Tech Support: Career Opportunity or Trap?

Is tech support the perfect place to launch your IT career? Or is it a dead-end department where neophytes toil in obscurity while their technical skills grow stale? The answer depends on the company and the circumstances, so if you’re a new graduate, do your homework before accepting a tech support position.

Are you looking at tech support jobs? Tell us why in the comments below.

“I think tech support is a great place for new computer science grads to prove themselves and acquire general business and IT knowledge with one big caveat,” says Jesse Oquendo, service manager for Williams, a natural gas producer based in Tulsa, Okla. “You need to interview the company and evaluate your ability to grow by acquiring certifications, project experience, or training in network support.”

Budding professionals shouldn’t accept a rudimentary position with a third-party provider of first-tier support, where all they do is read scripts and pass along technical issues through a process that Oquendo calls, “catch and dispatch.”

Instead, they need to secure an analyst role where they talk with users and acquire technical knowledge by troubleshooting and resolving second and third tier issues.

With those skills, tech support analysts can ultimately move into data center operations, network administration or support, or even become a business analyst. But at the very least, novice professionals need to acquire the hands-on experience and references to advance their careers once they’ve maximized the benefits of a stint in technical support.

When interviewing, “ask about the company’s promotional philosophy, history and policies to assess your growth and training opportunities,” says Phillip Kimball, associate director of Customer Advocacy and Value Alignment at University of Utah Hospital and Clinics. “You shouldn’t accept a position in a tech support department where there hasn’t been any internal movement in the last two years.”

Oquendo gives new hires 90 days to acclimate before eliciting their technical interests and letting them train on the network or embed in an interesting project.

Smaller is Better

Oquendo notes that it’s easy to get lost in large companies that employ 400 to 500 people in tech support. So he recommends beginning at a small to mid-size organization that offers formal training, mentoring and a crystal clear career path. However, professional growth is never guaranteed, so you’ll need to excel and not be afraid to ask for more responsibility.

But: If you’re an analyst, you’ll have to master master your initial duties before volunteering to assist with mini projects. Then you should offer to help your manager by setting up a knowledge management database, preparing reports or analyzing help desk performance and data. At that point, you’re ready to graduate to a new and larger role in the company or the IT organization, unless you conclude that it’s time to revise your resume and hit the market.

“If you’ve been there for six months and find limited opportunities to advance, you need to start looking to avoid getting trapped in tech support,” says Oquendo.

Comments

  1. BY Derek says:

    Thanks for the article, very timely for me. I am looking for support jobs. Although I was not CompSci, I served in my university’s walk-in tech support center (as a grad student) and now provide support as a contractor. I mastered the skills at the University and on the side played around with Linux and BSD. I am finding that hirers want “square pegs for square holes” — so I may have to serve in tech support again before advancing into more Linux-focused work. Despite the widespread reports of shortages in Linux skills, it seems that employers are not willing to pay for learning on the job or an initial training period, at least in RTP. My specs — [2 yrs tech support experience + interest + focused independent + Ivy League undergrad degree] — should signal both interest and ability — but, those being insufficient from the hiring perspective currently, it looks like I will need to find a tech support position with real growth opportunities.

  2. BY RMS says:

    This I never understood: why technical (and I’ll include software) support is viewed as an entry level position. Building a network, administering a system. and writing code according to specifications are “easy”; determining the cause of a user-reported error requires a completely different skill set and talent. It’s been my experience that a minority of technically gifted folk have the necessary soft skills to excel at supporting end users. That is, they have no patience, find it difficult to speak in layman’s terms and have no idea how to ask appropriate and probing questions that get to the actual problem. It’s time for “IT” (and business in general) to stop treating support as purgatory, and promote it as a valid and valued career path in its own right.

    • Agreed. Solid technical knowledge coupled with polished people skills shouldn’t be considered ‘entry-level’.

      • BY Proud Paulbot says:

        I agree as well, and I’d like to add that the mall-level wages paid to tech support personnel are why most tech support hotlines are useless. $9.00/hour is not going to attract the best and the brightest. It attracts people who can’t get jobs anywhere else.

        Skilled, ambitious hard workers are better off going to work in a mall, where at least (1) the work will not be anywhere near as hard and (2) they have an opportunity to advance into management.

  3. BY piyoti says:

    it’s a trap, don’t do it..
    Worse yet. most company’s when the spring this trap do everything they can to
    keep you in the trap.
    You can move out of that department for N number of years.
    In order to get a raise you must take and pay classes and certifications that are useless
    in the real world but help keep you down while your stuck in support.
    If you do manage to escape to another department your salary will be lower than someone to got the right schooling and side step the support hole.

    If you decide to look for other work at another company if that company or recruiters see’s support on your resume they will try to trap you in another support job.

    I applied to one company a while back they didn’t want to offer me the job I wanted but the recruiter saw I had done support in the past and wanted to see If I wanted to interview for that job. No, I said…that’s the only job we can offer you unless your a Stanford grad.
    I said not thank you and hung up.

  4. BY James says:

    Great article! As someone with limited industry experience, I found this article AND comments to be absolutely informative. Thanks.

  5. BY Tina says:

    I have done tech support for many years. I get treated like 2nd class citizen not only by IT people but by users. It is continual. 24/7 requirements sometimes where they “expect” you to be there. No future roles there. I would say – stay away unless you desperately need the money. Until the role is respected, people will just keep it as a platform for boosting into somewhere else.

  6. BY Dave says:

    Its a trap, try not to get stuck there for too long have a plan of action of how you intend to advance with the skills you will quickly master and look to move up in the company or else where. If you don’t have plan you will find your self stuck in that role complaining about it.

  7. BY Michele says:

    What have people’s experiences been moving from second-tier support to development?

    • BY RMS says:

      I never “moved” from support to development; for most of my career I have performed both roles concurrently, along with systems admin, networking, project management, etc. Many companies have IT depts with lines that are easily crossed because of the nature of the work. Hence, even if you are a “developer” you might be pressed into a support role because it needs to be done.

      • BY Erik says:

        Perhaps “pressed into” could be the way someone “moves into” another subfield; the fact we’re talking about subfields might help explain why the “lines” are blurrier than others. So, you either were hired as a utility person or you moved – shifted – in some way, experienced change in responsibilities, duties, applied skills.

    • BY James says:

      I started off as technical support after I graduated college 18 years. It was a small shop and I was junior Unix administrator, help desk and technical support. I learned how to write c-shell and bash scripts, I created unix make files to execute my CInformix-sql application which ran our Accuvocie IVR system. I had a great technical support experience but it very much relies on the size of the company. Small companies have no problem giving you additional duties on top of the ones in you job description, the challenge is finding those great companies

  8. BY General Ackbar says:

    It’s a TRAP!

  9. BY Cynthia says:

    I am a recent graduate of ITT Information Security, and I have decided to start my own business because where i live they will not even give you a entry level position in Technical support!

  10. BY David says:

    I wouldn’t say it’s a dead end. It’s definitely a challenge to move ahead (i.e. advance). I’ve been in IT for 14 years and recently attained MCITP-SA certification. I thought that would open more doors, but it really hasn’t.

    Depending on where you live, higher level IT jobs are in demand in private industry. Alas, I’m not in an area where that’s the case and I’m not in a position to relocate. So, I’m stuck battling my way to a better paying job.

  11. BY Emil says:

    I’ve said that numerous times on dice.
    Stay away from major IT companies with traditions in outsourcing jobs abroad. You get a paycheck, and not a CAREER. Beware, do not repeat mistakes other folks have made!!

    Thanks!

  12. BY anon says:

    It worked for me…

    Worked tech support at a small sw company for 2-3 yrs with no prior IT experience (aside from 6th grade tinkering). Taught myself programming and databases while on the job. Got promoted to a developer position.

    The only problem was resentment from the president of the company, since he didn’t originally hire me as a developer.

  13. BY Gary says:

    I did phone support for four years. It’s been difficult to find jobs outside of that realm. It’s like a massive black hole. It’s hard to escape.

  14. BY Scot Herrick says:

    Not mentioned here are the salary policies with positions. Let’s say a tech support person makes $40k per year and a system admin makes $50k per year (pick your salary and positions outside of tech support).

    Most companies will consider the move from tech support to something else as a promotion. BUT, most companies cap your pay raise and promotion dollars to some finite amount. Let’s say (and this is a real example) the biggest increase you can get is a 5% raise with the promotion. Then you max out at a 4% raise if you are rated outstanding in your new position (not likely).

    How long will it take you to get to the $50k minimum for the new position coming out of tech support when you are paid the generous $40k right now? Math wizards can figure it out, but, it’s a long, long time.

    Doing something like this internally (not just in tech support) means you limit your pay for years if you try and do this internally. It’s not market rates.

  15. BY TechGuy0000FF says:

    I worked at a Fortune 500 company where almost no one from the helpdesk ever grew within the company regardless of skill level. Each company has its internal politics and this was no different. At that company, there was a bit of an unspoken rule where you don’t “steal” another manager’s star employee(s).

    I eventually learned the only strategy that seemed to work, which was basically to work many hours for free by finding reasons why you need to work with another team. For example, one of my co-workers at the time was a top performer in our department. He wanted to pursue web development, so he would do his normal workload and let everyone know in our department that he would take over case of their tech support calls that had anything to with internal web resources, which most people gladly handed over. Once his 8hr shift was over he would then work for free on the web-related issues that would normally be escalated to another dept. It took him at least 8 months of working for free before he was lucky enough that an opening came up there but he still had to interview for the job along with external candidates even though he had already proven himself. Once the recession hit, he was the first to be let go since he was the new person in that dept. and since all departments were cutting jobs, there was no place for him to be transferred. He was able to get valuable work experience, but none of the 8 months counted since HR could not acknowledge or verify that work.

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