The Five Worst Things About Working In IT Support

IT support can be an incredibly rewarding job if you like people and solving complex problems. Equally, though, it can downright suck.

Photo: Robert S. Donovan

Many years ago, before I was a tech writer, I worked for a year as a phone support technician for a now-defunct computer company.

It wasn’t a great job, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t a great phone support worker, largely because I really rather disliked the work. But as they say in the classics, I was young, and I most definitely needed the money.

To be fair, it actually taught me a lot, and not just how to identify motherboard jumpers based on decades-old photocopies of product manuals or how to deal with small children who had inadvertently switched a power supply from 240V to 110V “just because”.

It also taught me the ways that working in IT support can suck — and some practical ways to deal with those exact woes. So in no specific order, here are the five worst things I hit dealing with tech support

#1: Nobody ever calls you up happy

This goes with the territory, because nobody’s going to spend two minutes, let alone twenty, waiting on hold to tell you how wonderful their printer is.

The psychological drain of taking calls from upset people isn’t something you can easily shrug off, however, and there were plenty of days I left work feeling utterly drained. Not because diagnosing config.sys problems was hard (this was some time ago, folks), but because the human toll was much more tricky to mentally balance.

While I’m an avowed tech geek, it was undeniably the least techy period of my life, simply because unplugging from the tech world was the easiest way to release myself from it and provide that kind of relaxation time.

I was part of a group of about a dozen new hires when I started, and during the year I spent on the phones, I lost count of how many other new hires simply stopped turning up for work. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the workplace per se, but more a stark fact about tech support roles, especially first-level tech support roles. Higher-level roles can be more satisfying, but equally depending on structure, they can involve exactly the same kinds of stresses with customers who are far more demanding.

Not everyone will be cut out for a support role, and even now, years later, I have a very slight phobia about answering the phone.

#2: It’s massively repetitive

Tech support involves fixing people’s problems — same as with any support role — but that means that the most common issues are the ones that you’re going to have to face day in, day out.

That meant for me undergoing endless Windows reinstalls over the phone, over and over and over again. Especially at the front line first level support desk, it’s not all being able to show off your technical wizardry all the time. You’re going to deal with a lot of paper jams.

When I interviewed WWE wrestler Seamus a few years back about his IT support experience, he reiterated the same kind of thought. “I remember my first job. I used to have to make CAT-5 cables. That sucked. That really sucked. It’s just so trite.”

#3: You get a heavily skewed view of the product or service

People call you up day in and day out with problems. This thing doesn’t work, or that part is broken, over and over and over again. The repetition is one problem, but so is the view that you almost inevitably form about the quality of what it is that you’re actually supporting.

If everyone says that a particular product always dies in a certain way, you start to mentally agree with them, without necessarily having the perspective on how many complaints there are relative to the quantity of products sold or used on a daily basis.

When I left my support role, I moved into a journalism job, and I was rather strict for the next two years that I wouldn’t review anything at all coming out of the company I’d worked for. That was partly to avoid accusations of bias based on a previous role if a review was to be positive, but also because my own impressions stayed with me for a long while.

#4: It’s too easy to assume an air of superiority

The users are all idiots, right? PEBKAC, right?

Nah, not mostly. But again, working frontline tech support it’s all too easy to get this kind of viewpoint, because again you deal with problems that seem simple to you, because they’ve been drilled into you either through your own interest or simply because you’ve had to fix them previously so many times before.

Reality is a little more nuanced, however. I always tend to try to think of it in terms of my interest in cars.

I’m not interested in cars in any real way at all.

I own and drive a car, and it’s a tool to get me from point A to point B. I don’t care about the make, the colour, or even the particular feature set beyond the fact that it has four wheels and takes me places faster than I can walk.

I’m passionate about technology, and many of my friends are, but many end users simply aren’t. Having an air of superiority over the users because you know more about a particular topic isn’t particularly helpful to them. They probably don’t care about technical specifics. They just want their printer or computer to work so that they can go back to doing whatever it is that their job entails.

#5: Some problems are just plain weird or unsolvable

“Hi, I’m calling up because I’ve got kangaroo semen on my monitor”
“This is the eighth time I’ve called. My speakers make a click noise when I turn them off. I don’t like that. Can you fix it?”
“I got that sound card you sent out, yeah, but it wouldn’t fit, so I took the angle grinder to it. It doesn’t seem to work. You’d better send another.”

Those were all real calls that I took.

The problem here is that all too often you’ll be hit with a problem that has no real solution, or a solution that doesn’t fit within the job criteria. For the record, I advised a soft cloth to the vet with the ‘roo, but pointed out that we wouldn’t cover liquid damage under warranty. I endured a lengthy but boring call from the speaker guy whose problem couldn’t be fixed because the speakers were designed that way, and had to put the last caller on mute because tears of laughter were escaping and it became hard to breathe.

Working in support means that support is your job, and there’s little that’s more frustrating than having a problem that you can’t solve. The above cases were extremes, but even the mundane matters were problems that I faced on a daily basis. One bit of bundled software — memory tells me it may have been a faxing solution, which again gives away the fact that this was quite some time ago — that came with the systems I had to support was notoriously flaky. It was third party stuff, but we had to support it somehow, even when it was being obtuse, which was pretty much all the time. Sometimes I could solve it, sometimes I couldn’t, and sometimes I’d just pray for the phone line to cut out mid-call. I never went down that route, but a few short-term hires most definitely did.

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