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.

Why My Old Insurance Agent is a Lot Like an IT Department

For a long time, I was with a particular insurance company. Since I learned to drive, in fact. As I grew up, they got my renter’s insurance, then my homeowner’s insurance, then another car on the policy. I was pretty happy with their service, and the premiums, I felt, were reasonable.

Then I got to talking to a financial advisor who’ been in the insurance industry. “Ditch that rental car coverage,” he advised. “You’re basically paying for a rental car day per month; we loved those riders because they were almost pure profit. It’s cheaper just to put a little away for that in case you need it.” Okay, sensible opinion. “And you need to raise those coverages. The state minimums won’t cover liability in a real-world scenario, and whoever you hit can come after you for the rest.” Yikes. Well, to be fair, I’d never really looked at my policy since my early twenties, when I owned nothing and was trying to get as cheap a policy as possible. He recommended some more-sensible coverages for a grownup, and also suggested I look into an umbrella policy. “They’re cheap, and they provide an immense amount of coverage across both your home and your car.” We talked at length, and I decided to see what the coverage would cost.

It took my agent almost six weeks to get me a quote. Hello, trying to give you money, can you help out a little? After a family discussion and budget review, we decided on some expansions to our policies. Four weeks later we were still trying to get the agent to make the changes. Hi, me again, trying to give you more money? No?

I started to feel like my business was being taken for granted. I certainly wasn’t getting what I wanted in terms of service – not even a call back. Maybe it was time to shop around a bit.

I put together an RFP. Not kidding. I laid out every single policy item and limit we wanted, and sent out a huge packet to a dozen agents in my area. One got back to me, and his quote was literally half of what I’d been expecting to pay to the current company. Double yikes. He also had some suggestions for cutting back on unnecessary limits and riders and stuff. Anyway, suffice to say we formed a great working relationship and my old agent lost my business.

But I’m not here to bitch about my insurance agent, or to sell you on a particular company. Not at all. I’m not even going to swear that the above story is true, although it’s certainly plausible, and it definitely is at least based on a true story. What I’d like you to simply consider is that, when customers don’t get what they want, they’re often willing to tear up roots and move on. That’s actually bad for everyone: the customer has to go through a lot of hassle, the the business loses the business. The customer might wind up happier in the end, but in that situation it’s actually easier to retain the customer than it is to lose them, because most folks will avoid hassle if they can.

Now, let me retell the story a bit. I’ll be briefer, this time.

For a long time, I was with my IT department. Since I started at the company, in fact. I was pretty happy with their service, and the SLAs, I felt, were reasonable. Then I needed some additional services, like the ability to transfer some files to an external vendor.

It took my IT department almost two weeks to tell me that they couldn’t even provide a way for me to do that and still “comply with regulations,” whatever that means. I certainly wasn’t getting what I wanted in terms of service – not even a fast call back. Maybe it was time to shop around a bit.

I opened a Dropbox account. Yeah, it cost a few bucks, but they were quick, and I got my job done. Anyway, suffice to say we formed a great working relationship and my IT department lost my business. Now I don’t have any problem at all just going and getting what I need if they won’t provide it.

That’s where the “consumerization” of IT came from. Now look, I’m not criticizing IT for following the company rules. But you know IT is the one that gets blamed. We can finger-point at company policy all we want, but it doesn’t matter.

This is a huge problem. No, it isn’t entirely an IT problem. Actually, it’s barely even an IT problem at all; we could certainly implement whatever users needed, if we were funded and permitted. But we take the hate anyway, so it’s kind of our problem. We can do, basically, one of two things about it. We can continue to try and deflect the hate to “company policy,” which will rarely work because it simply isn’t a satisfying target for the hate.

Or we can start to agitate.

I feel that IT has, for far too long, been put in the position of corporate heavyweight. We have to enforce rules that we don’t like, know are senseless, and don’t originate from technical places at all. We’re the ones who know how to set permissions, and so we become the gatekeepers of permissions. That bugs me, because it isn’t technology. 

So instead of standing up to your users… become their advocate.

Ever see Disney-Pixar’s “The Incredibles?” Go watch the first modern-day scene, with Bob Parr is dealing with a little old lady at his insurance company. He looks furtively around, and says, “look, I can’t tell you to go fill out form XYZ and carry it up to so-and-so in order to bypass this and get your claim filled.” Wink, wink.

Do that. Start telling your users to open a ticket every time they need to transfer a file or whatever, and can’t, because IT isn’t allowed to give them that ability. Burn an hour on the ticket explaining the problem, every time. Agitate at planning meetings and other formal outlets. Propose a solution. That’s the important bit. “Look, we could do this, securely and in full compliance, if we just _____. It’d cost us ___, and Lord knows we’re burning that much just opening tickets for users right now.” Become the users’ champion.

Obviously, you don’t do this for silly things. Let’s keep the discussion sensible, right? But for legitimate services that the company just isn’t offering, and which users are going on their own and working around, propose a fix. Price it out. Protest in favor of it. That’s how we move IT forward. It’s certainly how we get our users on our side a little bit. And if the company is going to insist on putting us in the middleman role, well, then it can work both ways.

A proposal doesn’t need to be a full-on ITIL-compliant project, either. Do some research. Get some pricing. Propose. If someone says, “yeah, let’s dig into that,” then you can start treating it as a real thing – and start putting out the word that, “yeah, we’re finally working on it.” Progress!

I know it’s easier just to point to company policy, or another department, or whatever, and throw up your hands and say, “look, I just work here, too.” But I’ve always been a “see the problem, fix the problem” kind of person. Even if it makes me a bit unpopular in meetings (it does), I’d rather keep pushing the organization forward, solve needs, and make things more efficient and productive. Sometimes, that means pushing a bit at both sides.