The field tech: How helpdesk life can prepare you for the real world

After too many years answering the phone and creating imaginative solutions to mundane problems, I took the plunge and went out into the world as a field tech.

There are many advantages to this, unlike my last helpdesk job — the scenery changes, there is a different face at every call, and sometimes a few seconds of seeing can be worth a lifetime of interrogation.

The other advantages are: traveling around in one of the most scenically blessed places on Earth, freedom to organize my own day, and being allowed to use my own judgement and creativity.

The downside? I often work far longer than my contracted hours; I can end up going anywhere in a 200 miles radius of home, and sometimes I feel as though my butt is welded to the car seat. You might think that helpdesk would not prepare you for a hands-on role, but there are a surprising number of take-away skills that transfer readily, such as the ability to listen, not just to the words but often the hidden meaning behind them, the ability to gauge the customers’ skill level and expectations and, equally importantly, the degree of urgency that the customer faces.

In addition, with the customer face-to-face, you can pick up on nuances that might be lost in a phone conversation, as well as being able to see what the customer is actually doing, rather than what they say they are doing.

Think of the times when a customer tells you that they are looking at a blank screen. To a tech, a blank screen is either a hardware failure, the brightness control turned right down (often happens when somebody moves a screen), or it has become unplugged. To the average user, a blank screen is a screen that is not showing what they expecting to see. When I used to support an IBM mainframe system with dumb terminals, we often got these — when the screen was turned on, it would appear black with a green line across half an inch from the bottom. Below this line, at the left-hand end, was a collection of symbols that reflected the state of the connection, a question mark, a solid block, and one or two other things that told us what the problem was. A screen with a green line and a couple of symbols told us where the problem was. To the end user, it was blank and didn’t work. We would interrogate callers about what they could see at the bottom of the screen, and they would often become cross when we asked about things that “obviously” weren’t of any importance. To see it face-to-face saved a lot of communication misses.

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