Help Me Make Your Help Desk Helpier

I could use your help. In fact, if you could bring this post to the attention of everyone in your IT team, and anyone else in IT you know, I’ll be hugely indebted.

I’ll get straight to the point. In the comments of this post, please provide a simple list of the skills and knowledge you believe someone should have in order to get a job on a company’s entry-level IT team (typically the help desk, and that’s where I’m focusing).

This should not include anything specific to your environment, like custom apps. Imagine there’s a super, world-class “help desk school” out there someplace, and they teach a perfect curriculum, and people are dying to hire their graduates into entry level IT positions. What is it they teach?

Be as specific as possible. For example, don’t write “AD Management,” because you and I both know your help desk isn’t “managing” AD. Perhaps they’re unlocking accounts and resetting passwords – so write that.

Don’t go overboard, either – we’re looking for entry level skills, not the skills you wish the help desk had so that they could do your job for you.

Think about soft skills, too. Phone skills? Conversational skills? Anger suppression skills? What does your help desk, at work, do really well? Write those things down. What do they struggle with? Write those things down – provided they’re in-scope for what an entry-level IT person would be expected to know.

I’m going to run this through the end of January 2015 (so don’t bother adding-on after that), and I appreciate your help. Read on for my reasons behind this, and to offer your input.

If you’re looking for more detail on why I’m doing this, I’ll tell you. I’m massively frustrated that our entire education system funnels kids towards massively expensive four-year college degrees for everything, and acts like there’s simply no way to get a job outside that system. Kids are saddled with $60k or more of debt when they’re just starting out, or they beggar their parents going through a program that usually has zero applicability to what they end up doing. For-profit colleges are raking it in hand over fist, and it’s not fair to our kids. 

The equivalent of a two-year associates certificate from a career college should be sufficient to get someone an entry-level job in IT – and from there, experience will get them a lot further than expensive credit-hours. Unfortunately, most of those two-year programs come from commercial career colleges, which charge upwards of $24k a year for the privilege. Sure, some community colleges do a good job for tons less – but they struggle with funding, and they struggle to find good curricula.

I’m in a position to create a good curriculum, and to populate it with training from some of the industry’s best, and that’s what I want to do. This is kind of a personal mission for me. I didn’t go to college myself, and I took a lot of ribbing for going down a more vocational path, but it’s worked out damn well for me. I love IT, and I think a lot of younger folks would do really well in it – if weediest stopped jamming college down their throats as a solution for everything.

Thanks for your help. I want to make this as practical and as real-world as humanly possible, and knowing what your help desk actually deals with (in a generic sense) will go a long way toward helping. And again, please help me get as many eyes on this as possible. Don’t worry about writing duplicate information, I’ll sort it out.

Again, thanks.

16 thoughts on “Help Me Make Your Help Desk Helpier

  1. Brian Finn

    Some of our best help desk employees have figured out how to reproduce a problem, and send those exact steps to the folks who try and figure out the problem. Even if they don’t solve the problem themselves, they have done 50 percent of the work.

    1. Adam Bertram (@adbertram)

      +1000 here. A HUGE benefit for helpdesk guys is to not know how to fix lots of problems but to have the troubleshooting skills necessary to know what actions to take to reproduce a problem, how to document the problem and how to properly communicate that to the higher tiers.

  2. Will Anderson (@GamerLivingWill)

    Well…PowerShell of course. At least the basic administration stuff.

    Windows client side administration (administrative tools for compmgmt, services). How printing works. File shares. Authentication. Finding and reading log files. Group Policy/Local Security Policy administration. Basic networking (How DNS/DHCP works, network troubleshooting tools beyond ping and nslookup), device/driver installation.

    I didn’t use all of these skills on a regular basis when I was working a help desk, but understanding a lot of the concepts enabled me to resolve more tickets, or escalate them to the appropriate group with a decent level of troubleshooting performed before sending it.

  3. mattmcnabb

    1. Typing skills – pretty standard
    2. basic IT concepts for all areas – Things like networking concepts, client/server operations, computer hardware. I know this is very generic but here’s a great example: knowing how to separate an ’email’ issue from an issue with the Outlook client. This is a really common point of confusion for some.

  4. mattmcnabb

    1. Typing skills – pretty standard
    2. Basic concepts for all major areas of IT – Networking, client/server operations, etc. Very vague I know but here’s an example: being able to separate an ‘Email’ issue from an issue with the Outlook client. A common point of confusion for some.

  5. ngetchell

    Unlock Accounts
    Reset Passwords
    Keeping Calm under pressure
    Troubleshoot (The framework to get to the problem, not the symptom)

  6. jfecht84

    Soft skills and the ability to troubleshoot in my opinion or are the biggest skills they need to have. To be able to look at a problem, isolate it and then reproduce it make the fixing it so much easier.

    Also the harder part of this is the soft skills. Being able to be personable while on the phone/email/in person are big.

    I believe I can train most people to do the specifics of a job, but without these two skills above it won’t work out in the long plan.

    As a side note, I am also on an advisory committee for my local community college and these two topics are always at the top of the list from other advisers in the committee who are hiring entry level techs.

  7. Guy

    *Learn the basics of the event viewer: did Excel crash? Check the Application logs. Did the user BSOD? Check the System logs.
    *Printer issues: Is the print server/ printer online? Stop/ start the spooler from cmd. remove/ readd the printer. Know how to remove print drivers from Printer Manager via MMC.
    *To echo Brian Finn, learn how to troubleshoot symptoms. Also, learn how to get a more exact issue from the user. Often helpdesk will hear “email doesn’t work”, but in reality the user has trouble adding a photo as an attachment instead of being imbedded.
    *Learning “bedside manners” to get that extra information from the end user is key to know what to fix.
    *How to prioritize tasks based on the issue and who is having the issue. (Maybe stress management thrown in, too?)
    *Keyboard shortcuts

  8. Joe

    I apologize for my bad English and i will be happy to help. So here it is:

    1. There is no “NO!” response to users! “We don’t give support for this device or system”. In our office, 100% of our uses use Windows. Some uses bring their home or kid MacBook and ask for support. My colleagues always got confused on Mac, No one has a MacBook in our team and we don’t even know how to open terminal on Mac to ping something. So knowing about Mac is important too. Even if you can’t afford the hardware install it inside your VirtualBox and play with it.

    2. As i said there is no “NO” response to anything. You need to know about Smart phones too. How to enable mobile data, How to setup emails, Whats is the best app for____ on Android and Iphone’s(Fill the blank there are thousand of question).

    3. Be positive for any users question and be smart on your answers. When you give support to users, You are their technology consultant too. If you don’t have much information for their questions, tell them you get back to them after researching on it.

    4. You need to know how to fix messy table borders on Ms-Word too. Ya the ask that too.

    In General:

    5. Computer: How to install and configure softwares, How to assemble hardwares, How to configure printers and scanners, How configure telephones, How to identify a dysfunction network port, How to setup gadgets(e.g: business card scan to outlook etc..), How to handle the scariest antivirus popup message to users, and how to convince them everything is fine.

    6. Telephone: How to pickup someone elses extension number while ringing, How to setup voicemail, erase voicemails, How to change extension numbers (in general, You need to know IP phones and BPX telephones works)

    7. Mobile Phone: How to configure mail client, How disable annoying ads, How to reset phones, How block phones and texts, How to find the best app for specific purpose.

    8. System Side: Try to get much information from System Admins if there is any system problem Even if they are very silent. You will save your time to try to fix from client side. If you make a mistake, be honest and report to your supperiouse as quick as possible.

    9. Communication: Be smooth and gently accept telephone calls, repose to their emails as quick as possible, keep inform them your progress. Try to explain for the questions “What was the problem?” convert your technical word to their language. Tell them you their to support them when they feel bad asking a stupid questions. Always be honest to your users.

  9. Bart

    I agree with mattmcnabb, a good overall understanding regarding: Data communication, client/server operations. When you understand the basics and are good at excluding possible problems step by step then incidents with the most complex n-tier applications can be solved.

    ITIL Foundation
    Flowcharts and Work instructions
    Good communication skills
    Structured Analisys
    Document and collaboration

    But believe me basic networking skills are your friend troughout you`re IT carreer, doesn`t matter if you want to become a systems and applications admin, DBA, Developer, Consultant or IT manager.

  10. Kevin Marquette

    I was part of a small IT department for 11 years where I served as Interim Director for the last 1.5 years that I was employed there. In my limited experience in running the department, I had to make some adjustments to our staffing. If I had to do the hiring process over again, I have a much better idea of what I would do next time.

    I want my help desk staff to understand the problem and not just fix symptoms. I want them to go the extra mile and make sure the user can move forward with their projects. I want them to own a problem until it is resolved.

    A good example that you could relate to would be someone running into issues using COM objects from Powershell to insert data into Excel. Yeh, we can show them that but we should also ask what they are trying to accomplish. Then show them how to use Export-CSV instead. I want my help desk taking that approach to solving end user requests. The users do something the way they know how and ask us to help with that next step when we could show them a better way from the start.

    I had one lady near retirement helping cover the help desk for a while. She did an amazing job. Any thing that she could not solve or have an answer for, she would take it to the next level and learn what the answer was. Then she would return to the user and help them solve their problem. She then retained that information and would deal with it on her own next time. If a printer needed a service call, she was on the phone making that call. She did a better job than any of the “technical” people that I hired. She significantly reduced the interruptions to the rest of the team and made the department look good.

    For a front line help desk person, I want someone with a technical aptitude and critical thinking skills. What they learned isn’t as important as their desire to keep learning or their passion for technical things.

  11. Jacob Benson

    Don – Great post. Completely agree with everything you said. This topic is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about.

    Here is my list (in no particular order):

    1. Soft Skills – Things like using someone’s name while talking to them, clarifying the problem “so Don I understand the problem is X correct?”, and verifying that the problem is fixed “OK Don X is working now, correct? Is there anything else I can help you with?”
    2. DNS. Someone once told me that a lot of problems can be traced back to DNS issues. Anyone on the help desk should be able to query DNS and understand how it works.
    3. Connectivity issues. “Such and such won’t connect”. Knowing how to troubleshoot various connectivity issues would be extremely useful and save a lot of time
    4. Problem Solving Framework. Being able to develop and have a framework for solving unknown problems. Ties back into #3 above. Customer calls and says “Application Y won’t connect”. What types of questions should the help desk person be asking to narrow the scope of the problem down and what do they do from there?
    5. Learning. They should have talent or an aptitude for learning. Some of the worst help desk people I have worked with were the ones who see the same basic problems every day and have to relearn how to fix them every single day.
    6. Basic understanding of performance and performance monitoring. “Application Z is running super slow.”. Tech sees that CPU is maxed. Can they explain why that might be? Can they narrow down the scope of the problem to a specific application or process?
    7. Hands Off. Using existing technologies (Hi PowerShell!) help desk users should be spending as little time as possible connecting and logged into remote computers.
    8. Driver installation/updating/troubleshooting. Basically, using Device Manager to help diagnose and resolve problems.
    9. OS Disk. What should the file contents of an OS disk typically look like? Virus/Malware infections are only going to become more common. Being able to spot things in folder structure (and search for using powershell) that are out of the ordinary would be handy. Same thing goes for being able to look in add/remove programs. What thing(s) don’t belong?
    10. Related to above, when a user calls in with “my screen is covered in pop-ups”, what is the framework for getting their issue resolved besides “unplug the computer and wait for a tech.”

    I think that’s enough for now 🙂

  12. Darin D

    First and foremost critical thinking skills. For all but the most routine of problems, a good support tech should begin by breaking things down into discretely testable components to isolate the issue. (Web vs. thick client, same user on another computer, different user on same computer, different network locations/connectivity, etc.)

    How do you teach this? A good understanding of Windows basics, including how web requests work, client-server architecture, etc, so they understand what components are involved. Then I might develop a taxonomy of common support requests such as:
    1. User behavior/action/training. (How do I X?)
    2. User account problem. (Affects this user everywhere.)
    3. Application or computer problem. (Affects all users on this computer/app.)
    4. Connectivity problem — both local and remote.
    5. Service problem. (Affects many/all users of the service, whether hosted or on premise.)

    Then walk through a bunch of example support calls to classify them and discuss how to gather additional information, and what that information would suggest. If school is learning how to learn, support training should be learning how to investigate (and learn).

    And sure, an organization should have a training program for their new support folks, but in my experience it is either sorely lacking (here’s some documentation!) or focused only on organization specifics. So the first X weeks/months/years for an entry-level tech tend to be on the job training for support in general, not just coming up to speed with the organization.

    Good prior training benefits not only the organization and its supported clients/users, but also the support technician who feels much more productive and less “thrown in the deep end.”

  13. Darin D

    Use facts. At a previous position I was known to say “users lie” quite a lot (to other IT staff). This became known as “Darin’s first rule of support: Users lie.” Sometimes they do this purposely to avoid looking foolish, etc, but usually it’s just that they guess, don’t remember things correctly, or make generalizations. So a part of the support tech’s job is to get to the facts. What specifically were you doing when this occurred? Let’s reproduce it. What was the exact text of the error message?

    The goal of course is NOT to make the user feel bad/embarrassed/stupid, but to solve the problem in the most expedient way possible. And finding some things that DO work can provide workarounds or help the client feel better about the issue. (ABC isn’t totally broken, it’s only when I try to do X and then Y.)

    Sometimes a support tech needs to be part therapist, listening to the client vent their frustration, consoling them for lost work, etc. Soft skills for dealing with that are absolutely important, but I also find that using facts to refocus the conversation (in a gentle way) is very important.

  14. Susan cheatham

    I agree with what has been mentioned. Would like to add group policy, understanding how it works, how applied and how to troubleshoot when it’s not working. A lot of issues we encounter in our environment are related to group policy.

  15. Harry Marr

    Communication skills:

    – adapting the conversation to the client’s level
    – accurately gathering relevant information
    – maintaining a professional attitude in the face of adversity
    – knowing when to escalate an issue to a specialist

    Troubleshooting skills:

    – Sound knowledge of computers, OS, software and networking
    – reading error logs/messages and what they can mean
    – knowledge of hardware/software components and how they interact

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