I’ve always been frustrated by the all-too-common attitude that tech support is not a career in its own right. In my experience, many people just starting out in their professional-technical life view support as only a stepping stone, not a destination in its own right. You start there to learn about the product before you transition to engineering. Or you start there to learn about the customers before you move to a consulting role. Or, even, you start there to learn about the basics before you move into training.
These prevailing opinions have historically damaged the reputation of support. It’s seen as entry-level and a cost centre. A necessary burden full of the unglamorous or unambitious. An organisational backwater.
But those thinkers are oh-so-wrong.
So here’s what I say to them:
- Technical support folk are, in my experience, some of the smartest, most technically adept people I’ve ever met. Their minds need to be agile, up to the challenge of constant learning, and able to task-switch on a dime. At Oracle, in a front line old-fashioned call centre, talking to 20 or more anxious customers a day, I learned how to “do” support properly. I talked to customers with databases on their knees. I learned how to get to the core of a problem, resolve it, and partner with the customer technically and emotionally. And every person around me was doing to same. It was a real buzz. You learned on the phone, and you learned off the phone. Technical support people are knowledge sharers. It’s a positively charged cycle.
- In support, you need to know how to relate to other people. Whatever certifications or qualifications or product knowledge you have, you need to also embody huge empathy skills and have the patience of a saint. You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of another human and understand how they perceive your actions, and those of your organisation. It’s a particular set of empathic skills that’s needed in support – often called “cognitive empathy” – you need to be able to take a perspective on your client’s situation, and provide useful steps to remedy their problem. It’s a conscious effort of understanding and plotting a plan action. You need to keep your head.
- If you are pursuing this in the early stages of your career, it is a great entry level role with huge potential for expansion. Admittedly, it’s never been a popular first career choice for graduates. In fact, the summer I graduated from university, and got in under the wire on the Oracle graduate program, the support roles were the last to be filled. Most graduate applicants wanted to exercise their hard-core programming skills, or adventures as out-in-the-field consultants, but neither of those was really my cup of tea. I wasn’t too interested in crafting complex algorithms to build the prettiest fractal or make the best games. I’d seen how much darned typing was involved. No, I liked fixing a problem and moving on to another. And, in support you’re surrounded by people willing to help, and will, in fact, quite quickly get to a level of self-sufficiency that means you can get some quick wins. For most roles, the learning curve to the first stage is relatively low. You become independent really quickly. It’s a huge confidence boost, and a huge skills boost, too.
- Having said that, the growth opportunities can be limited, unless you find yourself in an organisation that places value in support. I’m happy to say these types of organisations are becoming increasingly commonplace. In one of my early roles, metrics were king. One month, I took a three-week break to Australia and didn’t make my ticket closure target. My then-manager pulled me up on only having closed 19 tickets (instead of the expected 21). I’d closed them in 10 days instead of 31, but the bottom line number was ultimately the decider, and I missed out on a promotion. Thank goodness, this is rare nowadays, and companies who put the customer first, will also put their support team front and centre. Find a decent company, and you’ll get significant personal investment and growth opportunities. Challenges beyond the traditional call centre ‘catch and dispatch’ roles are abundant if you’re willing to grab every technical opportunity that comes your way.
- Career opportunities are wide open. If your first step was into engineering, the chances are that you’ll remain in some sort of product development. In consultancy, you’ll most likely remain there, or move to sales or project management. But in support, if you’re intentional and creative, you can pretty much decide what direction you want to take. Technical support can be limitless in its variety. A support role might encompass a role as a technical or product guru, an operations specialist, customer success and account management, training, technical writing, development and engineering, consultancy, knowledge management, change management or, of course, leadership. You choose!
- Support is stepping out of the shadows. I’m so pleased that, at long last, tech support is now beginning to be recognised as a practice in its own right. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have imagined a community or non-technical certification or conference dedicated to technical support. Now I can name at least three of each. Increasingly, organisations who fail to shine the limelight on an enthusiastic, well compensated and empathic front line will be overshadowed by those companies who have already realised that support is the key to their business growth.
Industry is realising that support and customer service departments are where companies now can succeed or fail to retain customers. And so succeed or fail to grow the business. Technical support and customer care are gaining recognition and appreciation. Those roles are no longer a stepping stone to other areas of the organisation. They are business-critical operations on every level.
Businesses which invest and recognise their support teams grow. They are support driven.
For me, from starting a little computer club at school, to my undergraduate degree work placement on a help desk at Exxon, to those early days at Oracle, I have taken immense joy in fixing, helping and coaching. I feel completely at home, solving and solving and solving all day long.
Every day in tech support is different. Sometimes every hour is different. Every case is different. Every customer is different. And you learn, All The Time. You help and interact with people and get potentially hundreds of little successes every day. It can be a role filled with frustrations, but it’s also immensely fulfilling.
I’ve been in support and leading support teams for more than 20 years. The day I walked in to my first role, I knew it was the place for me.
Editor’s note: Charlotte is active in the Support Driven #writing channel. I loved her response to the Autumn SD writing challenge prompt, What is something about a career in support that not many people know or realize?, and I asked if she’d be willing to republish it here on the SD blog. Thanks, Charlotte! — Andrea