Helpdesk Skills Fit the Bill


RedLEDKeyboard

I saw a great tweet yesterday from Swift on Security that talked about helpdesk work and how it’s nothing to be ashamed of:

I thought it was especially important to call this out for my readers. I’ve made no secret that my first “real” job in IT was on the national helpdesk for Gateway Computers through a contractor. I was there for about six months before I got a job doing more enterprise-type support work. And while my skills today are far above what I did when I started out having customers search for red floppy disks and removing helper apps in MSCONFIG, the basics that I learned there are things I still carry with me today.

Rocket Science

Most people have a negative outlook on helpdesk work. They see it as entry-level and not worth admitting to. They also don’t quite understand just how hard it is to do this kind of work. It may be different today compared to when I did it twenty years ago through the advances in technology but there is one group of people that know just how hard it is to do remote work on a system you can’t physically touch:

NASA Engineers

If you think it’s easy to just jump in front of a keyboard and fix an issue with Outlook or Chrome, try doing it without being able to see what you’re looking at. Now try and describe what you want to do without technical jargon and without using the term “thingie”. Now do it with the patience that it takes to tell someone more than once what they need to do and how to get them to read you the error message verbatim so you can figure out what’s actually going on.

Inbound phone support is a lot like fix a space probe. You have a lag time between commands being sent and confirmation. You can’t make it too complicated because the memory of the thing you’re working with isn’t unlimited. And you have to hope what you did actually fixes the issue because you may not get a second chance at it. It might sound a touch hyperbolic but I’d argue that phone support teaches the skills needed to communicate effectively and concisely to people less technical than you. You know, executives.

Joking aside, being able to distill the issue from incomplete information and formulate a response while simultaneously describing it in non-technical terms to ease implementation is the kind of skill you don’t read out of a book. Don’t believe me? Call your parents and help them update their DNS settings. Unless your parents are in IT I doubt it’s going to be a fun call. Tech is obtuse on purpose to keep people from playing with it. The people that can cut through the jargon and keep users going are magicians.

Visualize the Result

I have a gift for analogies. They aren’t always 100% accurate but I can usually relate some kind of a technology to some real-world non-technical thing to help users understand what’s going on. That gift was developed in the six months I spent trying to explain bad capacitors, startup TSRs, and exactly what an FDISK, Format, Reload process did to the computer. It’s a super valuable skill to have outside of tech too.

Go ask your doctor to explain how the endocrine system works in non-medical terms. I bet they can because they have a way to describe most of the body functions in terms that someone who has never taken human anatomy can understand. You can’t explain technical subjects with technical terms to just anyone. And even the technical people that know what you’re saying often have a hard time visualizing what you’re talking about. That’s how we ended up with the “Internet as a series of tubes” meme.

Where does this skill come in handy? How about teaching advanced tech to your junior staff? Or educating the executives in a board meeting? Or even just trying to tell the users in your organization why it’s not the network this time? If you can only talk in technical jargon without giving analogies or helping them visualize what you’re saying you will only end up with confused angry users that think you’re being patronizing.

The helpdesk forces you to get better at being descriptive with shorter words and more visual descriptions. I’d argue that my helpdesk time made my writing better because it reminds me not to be loquacious when I should be economical in my word choices and sentence lengths. If you can’t help your user figure out what you’re doing they’ll never learn how to be better at telling people what they need support for.

Documenting All the Things

The last skill that the helpdesk instilled in me is documentation. I’m a bad note taker. I get distracted (thanks ADHD) and often forget to write down important things. Helpdesk work is a place where you absolutely need to write everything down. Ask questions and record info. Dig into error messages and find out when they started happening. Listen to what people are telling you and don’t jump to conclusions until you’ve written it all down.

I once had a call where the user told me that they couldn’t get into their computer. I thought this was an easy fix. I spent ten minutes walking through the Windows XP login process. Nothing worked. I was getting frustrated and was about to reboot to safe mode and start erasing password hashes. By chance the user mentioned that they saw the pop up for the buzzer and it still wasn’t working. After I questioned them on this I realized that they could log in to WinXP just fine. The “buzzer popup” was AOL’s login screen. They had an issue with the modem, not the operating system. If I’d asked more questions about when the problem started and what they saw instead of just jumping to the wrong conclusion I could have saved a ton of pain and wasted effort.

Likewise, when you’re doing IT work you have to write it all down. Troubleshooting makes a lot of sense here but so does implementation or other kinds of design work. If you’re doing a wireless survey on site and forget to write down what the walls are made out of you may find yourself with an ineffective design or, worse having to spend extra time and money fixing it on the fly because those reinforced concrete walls are way better at signal attenuation than you recalled from a spotty memory.

Get in the habit of taking good notes from the start and summarizing them when needed to weed out the working things from the non-working things. Honestly, having a record of all the steps you took to arrive at your conclusion helps in the future if the issue happens again or you find yourself at a brick wall and need to retrace your steps to figure out where you took the wrong turn. If you record it all you won’t need to spend too much effort scratching your head to figure out what you were thinking.


Tom’s Take

Every job teaches you skills you can carry forward. Even the worst job in the world teaches you something you can take with you. Some jobs have a negative stigma and really shouldn’t. Like Swift said above you should accentuate the positive aspects of your journey. Don’t look at the helpdesk as a slog through the trenches. See yourself as a NASA rocket scientist that can talk to normal people and document like a champion. That’s a career anyone would be proud to have.

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