Without desktop support the business would grind to a halt, but don't expect thanks, writes Nick Langley.
The ideal support operation should be constantly working to put itself out of business. Support staff provide answers for users with technology problems, provide technical fixes if they are required, then feed what they have learned back into better educated users and more reliable systems. Some support roles also involve systems administration and management.
In large organisations, there may be several levels of support. First-line support involves trying to deal with the problem over the phone there and then. The problem may then be passed to backroom specialists, and if they can't handle it, it is passed in turn to the supplier and ultimately the manufacturer. Costs as well as delays escalate sharply when first-line support cannot fix things. Support is often covered by service-level agreements.
Where did it originate?
With the first end-user who got themselves into difficulties, and the first server that crashed or ran out of space for a database application.
What's it for?
Once desktop support involved visiting users at their desks, while support of distributed servers meant engineers travelling from site to site. These days, with tools such as Novell's Zenworks, Intel's Landesk and Microsoft's System Management Server (SMS), not to mention systems management architectures including Computer Associates' Unicenter and Hewlett-Packard's Openview, it is possible to carry out most support tasks, from software upgrades and distribution to troubleshooting individual PCs, without leaving the datacentre.
What makes it special?
24x7 businesses could not run without it. However, do not expect users to think there is anything special about what you are doing.
How difficult is it?
You will need inside and outside experience of applications, operating systems, networks or whatever it is you are being asked to support.
You must also have the ability to put yourself in the hapless user's shoes. Good analytical skills - although there are some excellent diagnostic tools to help you - and a thick skin are definitely required.
Another key skill is the ability to break the news gently to a user who has done something extremely stupid. Classic examples of user stupidity include not switching the machine on and, when asked to send a copy of a disc for analysis, sending a photocopy.
Where is it used?
Within large organisations, and software or systems suppliers. There are also companies providing outsourced support and helpdesk services to businesses who do not want to run their own.
Not to be confused with
Surgical supports or child support, although support staff may often get the feeling that they are dealing with infants, or adults who are a couple of bandages short of a first aid kit.
What does it run on?
Many use a form of computer-telephony integration, enabling the support agent to take details of a problem while online, then delve into the user or system's history and search a database of solutions to provide an answer in the space of a single phone call.
Few people know
"To support" also means "to endure" and "to hold up". While support staff know all about endurance, many users will be familiar with the experience of being held up by their IT support.
What's coming up?
The DMTF (Distributed, formerly Desktop, Management Task Force) and the IT Service Management Forum (IT SMF) have joined to unify IT management standards. The two organisations are initially concentrating on standardising "trouble ticketing", enabling different helpdesk and management systems to exchange information about problems and incidents.
Rates of pay
There is always plenty of work in PC and Unix support, but it is often poorly paid. One recent advertisement asked for an AIX support team leader, with a minimum of 10 years' experience in IBM environments, and offered a starting salary of £25,000. PC "support analysts" can be offered less than this, a lot less if it is a junior post. Top whack in PC support seems to be about £30,000, and about £35,000 for Unix.
Unix PC support programmer £14,333
Lan PC support programmer £15,000
Unix Windows NT support programmer £17,000
TCP/IP senior PC support programmer £17,000
Source: Computer Weekly/SSP survey
For some management tools, you will need to turn to suppliers and their partners - Compaq and Novell, for example. There are upwards of 20 courses on supporting various aspects and releases of Windows alone, available through Microsoft's CTecs.
Similarly, for Unix administration you will also need to approach the suppliers - Sun for Solaris, IBM for AIX, etc. Some of the bigger independent training organisations also do general training in customer care.