Job snapshot: Support professional

This week, two support professionals weigh in on the benefits and drawbacks of their chosen profession.

This is another installment of a series within the Career Management blog in which I feature a short survey of a tech pro in a particular specialty. It's not a comprehensive look, just a snapshot of what the person likes best and likes least about his or her chosen profession. I'm hoping it will give a little anecdotal direction to those of you who are just starting out in IT or are looking to change direction. (If anyone wants to talk about their job for the benefit of our readers, feel free to answer the three questions below and email them to

This week we look at the Support professional. For a change of pace and a different perspective, I'm featuring two support pros--one from the U.S. and one across the pond in the UK. The first comes from Nick Nielsen, an experienced Support pro and long-time member of TechRepublic. The second is from Jeff Dray, a TechRepublic blogger. Here goes!

Nick provides end-user support for grocery stores and other retailers.  "I work on all the hardware you see and don't see when you go shopping: the point-of-sale equipment and peripherals (scanners, scales, printers, displays, etc), store PCs, printers, service scales (what the deli uses to weigh your cold cuts and cheese), and store networking equipment.  You never know when or where you'll see me.  One day I may be the person telling you, "I'm sorry, this lane is closed.  I'm a service tech." The next day, I may be the legs at the top of a ladder, the head popping up from behind a counter, or the butt sticking out of a checkstand."

What do you like best about what you do?

Wow! Where do I start? I think I'm the luckiest person in the world, because I love my work.

Variety.  In a call-based environment, you never have the same day twice.  You may see similar (or identical) calls, but something is always changing: the location, the people, the time of day, the actual cause of the problem. The sense of accomplishment.  It's always a rush to be thanked by the person who, just 10 minutes ago, was cussing because he couldn't do his job.  And even if you don't get a verbal "Thank you," knowing that the person is able to resume his work is gratifying. The challenge.  Most of my calls are routine, but there are always the "10-percenters," the outages that can't (or won't) be cleared by the usual methods and require actual knowledge and thought over and above the day-to-day routine.  If only they didn't come in waves and take 5 times as long to clear... The activity.  I don't mind sitting around doing nothing, but I hate working behind a desk.  In this job, I get to work almost anywhere except a desk.  I also enjoy the travel.  My territory is 235 miles end-to-end, from Augusta, GA to Myrtle Beach, SC.  Since I also love to drive, this is not a problem. The personal interactions.  It's always good to get out and meet different people.  Although the store workers don't change that often, the customers are almost always different.

What do you like least?

The frustrations:

  • Having to tell my customers that I can't fix the problem today and have to order parts.  I realize I can't anticipate every outage, or carry every part I need without a much larger vehicle, but I still find it irritating when it happens.
  • The calls that could have been cleared over the phone if only I had the right information or the help desk had left well-enough alone, not tried to fix it over the phone, and just opened a ticket.  Usually, by the time I get those, the phone fix is out of the question.
  • Waiting on hold for the customer's corporate support because, while I have full access, including root, to the store servers, I don't have sufficient access on store PCs to update DNS or IP settings.
  • Knowing what the problem is and that it is beyond my access level, but being ignored by those with the ability to fix it because I'm "just a service tech."

What background/education prepared you for the role?

I started working with computers in high school. The local college offered an extension course to introduce high school students to data processing on their Burroughs 3500.  We spent two evenings a week learning BASIC and FORTRAN and punching cards.  From there, it was the college radio station where I discovered component-level electronics, then 24 years as an electronics tech in the U.S. Air Force.  Say what you will about the military, they have occupational training down pat.  I learned basic electronics and troubleshooting procedures in the first year and had 23 years to hone those skills, working on everything from radios and antennas to telephone switches and handsets.  I also got my Associate's degree and became the "computer guy" when PCs were introduced in the 80s.

After I retired from the USAF, I was hired as a desktop support tech based on my troubleshooting skills and electronics knowledge.  After that contract went away, I tried teaching electronics and PC repair in a high school career center for a few years, obtaining my A+ certification and almost completing the Cisco Academy CCNA course as part of that job.  After discovering that teaching at that level was bad for my mental health, I came back into tech support, hired again for my troubleshooting skills.  The broad experience over the years has helped me understand that modern electronics are just specialized computers; what differs is the output from each computer.

I also like to "schmooze."  Chatting with customers allows me to get their impressions of the equipment, what they saw as the symptoms, and their frustrations with hardware and software

What qualifications would I say are most important? Adaptability and logical thought processes.  Although a desire to learn is important, if you can't apply your equipment knowledge to the problem in front of you, you'll never succeed as a support tech.

And from Jeff in the UK:

What do you like best about your job?

The best thing about my job is the freedom, although I work mainly by myself, I work for a very large multinational company, which is based in the USA, but my involvement is being at the end of a smartphone, driving around some of England's, and therefore the world's, finest countryside alone and with the chance to take in the sights and sounds of the countryside.

Only today I pulled to the side of the road and spent a few happy minutes watching a pair of buzzards soaring along a ridge of the Purbeck hills searching for prey on a cold but sunny winter day.

I enjoy visiting different customers and derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from solving problems with customer's equipment. I relish the chance to think laterally to find solutions.

What do you dislike about it the most?

There are a couple of things that I dislike about my job, one is the mileage I cover in the car; last year, which included five weeks holiday and 10 weeks in hospital and at home recovering, I drove 48,000 miles, which on British country roads is a very long way. I no longer drive anywhere for pleasure.

The other thing I dislike is the customer who will never be satisfied with anything I do. These people are usually trying to use their machinery in a way that it was not designed for and despite my best efforts, I cannot make it do what they want it to do.

What education/background qualified you for your job?

I started work as a field service engineer after nearly 20 years working in IT support.  I put myself through Comptia A+ and N+ and have taken a few Microsoft and Novell courses over the years.  The biggest part of my background is a vast amount of experience of customer relations and problem solving. Technical skills can be learned, or read from a book, but good communication and customer-handling skills are built up from long years of practice, partly from remembering what went well and what got me into trouble; both are equally valuable.

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By Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.