By: Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice
You're at your desk when the blue screen of death blooms across your computer screen. Quick - grab the phone! Help is only a call away.
Out of sight but never out of reach, the internal tech support staff -- made up of technical support specialists who staff the help desk -- have long been the unsung heroes of corporate information technology departments.
But as IT skills segue from a client-server to virtual platforms (see IT Skills: The Cloud Architect Role), technical fixes are much simpler. The need for intensive hand-holding is evaporating and the nature of the internal tech support staff job is quickly shifting.
Evolving IT Skills
Jeff Jenson, president of the board of the Los Angeles chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals, manages a staff of technical administrators at a company with offices around the US.
Rather than wait for the phone to ring with the “crisis du jour,” he now expects those same tech support staff to proactively reach out and understand how they can help users get more from their software and systems. The positions are being recast as "technical administrative consultants."
"Virtualization is allowing us to make a large percentage of repairs with a single reboot of the computer.”
So what can the technical staff do, since the infrastructure is more efficient?
“We need [internal consultants] with more consultative skills,” says Jenson. “Instead of waiting for a call, they're calling internal clients and finding out what is going on in their offices. That is a whole different mindset.
It's also a huge shift in point of view and daily responsibilities. Jenson is scrambling to help his long-time staffers survive the change.
Change Management Rules the Day
Jenson's management challenge is typical of the change management leadership thrust upon IT teams and department leaders.
The business skill of consulting is rapidly reinventing swaths of traditional IT skills, says Carole Schlocker, an IT recruiter and founding member of the executive management team of business services company iSpace.
Even hard-core IT jobs are less defined by a mastery of a string of languages than by the ability to collaborate with vendors, suppliers and business unit leaders.
For instance, the venerable title of 'business analyst,' says Scholcker used to be inward-facing, shuttling between internal clients and internal tech staff. Now, business analysts ensure that their organizations' needs are met by external vendors, too.
"The title is the same, but it's a different skill set, and it's needed in a different way," says Schlocker.
Meanwhile, she observes that IT managers now expect what are often referred to as soft skills, even in the geekiest employees: "good people skills, good interface skills, and good writing skills," she says.
Team Development via Cross Training
To jumpstart his staff's transition from tech support to tech consultants, Jenson is structuring team projects so team members cross-train each other. In the process, they cross-pollinate analytical, problem-solving and personal skills that are better 'caught' than 'taught.'
He also consciously models consulting by showing IT staff how he explores the context and deeper drivers of new projects handed to his department.
Jenson's staff is currently pitching in on a different type of help desk that solves complex system-wide problems with seasoned internal consultants.
An upcoming project: interviewing users about their needs so that the technicians-turned-consultants can research and recommend new technology for various teams.
For those who rise to the challenge, says Jenson, "There's a lot of opportunity for those who take the initiative."
Joanne Cleaver is author of The Career Lattice, (McGraw Professional, 2012), which shows how lateral career moves help organizations and individuals grow. She is president of strategic communication boutique Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc. Reach her at email@example.com.