Posted by Robert Half Technology on Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - 08:00 | Follow me
It would be an understatement to say that desktop support professionals have seen their jobs change with time and technology. Just take a look at our recent survey of helpdesk pros to see the sort of unusual requests they receive.
But technological advances in "how computing happens" have not changed the fact that an organization’s users need someone to provide hands-on help and troubleshooting. Still, it’s interesting to take a look back at how the desktop support pro’s role has evolved through the decades.
The PC revolution
In the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the popularity of MS-DOS and relatively inexpensive x86 architecture, it became possible for organizations to put computers directly on their workers’ desks. Software such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect provided the push for businesses to deliver computing to a larger group of users. As a result, organizations began bringing desktop support professionals into the office to provide assistance and fix problems.
With personal computers costing many thousands of dollars more than they do today even without accounting for inflation, simply replacing equipment was not in the budget. Instead, it was up to a desktop support professional to fix faulty computers. There was no Internet as we know it to quickly search to see how an issue had been resolved in the past, so these professionals needed to understand on their own how to fix a variety of problems.
It could be confusing to make even simple changes like adding a second hard drive to a PC. Without networks, "making a backup" usually meant copying a file to a floppy disk and hoping that disk still worked when your hard drive invariably died. In addition, computers were often customized. Some used proprietary technologies such as Micro Channel Architecture while others didn't. On some devices, settings were changed by adjusting jumpers on hardware and required consulting with a manual to know the right configuration.
Things were no easier on the software side of things. Users had to learn to use MS-DOS or a similar command line system just to run their applications — and they frequently needed help. When it was time for a major upgrade, a desktop support professional would need to go from desk to desk inserting floppy after floppy, doing the upgrade and having no plan B in case of failure. Each PC was configured and deployed individually, making the task time consuming and error prone.
As PCs began to dominate computing, they became faster and cheaper. In the mid-90s, the idea of networking and centralized control became baked into the system as users shifted from MS-DOS and MS-DOS-based operating systems to Windows NT 4 and its descendants such as Windows XP (2001) and Windows 7 (2009). This was good news for desktop support professionals since it allowed system administrators to manage the desktop computers' settings and monitor their health remotely. Standardization in peripherals and upgrades with technologies like PCI Express, USB, SATA and RAM allowed desktop support professionals to more easily and quickly fix minor issues and make upgrades. Falling hardware prices made it reasonable for organization to keep a pile of spare machines on hand and swap them instead of calling in the experts to resolve tricky issues. New software tools like disk cloning utilities enabled desktop support technicians to wipe systems and restore them to a base configuration quickly. And because applications stored data on the network file shares or in central databases, no information would be lost.
Users in the late 1990s and early 2000s were much more familiar with computers either from growing up with them or being around them in the business world. Along with increased knowledge, operating systems became easier to use. At the same time, applications and operating systems became much more sophisticated and complex. The desktop support professional spent most of his or her time teaching users how to get the most out of their PCs.
The traditional desktop or notebook model of computing still represents the lion's share of business use but tablets, phones and other devices have become an important way to get things done as well. Desktop support professionals need to be able to help users with their mobile devices. If the company has a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policy, the desktop support professional may need to support a wide variety of unfamiliar devices, so the ability to quickly figure out the nuances of many devices became crucial. The proliferation of networks and access to better tools allow desktop support professionals to assist users remotely now as well.
In 2015, according to the Robert Half Technology 2015 Salary Guide, the average starting salary for a desktop support pros in the United States falls between $52,000-$77,000 — a 5.1 percent increase over 2014 starting salaries. Desktop support professionals today may need some of all of these skills or qualifications:
- Bachelor’s degree in computer field
- Experience installing and supporting standard hardware and software
- Experience with a wide variety of hardware, software, operating systems and network connections
- Ability to anticipate and prevent network problems
- Certifications such as HDI, Microsoft or CompTIA
The tools and technologies used by IT employees have changed what desktop support pros do and how they work over the last thirty years. But the role of the desktop support professional remains the same: Keep computers up and running and help users to work with them. The career of a desktop support professional remains an exciting option for those who want to combine hands-on technical skills and working with others.
Need a laugh? Check out this cartoon based on our survey highlighting the most unusual requests desktop support professionals receive.
How do you think the role of the desktop support professional will change in the next decade? Share your thoughts in the comments below.