The helpdesk helps start IT careers

opinion - Lee is executive director of recruitment firm Robert Half Technology

Those looking to break into the IT industry — whether they are recent graduates or entry-level professionals, or are transitioning from another profession — often have the same initial question: Where do I start?

The concern is legitimate. The first steps you take as you launch your career in the technology field play a role in establishing the professional path you ultimately take. It’s also necessary to build a solid foundation of skills and experience early on so you can prepare yourself for additional responsibilities and advancement opportunities down the road.

So, what’s a good first job? Quite frequently, rewarding IT careers start on the helpdesk. The support field is booming as companies continue to expand their operations and invest in technology to fuel this growth. In addition, the release of new systems and products rarely slows — the new Windows Vista and accompanying Office updates are good examples — meaning there is a steady need for specialists to help end users troubleshoot the applications and hardware they rely on.

But more important, a helpdesk job can put you in a good position for future growth. Here are a few reasons why:

Hard skills development Helpdesk technicians work with nearly every system a company uses or sells. That includes operating systems — applications, networks, the internet, hardware and peripherals. In a helpdesk role, you can gain in-depth, real-world knowledge of these technologies, an especially valuable commodity for workers with little or no job experience. This wide-ranging exposure allows you to not only build your hard skills, but also determine which technologies you have the greatest passion for.

Soft skills development There’s no doubt well-developed technical skills are essential for any IT professional, but that doesn’t mean they’re all you need to build a successful career. Increasingly, managers are looking for employees who also have strong interpersonal skills, such as communication, problem-solving and leadership abilities.

These so-called soft skills can be learned on the helpdesk. Think about it: Performing step-by-step troubleshooting of a proxy server configuration with a person unfamiliar with the workings of the email system allows you to build your communication skills. And keeping your cool when helping a stressed caller resolve his problem can improve your tact and diplomacy.

Advancement potential Perhaps the best part about a helpdesk role is that it’s often possible to leverage the skills and experience gained there to secure a higher-level position. Many network, web and email administrators, for example, got their starts on the helpdesk.

In addition, many advancement opportunities exist within the helpdesk itself. In large companies, experienced professionals are needed to supervise, train and assist junior helpdesk technicians.

Another potential career path is to pursue a position as a helpdesk manager.

Unlike most areas of IT, which call for extremely specialised knowledge, the helpdesk requires professionals to be familiar, at least in a broad sense, with a large number of technologies.

If you’ve grown up with computers or are the unofficial tech guru among your friends, a spot on the helpdesk may be the right way to start your IT career.

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