Your help desk career: Dead end or launching pad?

A role on an IT help desk is what you make of it, tech pros say -- just don't get too comfy.

When Anthony McCloud graduated from Graceland University in 2000, he didn't have a smidgen of business experience. He didn't know the first thing about business processes, customer service, or the quirks and habits of business workers.

Now he knows all that and much more. McCloud has spent the past seven years working in help desk-related roles at four companies, including stints for a high-tech equipment maker and a small restaurant chain.

The experience he has gained from learning about different businesses and "intermixing" with various types and levels of business workers has been priceless in terms of strengthening his communication and relationship skills, McCloud says.

"From my experience, being on an IT help desk has been a huge, huge opportunity," says McCloud, who was hired by Mac Equipment Inc. in Kansas City in June 2007. In addition to his role as the company's lone help desk technician, McCloud has also helped out as a server analyst and has done application development work in SQL, Visual C Sharp and PHP.

On the money front, McCloud doubled his salary when he first left a two-person business to take a help desk job at Mac Equipment, and since then, he has watched his compensation steadily increase at each subsequent position.

As McCloud and others are discovering, many help desks have evolved beyond their ticket-taking roots -- offering expanded opportunities for help desk employees (see "What's in it for you?" for details).

But that doesn't stop some IT professionals from hewing to the "old school" party line that says a career stop on the help desk is a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

"If you're hired just to work on a help desk, that's all you will ever do," says Fred Wagner, a FileNet and Kofax systems specialist for the city of Long Beach, Calif.

In particular, help desk technicians who work in "stovepiped" IT organizations -- that is, companies where systems analysts, network managers and other IT professionals are segregated from one another -- can go 10 to 15 years without being promoted into IT infrastructure, business analyst, systems administrator or other types of roles, he says.

A new breed of IT pros begs to differ, maintaining that a job on an IT help desk can open doors to other IT career opportunities. Help desk technicians, these proponents say, gain valuable experience working with end users throughout the enterprise and learning what makes the business tick.

The IT help desk "has become the place where you learn about IT," says Rich Hand, executive director of membership at HDI. Help desk professionals "get a feel for what's going on" within the IT organization and often move into other areas such as network operations, says Hand.

"Because it's client-facing, you get a lot of opportunities to develop your people skills and work a lot of different mental muscles," says Patrick Tyrrell, director of IT support and training at the Boston office of Bingham McCutchen LLP, an international law firm.

Tyrrell says nearly everyone he worked with on a help desk at a California-based IT outsourcing provider in the late 1990s has since moved into senior-level IT positions at companies such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp..

But that's not the case everywhere. For instance, career options can be limited for help desk technicians who work in monolithic IT organizations, says Paul Myers, an applications development manager at the Kansas Department of Transportation in Topeka.

"I've known a couple of hundred IT help desk support people, and maybe a half-dozen have moved past being a support manager or a support leader. And all of those have done that by learning a new skill and moving to a new company," says Myers, who himself never served on a help desk but did work as a technical field service engineer at Unisys Corp. in the 1980s.

"If you're a help desk guy, you're a help desk guy, and the only thing you can aspire to is your boss' job," says Myers.

Other IT pros beg to differ. "I never think of the help desk as a dead end," says Ronald Kibbe, assistant director of customer support services for medical center information systems at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. Working on a help desk, says Kibbe, "can be a career, and it can be a launching pad."

Kibbe says he looks for a mix of people to work on his 28-person team, including those who like to get their hands dirty with technology and those who have "long-term" customer service aspirations.

You in the driver's seat

Indeed, most of the dozen-plus IT professionals, managers, consultants and academics interviewed for this story believe career paths for help desk technicians largely lie in their own hands.

Career growth for help desk technicians "is very person-dependent," says Robert Rosen, immediate past president of the Share IBM user group and CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md. "Some people use it as a launch pad, and other people make it a dead-end job," he says.

The greatest opportunity for help desk technicians lies in their ability to learn about different facets of the business, "which makes them more valuable than a pure IT guy," says Rosen. Conversely, "the guys who get stuck [on the help desk] are the ones who are heads down and just want to fix PCs," he says. "And they wonder why their careers are going nowhere."

Scott Steele, a systems engineer at an IT services provider in Bermuda, says much depends on the dynamics of the IT organization.

"In my old company, I saw no growth," says Steele, referring to his five-year stint as a help desk technician at a Canadian oil and gas services provider, which he left last September for his current role. He says there were many senior IT professionals at his former employer "who were there for years and years and weren't moving. I felt like I was getting pigeonholed."

Other factors play into the mobility of help desk technicians. "It depends on the culture of the organization and the maturity of the help desk," says Pete McGarahan, founder and president of McGarahan & Associates, a Yorba Linda, Calif.-based IT services consulting and benchmarking firm.

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