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Tag: IT

What does it take to work in IT?

How did I get here?

I did not train to work in IT. I didn’t take a series of courses in computer science or even technology. I was a Creative Advertising student who holds a B.S. in Communications. I never planned to work in IT. I was going to be a designer. I worked for the college newspaper creating the print layouts and managing the website.

Then I graduated and realized I did not want to work in Advertising. I didn’t want to try to coerce people into buying things they really did not need. I wanted to help people. I have always been curious about technology and using it to make our lives better. So I fell into tech support directly out of school.

Into the trenches

I worked for a year on a PC roll-out contract with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. I spent six months working in Richmond swapping hundreds of PCs out in the headquarters and regional office. Then for the next six months I went on the road. I was at a different office each week around the state swapping PCs and troubleshooting problems that arose on the way.

From there I worked briefly for a print shop running high end printers and copies and managing the output of the shop. Then I went back to tech support working for Honeywell, General Electric, City of Richmond government. And very briefly for Wachovia Securities help desk.

When I moved out of Richmond I worked for the Atlantic Media Company, the parent company of The Atlantic Magazine as well as other publications. Now I work as a federal government contractor for the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

I’ve worked at city, state and federal levels of government. I’ve worked on help desks fielding hundreds of calls a per day and as a desktop support technician with over 100 buildings to support as a single technician. I’ve been part of a large team and the lone wolf.

Essential Skills

I got into this with no formal training and have since taught myself what I needed to know. What I’ve learned over the years is that every job is exactly the same, in that they’re all very different.

Each organization I’ve worked has its own set of rules and policies. Each industry had its own set of jargon, software, technology and systems. And as a support tech it is my job to learn them well enough to be able to explain and make them work for others.

I often have customers ask what I studied in school to do the job. They’re often surprised when I tell them I’ve never formally studied computers, technology or anything related to my current field.

The interesting commonality I’ve noticed is many of my co-workers all majored in all things non-technical. Sure, there are are couple of Computer Science or Information Systems majors. But there are just as many Mass Communications, Psychology and Criminal Justice majors. Somehow we all found our way to IT work. Whether it was where the job were or the better money or we just found we like the work more than what we studied to be. We found our calling in the IT support world. Formal training has much less to do with success in IT support than experience and soft skills.

Technical Skills

Being “good with computers” is a good start. But so is being able to search for answers effectively. You don’t need amazing technical knowledge to get a job. You don’t need to know computers inside and out. You don’t need to be an expert in anything. Knowing what to look for and how to look for it is just as important as knowing the answer.

People Skills

IT Support is customer service. Help Desk and Desktop Support roles appear to be nothing more than fixing computers. That is only half of the job. The other half is far more important. When I arrive at a customer’s desk, it is my job to take control and put them at ease. I am here to understand and solve their problems. I am here to sympathize. I am here to be play the hero and the whipping boy. I take the bad and the good. I am the problem fixer and technology wrangler. But in the process I’m also here to help them.

What else is there?

There’s still plenty to learn on the way to becoming a great technician and problem solver. Listening closely to your customers, communicating clearly (verbally and in writing), empathy, sympathy, acting, time management, and thinking on your feet.

Wow, that sounds like a lot! It looks like a huge, daunting list. But most of these skills work together and many of them are things you’re probably already doing. You just don’t realize it. I sure didn’t until I started focusing on how I interacted with my customers.

Getting Things Done in IT

I have the secret to planning out my day as an IT Support Technician. Stop.

Just stop. There is no amount of planning and scheming to make a day where the entire job is to respond to calls for help orderly. There is no Getting Things Done scaffolding to wrap my day in to make it better. There is no way I can have a tidy list of tasks and an order to them. It’s just not going to happen because the only constant is change.

I used to work for a print shop. It was my job to run copiers all day. I produced the customer’s print jobs and managed the queue of work. Every morning, I’d attend a daily planning meeting. We would go over the work we had in, the work we expected and set up a queue. We met every morning at 9am for about 30 minutes.

By 10am I had thrown out the plan because everything changed.

That is the life of a Customer Service Representative or IT Support Technician. (These jobs are the same.) no matter what the plan says, the overriding principle is to serve the customer. We are here to fix problems and make customers happy. And people don’t work on a schedule. They don’t care how many things you have to do or what you’re in the middle of or even how your day is going. When they call for help, we answer. Because that’s the job. That’s why we’re here.

I learned to top trying to plan out my day. There’s no system in the world that will bring order to the chaos of working with people. My failing wasn’t in not finding the right system, but in thinking any system would work.

Please contact your system administrator

I’ve thought a lot about how people interact with the computers they use. I’ve often wondered why people in offices know so little about the computers they use 40 hours a week. In many cases, the machine has not changed in years. The Operating System is the same. The Office applications are the same. They perform the same tasks day in and day out. They’re the 21st Century versions of assembly line workers.

They perform a skill. They perform it repeatedly and anything outside that small skill set is foreign and deemed impossible in their minds.

I often thought about the several times I’ve had to revisit the same people for the same problem over the course of weeks, months, or in some cases years. I see the same people for the same problems and I ask myself, Why?

Why am I solving the same problem for the same person so many times?

I thought perhaps it was a lack of understanding. Maybe the tasks were too difficult, but in comparison to what they did everyday, it was no more difficult, just different.

I thought maybe it was willful ignorance. They knew what they needed. They didn’t like computers. They resented having to use the computer so they were determined to learn as little as possible about it.1

I thought I was failing them in some way. I was not educating them. I was not providing a way for them to understand. I was speaking to them in techno-gibberish. I needed show them. I needed to help them to understand.

I was wrong. Thomas Brand and he gets to the root of it better than I ever could.

He writes,

Windows users are different though. Enterprise Windows users never had to fend for themselves. They never made a meaningful transition to the new and different. They stuck with what the company gave them, the clear and popular choice, and never identified themselves by the technology they were provided.

Relegated to having to ask for administrative rights to do anything on their computers, most Enterprise Windows users never learned to take an interest in administering their own machines because they never could.

This lack of understanding, and the security vulnerabilities of early Windows operating systems made Windows users the primary targets of malicious software and phishing attacks.

Worst still, companies reactions to these threats have been less about user education and more about tightening controls. This gave Windows users even less of an incentive to learn about the machines they sit in front of 40 hours a week.

He works in a role where he supports Mac and Windows computers and the people who use them. He is writing about Enterprise Windows customers in comparison to the Enterprise Mac customers. 2

They have never been challenged. They have never had the ability to go outside of their pre-defined corporate box. I’ve seen effects of his last paragraph all too often.

Anytime there is a threat, the immediate reaction is to clamp down on rights and abilities on the computers instead of educating people about the problem. Security is always the battle cry instead of Education. Why educate people when you can simply ban them from doing anything to hurt themselves or the company’s equipment? Security seems like the easy answer.

Working in the IT field, I have never been on the other side of the administrative rights fence. I have always had the ability and knowledge of working around problems and the abilities to do so.

I never had to call and ask for permission to install software. When I wanted something, I would load it on to a USB drive and run portable versions of the software I wanted to use I knew the company would not approve.

Corporate computing rewards the compliant and punishes the inquisitive. There is no benefit in learning more than what is required to perform a task. There is no room for exploration and learning. The corporate world rewards conformity and obedience. The structure of the system explains the results of that system. Why would anyone take in interest in something denied to them anyway?


  1. There is some truth to this one. Certain people are set in their ways and no amount of help you can offer will make them help themselves. 

  2. Macs and PCs in an Enterprise environment versus a Home environment are extremely different, especially on the Apple side. 

Herding USB Keys

I’ve worked in tech support for nearly a decade and I’ve collect a number of USB keys. They range in size from a hearty 32GB to a miniscule 128MB. They’re all useful and all have their place.

The challenge becomes how to tell them apart at a glance and know what they work in.

I’ve come up with two methods to ease the madness.

First, label the physical devices. Use a sharpie for a permanent name or size. If you tend to reuse them, put a piece of scotch tape on it and use that as a label.

The USB Keys from top down are:
GParted on 512MB drive.
Windows XP installer on 2GB drive.
Windows Easy Transfer on 128MB drive.
YUMI created collection of bootable software on 2GB drive.
Windows 7 install on 4GB drive.

Second, I name each drive with the amount of storage and what platform is works on.

Some drives, I have formatted for the Mac only since that’s all I use them on. Some I have formatted as FAT32 which works in everything. While others I’ve experimented with ExFAT which allows for cross compatibility (Mac to Windows) and larger than 4GB file sizes (like NTFS) but isn’t natively supported in Windows XP.

These are the little tricks I use to keep my collection of USB keys a little more sanely. I hope it helps you too if you have the same problem. If there is interest in the geeky IT setup I’ve crafted for myself over the years I’ll share more of it. Even if there isn’t I may do so anyway.

Let me know if you’ve enjoyed this post. Leave a comment or find me on Twitter.

Hey, IT Guy

One Stop Answer Shop

There is an expectation that your IT guy at work is your one stop shop for any technical question you have.

  • I want to buy a new computer. What should I get?
  • Mac or PC? Which is better?
  • Can you look at my personal laptop if I bring it in for you?
  • I bought my new computer and I’m having this problem…

No, I cannot and will not work on your personal computer. I do not care how much you use it for work. I do not care how many hours you spend working on it at home. I don’t care if another tech did it for someone else you know. I am not doing it for you. I do not work on personal equipment. I especially don’t work on personal equipment outside of my normal work hours. If you’re working so many hours on your personal equipment then you need to talk to your manager about getting you a laptop.

No Means No
I am not trying to be mean. I am not singling you out. The simple truth is I could lose my job and you’re not going to pay my salary after I get fired so do not expect me to make you an exception. Rules are in place for a reason. Computers are complicated enough when they start with a standard setup. To work on a personal computer introduces thousands of variables to the equation.

  • Mac or PC?
  • What operating system?
  • 32-bit or 64-bit?
  • Is it up to date?
  • Is there antivirus installed and updated?
  • Is there malware?
  • Is there a strange configuration to account for a certain home environment?

Pandora’s Box

This is only the surface of the potential problems which can arise from working on a personal computer. The computer could be incapable of performing the desired function. Insufficient memory, hard drive space or incorrect version of an operating system can all be responsible for an application not working properly. There are thousand of applications in the world and some of them don’t work properly together and never will but those incompatibilities are not always known and are stumbled across by accident.

Lack of Responsibility

One of the biggest issues with working on personal equipment is the seemingly limitless amount of he worked on it and now it’s acting up issue. It could be days, weeks or even months since I worked on a computer. It could be something as simple as installing new memory, adding a printer, or installing a new application. It could also be something as invasive as malware removal, upgrading to a new version of Windows or data backup and migration. It doesn’t matter the scope of the work done or the time frame. There is no statute of limitations on “The IT guy worked on it and now it’s doing…” No matter what I did or how long ago, all future problems will somehow be my fault. All future issues will stem from whatever I did last time I touched that computer.

Next time you ask your IT guy at work to work on your personal computer, don’t pressure him. Don’t keep asking and expect to break him down. He won’t give in. In most cases, he can’t and will tell you so.