Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Essential Technology Support Staff Skills and Characteristics

What are the most important skills and characteristics of the technology support staff members at your school or other organization? As the 2018-19 school year winds down, I’m wrapping up my fourth year to serve as the Director of Technology for Casady School in Oklahoma City. As I’ve been making preparations for a job transition next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Here are my top three answers.

Smiles at ISTE 2016 with Jason Neiffer a by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Smiles at ISTE 2016 with Jason Neiffer… ” (CC BY 2.0) by Wesley Fryer

Relationship and Communication Skills

Technical knowledge and skills to work in a technology support department are definitely important, but they are less important than relationship and communication skills. It’s much easier to help someone develop more technical competencies than develop their abilities to communicate effectively and cultivate positive, respectful relationships with others. Both can be taught and learned, but the latter are more closely tied to an individual’s personality and overall disposition, and therefore are more challenging to change and develop.

When it comes to technology support, for a variety of reasons, many people are reluctant or reserved to ask for assistance. I heard a wise observation a few months ago about “support tickets” which are formally reported in an organization like a school. If you have X number of “open tickets” waiting for resolution right now, you almost certainly have twice that many technology support issues out there that need to be addressed. Over half of them just haven’t been reported (yet) in your formal ticketing system.

It’s far easier for a technology support staff member to make someone else who needs technical assistance feel inferior, inadequate, or otherwise “put off” than respected, listened to, and understood. The most important thing I do at our school, as our director of technology, is cultivate relationships with our faculty and staff. If I’m able to develop a positive relationship with someone, where they perceive me as a “safe” person to reach out to for assistance, I am much more likely (as is our technology department) to be able to succeed in my support roles with them as well as their colleagues.

Have you ever had a conversation with a technology support person who made you feel stupid, belittled, and/or ignorant? Sadly, those experiences are much more common than they should be in the arena of technology support. Whenever I have an opportunity to hire a new technology support staff member or provide input for a new hire, I always look for relationship building and communication skills first. Some questions I consider are:

  1. Does the person come across as kind, genuine, and a good listener?
  2. Does the person seem to have a humble disposition?
  3. How do other people who have worked with this individual, in a situation where they have received technical support, describe the way they were treated and felt as a result of their interactions with the prospective hire?

In recognizing the importance of relationship and communication skills, I’m certainly not saying I’ve completely mastered those skills myself. I’m definitely “always learning.” There are some people who are, for different reasons, exceptionally challenging to build relationships with. I have struggled and continue to struggle with relationship building in several cases. Overall, however, I feel positive about the priority I place on relationship building in our school both for me personally and for our department.

It’s important to recognize key relationships within your organization to which you must give special attention and time as a technology support staff member. Administrative assistants often are in this category, because they are the staff members who are in a position to be most attuned to the interpersonal dynamics as well as technical support needs in their area / department. Never underestimate the value and importance of “small talk,” and also the importance of “regularly being present,” even for short amounts of time, with different people in your organization.

Relationships can only be built through shared experiences and the mutual exchange of perceptions. Those things take time. “Small talk check-ins” with staff, especially administrative assistants, are analogous to micro-investments you’re making in your relationships with those folks and the department in which they work. We don’t have time every day for face-to-face check-ins, but as technology support leaders and staff members, we should periodically make time for drop-in visits and short conversations. These are the raw materials upon which relationships are built, and correspondingly a successful technology support culture. The perceptions and feelings which other people have about you as a colleague and staff member are shaped much more strongly by these face-to-face interactions than by emails you send or policies you develop for your department.

Quick and Adaptable Technical Learner

The technical skills and past technical support experiences of IT staff are important, but it’s even more important that these individuals be quick and adaptable technical learners. By “quick and adaptable,” I mean they are able to readily learn how new systems operate, interact with other elements of the network and computing environment, and can troubleshoot issues with many of these systems without formal training. Some complex systems definitely require and need formal training and even certification programs, but the majority of technical systems we support daily in our school technology department require “just in time learning.”

I sometimes joke that when I was little I dreamed of becoming a fireman, and now as a technology director I’ve realized that lifelong aspiration: I’m constantly “putting out fires.” I don’t have an exact percentage, but a large number of the situations into which I’m called are novel to me. The longer I’ve been a technology director, the more I’m able to draw on past experiences and learning… but the nature of our computing and information environment makes addressing new challenges a “norm” rather than an anomaly.

In this environment of constant change and new challenges, it’s important to know how to search the web effectively and iteratively for technical solutions. It’s also important to be able to “escalate” help to corporate / vendor support channels, if local staff are unable to figure out a solution. One way or another, trouble tickets need to be resolved. Technical support staff don’t have to know all the answers / have all the answers to every problem (that’s actually impossible, in my experience) but we DO need to be able to efficiently find answers and implement fixes / solutions.

This can be a challenging disposition to effectively identify when you are conducting job interviews. One helpful strategy is to ask a prospective hire to describe a recent technical support challenge they faced and overcame, and describe their “process” in finding a solution that worked. While it’s not absolutely essential, today I think it’s important that support staff have and use a “professional learning network” which extends well beyond the walls of the organization.

Attention To Detail

In addition to good relationship/communication skills and the ability to learn quickly, technical support staff absolutely MUST have outstanding “attention to detail” skills. This means when they are applying a technical solution to a problem, they can consistently (and without much supervision) metaphorically “cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s.” While many technology systems today have (thankfully) become simpler and easier to support than their predecessors, there still can be LOTS of required steps when applying a technical fix / solution to a problem.

Two examples of fantastic and powerful systems which have made our technical support requirements much easier at school the past four years are Cisco Meraki switches and access points, and our Jive VOIP phone system “in the cloud.” I’m extremely thankful, and have been richly blessed in terms of the reduction in required support hours, for our school to have adopted these platforms for our computing needs. Even though these systems are MUCH easier to use and manage than many competing products and platforms, there is still a high level of complexity to the design as well as support utilization of these systems. Attention to detail is vital.

I’m not sure how to effectively test and filter for “attention to detail” skills in a job interview. It might be best to give a job candidate an actual work challenge, with a long series of steps which they have to apply and then repeat several times. I haven’t used this strategy in a job interview with a candidate myself, but it’s certainly worth considering. “Attention to detail” was something that was literally hammered into our brains repeatedly during basic training and our freshman year (4 degree year) at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Flying an aircraft, or maintaining an aircraft, or doing just about any other task related to “flying, fighting and winning” in the Air Force requires attention to detail. I find it’s an essential skill and cultivated ability in the arena of technology support as well.

Colorado Springs - USAFA (Sept 2014) by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Colorado Springs – USAFA (Sept 2014)” (CC BY 2.0) by Wesley Fryer

There are certainly other important skills and qualities for technical support staff than the ones I’ve highlighted here, but these are definitely among the most important. What have I left out? Share your thoughts as a comment below, or by reaching out to me on Twitter @wfryer.