Technology Help Desk
by Aubrey Lakeside
Let me first say I am so happy to guest post for Ari! I have never done a guest post before, so this is very exciting.
This article is intended to give an idea of what it is like to work at a Technology Help Desk, from someone who spent twelve years doing so. You may also notice I have some technical writing experience…
Hopefully I can keep this from being too dry. I just recently moved on to System Administration, so when you see me using the past tense regarding help desks, that is why!
Working at a Technology Help Desk (aka providing tech support, aka being a systems analyst) will differ based on where you work, from qualifications to responsibilities to dress code.
You may work at a university or in a corporate setting, as a student employee, a contractor, or as full-time staff.
You might support the employees of the company you work for, or be under contract to help other offices in the area or around the globe. You may physically go to the offices you support, or you might telecommute.
You will often see technical jobs separated into tiers, where each increase in number is a step up in skill and usually a step removed from customer contact.
Help desk is almost always Tier 1 and the first point of contact for a customer with a computer problem, but will sometimes be separated into Tier 1 for first contact and Tier 2 for visits and advanced troubleshooting.
In a call center, you can take anywhere from twenty to over ninety calls in an 8 hour shift if your only function is to answer and route calls.
Anything that cannot be resolved over the phone is escalated to a more skilled technician in the next tier. There may be certain software you can install on customers’ machines, and you may be able to control those machines via remote session.
In a full service help desk you are expected try the above first, and if the issue cannot be resolved over the phone you schedule a time to visit the customer in person.
If you’re not busy, or if the issue is urgent, you go right away. If you don’t have a separate call center, you need to make sure enough people are on phones before you leave.
You may be responsible for moving and installing users’ computers in addition to troubleshooting.
You might also set up overhead projectors and sound systems for meetings, or even be asked to attend off-site meetings to provide immediate support should an issue arise.
Once you provide in-person support, you become a sort of jack of all trades. You are expected to at least diagnose most things that can go wrong with various electronics, including laptops and desktops of varying brands (they may look the same on the outside, but diagnosing issues can vary greatly), commonly used software on those machines, monitors, mice and keyboards, laptop docking stations, audio-visual equipment, printers, copiers, plotters, tablet computers and smart phones, modems and routers, desk phones…basically anything the company owns with silicon chips inside.
Some help desks will also let you do some account administration, meaning you have some administrator access to Active Directory (if they use it) and other systems like email and company passwords, and maybe even some network security capabilities.
This requires a great deal of trust, because you can do some serious damage if you make a mistake.
The size of a company determines the size of their IT department, and if there are only three of you, you can expect to wear many hats!
Most companies prefer you have some kind of college degree, but entry-level help desk positions generally do not require prior in-depth computer knowledge as you will be expected to learn a lot on the job.
Every company does things a little differently, and some places actually prefer you have little to no prior experience so they can train a blank slate to do things a specific way.
The more responsibilities the job entails, the more likely you will need either a computer-related bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience. I personally hold a BA in Linguistics, and rely on experience and certifications.
There may also be a physical requirement written into your job. If you install computers and service printers, for example, you may need to be able to lift up to 70 lbs unassisted. If you’ll be servicing overhead projectors, you’ll need to be willing and able to climb a ladder.
Most corporate environments will require you to wear some kind of dress shirt, and some will even mandate slacks and dress shoes even if your job requires you to crawl under people’s desks.
A more relaxed corporate place will be fine with a dress shirt, jeans, and sneakers. The universities I have worked at were content with us wearing t-shirts, and we had to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes for safety reasons.
Certifications prove your knowledge and make you more marketable. CompTIA provides training and exams for many technical certifications.
Their A+ exam covers general computer knowledge, like identifying and replacing parts, best practices during computer repair, understanding networks, in-depth information on operating systems, and lots more.
You can find a full list of their certifications here: https://certification.comptia.org/certifications
If you want to do hardware repairs without voiding warranties, you need to be certified by the manufacturer. Ex: Dell, HP, Apple.
Simply touching the wrong place on a system board can completely kill the part, so most companies will want to know they can trust you before they let you repair hardware.
You will also need this certification to order parts without going through the manufacturer’s help desk, which can eat up valuable time.
Certification exams are not cheap, so it is a good idea to try and find a place that will pay for you to become certified.
Most certs need to be renewed at some point, so it’s not like getting a degree. You have to pay to go back and retake the test every certain number of years to retain your certification.
Really all a help desk technician needs is a computer, a phone, and an internet connection.
Most of the other necessities are going to be software-based. If you have a softphone program, you don’t even need a phone—you can use a headset to make calls from your computer.
Other helpful items would be USB flash drives, cables and adapters—if, for example, you bring your laptop with you on-site and need to connect it to other equipment—and some kind of tablet computer like a Surface or iPad that allows you to bring your best tools (and an internet connection) on-site.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get an on-call phone so your work is always with you!
Any big help desk is going to use ticketing software to document issues, keep track of the work you do, and to pass work between groups.
Companies use it to generate statistical reports to make sure they have the right number of employees for the workload, identify problem trends in their system, and have documentation of their staff’s communications with customers.
The ticketing software is very important! It is often abbreviated ITSM (Information Technology Service Management) if you would like to do your own Googling.
In addition to typical office programs (MS Office—Word, Excel, Outlook, etc.), you will likely have access to install any of the software you support. For example, if I am required to answer questions on Adobe Acrobat, I need to know how it works.
If I don’t use it enough to keep it installed all the time, I will at least have the ability to install it if needed. It was very common for me to uninstall and then reinstall software as I spoke to a customer, so I could see the install prompts as they did and talk them through it.
Remote session software is another big one. It allows the technician to see their customer’s screen and take control of the mouse and keyboard.
My favorites were the ones that allowed me to disable the customer’s keyboard and mouse while I worked *evil laugh*. Joking aside, a lot of customers would gesture with their mouse while they spoke or try to check their email while I was working on their other screen, and it was really a hindrance.
The company may have a license for a remote session program like Bomgar or VNC, or you may need to get creative. Many collaboration programs like Zoom or Skype for Business allow screen-sharing and remote control, so if the company already has licenses for that software it can serve a dual purpose.
There are also free remote control programs like LogMeIn and TeamViewer, but they’re meant for personal individual use.
An instant messaging program, like Lync, Skype, or Slack, is also really important. Call center folks are generally seated in a cubicle farm or bullpen type situation, and can overhear some of each other’s conversations.
Being able to direct a question to someone—silently—is really useful. For example, if a customer rage-disconnects on me and I hear one of my coworkers answer the callback, I can send them a quick “I just talked to so-and-so and told them [blank]” to help them out.
Setting up group conversations with your team can help you crowdsource ideas and solutions, and it is also helpful to message people in other departments (if you’re allowed) to get quick answers.
Depending on how the “desk” is structured, customer contact can come by phone, email, or walk-in.
Calls and walk-ins are generally considered more urgent and addressed immediately, while emails are generally collected in one central address (ex: firstname.lastname@example.org) and distributed to the technicians for followup.
The technician documents the issue in the ticketing system and attempts to identify and resolve it during the call or visit.
If the help desk is call center only, and the issue cannot be resolved in an agreed-upon or reasonable amount of time (some places have a time cap they really don’t want you to surpass), the issue gets escalated to another group via the ticketing system.
The length of your calls may be monitored, and if you go over too many times a manager will talk to you about it.
If the help desk allows its technicians to visit users personally, they’ll try that before escalating the ticket.
On a call or a visit, you try the obvious fixes first. Often it IS as simple as waiting a little longer for an update to finish, or restarting the computer to make a program behave.
Sometimes something is unplugged and the customer can’t make heads or tails of the tangled mess under their desk. Sometimes the computer isn’t on. I try to phrase “is it plugged in” questions softly, as it is easy to sound condescending when asking that.
I’d say something like, “I’m sorry, I know you probably already checked this, but are there lights on the front of the computer indicating it’s on? Can you describe each of the cords plugged into the back for me?”
If you’re troubleshooting over the phone, it’s often necessary to have the user read an error message to you. Sometimes the answer is found simply by having them read the entire contents of the error, as there will often be instructions for what to do next.
Some people see an error and immediately call IT, and don’t see the directions two inches farther down the screen. I try my hardest not to make people feel bad for calling on something obvious.
I like when the solution is easy. And here’s a little tidbit for anyone who’s called IT for “something stupid”: You could be the dumbest person on the face of the planet, as long as you’re nice to us it’s a good call.
Seriously. The only “dumb” calls I remember were ones where the person treated me like garbage and was an idiot on top of that. Those are the stories we tell each other at lunch.
If the solution isn’t obvious, it’s time to do some research. This is another place where a ticketing system is handy.
If the customer is calling about a repeat issue, or if you’ve seen or heard about someone at the company having this same issue in the past, you can search for the ticket made for that call and get the solution!
Often companies will have their own knowledge bases to catalog answers to common issues, and sometimes it integrates with the ticketing system, which is really nice. If existing documentation has no answers, the next thing I try is an internet search.
If you’ve ever heard the joke where IT people are just regular people who are good at Google, it’s not wrong. I use Google a lot. I try the reputable looking pages first, like Microsoft forums, but I use Google to find them.
If I go away from the manufacturer’s website for answers I’m a lot more careful. I don’t download “fix it” links from third parties, because that is a great way to put a virus on someone’s computer.
If ANY site recommends making changes in the registry or system files, and I can’t tell what it’s going to do by looking at it, I’ll double check the change to make sure it’s safe before proceeding.
That goes double for any registry hacks I see on third-party websites. IT people have to Google responsibly, or else we break things.
After you research, it’s time for some trial and error. Documentation is key throughout this process, both to know for the future what fixed an issue, and to know what you did in case you need to undo it.
If it’s a hardware issue, this is where you might try swapping a part with an identical machine. Companies usually give everyone more or less the same machine and keep extras in stock, which makes it easy to find spare parts.
If the new part works, and the issue follows the old part to the spare machine, you can use that information to get a warranty replacement.
If you have done everything in your power to find the answer on your own, it’s time to ask around with coworkers if you haven’t already.
Once you have exhausted all the tools and tricks available to you at your level, and the issue persists, you send the ticket up to the next tier or to a specialty group (like networking, telecom, or server) to fix.
Usually, the responsibility of keeping the customer in the loop follows the ticket, but sometimes it stays with the help desk tech who took the initial communication. Whomever owns the ticket will likely be expected to put some new information in the ticket every day until it’s closed to show the issue is being worked on.
Working at a help desk can be a fantastic foot-in-the-door opportunity. Because the main requirements of most help desks are interpersonal skills and the desire/ability to learn, you have an amazing chance to learn on the job, have your employer pay for specialized training, make great connections, and gain access to internal job postings.
A lot of places will even let you shadow in another department so you can learn a different position while working at the help desk and be vetted when that position opens.
The amount you can learn seemingly through osmosis is astounding. You’ll probably meet some quirky people, and you may just make some lifelong friends.
The inside jokes are also fun. One of my favorite snarky websites I only fantasize about using is http://lmgtfy.com (let me Google that for you).
You can send someone a link, and they can watch the computer type their question into Google and click search. Very unprofessional, but very fun to imagine sending someone.
If you want to get into the IT industry but you’re not sure what you want to do, a job at a help desk is an excellent place to start.
This seems like a good time to point out that I am an introvert, and talking to people on the phone all day, even sending emails, is not something I naturally want to do.
I get anxious delivering bad news and have a hard time saying “no,” but I’m capable, smart, and compulsively polite. So, context.
Help desk support is a service industry job, and with that comes the fabled service industry horror stories.
There are times, even at the best companies, when you will be verbally abused, frustrated to the point of tears, and feel like your role means nothing.
You will have to touch electronics used by people with no concept of hygiene, or who later admit to dropping said device in the toilet or getting blood all over it.
People who called you for help will act like they know better than you, and some will blatantly lie, making troubleshooting over the phone nearly impossible, because they believe you should be able to fix everything without their participation.
You may even find yourself the focus of a witch hunt following a customer complaint, which is another reason solid documentation is essential (CYA = Cover Your Ass).
Some days may be great, but some you will go home tired and furious, which can send unpleasant ripples throughout other aspects of your life. If you’re unhappy you can bet your coworkers are, too, and that can have a compounding effect.
And as with other service industry jobs, being the star will burn you out fast, because the more work you can do, the more work you wind up doing. That’s not to say don’t try, just have a plan.
Twelve years was longer than I wanted to spend moving up the rungs and out of the service industry, but I changed states, left jobs for reactionary reasons (like impending layoffs or a director’s promise to double my responsibilities and extend my drive without giving me a permanent position) rather than to be proactive and move higher, and I chose relaxed working environments over advancement and higher pay. I did make a living wage, but I don’t have kids, and things were tight.
In my experience, companies wanted to keep just enough of us to put us at the brink of snapping from being overworked while still being able to complete most of our assigned tasks each day.
We were always rushing, always behind. They favored hiring contractors who are cheaper and easier to fire. The education side tends to be much more relaxed, although if funding is low you may run into the same instances of being overworked.
And there you have it! Help desks in a nutshell. This somehow felt like a lot and not enough all at the same time. If you’re interested in more tours though the computer world, come on over to my blog and check out my Computing for Writers series.
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Aubrey Lakeside is an American writer of sci-fi and speculative fiction thrillers. By day, she is a professional nerd, and in her free time—when not writing—she enjoys crocheting, reading about all manner of things, and playing RPGs.
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If you would like to be part of “A Writer’s Guide” series, please contact me so we can discuss.