Movin’ On Up!

By Justin Stanley | October 2008

It’s a pretty common story:  a boy wants to get into the Information Technology field but has little technical experience. So boy takes entry-level tech support job to start building his resume, but boy quickly realizes that phone support is driving him crazy and spends his entire tenure with the company trying to find a way to avoid taking calls ever again.  It’s a classic American tale.

In my case, that starter gig was with a software company that developed products for a very specialized customer base. They just released a new product that was sure to bring in more support calls, so they decided to double their technical support staff by hiring me. 

Although I didn’t have much verifiable technical experience at the time, I was a fast learner. Within a few months I could troubleshoot 90 percent of the incoming calls while half asleep. This that made me a top-notch support technician, but  I quickly became bored with the role and started looking for ways to move up in the IT world.

Thankfully, I figured out how to do just that and within two years was promoted three times. First into a systems administrator role and, eventually, into their IT and support manager position. The skills I cultivated and the decisions I made as a phone support technician were the keys to that success. When it was my turn to hand out the promotions, they were exactly the kinds of things I looked for in others.

Some of those traits are fairly obvious. For instance, it should go without saying that someone looking to move out of an entry-level phone support role into another IT position needs to hone and expand his technical skill set. If you’re lucky enough to work for a company with an obvious IT career path, find out exactly which skills the person in the role you want possesses and use that list as your study guide. Even in small IT shops where the number of tech positions is limited, there will inevitably be some turnover. I wanted the boss to know I was ready to step into that higher position at the drop of a hat.

Unfortunately, phone support positions have a reputation for becoming mind-numbingly dull in a short period of time. A tech that is worth his salt probably will be able to handle the majority of his incoming calls without skipping a beat after just a few months on the job. The day-to-day routine can quickly become monotonous. It can be draining, making it that much more difficult to find the energy to work on those new skills after the shift ends.

Thankfully, though, there are a few ways you can pick up those skills while you’re still on the clock. For example, there’s usually a bit of down time between calls. I took advantage of those free moments to study for certification exams and learn the "Hello, World!" code in new languages.  I learned something new for that desired position; my boss saw how motivated I was to improve myself. Plus, my days didn’t drag on (at least not as much as usual).

And don’t be afraid to volunteer whenever the boss needs a hand with a special project.  Odds are that at least some of those projects will give you the chance to pick up some new experience. Hopefully experience that’s relevant to that new role you’re targeting. If my boss (or, better yet, his boss) needed a hand, I was there. Just make sure you don’t seem too eager to please. Your boss and co-workers could turn on you quickly if they think you’re just kissing up.

I also made sure to cultivate relationships outside my department, going out of my way to get to know people throughout the company. By getting to know them, I got to know more about the company itself, how various departments interacted, their different processes, etc. Having a better understanding of the company as a whole put me a step ahead of outside candidates. 

No matter how great their technical skills were, they’d still have to spend months getting to know the ins and outs of our company. It’s much easier to bring a competent internal IT staffer’s technical skills up to speed than it is to teach an outsider the intricate details of company-specific processes. Plus, the managers of those other departments often had input on new hires, so having a personal connection with each of them didn’t exactly hurt my case when it came time to consider me for a new gig.

Since that all started, I’ve held four other IT positions with three companies, each with more responsibility than the last (and each with a bigger paycheck). And with each of those companies, the support technician who takes the same steps I took when I was in his shoes is inevitably the first in line for my position when it comes time for me to move on.