Turning up the techno-beat

Lois Lane will never write about her date with the tech support guy.

Support staff face challenges that are both technical and non-technical, that come with a bundle of stress and pressure – yet according to Sandra Simpson, they don’t get the credit they deserve.

“It’s often considered to be an entry-level position in a firm, which it shouldn’t be, because it is a career. A challenge is being taken seriously and being seen as having a career and being a value to the organization,” said Simpson, managing partner and CEO of Toronto-based Logical Process Corp. – which specializes in business process services – and founder of Support Services in Canada (www.echo-on.net~ssimpson). “What people fail to realize is that tech support and help desk have an incredible impact on the productivity of a company.”

You’re at the office and all of a sudden your screen freezes on your PC. If you don’t have a help desk person to help fix it, what are you going to do? According to Simpson, asking the person sitting next to you or a buddy down the hall is common. Now, two people are not working on the business of the business, and lowering the rate of productivity.

“[Help desks have] an incredible impact on productivity by insuring that people are getting the proper support, then all the people in the company are more productive, and hence that’s affecting the bottom line,” Simpson said.

dealing with technical strain

Simpson said that aside from not being taken seriously, tech support staff are under a lot of stress.

“They get people phoning them up in crisis mode. ‘The board meeting is in an hour and I haven’t printed the report that I have to give them; my boss needs this, blah, blah, blah.’ The eighty thousand reasons in a day that we need something done now and can’t get it done,” Simpson said. “What do we do? We call up, sometimes in tears, to the help desk, trying to get help.”

Richard Wong, network administrator at Toronto-based Infopreneur (www.infopreneur.com), a new-media company providing e-services and e-content to entrepreneurs, agrees that being a tech support technician is a stressful job.

“People don’t approach you when things are going right, because if things are going right there is no need to talk to the tech support technicians. The tech support staff are only involved when there are problems,” Wong said. “It’s a lot of pressure sometimes because what you’re doing for your customer or your client is trying to allow them to get back to productivity.”

According to Sharon Thompson, support analyst for the Alberta Research Council, the biggest challenge tech support staff face is keeping up with technology.

“Technology is always changing, and when you believe you’re getting proficient in one area, it’s sometimes very limiting. You have to be able to deal in multiple levels in multiple areas,” Thompson said.

Tech support staff must be in the right “mood” when dealing with their clients, according to Thompson.

“(It’s challenging) being in a positive disposition at all times so that the user at the other end is dealt with appropriately. For some people that can be quite a challenge.”

so why deal with it?

Thompson said combining the two things she loves most and having them as her career is especially important for her.

“I will always be dealing with people and technology.”

Simpson said the joy of tech support is solving the problems, and getting rid of them.

“It’s getting to that point where you find ways of getting rid of the problems before they even appear,” Simpson said. “It’s fun solving problems. There’s new stuff all the time. It’s a changing, exciting technology world. It’s crazy. It’s wild. We’re living in an exciting period in this last century and in the beginning of this new century.”

According to Wong, certain people are fit to be the ideal support technicians, and ever since he was a little kid and programmed his first video game, he became hooked on computers and technology.

“The kind of person that likes to be a tech support technician is the kind of guy who likes to hook up a VCR: a person who loves puzzles, and working out problems in their head,” Wong said. “All of what I know is from hands-on and problem-solving on my own.”

Wong gets satisfaction out of being able to dig into the root of the problem.

“To know how to do things and to feel that sort of empowerment of being able to do stuff that other people can’t do. That kind of thrill when you’re helping someone and they’re amazed and dazzled by your ability to solve their problem.”

Turning on to tech

According to Tony Adams, the use of technology requires assistance because it is so complex and far from perfect.

“There’s a huge need for support,” said Adams, senior analyst following software product support services for Lowell, Mass.-based Dataquest. “There’s a close association between the soft aspects of technical support, namely the customer-facing skills, to customer loyalty. We can actually begin to measure and understand the benefits of good service in its role as a customer retention device. That also is playing up the importance of technical support.”

According to Adams, tech support staff are tough to train and easy to lose, because even higher paying jobs are knocking on their doors.

“We see stats from the labour department that indicate that tech support is going to be a robust job market for all of the foreseeable future. The principle reason is that once somebody becomes good on the tech support side, there’s this suction that draws them to higher paying jobs, because they possess the skills that are so much in demand across the board,” Adams said.

Contrary to the belief of support technicians, Adams noted that tech support is getting more recognition because the cost of it is going through the roof. He said that because tech support staff is a growing demand within organizations, they can make some pretty decent cash.

“A tech support rep who’s any good with a little experience can count on an entry-level salary of probably US$35,000 to US$40,000 dollars. High-level representatives who are either close to development or account management roles are pulling down over US$100,000 a year,” Adams said. “It used to be easy to get people to do this. It’s impossible now. They come with their own demands. Those demands are more and more being met such as full benefits package, introduction to new career opportunities, new technical training. Whatever turns them on, they usually get.”

technical education

Up until recently, not many people received formal training for technical support. The staff just came in, were given a desk, and were told to start solving problems.

Seneca College in Toronto now offers a computer networking and technical support two-year diploma program, and Barb Czegel taught a class in technical support.

“[This class] offers soft skills that are required for work on a support area, such as listening skills, handling challenging customers, and even problem solving skills,” Czegel said. “It’s been extremely popular.”

Czegel noted that support requirements really expanded when companies became more computerized, which more and more did with the advent of PCs.

“Everything kind of blew up in a very short time frame. Then people started realizing that we’ve got to support this stuff,” Czegel added.

According to Czegel, it took a while for the need to materialize, be understood, and clarified. Finally, there was a time to respond to that need.

“The work is very hands-on. Because of demand, both from industry and from students, they’ve added a third year if students want to go to an advanced data community,” Czegel said. “They’ve had the chance to demonstrate the ability that they can do this stuff before they go to work.”

Wong said that even though he studied computer science at The University of Toronto, none of it really helped prepare him for a role in tech support.

“I think the best support technicians are the ones that have that sort of hands-on personal experience,” he said.