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.

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Mature help desk organizations offer technicians challenging roles beyond simple password resets, says McGarahan, who ran the help desk from 1992 to 1995 at Taco Bell Corp., where he oversaw back office operations and point-of-sale systems for 4,500 restaurants. For example, some help desks are spending more time getting to the root of customer problems by using knowledge bases and other analytical tools "to resolve more challenging incidents while the customer is still on the phone," explains McGarahan.

"A customer of mine once said that if companies are doing the right things in running the help desk, the line to get onto the help desk should be longer than the line to get out," says McGarahan.

Moving on up

It's customary for upwardly mobile help desk technicians to transition into IT roles such as systems administration, data center operations and network management, sources say, but help desk employees aren't necessarily limited to technically oriented pursuits.

For example, help desk technicians can move into business analyst roles, thanks to their problem-solving savvy, strong interpersonal skills and their broad-based understanding of business operations, says Ric Mims, executive consultant at SupportCenter Global Technologies Inc. in Lafayette, Ind., who is also a global faculty member of HDI.

Help desk managers typically move into more senior IT infrastructure positions in areas such as data center operations, desktop support, networking and telecommunications, says Ed Pospesil, chairman of Technology Executives Networking Group LLC in Guilford, Conn.

"I've seen IT executives who have started their careers on a help desk," says Pospesil, who has been a technical and IT executive recruiter for the past 32 years. "It cuts to their customer service and communications skills. They can follow a number of paths."

William Kyrouz is a prime example of this specialization. Since Kyrouz started in IT as a data-entry clerk at a legal publisher in 1995, he has taken his help desk experience and gravitated to roles in quality assurance and network management.

Kyrouz is currently a senior applications manager at Bingham McCutchen where he oversees a staff of 10 people who handle software deployment and application support. "I came into IT and gravitated towards the networking group," says Kyrouz. "That happened to be the right path for me."

Skills that translate

When help desk technicians do want to make a leap, what skills do they bring to the table? For starters: patience, depth of knowledge, inquisitiveness and a real connection with end users.

One of the biggest misconceptions about help desk professionals is that they're merely ticket-takers who don't have broad or deep technical knowledge. Most end users "don't see what's going on behind the scenes," says Stefano Stefan, assistant director of business, management, legal and IT programs at the University of California at Irvine. "It takes an extraordinarily patient person to work on a help desk."

Many help desk employees have a technical inquisitiveness that inspires them to pursue other technical roles in the IT organization such as network management and data center operations, says Pospesil.

Kyrouz agrees. The first person he promoted out of a help desk role -- at a Midwestern manufacturer where they both worked -- was a technician at who moved into a Microsoft Exchange administration role within six months.

"He didn't come in with a lot of background in back-end systems, but he had the brains and the enthusiasm," says Kyrouz. At a different company, Kyrouz shifted two help desk analysts into network analyst roles. "Their institutional knowledge with the user community was invaluable," he says.

Don't overstay your welcome

IT professionals, or aspiring pros, who are considering working on a help desk should plan to be in their roles for no more than two years so they don't become typecast or burnt out, most experts agree.

"You shouldn't leave anyone on a help desk for more than two years. ... It isn't beneficial unless they're unmotivated or that's what their career ambition is," says David Lane, an infrastructure architect at a government contractor in the Washington area.

Others say it depends on the individual and that person's specific career goals.

"I've had people who have been on the help desk for 10 years. They're happy with what they do, they're very good at it, and they don't have aspirations to go into other areas," says Will Olive, director of IS technical support at Children's Hospital & Health System Inc. in Milwaukee.

"I also have people who have been on the help desk for three to five years who are interested in going into other areas," says Olive, who is also past president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Society for Information Management.

For instance, he's had people from his 50-person staff move into IT roles in the hospital's purchasing department as well as into desktop support and application development. "It's natural osmosis," says Olive. "You get exposed to different facets of our IT organization."

When employees indicate they do aspire to move up, Olive says, "we'll provide them additional training in areas like desktop support so that when there's an opening in that area, we can move them right in."

In fact, organizations use the promise of training and a future career path to solve another help desk problem: convincing high-quality workers to take those jobs in the first place.

Despite the opportunities that working on an IT help desk can offer people, it can be difficult to persuade recent college graduates to accept an entry-level role there if they have loftier ambitions.

"The kids coming out of these higher institutions are expecting these $70,000 to $80,000 jobs and nice cars, and it's tough for the employer to say 'Here's where you start,'" says Neil Hopkins, vice president of skills development at the Computing Technology Industry Association Inc. (CompTIA) in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. (See "Who makes what" for help desk salary figures.)

One way to attract recent graduates with high expectations is to offer entry-level IT workers the training and certifications they'll need to advance in the IT organization, says Hopkins. "There are a lot of individuals who would be delighted to take on a help desk role if their careers were mapped out for them," he says.

Despite all the benefits and positive career opportunities, it's still hard to break long-standing perceptions, help desk proponents acknowledge. "You don't get a lot of people who say, 'I want to grow up to be a help desk analyst,'" admits HDI's Hand.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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