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Technical Support as a Career

“I work in technical support” is probably one of the less impressive admissions at a sociable meetup, and to be fair, it’s not ever been glamourous, nor will it ever be. The most admiration you’ll probably get is “Oh wow; hey I have this computer problem actually, you see it …. (badly summarized problem in absence of broken thing…) … do you think it’s a virus?”

However it is a viable career (with its admitted share of dead ends), with training on offer in the right companies, and plenty of potential for exposure to the core of businesses and some Real Computing (TM).

The following is a quick profile description of the most common configurations, if you were ever curious, or looking to move into IT – and one or two profiles to avoid as much as you can.

IT support

I’ll classify IT support as helping office workers use their computers for doing work. The customers of this type of service are generally not highly technical; as such, it is possible to get in at a fairly entry-level with personal-interest-level skilling but still with prospects in career development. A few years in IT support, and some honest personal technological curiosity, can open the doors to other jobs in IT.

You could conceivably move on even to development, IT administration, sales engineering and other more enviable roles from here.

IT Helpdesk

First stop for internal computer problems in a business. Your boss is the IT admin if the organisation is small, and they and their team handle all the IT deployment and implementation. If the organisation is large, this operation is only responsible for troubleshooting, and defers to a higher IT authority in the company for more complex fixes.

Low entry barrier most of the time, with the only requirement being computer literate and the proven ability to learn. You’re hired as an employee, and so long as you follow the procedures and are generally pleasant to deal with, you shouldn’t have much trouble.

In large organisations, it’s a good option if you’ve never operated in IT before and want to get an idea of how computers and software are deployed and used in business. For career progression, take any opportunity to talk to several of the senior technicians, since most people at your pay grade will also be the same experience level (though don’t discount them for so much!).

In very small businesses (typically about 10-20 people if they have a dedicated IT person), tends to offer to work with very few other technicians (if any), and so more advisable for those with a large amount of personal experience who can rely on themselves… until the small company grows, or outsources its IT function.

IT Support / Fix Shop

The IT shop stands independently as a small business, providing IT help for other small businesses. Sometimes they have an actual shop where they sell and fix hardware for businesses and consumers alike.

Medium entry level requiring at least firm interest in computer hardware and tinkering, or for a support shop an interest in actually taking responsibility for fixing computer issues. A very customer-facing role, it requires people skills as much as technical skills – lest the customers not come back.

Entrepreneurs beware: have a good few years of professional experience in other areas of IT before trying this – callcentres don’t count unfortunately.

Commercial support

Commercial support is where companies sell a support service around a specific set of solutions that they designed, or represent the company that designed them. This ranges from home appliances such as fridges, phones, games consoles, along with home-user software such as PhotoShop Elements, flickr and the likes at the low end, to software and hardware solutions for small, medium and large businesses and even multinational enterprises.

Callcentre

Oft thankless and soul-crushing, part by nature, and part by the the mean practices of the typical employer in this space (often outsourcing companies), this is the least rewarding technical support job in the stack, as well as being the most visible to the general public – hence the disdain for the career name of “technical support.”

If you’re lucky and you’re not required to work from a script, you can enjoy hearing the same basic complaints over and over about how to use smart TVs, phones bleeping oddly, software not starting when triple-clicking etc and wanting refunds, whilst not being allowed to take sick days (or you will be heavily penalized, even losing your job the second time round), and having your toilet breaks scrutinized. Late by 5 minutes three times and you’re out.

On top of that, your job is to keep customers away from everyone else in the company, more than helping anyone. Thankless.

Sweat shop of the service industry, along with telesales.

With the most basic requirements at entry level, this is the one-stop-only from which you need to rebound ASAP to get into one of the other support roles where you’ll at least have better job security, or at least humane treatment.

You will need little IT knowledge to get in, but some serious determination to self-educate in IT to move on. I’d recommend progressing to some company’s internal IT helpdesk department as soon as you can (see above for helpdesks). If you can and you want into IT, skip callcentre entirely, focus on studying for an IT diploma (from a recognized university, or even just a trade certification), and enter at a different level.

1st line solution support to consumers

By “solution” we mean technology or software required for specific purposes – for example processing PDFs or InDesign files for printing county fair leaflets or cards, a mailing list service for student groups, or auto-stapling printers deployed in small/medium offices.

Not far from the callcentre in terms of pay, but at least here you need to exercise technical skills to do the job and it can give you insight into the deployment of some technologies, how people use it, trouble points and how to deal with customers in view of actually being of help.

Technology shops such as phone carriers’ outlets like Carphone Warehouse, and computer warehouses like Apple Stores and games console shops, also count here.

Some support-outfit employers still treat this as a callcentre role though, so if you’re not in a team/shop that seems to appreciate their staff, use this as a platform to somewhere that does. High staff turnover costs them, not you.

1st line solution support to businesses

By “solution” we mean software created for a targeted audience to solve a particular kind of problem or service a specific workflow. Think “form data extraction automation” or “data+form merge for mass billing”.

This kind of role, even though labeled “1st line support” can be pretty rewarding, both personally and financially, and has only a medium barrier to entry. You will field calls from business customers and business partners and consultants, and maybe even callcentres and 1st line consumer helpdesks may escalate calls to your team.

You will need proper computing and troubleshooting skills – at least decent knowledge in the core technologies in the solution as opposed to broad knowledge of IT deployment – and perhaps either a formal background in computing, or plenty of experience troubleshooting informally and some hobbyist/enthusiast computing knowledge. You could certainly get into this role straight out of education with the right extra-curricular activities on your CV.

Some solutions may even allow/require you to provide some custom code snippets.

In small software houses and dedicated hardware businesses, this is often the only tier of support, and as such you will likely be able to talk to various IT administrators and developers on your lunch breaks, as well as perhaps some R&D engineers/scientists if the topic is fairly specialized/scientific.

2nd line support

2nd line support, whether for consumer technologies, solutions sold to businesses, or as part of a large organisation IT department is the top of the standard-level-model of support. The organisation you’re in may even have a 3rd line, but that’s rare. Either way, you are likely to have specialized on a set of key technologies, and their practical integration into business processes, advanced troubleshooting and fixing. You have a fair chance of having regular contact with developers for in-house solutions, or to the business solutions’ architects.

Your customers tend to be other IT outfits or support persons. Sometimes you might be helping the experienced 1st line support person, sometimes it might be a sales engineer implementing a project. It’s rarely ever the end customer.

You’ll probably know a few programming languages, have several years either as a 1st line solution support to business, or as a consultant even. This is not typically an entry level job – only IT admins or engineers would normally go straight to this level of support.

IT Admin / Developer / Software Engineer / Technical Author

Just because you don’t have “support” in your job title doesn’t mean you won’t be pulled in from time to time: in small businesses, developers often double as the 1st line solution support as well, and IT admins might get pulled to a user’s deskside by a helpdesk operation.

It’s not often that you will, but the frequent overlap of other IT roles with supporting simply other departments and functions is not to be disregarded. Proper troubleshooting skills are valuable here, especially when dealing with systems that you did not have a direct hand in setting up.

Conclusion

So that’s my lightning overview of the industry. Needless to say, I do advise to steer clear of callcentres, or graduate from them as soon as you can. As a structure they are needed, but the way they are run is inefficient and dehumanizing; and as a result fails to serve the needs either of employees, of business clients or of end customers.

Depending on your technical level, 1st line support or large companies’ helpdesks should be considered the entry points that have the best chance of teaching you plenty enough to progress a healthy career. Business support is one rung up, and you can consider 2nd line support on par with developers and consultants in terms of required experience and pay scale.

As with any career, the same global rules apply:

  • there are ups and there are downs in the activities
  • there are good places and bad places, make sure you work for people who appreciate you
  • talk to experienced people in your field, shun those who easily dismiss you
  • seek to learn – BSc’s and PG Dips (both taught); and trade certifications in technology (self-study mostly); are all independently viable options

Support is an area that should see a steady growth in desired skills – when machines fail, or consumers need help, we inevitably end up turning to people.

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2 comments on “Technical Support as a Career

  • I’ve worked as a support specialist for 7 years! I hate it with all that is conceivably me but…(isn’t there always a but), it laid the foundation for me to build a life for myself, put food on the table, fund my studies, and discover that what I really want to spend my time on is experimental research in computer science. Such jobs are hard to find without a doctorate at a minimum. In all, my advice to others is support et al are good for entry level and moving up. If you are lucky to find a supportive company that can help you with education and certification that interest you then by all means take it. But don’t ever make the mistake of getting comfortable, in fact before you even work into the office on day one you should already have an exit strategy which you adjust and improve to execute at the 3 year mark or 4 year mark tops. I’m way wiser now from my experience and cannot be enticed by perks and bonus that look good on the surface but a really holding you back in a perpetual vortex.

    • Tai Kedzierski

      May 27, 2015 at 12:21

      Reply

      Never make the mistake of getting comfortable in any job you aren’t 100% satisfied with – support, finance or academia :-)

      Support is not necessarily bad, it can be rewarding – depending on what the company produces. Just don’t work for non-rewarding dead-end outfits more than you need to…

      Good luck with the research goals!

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