How Long Should You Stay on the Help Desk?
We all have to start somewhere, and helpdesk work is as good a place as any for tech professionals to dive in. Helpdesk teaches important communication skills, technical troubleshooting techniques, and how SLAs and call escalations work. If you aren't much of a conversationalist, then working on the phone all day can help draw you out of your shell. These are all great foundational skills to learn early on in your career and can help you to understand how support roles generally work. How long you should be looking to work in such a position depends on you. You need to consider the important details — career development and room to grow are big ones.
Becoming a Lifer
Different people generally have their own long and short term plans, and not everyone wants to move on from working in a helpdesk role to one like customer support technician or customer service professional.
However, if you are someone that really needs to get their hands dirty with practical work, then moving on is essential. The general rule of thumb is that two to three years is probably the longest you want to be in a helpdesk role if you plan on moving up into a more specialized field. That is assuming that you are using such a position as a stepping stone. Staying any longer and you risk becoming a 'lifer' and breaking out of that mold is tough.
Signs of Stagnation on the Helpdesk
There is nothing "wrong" with working in a helpdesk position. Things are good if you are employed at a nice company and you are satisfied with your hours and pay. Some people really enjoy the predictability and security of scripted work. The problem with any entry level role is that it suffocates your potential in the long run if there is no room to grow. If you have any aspirations beyond repetitive tasks, then you are wasting your potential.
How to know you are stagnating:
Severe boredom at work even though your tasks are all up to date
Procrastination. Finishing all of your objectives at the very end of your shift
Doing other things while at work such as watching YouTube or playing games on your phone
Fatigue and sleepiness while at your desk, regardless of your caffeine intake
A sense of dread when thinking about your next shift
If any of these symptoms sound familiar then it could be time for you to start thinking ahead and planning a job change.
Leave No Stone Unturned
Helpdesk roles are not necessarily a dead end for an IT professional's career. There can occasionally be room for promotion and growth in some companies. Think about the career advancement options from your helpdesk job. If your company does upskill and offers assistance with career development, then look at how ex-helpdesk workers have progressed through the organization. Whether this is the case or not will depend entirely on the company that you work for and what their philosophy is on upskilling, training and development. Some companies nurture their employees and ask them to plot out a development map for themselves, while others offer no room for growth.
If you are fortunate enough to work for a company that sees value in developing their helpdesk employees, then you could see yourself filling vacant roles as they become available should you be responsible and show potential, then you could become shift supervisor or general supervisor. From this point you have a few career tracks that you can pursue. You could attempt the management track. The other way to go would be to pursue the technical track. You could become a product specialist, technical lead, or even move on to one of the technical departments within the company's IT team.
You might be wondering how to get the ball rolling at this point so here are some things you can try. It could be as easy as asking your manager for more responsibilities. Ask for more technical work that you can do when the phones aren't ringing and things are quiet around the office. You could ask if you are able to assist other technical teams so that you can gain experience on your days off.
Nobody wants to sacrifice a day off, but if you show that you are willing to learn and push yourself then that might get you noticed. For example, maybe you volunteer to assist with server maintenance tasks during off hours. You will gain hands-on experience, while strengthening relationships with other teammates. Having someone who can vouch for you is never a bad thing when you're looking to move up the ladder.
Evaluate and Act
In an ideal world it would be natural to move up the ladder from helpdesk to another department within the same company. The reality is that most companies find it very easy to fill technical roles through traditional employment processes. Putting time, effort and resources into an employee that might leave soon after does not make business or financial sense. Some companies feel that it is better to hire qualified technical staff than to develop them in-house.
If you have already tried something similar and speaking to your manager doesn't help to kick start you in a new direction within the company, then you might need to start looking elsewhere. That doesn't mean that you should just walk out of your job and hope you find something different, not at all. Instead, you need to start upskilling with training and certification in your spare time.
Show Them You're Worth the Investment
You've decided that you are at the stage where helpdesk work is no longer challenging, enjoyable or fulfilling, and that's ok. Exactly how you start the process of moving on will depend on a few factors. For starters you'll need to be able to offer another employer skills, experience and expertise in another area that isn't a helpdesk role if you are wanting to change and move up.
The best way is to get certified. Even if you are looking to do basic PC repairs and networking. There are numerous entry level certifications that can help you to show your next employer that you have the ability to work on their equipment, as well as their customers' equipment if that is what they need from you. Think about starting with the basics such as CompTIA's A+ and Network+ certifications. This, of course, means that you need to have completed these courses ahead of time, which means that you need to get started soon.
Helpdesk work isn't for everyone. Repetition, being chained to your headset, shift work – they have their disadvantages. But not all people feel this way. Some see the predictability of helpdesk work as positive and being able to work quickly with mastery is comforting to some people.
If you are a people person, then a client-facing role such as helpdesk consultant might be your dream job – everyone is different. You need to decide if a helpdesk role is something that you are prepared to continue with, or if you need to set out and try something new, exciting, or even scary. Personal growth sometimes requires a bit of discomfort, but the rewards are worth the effort.
The bottom line is your career objective. In order to get anywhere you have to set goals and timelines (with expected completion dates!). That way you have a tangible plan with a reminder on your calendar, which makes it very real and easier to work towards.
If you want to be a system administrator, then stay on the helpdesk until you are qualified enough to land a sysadmin role. You might want to go into database administration, which means the same principles apply: study, learn and practice while you are working the helpdesk. If there is room to grow and study while you earn a salary, then there is no need to rush.
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