Graduates entering tech support roles often develop their careers by broadening their skills within a specific industry or area

IT technical support officers monitor and maintain the computer systems and networks of an organisation. You could be installing and configuring computer systems, diagnosing hardware and software faults and solve technical and applications problems, either over the phone or in person.

Depending on the size of the organisation, working as a technical support officer, your role may span one or more areas of expertise.

Organisations increasingly rely on computer systems in all areas of their operations and decision-making processes. It's therefore crucial to ensure the correct running and maintenance of the IT systems.

Your job titles may vary. Alternatives include:

  • applications support specialist
  • help desk operator
  • maintenance engineer
  • technician.

You may also work within first or second-line support. The work is as much about understanding how information systems are used as applying technical knowledge related to computer hardware or software.

Responsibilities

IT technical support officers are mainly responsible for the smooth running of computer systems and ensuring users get maximum benefits from them. Individual tasks vary depending on the size and structure of the organisation, but you'll generally need to:

  • install and configure computer hardware operating systems and applications
  • monitor and maintain computer systems and networks
  • talk staff or clients through a series of actions, either face-to-face or over the phone, to help set up systems or resolve issues
  • troubleshoot system and network problems, diagnosing and solving hardware or software faults
  • replace parts as required
  • provide support, including procedural documentation and relevant reports
  • follow diagrams and written instructions to repair a fault or set up a system
  • support the roll-out of new applications
  • set up new users' accounts and profiles and deal with password issues
  • respond within agreed time limits to call-outs
  • work continuously on a task until completion (or referral to third parties, if appropriate)
  • prioritise and manage many open cases at one time
  • rapidly establish a good working relationship with customers and other professionals, such as software developers
  • test and evaluate new technology
  • conduct electrical safety checks on computer equipment.

Salary

  • Average starting salaries in IT support can range from £17,000 to £23,000.
  • After gaining some experience, it's possible to progress to earnings of around £26,000 to £35,000.
  • Technical support managers can earn over £40,000.

The salaries for IT support work vary greatly depending on the level of the job, previous experience and size of employer.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Due to the nature of the work, you may be expected to work shifts or be on call and it may be necessary to work extra hours to finish a job.

Opportunities for part-time work are not common, given the working hours in many large organisations, but it may be possible in some smaller companies. There are opportunities for self-employment in handling repairs and upgrades for home consumers or small businesses, although this market is shrinking.

Career breaks are rare because of the need to keep up to date with the ever-changing specific software and operating systems.

What to expect

  • There is often pressure to work as fast as possible to deal with problems and achieve immediate results in all situations, either to ensure the minimum loss of manufacturing or customer-contact time, or to enable members of staff to use their computer again.
  • Considerable client contact is usually required.
  • If you have responsibility for hardware or networks, you may have to lift and carry equipment and stretch to access items in awkward places. The dress code tends to be casual, reflecting the physical nature of the work, but you are typically expected to maintain a reasonable standard of smartness.
  • Travel within a working day is sometimes needed and may be required at short notice.
  • Overnight absence from home may be necessary and overseas travel is only occasionally required.
  • This profession is currently male-dominated, but steps are being taken to redress the balance. For information and jobs for women who want to work in technology, visit Women in Technology.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates and those with an HND or foundation degree, the following subjects may improve your chances of getting a job:

  • business information technology
  • business systems engineering
  • computer networking and hardware
  • computer science
  • computer software development
  • information technology
  • internet engineering
  • software engineering.

The above qualifications are not always required for this work, although some employers do prefer a degree or IT-related qualification. Employers also look for in-depth knowledge of the programs and applications they use, typically Microsoft, Linux and Cisco technologies.

A postgraduate qualification is not necessary for entry to this career. However, Microsoft certification may give you an advantage. There are similarly recognised courses for Linux, Unix and Cisco. These are currently the most widely recognised technical certifications in the industry and are available at further education colleges and commercial training centres.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • the ability to think logically
  • a good memory of how software and operating systems work
  • excellent listening and questioning skills, combined with the ability to interact confidently with clients to establish what the problem is and explain the solution
  • the ability to work well in a team
  • problem solving skills
  • a strong customer focus
  • the ability to prioritise your workload
  • attention to detail.

Work experience

Gaining as much practical work experience during your degree course is extremely beneficial and summer placements or year internships are highly recommended. For local placements, check with your university careers service or apply speculatively to local businesses. For overseas work placements, try the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE).

Part-time or temporary work in a relevant area will also be useful. Experience of customer service roles will be advantageous for this job as this will demonstrate that you have the desired communications and people skills.

Employers

IT technical support officers may work in numerous areas, including:

  • computer networks - responsible for installing, configuring and maintaining the computers in a large business
  • desktop support - direct user assistance
  • contract hardware maintenance - working for a business with contracts to maintain and repair computer hardware
  • suppliers of vertical software applications - i.e. software applications for a specific business sector, such as retail, travel or pharmaceuticals
  • managed hosting providers.

They are employed by a variety of organisations, in both the public and private sector, including:

  • software/equipment suppliers, including application service providers (APS)
  • IT maintenance companies
  • call centres
  • retailing chains
  • financial institutions
  • education (schools, colleges, universities)
  • local government
  • health trusts.

There are positions for IT technical support officers in any organisation that depends on computer systems.

Look for job vacancies at:

IT recruitment agencies also handle vacancies. Careers fairs may be attended by companies with relevant vacancies.

Professional development

IT technical support officers usually undertake a combination of on-the-job learning and short training courses. Accredited certification courses are mainly offered by IT specialist training companies who are approved by IT vendors such as:

  • Microsoft (for Windows)
  • Cisco (for networking)
  • Oracle (for databases)
  • IBM.

These courses enable individuals to target specific technologies and develop in-depth knowledge and expertise in those areas.

Technologies change rapidly and it is an essential part of the IT technical support officer's job to stay up to date with any developments in hardware and software, or specific systems applications. Continuing professional development (CPD) is therefore very important. A range of professional qualifications and supported CPD activities are offered by:

IT technical support officers can also carry out self-directed learning, which may include reading manuals and guides, studying online help screens and working things out from logical principles.

Career prospects

Large companies with an extensive technical infrastructure may have separate teams dealing with different areas of their business. With experience, a move to a specialist area dealing with more complex technical environments is possible.

Another option is to take on the role of team or section leader. This can involve supervising the work of a team of support staff, planning regular maintenance schedules and, eventually, managing the complete operational support throughout the business.

Self-employment is also an option for career development. Work may involve providing contract services to large organisations within a hardware, software or applications environment. Short or long-term contracts are sometimes offered.

Alternatively, you may wish to progress on to other roles within IT, such as systems developer or network engineer.

A reference model of the range of professional skills needed by people working in IT has been produced by the SFIA Foundation (Skills Framework for the Information Age) and may help with planning your career development.