Professionalize Tech Support, part two

A few months ago, I wrote about professionalizing technical support.

Last week, I presented at SASAG on this topic. I’ve made my presentation on Professionalizing Technical Support available here; it’s still a PowerPoint document. Please let me know if you’d like this data but require a different format. The extensive notes, of course, represent what I wanted or tried to say, not what I ended up actually saying. (Like any good SAGE meeting, the presentation was much more a discussion than unidirectional transfer of information and ideas.)

Read on for my impression of the meeting.

  • People agreed that there existed concerns shared by technical support staff, and seemed to accept the notion that Technical Support was a semi-independent field that might deserve professionalization. (Nobody argued that it was just one part of being a system administrator, for example, even though many system administrators perform technical support.)
  • People recognize that Technical Support is the face of IT, and it’s important.
  • People accepted the claim I presented (based on a summary of the Jonassen paper referenced in the presentation) that the best predictor of troubleshooting ability is experience; somebody who has spent more time troubleshooting performs better than someone who hasn’t, even if the latter person has more theoretical knowledge.
  • People recognize that Technical Support is typically staffed by very junior people, because the job is not widely considered desirable.
  • People recognize that the inexperienced people typically on the front lines of technical support damage the reputation of the entire technical organization: they frequently lack the customer management skills that more experienced technicians have developed, and often do an objectively poor job due to a lack of experience.
  • People seemed to accept my contention that the best solution would be to make technical support a desirable career; however, people seemed somewhat skeptical that this was achievable.
  • Reasons that this wouldn’t be likely revolved around three major points:
    • Money: people can make more money in Sales, Management, and even in Development. This was the most frequently (and vociferously) argued point.
    • Accomplishment: the frequent recurrence of many problems across different customers (or even with the same customer) leads to a sense of futility. Unlike project-oriented work, technical support staff rarely get to stand back, look at a completed piece of software, and say, “I did that.”
    • Predictability: many technical people prefer situations where they can set their own schedules (even if they have to work more), with fewer fire drills and screaming emergencies; technical support offers many fire drills, screaming emergencies, and lots of talking with unhappy people.
  • People seemed willing to entertain the notion that somebody, somewhere should work on professionalizing technical support.
  • People agreed that mentorship was the primary vehicle for socializing new technical support engineers, and even argued that mentorship was how law students, doctors, system administrators, and other professionals learned their jobs.

There are no strict action items at this time. I’m trying to decide whether it makes sense to try to hold some kind of in-person meeting for technical support professionalization in the Seattle area, if this concept should be presented in person in other contexts (ie, at conferences and other local technical groups), or if it can be successfully pursued online.

Before determining if some sort of group makes sense, I imagine that I’d need to develop some explicit agenda items for that group. Obvious candidates include a forum for presenting and discsussing case studies of how people are performing technical support; case studies of mentorship and training programs; discussing and refining troubleshooting methodologies; and promoting development of technical support as a career rather than as a stepping stone a different career in Sales, Management, or Engineering.

I’m extremely interested in talking to anyone who has ideas, wants to contribute toward moving this forward, or strongly disagrees.

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