Working in IT support: a poisoned chalice?

Working in IT support can be interesting and challenging but often thankless. A few common-sense changes could make life easier...

Working in IT support can be interesting and challenging but often thankless. A few common-sense changes could make life easier for everyone, says Danny Bradbury

When is a human being not a human being? When he or she is a raving, flailing maniac. Surf the Web and you'll find lots of sound files purporting to be real-life recordings of support calls, where the caller starts out calm and collected, and ends up frothing expletives into the mouthpiece or crying at the other end of the phone.

Then there's the story of the user who called the support desk complaining that his keyboard had stopped working after he'd spilled coffee on it. After being told to turn the keyboard upside down and whack it sharply against the edge of the desk a few times to free up the keys, he complained that the computer now wouldn't work at all. It was only at that point that the hapless customer told the support representative that he was using a laptop.

Support engineers are used to problems like these but they're also faced with other, more topical, issues emerging from today's computing environments. Software installations are becoming more complex, and yet the end-user base is often less controllable. Users in the field, for example, are difficult to control because they connect their laptops to networks sporadically. This makes it difficult to update their software online and IT departments are constantly frustrated by the problems this causes when trying to keep all end-users updated with the same versions of the software.

In particular, the rise in Web-based applications presents considerable problems. With customer-facing applications in particular, companies have little or no idea about what sorts of hardware and software end-users are running, or what sort of link they may be using to access applications. This presents issues when customers are trying unsuccessfully to access Web-based information.

IT support departments will also find themselves integrating more closely with other support departments - in areas such as logistics - as corporate applications merge more closely with the business process. If a customer orders an item online, their first port of call in the event of non-delivery may be to a customer service centre, but the support call may be routed through to IT support if the cause of the problem proves to be software or hardware-based. Such dependencies are a symptom of the increasing symbiosis between different parts of the business.

This greater fluidity between areas that were previously more distant is endemic in the IT sector, and the rise of Internet communications is the major cause. If you're looking for real-world examples, think of the April outbreak of the Love Bug, the computer virus that, like the Melissa virus before it, was delivered by e-mail. It wreaked havoc among companies the world over and it was the support departments that had to pick up the pieces.

Companies do learn from their mistakes: many IT departments and support desks have implemented virus checkers and other technologies to ensure that it won't happen again. Nevertheless, there will doubtless be another Love Bug-type virus, probably more malevolent than the last, and thousands of companies will again be caught off guard.

The real problem here isn't only a lack of virus checking software but a lack of end-user awareness. True IT support begins with proper training, yet few IT support desks give their end-users basic information to prevent problems occurring. Updates telling people not to open attachments that they're not expecting, for example, would go at least some way towards solving such problems. Indeed, training in other areas such as how to boot up and shut down a PC properly, use Excel coherently and solve basic computer problems, would go a long way towards easing the workload on the IT support department.

At the end of the day, IT support will always be one of the toughest jobs in the business. The relationship between end-users and the IT department has always been ambivalent - users believe that the technology is unduly complex and unreliable, while IT staff often get frustrated at users' ignorance. By the time end-users call the support desk, they are generally irritable and need handling with care. The first thing that support departments need to do is to foster greater understanding. After that, the real support work can start in earnest.



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