Google Helpouts first impressions

November 7 2013

Google Helpouts launched on Tuesday. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a peer-to-peer platform for getting expert help. Naturally, Google Hangouts are used for the actual sessions.

I used to provide free computer science tutoring when I was in school, so I figured this might be a nice way to keep giving back. After getting into the private beta a few weeks ago, I whipped up a free CS help listing – you can see the new version of it here. The Helpouts team looked it over and scheduled me for a one-on-one chat, which lead to my listing being accepted for the launch. I set my availability for 7:45pm - 10pm, thinking that I’d be lucky to get one or two hits.

To my complete surprise, I ended up being booked for nearly the entire night! Here’s how my sessions went:

call one: ideal

I joined the first Hangout 5 minutes early. After an awkward 10 minute wait, my first user showed up. We exchanging greetings, then paired on a Python program. Setting up a reasonable way to share code wasn’t super easy, but we eventually made good use of the Hangout’s screen sharing. The allotted 15 minutes gave us just enough time to work out a solution before he signed off. Success!

Honestly, my first Helpout couldn’t have gone much better. I was able to be immediately helpful, the Hangout worked perfectly, and I even got a nice review.

call two: no help needed

My second user was also about five minutes late. To my surprise, he didn’t need any help; he was just a developer who wanted to chat. So, we talked shop. While this wasn’t what the platform was intended for, it was still fun.

calls three through seven: no shows

Unfortunately, I soon found that my first experiences may have been flukes. My next five users either didn’t show or cancelled at the last minute.

call eight: off-topic

A user showed up for my final slot of the night. However, English wasn’t his first language, and we had some trouble communicating. I eventually discovered that he was interested in programming for the job opportunities, so I provided some resources off the top of my head: Cousera, Udacity, Codecademy, etc. I also spent some time explaining CS as a discipline and attempting to separate it from software engineering.

I disconnected with the feeling that my time wasn’t well spent. But, hey, at least someone showed up.

Impressions

Obviously, the no-shows were a huge problem. Not only did it waste my time, but it may have prevented me from helping actual users. To mitigate this, my listing now charges a dollar upfront, but promises to refund it if the user shows. So far this hasn’t gotten any takers, so it’s hard to tell if it’s working or just scaring everyone off.

I got in touch with the Helpouts team about my problem - over a Helpout - and they told me there wasn’t anything in the pipeline to fix it. However, they did seem aware of the problem. I do hope it’s addressed; it’s absolutely sapped some of my enthusiasm for the platform.

No-shows aside, my first Helpout really showed the potential of the platform: fifteen minutes of my time made a real difference! I’ll definitely keep some timeslots open on the platform, and hope to have better experiences to share in the future.


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