Tuesday, February 22, 2005

support serf to writer: a how-to

looking over this blog, a friend of mine (a former microsoft dev) suggested that a good topic would be my transition from tech support to writer. he feels that blogs should either dish out dirt or be inspirational. I'm not sure which angle he intended for this tale -- I'll use both.

this is a story about the software industry and how the field of tech support is plagued with both an undeserved negative stigma and a disconnected lack of respect. oh, and also... why I'm part of the problem.

Update: After joining Metalogix Software in 2007, I happily went back to helping people by working in the support department, so I'll have to create another entry in this series called ''and back again."

I started my career in technology working at the university of british columbia (UBC) help desk. the year was 1995 and i was a student in the faculty of arts. like so many others, i didn't know what I wanted to do when I entered university. I enjoyed reading classic literature and writing, but I didn't feel that writing was a realistic career path. after my first year, I took some time off to go traveling. eventually, I figured out that technology is my passion. the combination of technology and my arts degree turned out to be ideal -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

in the mid-90s, the main focus of the help desk was modems. nowadays, we can fondly remember the high-pitched screech of a model handshake, but at the time, it was the bane of the support rep. I took the job because I wanted to gain some official experience - any official experience - in the 'computer industry.' at the time, most of my experience in the technology realm was creating Doom levels. just like writing, I didn't think that working on video games was a realistic career path -- I was wrong about both. I think I was making $10/hr when i started; this was less than what I was making as a lifeguard, so I certainly wasn't doing it for the money.

<how-to section>
the experience of being in arts and working at the help desk taught me an important lesson. you can easily find ways to gain experience in the field of your interest -- even if you are working or studying in a different field. while working on my arts degree, I found myself spending most of my time on my computer. I put more hours into making game levels, learning web development and FreeBSD then I did on my course work. sure, it hurt my grades, but it was my projected-based hobbies that helped me get the jobs I wanted -- this lesson served me well through the years.
</how-to section>

while working at the help desk, I discovered something interesting about myself; I am one of those rare people who actually enjoys tech support. I found the problem solving aspect cool and resolutions often came with immediate expressions of gratitude -- something that appealed to my nature as a Leo. however, even in a job that I knew was temporary, there was an obvious stigma associated with support. customers of the university ISP service would routinely mistreat the very support staff who were trying to help them through their issues. e-mails arrived with comments such as: "you're a bunch of morons who are probably still popping pimples!" it was enough to make one question their future at the help desk.

for all those people out there who have never worked in support, let me just say that it's a tough job. you have to be technically savvy and also have good soft skills. being on the front line is especially tough. phone support is the worst; it is direct enough to be insulting but lacks the interaction of a drop-in. in short, having an angry person on the phone was the worst case scenario. people on the phone expected results immediately and they were often emboldened by anonymity. at least if the person came to talk to you, they would have to have some courage to start yelling about their misbehaving 486.

I worked at the help desk for a few years and I had some good times there. for example, we had one guy call in and repeatedly ask to speak to "rundell" -- we didn't have anyone working at the desk by that name. it turned out that a support rep had told this guy that he was experiencing a "run.dll" error.

since I thought that I had finally figured out what I wanted to do, I started taking some comp. sci. courses. but even those classes didn't satisfy my desire to work with 'real-world' technology. to illustrate my relationship with academia, I'd like to point out that in a comp. sci. lab I once lost a mark for using two staples instead of one. no, it wouldn't be good for me to stay in that environment. I decided to finish the degree that I had started and in 1998 I received a B.A. in English Literature (sadly, we didn't study capitalization :).

during my last year atUBC, a fellow arts student helped me get a job working as a technology consultant. when I first started, it was a division of SHL Systemhouse, but the group was soon purchased by General Physics (GP). while working for GP, I worked on a number of training projects but I was always looking for a way to do something more technical.

thinking that I needed experience outside of my job description, I put in a proposal for a Linux training program. the project never got off the ground, but the timing turned out to be perfect. GP needed someone to develop a Unix module for an Oracle DBA course. since they knew I was interested, they asked me to do it.

I decided to leave GP for a number of reasons. after creating the Unix module, I was certain that I wanted to do something more technical than training. it was the height of the .com bubble and I wanted to work with emerging technology. although this was my main motivation, there were also some issues at the company. our paycheques were mysteriously arriving late. the company had a number of excuses. one time, they claimed that they were accidentally being sent to japan. however, an anonymous poster on an investment website alleged that the cheques were being held to artificially inflate the coffers of the division (I don't believe that the parent company was implicated). this was allegedly all part of some management stock buy-back plan. whatever the reason, I already had enough motivation to head for the door.

I left GP and took time off to do some more traveling -- time off is something that I highly recommend. when I returned, I started looking for a job at a software company. as I mentioned, this was the glory days of the .com fiasco. I can remember telling my brother that i didn't care if the company I chose went under in a year. after all, that would be a year of experience on my resume.

surprisingly, for the late 90s, I managed to find one of the rare companies that was actually producing worthwhile software. the company was Ncompass Labs and they were in the process of shifting their focus. the technology now known as ActiveX was originally developed at NCompass and for years the main revenue for the operation came from an ActiveX plug-in for the Netscape browser. however, when I joined, they were already well along the road of content management. at the time, they were working on a ground breaking content management platform called Resolution. after Microsoft acquired NCompass, they re-branded Resolution as Microsoft Content Management Server.

coming soon...
support serf to writer: part II (the NCompass years)


Mike said...

Is your Shift key broken?

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stephen Cawood said...

funny... but someone beat you to it. i'm just showing how l33t i is