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.

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