Your help desk career: Dead end or launching pad?

A role on an IT help desk is what you make of it, tech pros say -- just don't get too comfy.

When Anthony McCloud graduated from Graceland University in 2000, he didn't have a smidgen of business experience. He didn't know the first thing about business processes, customer service, or the quirks and habits of business workers.

Now he knows all that and much more. McCloud has spent the past seven years working in help desk-related roles at four companies, including stints for a high-tech equipment maker and a small restaurant chain.

The experience he has gained from learning about different businesses and "intermixing" with various types and levels of business workers has been priceless in terms of strengthening his communication and relationship skills, McCloud says.

"From my experience, being on an IT help desk has been a huge, huge opportunity," says McCloud, who was hired by Mac Equipment in June 2007. In addition to his role as the company's lone help desk technician, McCloud has also helped out as a server analyst and has done application development work in SQL, Visual C Sharp and PHP.

On the money front, McCloud doubled his salary when he first left a two-person business to take a help desk job at Mac Equipment, and since then, he has watched his compensation steadily increase at each subsequent position.

As McCloud and others are discovering, many help desks have evolved beyond their ticket-taking roots -- offering expanded opportunities for help desk employees.

But that doesn't stop some IT professionals from hewing to the "old school" party line that says a career stop on the help desk is a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

"If you're hired just to work on a help desk, that's all you will ever do," says Fred Wagner, a FileNet and Kofax systems specialist for the city of Long Beach, California.

In particular, help desk technicians who work in "stovepiped" IT organizations -- that is, companies where systems analysts, network managers and other IT professionals are segregated from one another -- can go 10 to 15 years without being promoted into IT infrastructure, business analyst, systems administrator or other types of roles, he says.

A new breed of IT pros begs to differ, maintaining that a job on an IT help desk can open doors to other IT career opportunities. Help desk technicians, these proponents say, gain valuable experience working with end users throughout the enterprise and learning what makes the business tick.

The IT help desk "has become the place where you learn about IT," says Rich Hand, executive director of membership at HDI. Help desk professionals "get a feel for what's going on" within the IT organization and often move into other areas such as network operations, says Hand.

"Because it's client-facing, you get a lot of opportunities to develop your people skills and work a lot of different mental muscles," says Patrick Tyrrell, director of IT support and training at the Boston office of Bingham McCutchen, an international law firm.

Tyrrell says nearly everyone he worked with on a help desk at a California-based IT outsourcing provider in the late 1990s has since moved into senior-level IT positions at companies such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America.

But that's not the case everywhere. For instance, career options can be limited for help desk technicians who work in monolithic IT organizations, says Paul Myers, an applications development manager at the Kansas Department of Transportation.

"I've known a couple of hundred IT help desk support people, and maybe a half-dozen have moved past being a support manager or a support leader. And all of those have done that by learning a new skill and moving to a new company," says Myers, who himself never served on a help desk but did work as a technical field service engineer at Unisys in the 1980s.

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