Hello, how is it going? Have you stuck to your resolutions? I’m trying to. A box of After Eights and some candy canes to go and it is back to normal. Meanwhile I am continuing to reflect on what it means to be a manager in my field of IT support. A divisive question can be whether or not it is necessary to have direct experience of the job that your team members do in order to be an effective manager? Should you have worked your way up or is it OK to come in from elsewhere?
Views on this tend to be split three ways – the team members always think you should have direct experience, the manager who has direct experience thinks all managers should and the manager who doesn’t have experience thinks it’s not necessary. You can guess my background by my own position: I think it helps if you have direct experience. But you can still be a good manager, you just have to work a bit harder to understand the role you are managing, so that you can demonstrate some empathy. If you can’t or won’t make the effort you’ll never really understand what it is like to do the work and you risk not gaining their respect.
It’s just answering the phone isn’t it? How hard can it be?
In my experience, first-line support is often seen as the poor relation in IT, perceived to be at the unskilled end of the technical spectrum and just a glorified dogsbody - it’s just answering the phone isn’t it? How hard can it be? If you’ve been in the front line you’ll know that it is the sharp end. It is a multi-skilled role where you have to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. You need to be able to listen to the caller, diffuse an angry situation if necessary, write down the caller’s details and relevant, succinct information about their needs and if you can manage punctuation and capitals letters and no spelling- or typing-mistakes at the same time then all the better. In addition to that you are attempting to analyse and resolve the problem at the same time so that in the interests of good customer service you don’t have to delay the fix by passing the job on to another IT technician. If you do pass it on your lack of technical ability will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the rest of IT support whose opinion about your technical ability is now validated; and woe betide you if you didn’t check that the system held the callers correct telephone number and location, and ask them what times they’ll be sitting at their desk waiting for a call-back.
But ask a second- or third-line IT support technician to answer the telephone themselves for half a day and you will get any number of reasons about why they don’t do that. They’ll tell you that they joined the profession to work with computers not telephones; they’ll tell you it’s beneath them and they’ll tell you that it is not a good use of skilled technican time. The truth though, I suspect, is that they’re scared. It can be stressful waiting for the next call wondering whether it will be someone angry or someone rude, or someone let down by the process and understandably wanting a resolution that the front line often has no control over. It’s much easier to keep your head below the parapet and let first-line support take the blame. It must be their fault surely - they can’t even get the room number right.
Not at all fair. Whatever the reputation, it’s a tough job being in first-line IT support. If you are managing a first-line team and you’ve been in the front line yourself, you will easily be able to demonstrate empathy – you’ve been there and it will show in the way you pre-empt and respect the issues they face. If you haven’t been there you run the risk of making assumptions that others make, that it’s easy and unskilled. You can make a quick win by getting to know more about what it’s like to be trapped in a headset all day not knowing what will come at you next – ask your team about their work, their experiences and their difficulties, and show them some empathy. Or alternatively you could take the headset yourself and give it a go for half a day – if you dare. You’d gain some respect anyway.