If you’re like most IT professionals, you probably consider managing a help desk to be at the bottom of the technology hierarchy. However, spend some time with Bob Popeck, who manages a network operations center (NOC) that supports over 800 servers for a Midwest application services provider, and you’ll soon change your mind.

I met Popeck during one of my technical writing assignments, and I was so impressed by his attitude and management skills that I asked him to let me interview him for Support Republic. Popeck attended Texas A&M, and after extolling the virtues of his beloved Aggies, he told me why he likes managing the NOC, and what he thinks are the most important elements of running an effective support team.

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Popeck had to postpone our first scheduled meeting because he was paged the night before and didn’t get any sleep. When I finally got him to start talking, I had a difficult time getting him to stop.

TechRepublic: How long have you been in IT, and how did you get your start?
Popeck: In the early 1980s, I was the operations manager for a diagnostic laboratory. We were processing tests on hundreds of patients, each with hundreds of values per test, and there was no way to keep track of everything by hand. So I ordered the lab’s first computer, a “MicroMasia” box made by a company that doesn’t exist any more.

TechRepublic: That’s when the technology bug bit you?
Popeck: Oh yes. We were one of the first labs to set up dedicated connections between our operation in North Aurora, IL, and our customers in Detroit.

TechRepublic: And now you manage a help desk for a software company.
Popeck: Actually, it’s a NOC, a network operations center. In my mind, there are three kinds of help desk operations. First, there’s the help desk that supports the company’s internal users. Then there’s a call center or help desk for the company’s customers. (“I’m using your software, and I need help.”) The NOC has a bigger scope than desktop apps or “My PC locked up.” We’re supporting LANs, WANs, and high-speed communications links between our company and our customers.

On hiring techies
TechRepublic: How many people work in your NOC?
Popeck: Nine full-timers. We support over 800 servers.

TechRepublic: What do you like most about managing the NOC?
Popeck: The NOC of any company is in the center of everything the company does. You get to keep tabs on all the internal and external functions of the business. It gives me the opportunity to learn about advances in network technologies.

TechRepublic: What’s the single most important quality you look for in a job applicant?
Popeck: The ability to resolve a problem. If you work in the NOC, you’ve got to be able to see the problem, identify the problem, and resolve the problem.

TechRepublic: How do you know if someone has that ability?
Popeck: If they come in [to the interview] and they talk more “book” than “practice,” then they probably don’t have what I’m looking for.

TechRepublic: Some people will read that and wonder how people without experience are supposed to get the job—so that they can get some experience. What about people fresh out of school?
Popeck: If I’m talking to someone just out of school, and they talk more about theory than about practice, then I say, “So tell me about something you’ve troubleshot at home?” You don’t have to have hands-on experience with technology to have a logical sense about you, and to know what tools you need to obtain certain information.
If someone does have experience, I sit back and listen. If they talk more about theory than practice, I’ll throw them a specific question.

TechRepublic: For example?
Popeck: Routers. Everybody can talk about how routers work, or are supposed to work. I want to hear specifically what the person has done to troubleshoot problems with routers. I’ve interviewed some CCIEs who can talk about the “grand scale” all day, but they don’t have any inside-the-box skills.

TechRepublic: So troubleshooting is the number-one quality you look for in an applicant?
Popeck: Yes. All NOCs are pressure cookers. You’re expected to keep systems up and running as well as possible. You have to be able to think on your feet and respond quickly.

TechRepublic: When you’re hiring NOC employees, are certifications important to you?
Popeck: Yes. If someone gets a certification, they’re taking time, spending money, and they’re going after something for themselves.

On burnout
TechRepublic: A lot of help desk and NOC employees get burned out. Do you see this in your shops?
Popeck: Sure, all the time.

TechRepublic: What do you do about it?
Popeck: Number one, I pick on them a lot. [Laughs.] Number two, I try to recognize it and encourage them to take time off.

TechRepublic: So you try to discourage your people from pulling all-nighters at their desks?
Popeck: Absolutely.

TechRepublic: Do you carry a pager?
Popeck: Absolutely.

TechRepublic: What’s the most you’ve ever been paged in one night?
Popeck: Last week I got paged four or five times in the same night. It wasn’t any fun, but we were installing new architecture, and we had a lot of alarms go off.

Bob’s advice for managing a NOC
TechRepublic: If you could give one piece of advice to IT professionals who are considering management careers in a help desk or NOC environment, what would it be?
Popeck: First, get your head examined! Second, you’ve got to find ways to get the best out of people. Challenge them to go beyond the scope of their job descriptions. I try to teach the Marine Corps’ approach to problem solving: Adapt, Innovate, and Overcome.

Noc, Noc!

Do you manage or work in a help desk or network operations center? Share your comments and experiences by posting your comments below or writing to Jeff.