Emerging Tech

Why the first increase in GDP since June of 2008 may lead to future tech turnover

A tech support specialist for a financial firm talks about how the current GDP number is big news in light of four consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth and how it will affect tech workers.

From my position on the help desk, in the middle of a bond trading floor, I have an unobstructed view of Chris Low, our Manhattan-based economist and his boss, Jim Vogel. Seeing them reminds me of one of the better decisions I made in college: Not to take economics.

Sure, they make a decent living, appearing on CNBC, Bloomberg TV and they are quoted by the Wall Street Journal and the like, but theirs is a life of economic meteorology. Forecasting the future based on hundreds of variables, which change by the week, hour, and second.

Technical support has variables too, but of first importance is understanding the big picture. The importance of an increasing gross domestic product, (GDP), to our industry, is contextualized by important fundamentals. Therefore, even though it really is big news today, I will mention GDP last. The bigger question is, Do you think the following three ideas qualify as fundamentals?

First, decisions we make about how we provide tech support must always be made in the context of the end user's experience. At the heart of that experience is the question, "What effect does constant software change and technical complexity have on end users and their ability to do their job?" Their jobs, we sometimes need to remind ourselves, are not to learn all about neat, new technology.

Second, slowing down software and hardware development (change) is neither possible nor desirable. The greatest thing we can do to help the overwhelmed user is to vastly improve technical support.

Third, one key strategy to improve technical support is to appropriately value experienced technicians.

Nothing can take the place of experienced technicians. Not new hires or training programs, not crash courses or hand holding.  Not documentation or mentoring.  For the confused end user nothing takes the place of competency.

Bringing in experienced technicians from outside your company is no substitute for home-grown, technically sharp people who know your systems, your applications (both proprietary and shrink-wrapped), your employees, your policies, your hardware, your vendors, your build images, and how they work together.

I have no desire to be dramatic but I have every desire to be understood:   Excessive turnover produces a bungling technical support group. You can't build an ‘A' team with a bunch of misfits. And that is what you have if a group of rookies is the heart and soul of your technical support group. That is not to say rookies are not good people or that they will not one day become a great tech support team. It just means that in the meantime your end users are going to suffer terribly from bad customer service and technical support.

Many companies overlook this particular strategy, or they are too short-sighted (cheap) to do it right and thereby discover the reality that they are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns when it comes to creatively investing in technology staff.

Every single day a person works in your IT department they learn something new. When someone with five years of experience walks out it will take you five years to replace the "know-how" that person brought to work the day they left.

The five-year employee is the "go-to" person with the fast answer for the junior crew. Not to mention his or her personal production in getting end users back to work in volume. The reason smart companies work so hard trying to figure out how to retain their experienced techs is because they understand the production (profit) these individuals are indirectly producing by keeping everyone else up and running.

When experienced techs walk it can be a real disaster. Every company has a disaster recovery plan. Does your company have a plan to prevent this crisis?  Your people are your greatest resource.

In April, Navy SEALs rescued the hostage Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, by simultaneously shooting three pirates in the head.  SEAL Captain Roger Herbert noted that even though the military invests an incredible amount of effort into the six months of training SEAL's receive it is no substitute for the guys with experience.

Herbert said, "There's simply no way we are ever going to replace a veteran SEAL who has two, three or four combat deployments with a new guy." That is why the military offers a bonus to a SEAL who will re-enlist for another five years. Currently that figure is as high $125,000.

Outgunned technicians

Avoid being outgunned and overrun by having a deep bench with a high proportion of cross-trained, experienced technicians in the three to five year range. In time you will have some in the five to ten year range. The ideal technical support team will have members at each experience level. Treat and train the rookies well because they are going to be your experienced techs down the road.

It is normal for IT managers who have never worked the "front of the house" to believe this emphasis on experienced technicians is hyperbole. The common view is veterans are nice to have but they can be hot- swapped for someone with "related experience" who will be "up to speed" shortly.

Challenge this view and some managers will retreat to the old cliché, "No one is irreplaceable."  True. Likewise I can live without my left hand. I won't die without my left hand. But is going through life constantly adapting and compromising the ideal?

Do you really want to have a casual "you're lucky to have a job" attitude toward your key people?  Will that bring out the best in people? Do you even believe there are any key people? That's the big picture in which we ask the question:  Does this GDP report affect the employment choices key people have?

Today's positive GDP number, 3.5%, is genuinely big news because of four consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. To put this in perspective, we're not talking about marginally negative numbers. In the past year there were 2 quarters in a row in which growth was down 5.4% or more, for the first time since the Great Depression.

Commerce's GDP advance report is very welcome, but we are still in such a hole that until increased production of goods and services, (GDP), is a sustained trend, large numbers of experienced technicians are NOT going to have the opportunity to change jobs. As Chris Low reminds us, economic recoveries are two steps forward and one step back, recessions are one step forward and two steps back. Neither are straight lines.

A year from now we'll know better if this third quarter GDP was a bellwether of economic expansion or just a false start. By then we will also know if the recovery is a "jobless recovery" like 2002.

If jobs are created, however, and unemployment begins to fall next year from today's 9.8%, the source of the giant sucking noise you'll hear is experienced, lightly rewarded technicians who had been standing pat, leaving their companies for greener pastures. Managers who don't care for that sound may want to consider taking care of their technicians sooner, rather than later.

Kent Blake, kblake44 on TechRepublic, strives to present an authentic "ground-level view" of the service desk by joining twelve years in technical support with a degree in journalism.

19 comments
ItsTheBottomLine
ItsTheBottomLine

home-grown, technically sharp people..." EXACTLY! Well Said.

MikeGall
MikeGall

a core of home grown experts can take a couple (depending on the size of the org) external experts. It is great that home grown guys know your systems but they also can be resistant to change because they've spent 5-10 years using your systems (or the previous version) and have a vested interest in maintaining their "internal expert" status.

kblake44
kblake44

I agree bringing in external techs provides great perspectives on new ways of doing things. Although I did not lay it out in a numbered format, I gave eleven reasons why companies should value the expertise experienced in-house techs offer. These techs, (assuming they are good people) are not commodities, although sometimes management treats them as such -- which encourages turnover. Get enough turnover and you have customer support problems.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I think that your article is excellent and brings home the point that unnecessary turn over affects the main goal of any support staff which is provide their end users the most seemless technical experience possible. But as was stated earlier, the X-factor is the technician. How often do we meet IT staff that want to be average run of the mill techs for more than a few years? Most techs that I know aspire for bigger and better things and see their job as a tech as a stepping stone. I do agree that having techs that are familar with your systems is important and promoting from with in is ideal but I feel that understanding technology is also important. I worked as a support tech for eight years including three years for a company before I was laid off last October. Due to my knowledge of technology, I was able to step into my current job over the summer and quickly get up to speed where as a less experienced tech could not.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]How often do we meet IT staff that want to be average run of the mill techs for more than a few years?[/i] How often do you meet [u]anybody[/u] that wants to be "average run of the mill" for any length of time? [/i] Most techs that I know aspire for bigger and better things and see their job as a tech as a stepping stone.[/i] If most techs aspire to bigger and better things, where do senior techs come from? My aspiration is to be the best tech I can be and still be able to do field work. It's widely assumed that I am crazy. I love my work, it's the job that stinks.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

My comments weren't meant to take a digg at techs. It comes from personal experience. Most techs that I have met, including myself, have bigger plans. There is nothing wrong with being a tech. I personally enjoy being a tech. I just think that most techs aspire for higher level jobs if anything for the simple fact the financially, techs are the best compensated on the IT ladder.

kblake44
kblake44

and the more experienced, such as yourself with eight years, even more so. You are in a very different catagory than the person with one or two years of experience -- who again are going to be good and should be nurtured. My hope is managers who are decision makers will more highly value experienced technicians. There is a reason to do so.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

"My hope is managers who are decision makers will more highly value experienced technicians." We can hope they will. Some will. But my experience has been that history repeats itself in all too many cases. As an example. I used to work for a major telecom. They were financially VERY sound, their performance solid, and reputation was excellent. Upper management and executive level types had many years experience in the telecom business. And they generally, most of them, considered their senior techs as a vital key to their success. But then a business decision was made to sell of one of their service areas to someone else. In order to focus on their larger, more densely populated service areas. I was working in one of the service regions which were sold off. My new bosses, the new upper level management and executive level folks, were primarily MBAs, bean counters, and financial investment types. Had SOME knowledge of the telco field, but not much. These were mostly folks who jumped from business opportunity to business opportunity, of whichever type they thought represented the fastest possible gain in the shortest time at the moment. I'm sure they were all bright enough. Almost certainly a lot smarter than I was. However to them, people were pretty much interchangeable. Especially anyone below a senior management level. A tech with XYZ educational/certification credentials was pretty much the same as any other. Right from the get-go we started seeing senior techs laid off, forced to retire, fired for minor stuff that in the past wouldn't have earned them anything more than a mild reprimand, or their jobs were simply and formally eliminated on paper. Of course, some other job description and position came into being, different name ... but pretty much the same duties ... with the pre-requisite qualifications reduced (like amount of work experience) Chuckle, senior people were dropping like flies. And a lot of new, young faces were appearing. As for myself, my particular job and duties made my continued employment more secure. But after about a year of dealing with these new bosses, I grew tired of em and just quit. In any event, that service area went from one of the most productive of type, with a higher profit margin than almost anywhere else in the nation (keeping in mind it wasn't a large service area, we only had perhaps 1.5 million customers in a large geographic area as versus other areas with several million in a much smaller geographic area), even counting the areas served by our competitor companies, to the literal bottom of the barrel. Profit margins went from the top best, down into negative numbers. Customer complaints went from minimal, to astronomical levels. With customers in masses looking for service from somebody else, ANYBODY else. It was pretty simple, really. The new techs were certainly bright enough. And I'm sure their instructors had been competent enough. But the new hires ranged from only just graduated, to perhaps having 2 years experience. And that experience was generally fairly limited and at a lower technical level than the guys they replaced. I remember one in particular. He ended up replacing a 20 year CO tech (central office technician). Had graduated his technical training at the top of his class. But had barely more than 2 years field experience. Academic technical knowledge? Outstanding. This young pup was smart as a whip, and a fast learner. But he got dumped into a job far over his head. He faced responsibility for far more equipment than he'd ever had to deal with before. Previously he'd been a CO tech trainee. Now he WAS a CO tech, with 5 switch houses, and another 8 remotes. Which contained equipment ranging from older stuff he'd never seen before, only read about, to some of the latest and greatest. Newer than anything they'd had at his technical school. Plus items he'd not even read or heard about. No clue what they even did. Oh, the kid was bright, and a go-getter. He dove in and did his best. He physically moved faster than the older fellow he replaced. Looked like a regular Roger Rabbit. Zip ... Badda ... Bing. Zoom, zoom, zoom. Rushing from this problem to that. Trying to keep on top of all the complaints and trouble tickets. But the fact was that while he did things FASTER than the older fellow in many cases, he also made a heck of a lot more mistakes. And/or fixed symptoms as versus the cause. And in several cases that I'm aware of he called for replacement of some very expensive equipment ... when all that was needed was a simple 15 minute fix. In other cases, his fixes or repairs or programming changes or configuration/reconfiguration efforts did take a LOT longer than the other fellow would've taken. Besides knowing the equipment far more intimately, that more experienced tech also knew all the shortcuts, techniques, and such to make any particular task easier and faster to accomplish. Things which only experience teaches, not classrooms. The more experienced tech also knew some other things that made his performance better. Things of a sort a lot of folks don't think about. For instance, on one piece of gear, very specialized and very advanced ... and with a lot of quirks. He knew precisely the best "go to" guy to call who'd likely be able to help him out in getting it back in service a soon as possible. In another case I witnessed, the more experienced fellow had a major piece of vital equipment fail. A phone call through company channels revealed that a replacement would take days to obtain. BUT, this fellow knew another guy (independent business) who specialized in refurbishing and rebuilding precisely that sort of equipment. Made a call and 2 hours later had his refurbished replacement in hand and installed. The more experienced fellow also just knew the company structure, and all the key players better. He could get things done more ASAP, and easier than the new guy. Knew just who to go to, and what was required, to make something happen. There were a lot of little things, too, which made a difference. Take instances where one needed "outside" help. Outside the company. If the older fellow needed a regular electrician to fix an issue, or add a branch power circuit, he knew the local electricians. Which ones were good, and which ones were not so good. Knew which would answer his phone at oh-dark-thirty and be on site 30 minutes later, and who'd have the problem squared away soonest and most competently. Likewise, as such things do happen, if he came up short in having enough of whatever kind of material one might think of in the middle of an important task, and getting it through regular channels (the company supply system) would take too long, it was probable this more experienced fellow knew precisely which alternative source would actually have the item or items on hand and could get it to him the fastest. I run into this sort of thing all the time. Where I work we have a normal ordering/supply system. And standard vendors we deal with. Standard parts we use, etc. But sh*t happens. And yah come up short on something, or find you need something you didn't foresee, etc. And ordering it the regular way might mean you don't get it for a day ... to several days later. IF the regular vendor has what yah need on the shelf and its not back ordered. If I'm in a hurry, I whip out my little black book with the important names and numbers. And no that's not a girlfriend's name and number. Its the name and number of that guy or gal who is MOST likely to have what yah need, right now and on the shelf, who can get it to you faster than the normal supply system. Or the guy or gal who probably has that odd widget yah need, which probably can't be found anywhere else locally. Maybe not even in the same state. Chuckle, not long ago I did this. Wasn't anything more than a stupid fuse. But a very special, nobody carries it, IMPORTANT fuse. Well, almost no one does. But I just happened to know a fellow. He isn't cheap, but he makes a living at precisely this sort of thing. I made a call. Of course he had it, he was even able to tell me precisely how many pieces of equipment of the type that required this special, unique fuse had been sold in this state by the manufacturer. How many did I want? He could have them in the hands of a courier service in minutes, and on site with me in a half hour. LOL ... they cost me more than their weight in gold, I'm sure. But the important point was I was able to turn a customer's frown into a smile. When you've got some important equipment down that's costing a customer a great deal for every minute its down ... all over a lousy, normally 20 cent fuse. They don't much care if you had to pay $5 for it (plus for each of the extras yah got) if it means they're back on line in an hour as versus maybe tomorrow if yah had to air freight em in overnite. Actually I usually keep a couple of those rare guys in my parts cabinet. But never have more than that. Might only need one once every other year, normally. Thought I still had one left, but couldn't find it. They're tiny little things. Probably lost it somewhere and sometime. In any event, that telco service area I was speaking about took a major dump in performance, profits, etc after the new guys took over and got rid of most of the more experienced techs. It got BAD. They were losing money and customers big time. At one point they were even calling the guys they'd gotten rid of and offering them their old jobs back, even talking about raises for them. But virtually none of the old hands would come back. The guys were good at what they did. Had already found jobs elsewhere, with a competitor. Or, in 2 cases I know groups got together and started their own business. Finally the new owners had little other choice, that area was bought from them by another competitor. The competitor that bought the area might not have had as many whiz kid MBAs and bean counters in upper management. But the did understand that kind of business better. And knew the value of having an adequate number of experienced techs. A number of whom which they had, were the former techs for that very area. Who knew the equipment and systems, AND who knew the customers and were known by the customers. That also makes a difference. One can better do one's job and provide better service if you know something about the customers you're serving. Their particular individual wants, needs, concerns, issues, etc.

kblake44
kblake44

Osiyo53, great post. Thanks for a story that mirrors my experiences. I was limited to 1200 words and did not have room to give an example like you capably wrote.

martinb
martinb

The truth of what the article states is a fact many managers don't understand. To bad many of the new generation won't learn from the past but keep making the same old mistakes.

RipVan
RipVan

"...if jobs are created...?" The increase is only due to government spending. Will the government hire more techs? Othewise, the article is moot...

kblake44
kblake44

Certainly I am in agreement with you. The stimulus is propping us up. Which is what it was meant to do. Without it we would have had a flat or even negative quarter because those boosted catagories (housing with the $8000 credit, etc) would not have necessarily been simply flat but negative without stimulus. This is a very fragile recovery and consumer confidence (spending powering 2/3rds of a recovery) is very low. Confidence fell again last month when economists thought it would rise. That said, my favorite part of the article had nothing to do with the economy. I lead with that because it was the news of the day. My real interest is the long term reality that employers wake up and smell the coffee: we must UNDERSTAND the value of experienced techs!

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

If the stimulus is actually "propping us up", it's only doing so at the expense of future growth. Think "cash for clunkers", which only subsidized car purchases that mostly would have eventually happened anyway over the next 2 or 3 quarters, and the "home buyers credit" which has done the same. Then consider the borrowing and printing of trillions of dollars, which will rob everyone of future purchasing power. The recent run-up of the stock market is mostly a reflection of inflation as the trillions of dollars borrowed and printed look for somewhere to go. The stimulus did little more than a "hit" does for a drug user; a temporary high (and not a very good one at that) and then back down worse than you were before, and poorer. No, unless you were the direct beneficiary of a stimulus check, I don't think the stimulus did us any good. (Unless you're of the John Kerry school of thought, anyway)

Old-Iron
Old-Iron

Unfortunately too many of those running our businesses came up through the ranks on a "Management" or "Professional" track and not through the "other" ranks where all of the nut's and bolts of a company are learned. There is often such a lack of understanding and appreciation for that side of the business that it leads to bad decisions. It is a wise CEO who listens to those on the front lines and applies that information to their business strategies. Especially to those doing the dirty work.

scobolguy
scobolguy

I agree that in house expertise is always good to have, but after a while the "go to" guy becomes a liability to the organization because managers forget that people retire or have other interests. Too many times I have seen managers in a panic because their key person is retiring and they have done no succession planning. It really amounts to the same thing. Most managers do not value quiet competence. It's only when the person leaves (or has been outsourced) that it becomes clear what it was that "Fred in the corner" dod.

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

...your skills are commodities, your knowledge of company and department culture, workflow and history irrelevant. This would be why my old company now has over 250 people doing less work more slowly and less well than we did with ~100 twenty months ago.

Ron_007
Ron_007

I worked for a company that thought all IT workers were "interchangeable". A programmer was a programmer, an analyst an analyst, a technician a technician. Too many Sr. Managers think all of IT is a commodity. They just don't seem to learn A few years back they were in layoff mode. They let one guy retire, even paid him "bridging" to leave early. Only problem was he was the only person who did HD capacity management. He had no trained successor. Management was surprised when "all of a sudden" we were running out of space on the mainframe. Ha Ha. A little while after that piece of genius they laid off the whole internal help desk. This time they had a "succession plan" (snicker). They moved people who had formerly done the job, some 5 or more years previously, back. In effect demoting them from jobs they wanted, to one they had left and didn't want to go back to. To add insult to injury, the when they got there the former occupants personal items hadn't even been packed up yet and the call display names on the phones hadn't been updated. I heard this from a friend who was put into the unenviable position of having to work at the desk of a friend of hers (they both had 20+ years in the company) who had been laid off. Reports were that it has been a very unhappy place to work at since. And the layoffs have continued.

kblake44
kblake44

There is a follow up, part two titled, Strategy #2: Refuse to Under-Staff IT Departments. My fear is what you point out, increasing staffing without valuing the experienced techs. That is a non-starter.

kblake44
kblake44

"Avoid being outgunned and overrun by having a deep bench with a high proportion of cross-trained, experienced technicians in the three to five year range. In time you will have some in the five to ten year range. The ideal technical support team will have members at each experience level. Treat and train the rookies well because they are going to be your experienced techs down the road. A deep bench, or even a decent bench, is key.

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