Do your job applicants for the IT help desk look like carbon copies of one another? Do you get cross-eyed looking at the heaps of resumes with the same listed qualifications? If you are looking for new ways to separate the good candidates from the great ones, this list could be invaluable to you. Here are some skills that make for a great IT worker, but don’t fall into the normal expectations for a tech geek’s resume.

1. The Power of a Positive Attitude

In a field that lives and dies by hard skills like computer science, attitude isn’t always the main focus when seeking a candidate. But it should be. Candidates that truly believe they can tackle any problem, those who can think outside the box, and the ones who can negotiate with the best hard-noses make great help desk workers. These applicants will forge good relationships with both users and management, while finding unique and innovative ways to solve problems that have plagued your organization for eons. Look for the upbeat interviewee who doesn’t break a sweat when you pop off those tough questions.

2. The Ability to Speak a Foreign Language

Now that the entire world is online, even the smallest businesses find a need for multilingual speakers at the help desk. You never know when you need to communicate with a vendor in Brazil or a consultant in Germany, or a user in French Quebec. Even if you believe you have no use for the particular language skills a candidate possesses, the act of learning a new language improves a worker’s ability to communicate with others effectively and learn new things. This means they pick up quickly on new processes and how to use your ITSM software.

3. Musical Talent and Skill

Study upon study shows a correlation between musical abilities and success in math and science. Students of music have a better grasp of mathematical concepts (think whole note, half note, quarter note) and tend to be strong computer programmers. Musical skills are also a good indication of the ability to use logic.

4. A Background in Library Sciences

Library science, like music, requires a certain set of skills that translates well into IT work. Candidates with these skills have strong research abilities, which is inherently important on the help desk. Library science also teaches the ability to aggregate data and view data sets in unique ways — meaning they are excellent job prospects in environments dealing with big data.

5. Strong Communication Skills, Both Written and Oral

An ongoing problem has existed between the tech workers and the other business staffers since the innovation of computers in the 1960’s. Tech workers speak tech and nobody else understands them. An applicant with a proven ability to speak to average users in plain, simple language is invaluable on the help desk. Written skills are also important if the job involves writing and developing presentations, such as proposals for executives to consider when drafting the IT budget for the year. Good communicators can “Keep it simple, Stupid.”

6. Knowledge and Experience with Mainframe Computers

Mainframes are not dead. This is just an ugly Internet rumor made up to get more people to read tech blogs instead of watching cat videos at work. Mainframes are still responsible for about 60 percent of all enterprise transactions, and most of the programmers with mainframe knowledge and expertise are Baby Boomers getting ready to retire. It’s crucial to get some younger workers into the business who can help maintain systems, write code, develop patches, and generally keep the business running after all those gold watches are given away.

Look for these skills among your job applicants, and score the hidden gems your competitors ignorantly pass by.

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On MSN the other day, I noticed an article called "75 skills every man should master." It included some skills I have and some I don't. For example, I can tie a knot and hammer a nail, but frankly I can't recite a poem from memory, and bow ties still confuse me.

It was an interesting read and made me realize I could be more well-rounded than I am. To be honest, we all could be.

So in the spirit of personal growth, I developed a list of skills every IT person should have.

1. Be able to fix basic PC issues. These can be how to map a printer, back up files, or add a network card. You don't need to be an expert and understand how to overclock a CPU or hack the registry, but if you work in IT, people expect you to be able to do some things.

2. Work the help desk. Everyone, from the CIO to the senior architect, should be able to sit down at the help desk and answer the phones. Not only will you gain a new appreciation for the folks on the phones, but you will also teach them more about your process and avoid escalations in the future.

3. Do public speaking. At least once, you should present a topic to your peers. It can be as simple as a five-minute tutorial on how IM works, but being able to explain something and being comfortable enough to talk in front of a crowd is a skill you need to have. If you are nervous, partner with someone who is good at it, or do a roundtable. This way, if you get flustered, someone is there to cover for you.

4. Train someone. The best way to learn is to teach.

5. Listen more than you speak. I very rarely say something I didn't already know, but I often hear other people say things and think, "Darn, I wish I knew that last week."

6. Know basic networking. Whether you are a network engineer, a help desk technician, a business analyst, or a system administrator, you need to understand how networks work and simple troubleshooting. You should understand DNS and how to check it, as well as how to ping and trace-route machines.

7. Know basic system administration. Understand file permissions, access levels, and why machines talk to the domain controllers. You don't need to be an expert, but knowing the basics will avoid many headaches down the road.

8. Know how to take a network trace. Everyone in IT should be able to fire up wireshark, netmon, snoop, or some basic network capturing tool. You don't need to understand everything in it, but you should be able to capture it to send to a network engineer to examine.

9. Know the difference between latency and bandwidth. Latency is the amount of time to get a packet back and forth; bandwidth is the maximum amount of data a link can carry. They are related, but different. A link with high-bandwidth utilization can cause latency to go higher, but if the link isn't full, adding more bandwidth can't reduce latency.

10. Script. Everyone should be able to throw a script together to get quick results. That doesn't mean you're a programmer. Real programmers put in error messages, look for abnormal behavior, and document. You don't need to do that, but you should be able to put something together to remove lines, send e-mail, or copy files.

11. Back up. Before you do anything, for your own sake, back it up.

12. Test backups. If you haven't tested restoring it, it isn't really there. Trust me.

13. Document. None of the rest of us wants to have to figure out what you did. Write it down and put it in a location everyone can find. Even if it's obvious what you did or why you did it, write it down.

14. Read "The Cuckoo's Egg." I don't get a cut from Cliff Stoll (the author), but this is probably the best security book there is -- not because it is so technical, but because it isn't.

15. Work all night on a team project. No one likes to do this, but it's part of IT. Working through a hell project that requires an all-nighter to resolve stinks, but it builds very useful camaraderie by the time it is done.

16. Run cable. It looks easy, but it isn't. Plus, you will understand why installing a new server doesn't really take five minutes -- unless, of course, you just plug in both ends and let the cable fall all over the place. Don't do that -- do it right. Label all the cables (yes, both ends), and dress them nice and neat. This will save time when there's a problem because you'll be able to see what goes where.

17. You should know some energy rules of thumb. For example: A device consuming 3.5kW of electricity requires a ton of cooling to compensate for the heat. And I really do mean a ton, not merely "a lot." Note that 3.5kW is roughly what 15 to 20 fairly new 1U and 2U servers consume. One ton of cooling requires three 10-inch-round ducts to handle the air; 30 tons of air requires a duct measuring 80 by 20 inches. Thirty tons of air is a considerable amount.

18. Manage at least one project. This way, the next time the project manager asks you for a status, you'll understand why. Ideally, you will have already sent the status report because you knew it would be asked for.

19. Understand operating costs versus capital projects. Operating costs are the costs to run the business. Capital equipment is made of assets that can have their cost spread over a time period -- say, 36 months. Operating costs are sometimes better, sometimes worse. Know which one is better -- it can make a difference between a yes and no.

20. Learn the business processes. Being able to spot improvements in the way the business is run is a great technique for gaining points. You don't need to use fancy tools; just asking a few questions and using common sense will serve you well.

21. Don't be afraid to debate something you know is wrong. But also know when to stop arguing. It's a fine line between having a good idea and being a pain in the ass.

22. If you have to go to your boss with a problem, make sure you have at least one solution.

23. There is no such thing as a dumb question, so ask it ... once. Then write down the answer so that you don't have to ask it again. If you ask the same person the same question more than twice, you're an idiot (in their eyes).

24. Even if it takes you twice as long to figure something out on your own versus asking someone else, take the time to do it yourself. You'll remember it longer. If it takes more than twice as long, ask.

25. Learn how to speak without using acronyms.

26. IT managers: Listen to your people. They know more than you. If not, get rid of them and hire smarter people. If you think you are the smartest one, resign.

27. IT managers: If you know the answer, ask the right questions for someone else to get the solution; don't just give the answer. This is hard when you know what will bring the system back up quickly and everyone in the company is waiting for it, but it will pay off in the long run. After all, you won't always be available.

28. IT managers: The first time someone does something wrong, it's not a mistake -- it's a learning experience. The next time, though, give them hell. And remember: Every day is a chance for an employee to learn something else. Make sure they learn something valuable versus learning there's a better job out there.

29. IT managers: Always give people more work than you think they can handle. People will say you are unrealistic, but everyone needs something to complain about anyway, so make it easy. Plus, there's nothing worse than looking at the clock at 2 p.m. and thinking, "I've got nothing to do, but can't leave." This way, your employees won't have that dilemma.

30. IT managers: Square pegs go in square holes. If someone works well in a team but not so effectively on their own, keep them as part of a team.

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Help desk technicians (and all IT professionals) need a full range of hard and soft skills to excel in their career. Hard skills are specific, measurable abilities, such as configuring Windows or troubleshooting a Cisco network, while soft skills refer to a person’s capacity to effectively interact with others. As demand for IT talent continues to rise and the workforce becomes more competitive, those who compliment their knowledge and training with superior soft skills will be in the best position for long-term success.

Here are five of the most advantageous soft skills for IT help desk technicians:

  • Critical Thinking

    Oftentimes, help desk technicians have flow charts or predefined procedures they can follow to resolve known problems. However, it’s impossible to create documentation for every possible situation. Successful technicians employ critical thinking skills to evaluate the current issue and compare it to past problems they've seen. They can then draw on this experience to troubleshoot and resolve unique and more complex problems.

    Critical thinking typically includes the following activities:
    • Actively thinking: Technicians use their intelligence, experience, knowledge, and creativity to explore a problem and identify a solution.
    • Questioning: Critical thinkers often ask themselves questions about a problem or issue, and then seek out the answer. When troubleshooting, technicians identify a theory of a probable cause and then attempt to validate the theory.
    • Changing perspectives: Solutions are often more obvious when a technician looks at a problem from a different perspective, such as that of a user.
    • Evaluating evidence: The critical thinker is able to use reason to evaluate existing facts and arrive at a substantiated conclusion.
  • Written Communication

    Effective written communication is vital in help desk and technical support job roles, especially in organizations that use a knowledge-base or CRM (customer relationship management) system. Technicians use these systems to look up common problems and solutions. In order for these databases to be useful, technicians must succinctly document their actions after they resolve a problem. Managers and supervisors also use these systems to review and evaluate your work for promotions.

    Consider these two entries written by different technicians:
    • "System broke… fixed it."
    • "System was manually configured with incorrect IP address. Reconfigured to use DHCP. Verified problem was resolved."
    The first entry is cute; it might even earn some chuckles from fellow technicians. However, the second entry provides valuable information for a knowledge-base, which can be easily indexed and searched by keyword.
  • Active Listening

    Active listening is among the most valuable interpersonal communication skills. Think about a time when you were talking to a friend and it was apparent he or she wasn't paying attention. How did that make you feel? Ignored? Angry? Resentful? Users know when you aren't listening to them and have the same feelings.

    Active listeners pay attention to what someone is saying; they make eye contact, nod and occasionally voice their understanding. When they don’t understand something, they ask questions to get clarification (sans interrupting). Small nuances like this in the way you interact with people, when taken over a period of time, go a long way in building a positive relationship with users, coworkers and management.
  • Verbal Communication

    Verbal communication skills are critical to your success as a help desk technician. For example, a user might complain of something vague like “The server is down” or “The Internet is down.” A technician might know an organization has more than one server and it’s unlikely the Internet is down, so he needs to gather more information to diagnose the problem.

    Consider these two questions used by technicians to get more information:
    • "Why do you think the Internet is down?"
    • "What symptoms are you seeing?"
    Both questions are open-ended, which is useful when you’re probing for information from a user. However, the first question starts with “why,” which takes on a tone of interrogation. As a rule, it’s best to avoid starting any question with “why.” It puts people on the defensive and can easily create an adversarial relationship. Alternatively, the second question begins to foster a collaborative relationship with the user and indicates the technician is there to help.
  • Conflict Resolution

    While it’s best to use language that avoids conflicts, there are times when a customer will become angry during a trouble call. Successful help desk technicians must know how to handle these difficult situations.

    One of the primary elements of conflict resolution during a technical support call is recognizing that the user or customer is rarely angry with the technician - at least they don’t start out that way. Instead, the customer is typically frustrated with the situation and wants the problem resolved.

    If a help desk technician uses a phrase like “why are you so angry,” it is sure to escalate the problem. However, if the technician stays focused on the problem and expresses some empathy, the customer is much more likely to calm down. It’s as simple as sounding sensitive to the user’s frustrations, and then guiding the conversation to the problem. A technician who’s skilled in conflict resolution may say something like “I’m sorry you’ve experienced this issue, but I want to help you.” Empathy goes a long way in diffusing difficult situations.

Hard skills can get you the job, but soft skills will help you take it to the next level. Help desk technicians (and all career-minded professionals, IT or otherwise) who are serious about performing to their peak capacity, should demonstrate a mastery of critical thinking, verbal and written communication, active listening and conflict resolution skills.

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12 traits hiring managers look for in help desk job candidates

1. A real desire to help people.

This person does a great job because they truly want to help others, not because it’s “their job”. They work hard to play hard, find joy in their day-to-day tasks, and have passion for their role.

2. Works ‘with’ and not ‘for’ the customers.

A superior support agent sees the customer as an equal partner, and considers themselves an extension of the customer’s team. Identifying with the customer as a partner helps support agents treat problems as their own and provide a level of service that they would expect themselves.

3. Positive and optimistic approach to problem-solving.

Support jobs can be difficult, but this person doesn’t allow negative customer interactions to become contagious. In the face of a tense or charged situation, this person knows how to stay logical and focus on solving the issue at hand. They approach customers with empathy, don’t complain about customers when things get tough, and look for what can be learned from the situation.


4. Creates and cultivates a playful and relaxed work environment.

This person enjoys themselves at work, spreading a positive can-do attitude. A great support agent integrates a bit of fun into their daily tasks to make everyone’s loads a little lighter. Office pranks are always a fun way to do this.

5. Collaborative team spirit.

This person feels responsible not only for their own tasks, but also cares about their team’s workload, too. They know when to ask for and offer help, and understand how much they can take on at a time. They care about the team’s success, and are happy to sacrifice personal goals when needed to help the team achieve its goals. There are times you will get pulled into a call that lasts for hours on end, so it’s good to know the team can cover for you.

6. Passion for the product.

An awesome support agent is an informed champion of their products. They’re enthusiastic about using them, understanding how they work inside and out, and seek to improve them. This natural curiosity drives them to tinker, and truly understand how the product works, not just how to fix it when something breaks. This type of passion for the product shows up in customer interactions, and it’s infectious.


7. All-star communication skills.

A great help desk agent simply enjoys communicating with customers. They know it’s essential to listen and understand before being heard. This person strives for transparency, and communicates with tact. They know how to adapt their style to different kinds of customers – from those that want to be your best friend, to those that just want the problem solved. Their natural teaching skills help customers understand the product enough to even solve issues on their own.

8. Advocates for the customer – with balance.

This person feels the customer’s pain, and uses their resources to go above and beyond to help the customer reach a solution. They look beyond 1:1 customer interactions to solve problems globally, and in turn, help even more customers. This could be something as simple as updating knowledge base information or filing a bug or feature request. At the same, they know how to prioritize their day, and are careful not to dive too deep into one problem at the cost of other customers.

9. Real respect for the customer.

In a help desk job, it’s important to acknowledge customers by name and build meaningful relationships with them. This person caters to the customer’s needs regardless of where they fall on the technical and product knowledge spectrum, always doing so in a respectful manner which is never condescending or patronizing.


10. Detective-like troubleshooting skills.

From the moment a ticket is submitted, this person knows how to ask the right questions and gather the available data to narrow down the root cause of the issue. Like Sherlock Holmes, they leave no stone unturned in figuring out what’s really going on.

11. Analytical and process-oriented approach.

This person understands support processes are important, and not only follows them, but helps improve them. They take an analytical approach to driving change, and use data to support their assertions.

12. Care for quality over quantity.

When you have a long list of tickets, and know there are more coming in, it’s tempting to work on as many as possible, without truly solving the problem at hand. Focusing on the quality of the support you give, as opposed to the quantity of tickets you touch, will ensure you’re actually solving problems and creating happy customers.


Land the job

All of these traits help hiring managers know if help desk job candidates would be a good fit, from an experience and cultural perspective. “Will this person embody our values and help cultivate a culture of customer success?” “Will they continually seek to learn, grow, and make the product better?” Being able to demonstrate this cultural fit is just as – if not more important – as the technical skills you possess.

Being a help desk or support agent isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a rewarding career for those that want to help others and learn a lot. At Atlassian, we are always looking for new people to join our awesome support team. Check out out the jobs we’re hiring for.

Want more? Learn about the different types of help desk, read our blog articles about customer service, or learn more about Jira Service Desk, our customer service and IT support tool used by over 20,000 support teams.

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