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Help me get out of the helpdesk!
September 29, 2006 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Help me get out of the helpdesk!

I've been doing tech support in one form or another for the past six or so years (some PT as a student). My work history is pretty solid and I have good refernces. I've switch jobs a few times but because those jobs were temp or contract positions. None of my jobs have had any advancement potential. I've sometimes been the "sole IT guy." In my adventures I've done more than a fair amount of systems adminisration and networking and am usually one of the most competent members of the team. Usually I'm the "go to guy" for difficult technical issues.

I just got another tech support job which is fine but its still the helpdesk. I've done little else than make lateral careers moves and frankly am getting sick of tech support. I'm in my 30s now and am worried that I might be doing this forever. What options do I have to climb the IT ladder? Or even a related careerpath?

I'm thinking I could pick up an MCSE and a CCNA and start marketing myself for a sys/network admin position but I am worried that these positions are usually promoted from within and if I just pick up these certs I might just look like a helpdesk guy with some silly certs. I could really use some general advice on what to do or how other people graduated from the helpdesk. I also have some basic web design and coding skills I could build upon but might require schooling. I currently have a BS and am not against the idea of going for an MS, but dont want to go back to school for a degree that won't help me professionaly. Any suggestions?
posted by damn dirty ape to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
At the very least you'll want to get your MCP/MCSA/MCSE and your CCNA. Depending on where you are, you may want Linux, database, and/or programming experience too. Your best bet is to look at job listings for the types of jobs you want, and then work towards getting those requirements.

I work in IT education, and this is the line we have to give our students when they ask about what certs they should get. Since every job market is different, there is no concrete way to answer that question without doing job market research first.
posted by ChazB at 11:43 AM on September 29, 2006

Tech support is a tough job to get out of, if only because you often have to know a little about everything under the sun.

A graduate degree will definitely improve your chances of getting out of a help desk job, but would involve specializing more in one area of interest.

Do you do any programming? Biotechnology is pretty hot and research labs always need programmers. If you go this route, I recommend doing some free freelance work while you work on a degree, to build up your "code portfolio" for future interviews.

Good luck!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:44 AM on September 29, 2006

I went down that path about 10 years ago. Incidentally, I had all of a semester of college, and it has posed little impedence to my professional career. My frequent use of the f-bomb and utter lack of respect for authority may be holding me back a little, however. :)

I started doing tech support for Windows 95 back in '96, and the way I got out was to get my MCSE and then found a small company (~30 people) where I was the helpdesk guy but also the sysadmin dude for their mail, file, and web servers. It sucks at first, with little resources and meager pay and clueless non-techs who want the world on a shoestring budget... but it's a natural transition. The MCSE is an easy cert to pick up, and will impress small mom & pop shops which are predominantly windows-based. The only people who would think you were a "helpdesk guy with some silly certs" would be people with more experience at large companies. For example, at Microsoft I didn't know anyone who considered the MCSE to be a critical cert or a useful determination of a person's skill, or who looked more favorably on the certifications (well, there was one guy, but he was kind of lame anyway).

Once you've got some mom & pop experience under your belt, you have more ammunition to get a job as part of an IT team at a larger company, and just leverage your way up. In other words, you'd never be an SE at MSN or Google or Yahoo right away, you get those jobs by being clever and experienced; you get that experience by finding a smaller company, which in turn will want you to have some experience. The ground floor for sysadmin will be a small company where they aren't super technical and you have the room and error to grow and learn a little, and have a few fires. There is so much truth to how much you learn from that first time your exchange server crashes, the first time you realize your backups aren't valid, etc.

The other path, an alternative, is to get a job in the SOC/NOC of a larger web-company (it's not clear where you are geographically and if you are near any large web employers). While it's not apparently the case any more, at MSN there were a few systems engineers who got their start in the SOC (service operations center) where they were just front-line respondents, monitoring alarm consoles and engaging in flow-chart like trouble shooting guides. The best of them always went a step beyond, dug into problems in their spare time, learned the systems better, wrote scripts etc, that showed they were more than ready to move up. That is another way to go, and gets you exposed to how "real companies" do sysadmin work.

Oh, and to second Blazecock Pileon: while you don't need to become a dev, absolutely you must become a good scripter at least; the difference between a server monkey and a true sysadmin is the ability to automate. Automate, automate, automate! Whenever I was interviewing people for MSN, my foremost interest was whether they showed an inclination to figure out a 'general solution' to a problem, and how to automate it so it isn't an issue or a time-consuming task after that. When you're managing 10 servers in a small shop, you tend to avoid automation because it's almost more time consuming, but the only way you can run larger environments as your career progresses is if you can automate the shit out of everything.
posted by hincandenza at 11:49 AM on September 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think hincandenza is right, and I want to emphasize one small point: your skills might not be terribly interesting in a small shop, but given the right scale you may find yourself both more useful and more interested. Playing sysadmin to a server is one of the worst jobs in the world, but doing operations work on thousands-scale clusters is very fun and has a completely different set of skills and challenges.

As for how to get there, he is very wise. Do the extra step and interact with other groups as much as possible. You'll slowly inheirit reponsibilities (as well as spot projects that need to be created and executed, a key step in your career progression) that you either use as leverage for internal promotions or as resume fodder for job moves.
posted by kcm at 12:23 PM on September 29, 2006

It's very tough to move out of the helpdesk\tech support role without experiance. Just remember that everyone starts at the bottom in any career.

I agree with everything written above. Get experiance with smaller companies - experiance is everything in IT. I want somebody that's done it, not just read about it. Setting up a small network from the firewall to the desktop doing VPN, backups and other typical tasks is a fantastic way to get experiance. The concepts you will learn are basically the same as a sysadmin in an enterprise environment, only on a smaller scale.

Certifications usually mean nothing as far as your skill level goes, but they do look good on your resume. It's kind of expected on a resume these days so I would still get some. However, a CCNA\E is sort of worthless if you've never actually configured and managed Cisco equipment. The trick is to get into an environment where you're allowed to touch some stuff - servers, switches, routers, ect. Then you can prove what you can do and you will be moved up when positions open up.

A boss or co-worker that will mentor you a little bit is great too. I've gotten better jobs at other companies for my staff before because they had outgrown their position with me and I knew nothing would be available for them at our company.

The most important (and lacking) skill of all is geniune enthusiasm for your job. What are your answers to these questions:**

Are you excited to be there? Does it show?
Do you ask for more responsibility (and not just the "cool" stuff that every tech wants to do!) and then bust your ass when you get some while keeping an eye on your usual workload?
Do you show initiative and look for problems before they happen?
Do you dress professionally (and not wear Spiderman ties and white socks)?
Do you show up on time and volunteer to stay late?

If you ansered yes to all or most of them, you're unlike 95% of the techs (and managers, engineers, ect.) I ever worked with. Soft skills are what's holding back most helpdesk staff IMHO. I can train good people to do anything, but lazy, unmotivated people aren't worth a damn. Honestly, I've always thought the bar was set pretty damn low in any job I've had. Most people just do the bare minimum to get by. When I interview for tech positions I'm lucky if even one candidate stands out in any way.

**Sadly enough I should add these to the list above:
Do you take a shower every day?
Do you EVER smile and say hello to your co-workers or customers?
Do you call in sick an hour after you were supposed to be there?
Can you actually stay awake for an 8 hour shift?
posted by bda1972 at 4:51 PM on September 29, 2006

I feel for you man, I just got promoted to sysadmin after 8 years of various helpdesk jobs. There's a lot of great advice in this thread already, more than the average question I think, take it to heart. Get those certs, learn how to script, seriously, each cert you get is another door created that may open for you in the future, you will not look like a helpdesk guy with silly certs at all.
posted by Cosine at 4:56 PM on September 29, 2006

Thanks guys, I *really* appreciate all the advice. I've been very frustrated lately and glad to know im not alone and there are ways to advance.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:15 PM on September 29, 2006

MS certs are expensive but lots of people hold those certs and a sizable portion of them are people that I wouldn't ever hire. Without experience or some other way of "proving yourself", a Microsoft cert alone won't distinguish you. On the other hand, if you're willing to do a LOT of studying and hard work, there are a few avenues that cost little and will take you far.

"Tech support is a tough job to get out of, if only because you often have to know a little about everything under the sun."

Sounds like a perfect UNIX sysadmin candidate for me. If you have any interest at all....

Install Linux or Solaris at home, and teach yourself - not just from the GUI, but down to the command line. Set up web servers, DHCP, mail services, anything else you see in the office, try and replicate at home on a UNIX box. There are LOTS of HOWTO documents, books, and message forums out there that will help you along this path, and it doesn't need to cost you a cent - just time and a spare computer.

Then, if you have an interest in security, go for a CISSP. If you're applying for any non-security computer job, this will GREATLY distinguish you from the other candidates, and open doors for jobs for which you're not qualified on paper. The books cost a lot and it's a lot of hard study work, but worth it in the end. In my last job, they wanted a Linux cert I didn't have, but hired me on the basis of the CISSP - an admin who knows security in addition to the core skills adds value to their contribution.

Both of these things have worked wonders for me. No college education.
posted by tkolstee at 11:11 AM on September 30, 2006

What part of the country do you live in and how old are you?
posted by dgeiser13 at 2:14 PM on September 30, 2006

May I put in a vote for systems/sales engineer?

I, too, had been going from consultant to internal IT support, learning various things along the way. Most of the learning was on my own, with a little bit of university extension courses along the way. I had hit a ceiling (both salary- and resoponsibility-wise) that I could not break through without a significant investment in my education (cert or degree, as you are pondering).

Then I got an offer for a systems (sales) engineer at a company that makes a product I had used for years. I just need to be a technical advocate for the products my company supports: help the sales guys with technical questions, give config advice, train our partners, write competitive analyses and best practices documents. Because we deal with many different types of products, I am still getting a variety of situations to test my help desk/sysadmin chops. There's also a bit of travel thrown in for variety!

It has been a pleasant change. Even though I am starting out at the bottom of this career path, I am making more than I would have if I had found a support/IT job that I was qualified for. I also get this thing called appreciation that was definitely absent in doing help desk, since the users never call you to say, "The network is running great today Damn Dirty Ape. Thanks for doing a super job!"

You need to be comfortable to talk in front of people, as many of these positions require Death by PowerPoint(tm) presentations, although you may be able to find some that are phone only. Even there, you need to be a somewhat eloquent speaker.

The sales side of it also might not be too bad. I, for instance, am not on commission and receive my bonus based on accomplishments, not sales figures. YMMV depending on your job duties.

My advice is to look at companies whose products you use and cruise their job sites. Also do a search for "system(s) engineer" or "sales engineer" at Indeed, Dice, Monster, etc. Also, you may need to overcome a manager's reluctance to hire someone with no SE experience. Be prepared to address that (there will be different aspects/reasons of that, so I can't go into too much detail). If you do get an in-face interview, definitely over-dress and try to look your best, as you will be visiting client sites in a sales capacity where, unfortunately, some people do judge a book by its cover. That doesn't mean you need to be ruggedly handsome (I'm far from it) and wear a fake tan well (I'm so pale I'm almost transparent). You just need to show you "clean up nice."

Basically, if you like people and aren't the kind of sysadmin that likes to be holed up in the windowless room next to the server room to avoid the users, you can be a good SE.
posted by JLobster at 3:23 PM on October 3, 2006

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