In many ways, the help desk and desktop support people are the face of the IT organization within any company. They're the front-line techies who help regular employees do their jobs by making sure desktops, laptops, applications and networks are installed properly and working seamlessly. They troubleshoot and diagnose computer problems  - and they must do it with a smile and their best customer service skills. 

Simply put, starting as a help desk or support technician can be a good way to get your foot in IT's door. In the last year, as the economy shifted, a number of companies began putting more emphasis on maintaining - rather than replacing - current equipment. That only increased the need for help desk and desktop support specialists across the country.

Some IT workers started in support through happenstance. Take Austin Williams, a help desk technician at Oakland-based Arcadian Management Services. After serving in Iraq with the Army National Guard, he stumbled in IT while looking for work.

"I had filled out a survey and had gotten a call from ITT Tech," Williams recalls. "I went down to see what they had to offer, and I really liked their pitch for computer networking. I'm a smart guy, and I think computers are cool. I wasn't a nerd or a hardcore gamer, but rather a guy that liked the job because it looked fun and challenging.  I signed up and started taking classes while finishing my army obligation."

Williams now believes he's acquired skills that can be carried over into other parts of business. "Help desk/desktop support is the best starting-point," he says. "It is the best place to learn about the company and business you work for. I've been doing this for a while with my current company, and now I really grasp what different departments do, how they do it, and who in the company is directly responsible for revenue." Developing such a big-picture view, he adds, helps him "learn about how to meet the needs of the people I serve, while saving the company on resources."

Roles and Career Paths

Help desk and desktop support center on basic skills. As Williams says, "a good technician should have a good memory, excellent customer service, and problem-solving ability."

Although the technologies involved in support may overlap, they can be separated into two areas, says Dave Willmer, executive director of the recruiting firm Robert Half Technology. Help desk support technicians are more likely to aid people in diagnosing and troubleshooting problems over the phone, so excellent communication and customer service skills are paramount. More often than not, these folks are dealing with impatient people who just want to get on with their work or are up against stiff deadlines. Desktop support specialists are more likely to deal with hardware and software issues on the company premises. These professionals need to be comfortable with a more hands-on approach, and more comfortable with details. In general, desktop support technicians need more experience - generally three to five years - than their colleagues on the help desk.

Technicians usually need an associate's or bachelor's degree while taking on an entry-level role. They provide maintenance and support for basic client products, peripherals and networks, but also configure and install software for desktops and laptops. They also maintain desktop software and hardware, while providing support to users of basic software and hardware end-user systems.

Technology analysts, who typically have three to five years of experience in support, problem solving or troubleshooting, configure, install, monitor and maintain desktop hardware and software.  They also support the mobile workforce. They consult with users in all aspects of end-user computing and desktop-based LAN systems software, as well as providing technical support and guidance through questions help desk technicians may not have been able to solve. They also may train users while evaluating, maintaining and documenting desktop application packages.

There are plenty of chances to serve in management roles in support. Obviously, Desktop support managers are responsible for ensuring technology users get the equipment and support they need, but also determine user needs and the develop plans for support services. The position, which is a mid-level management role, often reports to the IT chief operating officer or a department IT executive. Responsibilities can also include hardware and software planning, vendor selection, acquisition, resolution of more advanced problems as well as the set up, integration, testing and installation of equipment. These managers generally need a bachelor¿s degree in computer science, information systems or equivalent work experience.

The customer support manager is a mid-level manager. He or she works is involved in defining service levels, service agreements and managing the help desk operation. They also analyze the technical performance and reliability of products, systems and services against industry standards to ensure customer satisfaction.

Skills and Qualities

  • Patience
  • Good customer service and communication skills
  • Ability to work with others in stressful conditions
  • Attention to detail