Making a Career Out of Tech Support
Many IT pros, myself included, got their start in support roles. In a lot of cases, support jobs are viewed as a stepping-stone to other IT jobs. While it is true that support is a great way to gain experience before transitioning to IT, support is also a field you can make a career out of. As of February 2020, Salary.com pegged the median Technical Support Analyst III salary in the United States at $94,376 a year.
While attainable, a salary in that range isn’t the norm for every support role. Getting to the point of making a decent career out of support requires some work. You’ll need to find the right roles and do your part to make the most out of them. Here, we’ll dive into the details of building a career in support and help you differentiate between “good” and “bad” support jobs along the way.
Decide if You Want to Make a Career Out of Support
Before you dedicate time and effort into building a support career, you should evaluate the pros and cons. There’s no one-size-fits-all career path that everyone will love, and support certainly isn’t for everyone. Of course, the best way to figure out if you like something is to try it. Landing an entry level-support job gives you a chance to build your resume and get a feel for life in support.
If you’re into technology, enjoy working with people, and are a problem solver at heart, support may be for you. However, you’ll need to consider the downsides too. Unhappy end users come with the territory, and on occasion, they may take their frustrations out on you. Additionally, a good chunk of your workday will be dictated by the ebb and flow of user problems. Whether that leads to an exciting day or a dull repetitive one, it limits your control over your workload.
These points aren’t meant to be an exhaustive list of support ups and downs. Rather, we want to make sure you think a bit about what dedicating your time and effort to a support career entails. Weigh the pros and the cons and make an informed decision based on your preferences.
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of making a career out of support.
“Good” vs. “Bad” Support Jobs
A bit of a disclaimer on this one: I’m putting “bad” in quotes here because it’s subjective — and a job that pays the bills is nothing to be dismissive of. Even bad support jobs can help you gain experience and perspective. The “good” ones are just more likely to help put you on the fast track to achieving your career goals.
A bad support job is the stereotypical call center job with limited autonomy, few chances to expand your skill set, little room for growth, and an overemphasis on calls, emails, chats, tickets answered — as opposed to actual problems solved. The characteristics of good support jobs include:
- Growth is possible and encouraged
- Emphasis on problem-solving and ownership
- Access to the technology you’ll support (versus simply reading from scripts)
- Technical skills are often an important part of the job
Of course, most jobs will have a mix of good and bad characteristics. The key takeaway here is: if you want to make a career out of support, look for roles conducive to your personal growth and development.
Find Jobs Consistent With Your Goals
Other than your own skill and drive, where you work will be one of the biggest drivers of your career trajectory. If you’re reading this, we’ll assume your goals involve succeeding in a support career. To that end, there are several things you should consider when evaluating what support jobs to take.
From a technology perspective, you can land a support career in almost anything IT-related. There are support jobs involving, printers, cloud, virtualization, A.I., databases, DevOps, networking, security, and programming.
With any job, there are the questions of salary, benefits, schedule, and room for growth. Those are all important, but because they apply across the board, we’ll focus on some support-specific points here:
- Will you be supporting something you’re interested in?
- What end users will you be working with?
- How will this role improve your skill set?
Understand Differences Between Internal and External Support
Obviously, getting into jobs related to an industry and technology consistent with your goals is important. However, it is also important to consider the type of support role. At a high-level, you can put support roles into two categories: internal support and external support.
Internal support means your users are your organization’s employees and contractors. You’ll be the support contact for technology that enables business internally. For example, if you contact your internal helpdesk team to get Microsoft Office installed on your PC, the support agent handling the request is doing internal support.
External support means your users are your organization’s customers. For example, if you open a support ticket with Dell for your PC hardware, the agent handling your request is doing external support.
Whether you should choose an internal or external support position depends on several factors. You may even do both at different stages of your career. In short, we can boil the upsides of internal versus external support down to this:
- The upside of a career doing internal support is you’re generally exposed to a wide variety of technology
- The upside of external support is you can specialize faster and gain exposure to a larger user base
Work Your Way Up the Support Ladder
To make the most out of a career in support — and progress in your career, you should understand the tiered system many support teams use. Generally, there are three support levels or tiers:
- Level 1 – This is entry-level support. Often the first point of contact for support. Here, you’ll handle basic support tasks and escalate more complex issues to a higher level.
- Level 2 – Mid-level support occurs at Level 2. More complex problem solving and critical thinking is required at this level. Generally, this is where support careers can begin to become more challenging and engaging.
- Level 3 – This is the highest level of support. Level 3 gets the most challenging issues and problems that level 2 could not solve.
Every step of the way, you should ask how you’ll get from where you are to where you want to be. If you plan on climbing the support ladder in a single industry or within a single organization, here are a few tips:
- At Level 1, look to gain a fundamental understanding of your industry, your users, and how the technology you support fits in. It can be easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day support grind and not think about the bigger picture. However, if you focus on taking it all in and thinking about the grand scheme of things, it will serve you well down the line.
- At Level 2, look to sharpen your technical skills and own as many problems as possible. At this stage, you’ll start to get more complex issues thrown your way. If you can tackle things at this stage so they don’t get to Level 3, people will take notice.
- At Level 3, look to be an expert in your field. At this stage in your support career you should understand both the technical and business side of support end-to-end. Worded differently, you should be able to have a conversation with management, sales executives, and engineers/developers without feeling out of depth.
Pick Up Skills Along the Way
One of the biggest differentiators between those who quickly climb the support ladder and those who don’t is professional development. In many cases, you won’t start a Level 1 role with many credentials. Earning certifications and demonstrating that you have hard skills is a great way to drive career growth. For example, earning CompTIA’s Network+ certification added some credibility to my resume as I worked my way up the support ladder.
Of course, support isn’t just hard skills. Soft skills are important too. Knowing the tech side of things is important, but if you can’t effectively communicate hard skills alone won’t be enough. Early on in your support career, look to sharpen your communication skills. Understanding how to effectively navigate a conversation with a user can be the difference between solving a problem in one phone call or a request for escalation.
This is one of the buzzwords I like. Customer-centricity is all about focusing on how to solve customer problems and improve customer satisfaction. In support, everyone is focused on solving problems, but not everyone thinks about optimizing those solutions from the customer perspective. A note for those of you interested in internal support, your internal users are customers too!
If you can learn to view problems through the eyes of the customer, you’ll become more effective. Not only will it improve your ability to communicate with users, but you’ll have better input on business processes later in your career as well.
Look for and Take Advantage of New Opportunities
This is a bit of a general career advancement tip, but it definitely applies to support as well. Support teams tend to be well structured and emphasize processes. This can make it easy to get into a routine and only tackle problems that are clearly your responsibility. However, it’s important to remember not to get too complacent — and take advantage of opportunities when they arise. In the world of support, examples of ways you can do this include:
- Take ownership of difficult problems. Support is all about problem solving. When the opportunity arises, volunteer to take ownership of tough problems. Doing so regularly will help you stand out as a valuable resource.
- Make well-informed suggestions and recommendations. As a support rep you’ll have first-hand knowledge of user problems. When you notice patterns and can think of a solution, share it with the right people. However, don’t just throw up half-baked ideas to your manager. Come up with a complete solution, and pitch the idea.
- Apply for that new job. Complacency can be the enemy of growth. Don’t expect every promotion to just be thrown in your lap. If there is a job available that can help move you closer to your goals and you’re qualified, take a shot at it.
- Help other support reps. Helping other team members is a good way to make your team stronger as well as demonstrate technical, leadership, and communication skills.
Final Thoughts: A Career in Support will be What You Make It
Like with most careers, the trajectory of your career in support will be determined in large part by you. Advice from others can help. So, can a good employer. But a big part of where you end up comes down to how you choose to navigate the opportunities that come your way.
Your skill development, willingness to take advantage of new opportunities, and decision-making skills will be major drivers of where you end up.