think the best response would be, “sorry, that’s not a part of what I’ve been contracted to do” or “that’s not a part of the services I offer.” You don’t have to justify that you aren’t able to do it or don’t like it. It’s simply not something you do.

    1. Tuesday*

      It sounds like OP wanted to give them a response that wouldn’t crush their spirits, but this is probably what I would have said imo. I don’t really care about crushing spirits! If they want to become experts, they can learn on their own time! But I am curious how OP learned to do what they do – the classes that no longer exist? OP seems to be a dying breed and yet there are no resources for anyone else to learn their job! It’s very mysterious!!

          1. Also Alex*

            I was thinking this too, a legacy programming language or something like COBOL, which is still widely used in government contexts. “Someday, perhaps soon, these products will fade into oblivion, but that day is not yet here.” Made me think of that.

            1. Sloanicota*

              Yeah, at least that’s some comfort for OP’s clients if that’s the case – they’re maybe not going to be depending on OP forever, because if it’s really an out-of-date old system perhaps there’s an eventual plan to switch it or something. Man, I hope it’s not a government database …

              1. Kara*

                Don’t get your hopes up. I know someone who works on a government mainframe, and they have no idea what they’re going to do. It’s multiple generations beyond the ability to upgrade to something a few decades less out of date, and their budget keeps getting cut by the year. This particular person plans to let retirement take care of the problem for them personally.

      1. Beany*

        I agree in principle, but this part doesn’t seem to apply: “If they want to become experts, they can learn on their own time!”

        Per the LW: “The problem was I could not think of Y. There is no (useful) documentation. There are no classes. I don’t mean expensive, or inconvenient, or obscure. I mean not available anywhere, for any price. (There were some, at one time, but that time is long past.)”

        So while LW doesn’t have a legal or moral obligation to supply this training, it seems that any training to proficiency level will have to come from someone like the LW, if not LW themself.

      2. Speaking of COBOL*

        In fact COBOL per se was not hard to learn, but a lazy programmer could certainly turn a large program into a quagmire. I spent about 15 years coding in COBOL and I saw some very hard-to-decipher code, but I really think this must be something else. It sounds more like obsolete but still critical equipment that a Wonder Boy could break while thinking that any idiot could learn to operate it.

    2. Richard Hershberger*

      I am probably being naive here, but given “I had more work coming in than I had bandwidth for…”, this seems fully sufficient in itself. The LW is a contractor, not an employee. There isn’t a boss who can say “Drop everything else and do just this.” The most they can do is say “We want to stop paying you to fix these problems and instead just do training.” At that point the response is that training would take far too much time, as LW has other clients as well.

    3. Smaller Potatoes*

      Agreed! As a consultant the words “That is outside my scope of practice” have been so very useful to my mental health.

  17. learnedthehardway*

    Sounds like you have it well-handled. I’m not sure what to do about the WonderBoy phenomenon – my major issue is the people who “can’t understand why this isn’t possible”.

    In the end, with one client, I ended up putting in an “aggravation tax” on their projects. They decided they could live with that, and now are my highest paying client. In the end, I’m actually happy with that – it took a couple of years to work out HOW to work with them, but we are in a good place. I know how to deal with them, they are happy to let me do my thing. (The main challenge is that the projects are never scoped right and there are always surprises coming out of left field. I can work with predictable unpredictability IF I know to expect it and can plan for it.)

    1. Generic Name*

      Sometimes these are the best clients. The ones who REALLY need you, and are willing to pay accordingly.

  18. LB33*

    I didn’t really understand the whole story, but it sounds like if so many people are always hitting you up for training, there’s a gap in there somewhere (even if it’s not your repsonsibility to fill it)

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      My sense of it was that it was some kind of legacy software package from a company that has since gone out of business or been absorbed by a much larger company and all the people who were qualified to train others on it have either retired or died.

      We replaced just such a system at my old job (it actually ran on a unix box; I still have the circuit boards for the hard drives hanging on my living room wall as an art piece), and it was a relief to not have to use that kind of system any more.

      1. Tuesday*

        Oooh. This sounds so lonely! To be one of the last remaining experts in something that is being used less and less as time goes on.

        1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

          My mom was a pension actuary (pension plans in the US are basically being killed by increased governmental regulation, with a very few exceptions) and it’s sad to hear her talk about it as a field. “I liked it very much, but I would not recommend that a young person go into it.”

      2. LB33*

        That makes sense… I just recently worked on an integration with a company that was still using Siebel on prem which is ancient. (IYKYK)

      3. Programmer Kid Anon*

        Oh Unix, my mother’s first programming language! Sometimes she gets employers asking about it but she’s moved on in her work. She’s retiring again this year. Her company begged her to come back as a contractor after her first retirement. It turns out it’s really hard to replace institutional knowledge for cheap.

        My father considered brushing up on COBOL and coming out of retirement for some desperate government agencies. He decided not to. These old legacy programming languages shouldn’t be crucial, and yet…

        1. Tom*

          Yes. My agency was still using an MSDOS-based system for its payroll system until very recently.

          The reason? The union and management couldn’t agree on how they were going to handle the possibility of hours getting mangled during the pay period that the switchover would occur in.

      4. Sloanicota*

        Yeah, I said above, maybe OP’s helpful advice could be of new or better systems the company might consider switching to. That might take the sting out of declining to train in the system and seeming unhelpful, and it could stop the repeat requests if that’s your advice every time. I wouldn’t usually suggest it if that’s your bread-and-butter but it sounds like OP’s not worried about running out of work.

    2. nnn*

      I’m thinking if one of OP’s handful of colleagues ever needs an influx of cash, they have an opportunity here.

  19. Anonymous, colleagues who read here will recognize it*

    On a student’s t-shirt:

    “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

    Summarizes my job…

    OP, I hope you are getting paid very very well, first of all because you’re essential and rare, second because you are putting up with way more crap than someone with your essential and rare skills and experience should have to put up with.

  20. Lulu*

    The only additional recommendation I have reading through this is that you may be able to head off some of these requests by laying out this limitation in your contract or agreement from the start. You can say something pretty close to “I do not provide training on this platform to clients, but will provide links/recommendations for documentation or other trainings if and when those exist to meet the need of the client.” That way you can just point to that language when a Wonder Boy asks for something unreasonable . If the company asks for you to add in training to your contacts, you can put your foot down from the start and explain that you provide x support, and y is not part of your business because (aptitude/preference/scope/cost/time). I would imagine that providing brief guidance when it’s actually appropriate won’t be looked down on because you can frame it as “guidance” that falls within the scope of your position rather than becoming a trainer.

    1. Generic Name*

      OP mentioned that training isn’t available anywhere, which is why she was so flummoxed at how to say, “sorry, I don’t do training” without being able to say, “but here’s where you can get it elsewhere”

      1. Lulu*

        Yes, but they also said that occasionally there’s some documentation that exists, even if that’s unhelpful to the person asking. I recommended adding in that phrase so it doesn’t seem like they’re unwilling to be helpful. If/when documentation or training exists, they’ll point them to it. That’s likely to be infrequent, but there we are. In the meantime, providing the training (whether or not external training exists) is off the table.

        1. Lulu*

          Also my recommendation was for language to put in a contract, rather than in the specific moment. So it’ll be broad enough to include the possibility of trainings available even if that’s not frequent. With this language added to the contract, they can then point to the contract as “I don’t train, and I’d point you to something if it exists, but it doesn’t, and that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t train.”

  21. MEH Squared*

    Love this update, OP. You have a very engaging writing style, and you handled this messy situation with humor and grace. Congrats!

  22. Ellis Bell*

    I find it amazing how entitled people are. OP has earned a skill through years of experience, has a backlog of non training work that they enjoy and yet people think they can say… “but I want you to give me your time and a shortcut, so do it?” I always find it really insulting when people think that what I learned in years, they can learn in hours.

  23. Evil loaf of bread*

    LW, you deserve a hearty pat on the back. Finding these very reasonable boundaries and improving your mental health at the same time is the update we wanted to hear! I honestly don’t believe it could have gone better for you and your writing is a joy to read. Thank you.

  24. Emily*

    This sounds like a technical capability that companies should not be relying on. If there’s a dozen people who really know this well and basically no documentation…guys, switch to Python, whatever it is. (Or whatever the Python equivalent is.)

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      That’s not always possible without spending a lot of money. Python may be free, but to replace an ancient software system can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands (or more) dollars. There just aren’t a lot of reliable open source systems out there. And even if you can find one, support is often less than optional.

      1. Emily*

        I have been there! But this is not working for them. Being able to hire people who are proficient in a technology and there being an ecosystem that supports it is really important. And for a widely-used technology, you can pay for support. There’s a huge business in supporting open-source tools. I think companies get put out by the upfront costs but don’t really think about the daily/weekly/monthly costs of continuing the way they’re doing things. (And this isn’t even an open-source vs. not-open-source recommendation — I don’t think you should rely on an open-source library with limited documentation/small user base/no training that’s bringing you this kind of trouble, either.)

        1. TechWorker*

          There’s also a huge upfront cost (& usually tonnes of bugs) introduced by migrating a legacy codebase. Even if it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, rewriting a whole bunch of code that ‘mostly’ works (but probably has little documentation or unit test) in a modern language can easily outweigh the cost of ‘just good enough’ maintenance. Especially if the benefits of getting rid of COBOL or FORTRAN or whatever are only felt once *all* of it is gone, that’s a huge organisational cost.

      2. Generic Name*

        I’m sure this is what OP’s clients say to themselves to justify not updating whatever legacy thing they’re using. Eventually, there will be no one working/alive who can support their system, and they’ll have to do the painful work to transition anyway.

      3. Richard Hershberger*

        It sounds like the status quo is sustainable for now, so they can avoid spending the money. But for how long? At some point the contractors supporting this buggy whip will retire. What then? Surely a planned transition would be better than the disaster that is otherwise inevitably approaching. But that disaster will almost certainly be on some other quarterly earnings report, and hopefully someone else’s problem!

        1. IDIC believer*

          Until 2019, I worked in accounting in a state agency. In 2000, the state started using a proprietary user-friendly interface for all state finance/accounting – it’s great EXCEPT it’s really only frosting on top of cake. The “real” financial program is in DOS. Reports, searches, etc. are DOS run. Most staff must learn the interface (not hard) as well as DOS (hard due to out of date documentation). A few of us had some advantage from coming of age with DOS many decades ago; the younger staff not so much.

          The state has – for decades – refused to upgrade out of DOS because of cost & fears. Of course, over time, those costs & fears have grown exponentially. Unfortunately, the final decision has always been in the hands of the state legislature who aren’t highly computer literate and are career politicians who have their own funding priorities.

      4. Keymaster of Gozer*

        We still have some 1980s era computer infrastructure running at work, simply because we don’t have the millions required to replace it.

        Sidenote, if you know anyone who knows FORTRAN we’ll hire.

        1. Taketombo*

          My husband is currently making bank in an industry with an unmanned infestation of legacy FORTRAN. His primary programming language is FORTRAN, although both of us were born after its last release.

          I get recruiters asking me to relocate to manage building mega-projects in the Middle East, he gets recruiters looking for FORTRAN programmers.

          … so it it worth training our teen in it? Probably one of of the most profitable languages out there, and we have an in-house expet?

          1. Your local password resetter*

            It might be profitable, but since FORTRAN is a career dead end they would need some kind of backup plan. And it apparently takes a lot of time and a very specific type of person to be good at it, so chances are good they won’t even make it.

            If it was easy to pick up, companies would just train new staff instead of throwing bags of money at a dwindeling group of experts.

            1. TechWorker*

              Every language has its quirks but good coding principles apply throughout… I think the issue is more the talented younger programmers who could pick up older languages are already making bank doing new and shiny things, so there’s probably limited impetus to learn something older.

          2. Technically a Director*

            Yes, but not exclusively. The ideal would be to train them in FORTRAN (or COBOL) and a modern language. That way they have options, and can strike their own balance between “legacy but profitable” and “modern best practices, tools, and developer community”.

            Just be aware that they might not see things the same. I’ve given this advice to dozens of college student interns, and the number who have taken my advice has not yet swamped the “converting legacy systems” market, let alone the “maintaining legacy systems” contingent.

        2. Firebird*

          I was a FORTRAN and COBOL programmer in the 80s. I like old stuff like that, but it’s been so long, I don’t even know how I would get back into it.

        3. allathian*

          In the early 1970s my mom did statistical analysis on an IBM mainframe that used punch cards. I strongly suspect that the code she wrote was FORTRAN.

        4. SarahKay*

          My previous role was supporting a site that does repairs for a specific type of extremely long-lived equipment. In order to do this they literally need to still maintain a computer that takes its input from punched cards! And then all the different generations of computers from then up to current day.
          I was doing a clear-out at home and found an old mouse and keyboard with the pre-USB connections. I took them into work and the engineers that support all these computers fell on my offerings with cries of joy.
          Side note: a 3.5″ floppy disk drive is now surprisingly (for those of us who used to add them onto a computer build order for £5 ish) expensive.

      5. Guacamole Bob*

        And if the software is related to legacy hardware, this is even more true.

        Not everything is as bad as the New York City subway still running on train signaling equipment from the 1930’s, but combining a) safety critical systems where changes have to be very carefully made and implemented, b) government funding levels and procurement rules, and you end up with the situation that OP is in repeated all over the place.

        I don’t want the city’s traffic lights controlled by a 1980’s system that only a handful of people really understand, but I don’t want them run by code that someone whipped up in Python over the weekend, either.

        1. emmelemm*

          Therein lies the dilemma. (The “way too old” system vs. the “wrote it this weekend” system.)

          1. Guacamole Bob*

            The way this seems to work in practice, using my traffic light example, is that someone creates a much better system, and the early adopters are the small towns that can afford to replace all 5 signals in their town at once, or who only have 10 intersections with signals but they’re all the same hardware, no dedicated left turn phases, and identical pedestrian signal setups at each of the intersections. It’s great – the town doesn’t have to pay someone like OP for maintenance of a legacy system. And then once that works, the vendor adds features and can work with larger and larger cities over time. But large cities with really complicated networks will be last to make the switch away from the legacy system, and will be updating from a system that’s decades out of date to one that’s not at all cutting edge.

        2. Siege*

          I’ve said this before, but the moment you wind up in the cardiac ICU is not a good moment to know that almost definitely what’s running in the basement is a legacy mainframe running very outdated code, and also it’s now responsible for keeping you alive. Quite honestly, if there’s anything that ever makes me sympathise with Cypher from the Matrix, it’s that once you see through the Matrix it’s VERY hard to relax about it. I’ve had to give up some phone games because the “moving items around in a database” was too obvious because the game’s narrative was poor.

          And tangential to your point, but related to others in the thread: when I had my cardiac arrest, the closest hospital was out of network for my insurer/provider, but because they were on EPIC the docs could access my records and see my meds, allergies, etc. It was good I was transported to that hospital because other hospitals under that insurer were not yet on EPIC, mostly due to the upfront cost of upgrading a major metropolitan hospital system to it. I believe the price tag (in 2019) was about $400 million, but I’m not sure if they actually launched the upgrade before the pandemic and I’m certain it’s more now.

          Also, EPIC may have saved my life, but it is The. Worst. Software.

          1. Sopranohannah*

            Except for all of the other healthcare software. I say this as a user. I want to go back in time and hit whoever made Meditech upside the head.

    2. higheredadmin*

      We just transitioned from a legacy database and I would give anything to have it back, because it had years and years of refinement so that everything was just so for our business needs. Two years into the new system and it is still a struggle, including the fact that every time it has its quarterly update on the cloud random reports break. (In fact, what I’m working on today – or was trying to until I discovered the report no longer works.) I miss you legacy database. Props to all the geniuses who keep them running!

    3. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      My impression is that even if LW wanted to stop supporting this niche service, her current clients either (a) don’t want to hear that they should hire people to create a completely new system or (b) would then switch to demanding that she create that new system and train them in using it, and why can’t they have it by the end of the current fiscal year?

  25. Podkayne*

    Hello OP! I have nothing to add regarding the content of your update. I am here to express my appreciation for your luscious writing skills! If you write a book someday, I will want to read it.

  26. Jessica*

    ” creating training materials… The effort would be massive, on par with writing several books.”
    Yes, LW, please do not do this. Should you feel at all like writing a book, please put aside the challenge of passing on your technical skills and focus instead on a comic memoir. Don’t forget to post the link here when it gets published! Your fans will be waiting.

  27. SleeplessKJ*

    I hope you write a book sometime or keep a blog because you’re a super entertaining writer and you’ve left me wanting more.

  28. Sarah-bo-bera*

    We had a client that wanted to take over his own work. Because of his relationship with the company we trained him on the basics. But he would call us every time he ran into an issue. One day he got frustrated that I wouldn’t train him on everything “I’m still paying you almost as much because you won’t teach me how to fix problems!” He didn’t appreciate my answer that I had gone to school for four years and complete multiple certifications a year to learn how to fix these problems and that I couldn’t provide that training to him. But he did at least stop calling after that!

  29. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    People who don’t take no for an answer aren’t entitled to extra favors because of their gumption. But OP is a humanitarian at heart, so indulges them at least a little bit.

    When you’re not so inclined to give them a break, the broken record technique can be useful:

    “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”
    “I understand, but I still can’t help you.”
    “I hear what you’re saying, but the answer is still no.”

    Repeat as necessary. Eventually they will stop banging their heads against that wall.

  30. Camellia*

    This reminds me a bit of the millennium cutover – 1999 to 2000 – and so many people saying, “What was the big deal???” “HAH! Nothing happened, no problems at all!!” “What was the big stink all about anyway?!?!”

    Nobody saw all us COBOL and Assembler developers who worked weeks of overtime changing and fixing things so that there wouldn’t be any problems.

    This is right up there with the WBs who say, “Just flip a switch and make it happen!”.

    1. Siege*

      I am increasingly of the mindset that once a generation, the federal government should pick a disaster and do nothing to mitigate it. It would get a lot of people to understand that, yanno, Y2K wasn’t a cluster because of the mitigation strategies.

      On the other hand, very few people have figured out that’s why the pandemic has only been as bad as it has, so maybe people are unteachable. Also, in practice, you can’t just say “eh, this disaster is the one where we’re gonna just let everyone die to teach everyone else a lesson,” because we all know which communities will be at the top of the list to be wiped out.

  31. Immortal for a limited time*

    I’ve run into something similar in my work. Our organization administers a public pension. Being able to calculate benefits requires exclusive access to the employee’s entire employment history and contribution record, age, marital status, ages and SSNs of all beneficiaries, and so on, as well as intricate knowledge of federal and state laws governing the eligibility for and payment of such benefits. I had an external union rep who insisted – Insisted!! – that we give them a cheat sheet so they could calculate benefits for employees in that organization to “help” them make retirement decisions. NO. It doesn’t work like that. There is no cheat sheet, and we cannot make one.

    After the fifth or sixth demand, because they’re “only trying to help,” I sent a pointed email explaining (a) it is far more complicated than you assume, and takes years of experience to do correctly; (b) it requires information you do not and cannot have; (c) you neither work for nor represent us, and when you provide inaccurate information to an employee who believes that you do, it creates liability for both of us; and (d) it is a violation of professional boundaries. Your role is to advise them on union matters; ours is to advise them on retirement.

    I didn’t care if their feelings were hurt; it needed to be said.

    1. Emily*

      I think that for employees to be able to make informed decisions about their careers, it’s important that they be able to determine what the impact on their pension is going to be. I’ve done complicated kinds of statistical analysis that a layperson wouldn’t be able to do, and I’d distinguish being able to do that kind of analysis from being able to understand the results of it, like via a model/simulation tool where you can enter input, potentially from an employment record of yours that you can download. I don’t know, this just doesn’t seem like a crazy request. And when I’ve been told in professional contexts something to the effect of “this is too complicated to explain”, I’ve found more often that there are issues with processes and documentation.

  32. Youngin*

    “I’m sure some did look, but they’re still sending me checks.”

    Now THAT is a bada** sentence.

  33. Troy Morris*

    The idea that people think something so niche could be easily taught, and that the person providing the service would want to make themselves redundant is truly hilarious, Also, I suspect it is very technical and would totally go over my head, but I am dying to know what the hell this person does!

  34. H.C.*

    Thanks for the update & sharing your strategies, OP; I’m also in a field where it’s simply easier and faster (but not fast enough, apparently) to do the tasks myself vs having to improvising training my colleagues and then spot-checking / fixing their mistakes afterward.

  35. Raida*

    He usually countered with, “Yeah, but I need to know, is Wednesday at noon good for you?”

    “You needing or wanting something doesn’t mean you can or will get it WonderBoy.”

    and probably a “Look, I’m sorry you’re in the uncomfortable position of being in a job that doesn’t really suit your skills, while you’re a good enough salesman to be convincing. It’s not fun, it’s stressful and worrying – I’ve been promoted in the past to a role where I was lost at sea!
    But, and I am sorry to be so blunt about this WonderBoy, you do have that job and you’re the only one with the power to change that. You can start only doing the parts you’re good at, you can change jobs, you can quit, you and only you can decide to change what you do for work to something where you’re not asking other people to help you all the time.
    I’m not going to train you. I’m just not, mate.
    Face reality here, you can stick it out on charisma or you can find a job you can excel at. Neither concern me.”

  36. Thomas Merton*

    I know the OP won’t write documentation, but adding more of their wonderful writing to the world would be a boon.

  37. iliketoknit*

    This was a great update! And WonderBoys are exhausting. I do kinda wonder what they’re supposed to do if there’s no way to learn the thing that their job requires them to do…but that’s an issue for WonderBoy and their manager, not you!

  38. Technically a Director*

    Thanks, LW, you gave me some food for thought. (Not as a Wonder Boy, but as a manager who strongly encourages employees to teach others as a side benefit of working with us — part of our competitive advantage.) To some extent that’s part of our job, but you got me thinking about what the limits should be, and how I would handle an employee who just genuinely doesn’t like teaching.

  39. ElenaSSF*

    I have an understudy who’s not particularly technically adept. Over 3 years I have trained him to handle all of our week to week processes, and anything routine. Not even in 10 years could I bring him up to my speed after 40 years in IT. My management wants to know when he’ll be fully ready to replace me. I’m still looking for polite rephrasals of “Not in this lifetime.”

    He’s a nice guy, works well and diligently, and I love having him on the team to take most of the routine work off my plate. But my hybrid IT/business role isn’t going to be replaceable by your average accountant.

    By the way, how much is a solid 15 years in 360BAL/COBOL/RPG/CICS/TSO JCL worth these years?

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