Web Informant #266, 16 October 2001:
The Tao of Technical Support


My friend Larry Stouder, now a CompSci professor at St. John's University in New York City, worked for many years as an IT Director for a large multinational corporation. Over those years, he observed the changing nature of providing technical support. Here is his report.

One of my biggest challenges was finding the right path to effective technical support. So many different kinds of technical support are required in most corporations. Networking, hardware, software, and general end-user applications all require a different array of skills and knowledge.

To approach these different areas, I found it helpful to understand some of the underlying philosophies of Taoism. Roughly translated, Tao translates as the path or the way. We in IT Management are perpetually searching for the way to provide the best possible technical support in the most cost-effective manner. It is a constant struggle to find balance between the Yin (dark side) of technical problems, which are inevitable, and the Yang (light side) of effective technical support, to achieve peace and harmony in our daily lives. Another Tao belief is that one should plan in advance and consider carefully each action before making it.

TAO is also a convenient acronym for thinking about the three main choices on how you construct your overall technical support model. They are: train up, acquire, or outsource. These are not exclusive choices, and many organizations will want to incorporate all three of these into their support model. Let's go over each one.

Train up. This option entails sending existing technical staff for training to support technology areas not currently in their skill sets. This has the advantage of being able to leverage existing technical personnel and control the availability of their training resources. Training also provides continued professional development and bolsters morale.

Resistance usually comes from several fronts. Firstly, training can be time consuming, and provide additional stress for busy people who often have jobs that already fill more than a full working day. Training also is expensive, especially the specialized training that a good support person will require. And training can't be done in isolation, so you may still need additional time and resources before your support staff can apply their newfound knowledge effectively. Finally, many managers also believe that their people will leave for a better job once they finish their training courses.

Acquire. You can hire additional people if you don't have someone on staff who you can train up to provide a needed area of technical support or who has the bandwidth to take on additional support duties. This has the advantage of being able to select someone with a specific set of talents and experience to match your needs. This kind of person can usually hit the ground running. Often the search will take considerably less time than training would take.

But the downside is that you may not be able to hire anyone, especially in these dark times when everyone has pressure to reduce overall staffing levels. In some cases, the most experienced people have priced themselves so high that an offer would be for more than some of your top managers.

Outsource. This has been in vogue for sometime now. The advantage is that you can offload the personnel and training issues. The outsourcing service provider becomes responsible for maintaining the talent and keeping them technically current. Since this does not require hiring new people or adjusting the salaries of existing staff, personnel policies are not involved. Outsource firms often have areas of specialization and experience across a large number firms and environments.

Cons include the daunting task of having to deal with a service agreement for each outsourced arrangement. It can be more costly than either of the other alternatives, but companies are often more willing to spend it here. Managers often feel a lack of control over the resources and their quality.

As I said, these aren't exclusive choices, and you should consider choosing each of these when you are putting together your support model.

At my firm I learned to be a willow in the wind of change. We leaned towards the train up alternative as much as possible and our staff turnover was very low. As our technology base grew and increased in complexity, we needed to acquire more specialized and experienced people. For example, when we implemented client/server, we acquired database administrators and developers. Outsourcing became the alternative used to augment staff during periods of high activity and for special projects when we did not have the talent or the bandwidth. We developed working relationships with firms having good technology coverage in their practice. Projects like implementing a major platform shift, or overhauling the infrastructure, were the kinds of events promoting the outsourcing alternative.

The lines between these alternatives were soft, but having a governing philosophy in place positioned us to adjust our use of these alternatives to meet the ebb and flow of support demands in the most responsive and cost effective manner. And it enabled us to balance our yin and yang quite nicely.

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David Strom
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