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How do you Cover for Specialists?

Some of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen that I worked late a couple of days last week as some sort of epidemic has swept the help desk area of our firm, leaving them quite short-handed. In fact, they were left with no one available between the regular folks who work there, and the couple of usual backups to cover the phones until 6PM each evening, which is the customary procedure. Not having any immediate plans after work, I stepped in and covered them.

While I was down there, another one of our IS folks and I were discussing how much tech support has changed. Time was when he, and everyone in the IT department where he worked, had the help desk line on their phones and we expected to answer it when the regular folks were tied up, but that was when all you had to support was PC hardware and maybe MS Office apps. Now, there are dozens of apps in use, in a variety of specialties, that he doesn’t even know how to use, much less support.

As we talked, I realized how much that is true. The folks who were brought in as specialists, like for Networking, Telecommunications, and DBA, simply don’t have the knowledge to do general end-user support. Our firm is a little luckier than most, because some of the other IT specialist positions are folks who started out working at the help desk, like myself, and can step in. On the other hand, it’s only been a bit more than 2 years since I worked there fulltime, and there have been some applications added that I don’t use, and couldn’t possibly support. (Luckily no one called with a question about those while I was flying solo down there!) The others who’ve been away for even longer, have even more apps where that is the case.

We came to realize, not just that we really only had a limited number of people who could effectively backup the help desk folks, but that we had very limited backup for any of our positions. When our telecommunications guy is on vacation, there is an official “backup” person, but what can be handled in his absence is very limited. A major telephone system meltdown during his vacation is going to result in a serious problem. Now with our Litigation Support Department consisting of me, and one other person working remotely 4 days a week, on that 5th day, if I get sick, and there’s someone needing trial prep work done, there’s no one to do it. Same goes for our one web developer. If something needs done, and she’s not there to do it, what happens?

As more and more firms try to “do more with less” in this economy, how many IT people are having to be “on call” even when they’re on vacation, or over weekends, or when they’re sick, because they’re the only one’s who can handle some tasks? What does your organization do to try and prevent this, or do you simply require them to live with this expectation? Are your IT people expected to always be reachable? Are they therefore limited in where they can go on vacation, because of this expectation that they will always be able to log in remotely and work on something at a moment’s notice? Is that really fair?

Personally, I don’t think it is. More importantly, if there’s only one person at your firm who can fix certain issues, what do you do when that person gets hit by a bus? Or leaves? Aren’t you asking for trouble if you simply ignore the fact that skills and knowledge haven’t been shared among the whole team and you’ve simply laid these expectations at the feet of your folks as your “solution”?

So as technology gets more specialized, and budgets get tighter, what do you do to have a backup plan?

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  1. I (Applications Support Specialist) work in IT for a law firm. I’m the first person to answer help desk phones. If I’m not available, then the Desktop Support Specialist guy answers them. If we’re both unavailable, then the Network Administrator answers them. If we’re all busy, then it falls to the Litigation Support Specialist. Basically, we’re all “specialists”, yet we all answer help desk calls. We only have 60 lawyers, so our IT staff is small. I hate being called “help desk”, because it often implies that I don’t know very much and can only answer basic calls and need a script to do so. Of course, we all know that is very different in a law firm.

  2. Tina,

    It sounds like, in your smaller environment there's no need for a specific person who solely works in tech support/helpdesk role, however it also sounds like you've got a bunch of specialists who can all cover the help desk questions, but maybe not do each others jobs. For example, if your network admin is gone for some reason, who can handle network and server problems? Who would handle a corrupt app install build if you weren't there, etc.? That's just as much of a problem in my mind.

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