The Evolution of Today’s Tech Support
There is no shortage of talk these days about how advancing technology continues to transform the job market. Technology can replace jobs, create entirely new ones, and fundamentally alter existing ones. This latter phenomenon was even discussed in our previous article on the evolution of the administrative assistant. In that case, we pointed out how the tasks, and therefore the required tech savvy, of administrative assistants changed over time in order to adapt to advancing technologies. But what about jobs that lie within the technology field? While those must also change according to the new technologies that arise, the skillsets needed require more than tech savviness; in fact, they require skills that in many other fields are considered downright old-school. So-called “soft skills”, which include communication and interpersonal skills, are becoming just as important for a flourishing career in tech as tech savviness itself (and that’s especially true when trying to attract more women to the field). The permeation of soft skills into tech is perhaps most pronounced in tech support, the tech field that the average worker is most exposed to.
So how exactly has tech support changed over the years and why? And what sorts of qualities should employers look for when hiring the tech support professionals of today?
A short history of tech support
In the beginning, tech support was, in the minds of most workers, a person who showed up at your desk when your new fandangled Commodore 64 was on the fritz. He or she worked their magic (because for all you knew there was actually magic involved), said virtually nothing to you, and then ambled back to some small, clandestine cranny buried deep within the foreboding bowels of Floor B2.
Indeed, the early tech support professional was subject to many cruel stereotypes. 1980s pop culture was not kind to the “nerd” and the “geek”. Many teenagers’ prom date dreams were dashed all because they dared to express their love of high-tech. And where did those teenagers end up? On tech support teams, of course. Or so people believed. In fact, despite the now hip, meta meanings behind the terms “nerd” and “geek”, the socially awkward public image of the “typical” tech support person still plagues the field. According to leading IT trade publication, TechRepublic, in the UK, only about 3% of undergraduates pursue studies in computer science partly because students aren’t making the connection between a career in technology and the sleek, sophisticated devices they simultaneously consider unquestionably “cool”.
Ironically, those same sleek devices are actually doing in the pocket protector-sporting tech supporters of yore. Once 100% reactive, emerging only when summoned, tech support personnel must now not only be proactive, but, as UK software developer Sunrise says, predictive. Internet-enabled, portable devices, such as smartphones and tablets, have changed the workplace dynamic by essentially taking away the “place” part. Computer access doesn’t mean sitting in front of a heavy grey box in an office building five days a week, eight hours a day – not anymore. Mobile devices and cloud computing mean that work can happen anywhere, anytime. In fact, for a lot of jobs, it’s expected to, which is why tech support teams are now expected to support a myriad of devices, programs, and networks – anywhere, anytime. However, as computer technology became more sophisticated and ubiquitous, tech support teams required more than robust technical knowledge; they also required knowledge that was traditionally associated with fields outside of their own. Business acumen and customer service skills became crucial to providing support for the increasingly tech-savvy worker.
From software and hardware to soft skills and hard reality
Before everyone had a PC in their home, let alone 24/7 internet access virtually anywhere, employers could overlook social awkwardness in tech supporters because their jobs relied almost solely on their knowledge of technology. But these days, workers don’t just call on tech support when something stops working; rather, they also expect tech support to aid them in learning how to use new hardware and software, and that requires a level of understanding and amiability that is relatively new to the tech support field. For that reason, employers now expect tech support professionals to exhibit:
- Excellent communication skills – The ability to speak and write clearly and cordially is crucial. Tied to teaching skills and listening skills (see below), effective communication skills are particularly important not only for in-person and phone interaction, but for other forms of contact, such as email and instant messaging. In fact, user-friendly technical writing skills are important even outside of real-time interaction. To alleviate their own workload burdens, tech teams should exploit the modern worker’s relatively high tech savvy by preparing instructional materials, such as manuals and videos, that users can access themselves. These materials, however, need to be clear and concise.
- Teaching skills – It’s one thing to be able to communicate, but it’s another to communicate in such a way that imparts knowledge.
- Listening skills – Listening is about more than simply paying attention. Assuming to know an individual’s issue because of superior knowledge leads to close mindedness and missed details that could be crucial to the actual solution.
- Organization and time management skills – With a multitude of users on a multitude of platforms experiencing a multitude of issues, the ability to juggle a multitude of tasks is a must.
There are also a myriad of soft skills that today’s tech support professionals need to have, which are less about helping specific workers with one-off technical issues and more about helping their organizations boost their bottom lines. IT departments are tasked with finding technological solutions that align with business objectives and that make work more productive for everyone in their organization. Such a mandate requires even more soft skills, including:
- Relationship-building skills – Forging relationships within and across teams is essential for ensuring the implementation and adoption of new technologies.
- Conflict-resolution skills – Like relationship building, relationship salvaging is integral to the kind of teamwork required in tech teams today.
- Negotiation skills – When seeking out new technologies to help their organizations, tech personnel, as the tech experts, need to know how to get the most out of third-party providers without breaking the bank or breaking the law.
- Vendor management skills – After negotiating a contract with a third-party provider, there’s the issue of making sure that provider lives up to the contract.
These attributes paint a picture of the modern tech support professional that is a far cry from the stereotypically reserved – or even aloof – “computer guy” of the 1980s and 1990s. For a time, the arcane nature of technology allowed tech support people to work in a silo, but these days – as should always be the case – there is no room for detachment in a support role, regardless of what the support is for. Essentially, as technology becomes more and more user-friendly, so too must those who are hired to support it.