IT positions that don't rely on working with people
May 5, 2014 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I've been bombing in interviews for IT Help Desk, or Desktop Support positions, and whenever I've called back the interviewer, the most common answer they give is "poor communication skills". Is there any entry point into the field that wouldn't rely so much on working with people? Would it make more sense to work as QA tester, and then try to transition to something in systems or database administration?
posted by omredux to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hrrrrmmmmn... well... not exactly. I've been in IT since I was 17. Lots of IT folks are... how shall I put this?... happier working by themselves. However, it's often considered a "perk" of working your way up the IT ladder... the lower you are, the more day-to-day user contact you have to handle. Once you've made your bones, you get to delegate that stuff to people lower on the totem pole.

I know you didn't ASK about this, but were I you, I'd try to identify and work super-duper hard on those communication skills - if a company considers your skills in that arena to be unsuitable for their endusers, odds are good that they'll ALSO consider them unsuitable for intradepartmental purposes (working with other IT folks).
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:14 PM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

...Kind of an orthogonal answer, but a thought: If interviewers are picking up on "poor communication skills" during the hiring process, so much so that they name it explicitly, you are maybe doing something specific and/or big wrong. IME as someone who's interviewed for many jobs and interviewed many, many people for jobs (albeit not in IT), it's unusual for hiring managers to cite something specific at all. For several to cite the same specific thing? Red flag.

It may be as simple as failing to return emails promptly, or poor phone skills, or not being direct enough, or being TOO direct. It may be beneficial to your career long-term to identify and work on whatever that is.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:15 PM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, I would also say to get someone in the industry you want to go into to give you a mock interview and ask them for candid feedback. It seems odd that "poor communication skills" would be the answer. Plus, even if you don't work with customers, you still have to work with people (teammates, or even just your boss who tells you what he expects) so communication skills are still important.
posted by ethidda at 12:18 PM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

i started in IT when i was barely 18 (and, as it goes, i got my first IT job almost entirely on my communication skills), most of the people i socialized with were also in IT, and my husband is typing away behind me right now in his 100% work from home project management job that he got working his way up through IT for the last almost 20 years.

i agree with the other people here - you're hitting this from the wrong side - help desk support is the lowest rung on the ladder on purpose - brilliant minds that really grok the tech side is the relatively easy part to find in IT jobs - it's finding those who can also communicate with people that's the hard part. the barrier to entry in anything in IT other than help desk is going to be harder than help desk.
posted by nadawi at 12:29 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Customer contact exists on both the high and low ends. At crappy companies they put inexperienced people in the role because they don't know any better or can't hire the people they should be hiring. At good companies with important customers that are paying large sums of money, they don't let anyone talk to the customer unless they can fully manage that account. When it really hits the fan, they're going to send a director or VP - and most directors and VPs don't get there by being bad with people.

If you're truly bad with people, you can hide out in development or QA or docs or something - but as ethidda you still need to work well with the people within your team and in adjacent ones, as well. A different approach is to get better at dealing with people - that will both get you a job in the near term and be better for your career long term.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:45 PM on May 5, 2014

I would encourage you to work on your communication skills. This would be required in a help-desk role. I can't think of any job that requires NO inter-personal skills. QA testing does require inter-personal skills because you need to be able to express in words what isn't working correctly in the code.

As for DB admin, When I was an admin I did nothing all day except translate what people asked for, into what I could get them from the system. So communication is HUGE in that role.

Sure, there are jobs that don't have as much person-to-person contact, but not addressing the issue isn't the answer.

Check into extension or night school in your area to see if there's a workshop or class offered. Then work at it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:51 PM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Documentation. But you have to be able to write.
posted by woodvine at 1:31 PM on May 5, 2014

I've known several DB Admins who were not good with people. One actually wore a tin foil hat. No lie. And I've heard recruiters say that DB Admins were hard to find. If you can learn what you need to know, it could work. That said, I'm not sure what the upside is once you've done it for 5 or 7 tears.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:04 PM on May 5, 2014

...and in terms of asking for that feedback during a mock interview, I'd ask for specific feedback along 5 lines to triangulate on the issue when responding to questions:

1. Did my response show that I understood your question, and addressed your spoken and unspoken concerns/answer your question(s)?

2. Was my response clear?

3. Was my response concise?

4. Was my response respectful?

5. Did my response leave you with a positive impression?

These questions will focus the feedback a bit more, particularly if you aren't doing well in one of these areas, because specifically asking these questions signals that you wouldn't find it awkward to hear that the answer is 'no' in one of these areas.
posted by anitanita at 3:22 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I work at a mid sized credit union and our IT guys are mostly safely ensconced behind work tickets & communicate via email. The exception is the one guy who sets up our laptops and phones, but even that's not every day. With all the changes in the industry with regard to regulation & consumer convenience, plus getting all of our systems to talk to each other, they are never bored. So maybe think about what else floats your boat besides tech, and look for tech openings at those kinds of companies.
posted by headnsouth at 4:46 PM on May 5, 2014

Almost all IT jobs will require some degree of communications. Helpdesk need to talk to customers, QA need to talk to developers, developers need to talk to project and/or product managers, administrators need to talk to users, IT sales support need to talk to salespeople and potential customers, etc.

What I recommend is figure out which form of communication you are better with. Helpdesk is mostly about verbal communications, while QA, especially in larger companies, tend to be more written communications than verbal communications. If you find that your written communication is better than verbal communications, do try out QA jobs.

Long-term-wise, you'd need to communicate, no matter what role you end up with. By then, though, you will have time and experience to build up and strengthen your communication skills.
posted by applesurf at 5:59 PM on May 5, 2014

IT people with strong technical skills but poor communication skills are pretty common, which is why it's a hard career to get into if you don't have communication skills. In days past, there was a desperate need for tech skills so it was tolerated, but it's a lot tougher now - given a choice of a candidate who's less skilled, but more personable, that's often the one that's going to get an entry level post, as necessary tech skills are easier to pick up on the job in an entry level position than soft skills are.

Unless you're absolutely outstanding in a particular area, and can prove it - and thus able to skip past the entry level gig positions like helpdesk or QA - you're going to struggle I'm afraid.

Communication skills are needed at all levels of IT. Non-techs are absolutely awful at giving you a description of what didn't work or even what they were trying to do, whether they're adminstrative staff, customers or management. Being able to tease out of them what their problem actually is, or what their end goal is is often the hardest part, rather than fixing/implementing it per se. Especially as the goal posts often move mid-problem - also encountered as the infamous doorknob question prefaced by 'so while you're here...' phrase when you're on site.

I've found that doesn't change as you get more senior either; the scope of the problems and projects you work on changes, but the need to understand what end-users of IT services want, and communicate what you've done back to them never goes away. Ultimately, its a customer service discipline, no matter your level or type of customer or type of service.

Certainly you'll need both written and in-person skills, though different posts and different places will require a different balance for their helpdesk staff. Presumably your written skills aren't the main issue, as those get weeded out at CV stage - soft skills are tested at interview.

The four basic areas from my own experience (as an older sysadmin, I got in via tech talent when it was easier, and have had to learn communication skills on the job over the years)

1) Dress/presentation. First impressions are important. Switching from wearing polo neck shirts - that were practical - to a suit made a remarkable difference to how people reacted to me, despite that my job hadn't changed in the slightest. Wearing a suit to an interview where the dress code is shorts and tshirt probably isn't a good idea, but it's generally best to be a step or two above what you think you'd be wearing daily for the interview. Plus the usual clean and presentable yada yada.

2) body language. An open posture, lots of eye contact (without going too far into staring) with the person you're speaking with, addressing the whole room with gestures and eye contact when you're addressing multiple people etc. Interviews are really a public speaking gig, and many of the same tips apply. It's a bit of a tough line to walk between being too friendly/casual and too stiff/constrained but practise and/or training in this area will pay off if you're not naturally comfortable in formal meetings.

3) Clarity. Many techs, myself included, wander off into dense techspeak if we're not careful. While it's fine to answer technical questions with a technical answer, often interviewers will be management - if you have 3, likely only one of them at best will actually be a techie. You'll lose the other two if you can't distill answers down into relatively clear and simple speech. 'Explain it like I'm five' isn't really a euphemism. Put the headline/most important stuff first, and it's fine to gloss over detail that doesn't matter. That you achieved something tricky is more important to convey than the detail of how tricky something was, certainly at the entry level.

4) Demonstrate listening skill. Don't interrupt and really listen to the things they say, and answer what they actually asked - it's fine to take the opportunity of an open-ended question to insert some anecdote that demonstrates your talent, but direct questions should be answered directly with consise, relevent info. Also tailor your questions to what they've said before, and don't ask something they're already told you about.

If you can afford it, there are short workplace communication seminars/courses you can go on, which may help you.

Mock interviews, asking for specific feedback such as anitanita suggested are also a good idea - bearing in mind they'll probably not want to hurt your feelings and will go easy on you a little...

Best of luck!
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:01 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take some writing and speech classes. Join Toastmasters or start doing some open mic stuff. Get comfortable in front of people.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:24 AM on May 6, 2014

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