How to survive and thrive in tech support

I have done a lot of different things in my life. Those things include such basic things as hard labor at minimum wage, tending bar, and technical support, all the way up to network engineering and security consulting at hundreds of dollars per hour. That’s a lot of background for one guy, and I confess, anyone who reads my resume is usually pretty impressed with some of the highs that I’ve achieved along the way. But to be honest, my very favorite thing I’ve ever done out of all those many things, is technical support. That seems crazy, right? For a guy who has the option to go make tons of money consulting, to prefer getting paid way less to answer calls/emails/etc from people who don’t really understand the technology in question, and are often cranky? I won’t pretend I really understand it all, but I suppose a good part of it is that I love the challenge of solving complex technical problems, live and on the spot. I also have the kind of personality that just naturally tends to be helpful, which is what I hope this blog post will be to someone(s).

Technical Support is one of the most burnout-inducing jobs you can have. There is constant pressure that comes from solving complex technical problems when you’re on the spot, coupled with the fact that most of the customers you’re working for are usually people who are in tough spots, that have managed to get good and frustrated before they called you. All of that kind of thing can wear you down until you’re in honest need of psychiatric attention, a long vacation, and possibly even meds to put yourself back on the straight and narrow. I know all that, because I’ve been there/done that, and I’ve seen countless tech support colleagues go there too. This is my blog-length little guide on how to, not just survive and avoid being a burnout statistic, but to really enjoy life and thrive and as a tech support monkey.

  1. Do good work. Always do good work, no matter what. If you’re not already in the habit of it, get in the habit of it. You may find it feels like a huge pain the butt to be doing things like writing laboriously long winded text to document your work, and finding the mental energy to generally be up to do whatever it takes to ‘own’ everything that comes across your desk, so that the buck either stops with you, or gets handed off to the correct person (and followed up later to make sure that person stopped the buck). But once you’ve Done it Right™ for 3 to 6 months, you’ll find it’s the most natural thing in the world, because it’s your habit and you’re not even thinking about it anymore. It really is no harder to do it right than to do it wrong, it’s just sometimes hard to train ourselves to do it right.

    Why is this so critically important to not being a tech burnout you ask? I’ll tell you why. There are few things in life so depressing and demoralizing and psychologically damaging as being trapped in a job where you’re doing crappy work for crappy pay for angry customers. You can fix (or at least mitigate) all of those things by making it your habit to always do good work. You’ll get the self esteem and internal satisfaction that comes from doing good work, your customers will stop being pissed off at you because you’re now doing good work for them, and while it may not happen overnight, doing good work is one of the very best ways to get raises and promotions that doesn’t involve sleeping with your boss, or other things that likewise probably wouldn’t be good for your self esteem.

  2. Take breaks. Take vacations (real ones, not the stay home and do nothing kind). Take every minute away from your desk that your employer will give you. Do this even if you don’t feel like you need it. Do this even if you don’t feel like you want it. Working with your mind is a weird business. You are physically able sit at a desk 16 (or more) hours a day, crunching away at tech work (or tech play for that matter). However, if you do this for an extended period of time, you stand a near 100% risk of developing one of several types of debilitating mental illness that may affect you for the rest of your life. You wouldn’t do manual labor until your body was broken and damaged beyond repair would you? Of course not. So why would you do mental labor until your mind was similarly broken and damaged?

  3. Make a habit of having a real life. Something(s) totally outside of work, that you consider ‘fun’ that don’t involve staring at screens or working on a computer. Go for long drives. Go bowling. Go sing karaoke. Go learn how to do long range bench rest shooting. If not every day, at least 3 or 4 times a week. I insist that you should do this even if you don’t want to; heck, especially if you don’t want to. Not having the mental desire or energy to go have fun is a good sign that you’re teetering on (or already fallen over) the edge of the burnout cliff.

    My point here holds true, even if you’re already into full on burnout, where doing anything outside the bare minimum to make a living and pay your bills sounds like an impossible mountain to climb. Make yourself do it! It is totally unintuitive that the best way to treat burnout is making yourself do more, when all you want to do is less, but it is. When you’re not doing anything outside of work, your entire life becomes the very work that is driving you to not feel up to doing anything else, and that’s a vicious cycle. Force yourself to break your day up so that you have some ‘work’, and some ‘play’, and make sure your ‘play’ isn’t a close parallel or mirror of your work (this means you, gamers and coders!). It may take a few months, but once those habits and pathways are established in your brain, you’ll eventually wake up one day and say to yourself “oh, hey, it’s thursday – thursdays are when I go do that fun thing I go do on thursdays” and you’ll be excited to go do it.

  4. You must have cardio workouts, hard enough to get your heart rate really up, for at least half an hour, if not every day, at least 3 or 4 times a week. I also recommend you supplement the aerobic workout with some other kind of healthy physical activity, such as; weight lifting, taking longish walks, shooting IPSC or IDPA, or playing some sport that you happen to like with (or without) friends. Being sedentary (aka: sitting at your desk not moving any muscles other than your typing fingers and your eyes), is over the long term, pure toxin to both mental and physical health. It’ll make you diabetic, tired, angry, and a lot of other things you don’t want to grow up to be (or already have grown up to be, and wish you hadn’t). Getting your heart rate up and your blood pumping hard, often enough to stay in decent cardio shape, is near miraculous for making you mentally sharper, more healthy, more focused, more adaptable, and better looking too.

    I am well aware, from personal experience, that it’s really (really, I mean, really freaking) hard to get off your butt and do this at first. However, treat yourself like the animal you are, and get after it, and that animal will eventually adapt to what’s being asked of it. The human animal can and will adapt to pretty much anything, no matter how horrific (stockholm syndrome anyone?), and once it adapts and accepts, it gets not just easy – it gets to be normal, and you will feel that things are all wrong with the universe if you don’t do it.

    Note: I recommend half an hour, because I hear the American Heart Association recommends a minimum of 30 minutes a day, most days. That’s a minimum recommendation folks, in reality, you should probably try to make it more like 45 minutes to an hour. That’s assuming of course, you’re not just starting out and are still really out of shape in the 1st place – in which case I recommend you talk to a fitness professional about how to start building yourself up safely.

  5. Be militant about not letting your employer make a habit of over working or over stressing you. There will always be periods of time where a new release or whatever event causes high volumes of work and stress, so don’t jump the gun if there’s short term peaks in the work volume, but do not let your employer makes it a long term habit of not having enough people and otherwise creating a sweatshop like tech work environment. If your field of choice was manual labor, and there was lots of options for places out there you could work, you wouldn’t let one of them throw you in a rat infested pit and work you to death, would you? Then why would you let your tech company do what amounts to the psychological same thing? Psychological damage is just as real as physical damage, and can lead to life-long negative effects. Don’t let them do it to you.

    That said, I realize that chances are, you won’t have a lot of control over what your employer does. However, remember, you do always have control over what you do. Over the years, I have walked away from several really prestigious companies that held a lot of opportunity for a guy like me, because they couldn’t see fit to maintain a good working environment in exchange for my providing them with my good (dare I say, exceptional) work. I made the mistake once of trying to stick it out hoping things would get better. 9 months later when I ran out of mental gas, it took me almost 2 months off and some good meds to put me back together. I now recognize that I have some long term effects from that experience, in that I am far more susceptible to going back to burnout land ever since then. I am not doing that again, for anyone, for any amount of money. I will only let an employer fail to maintain my work environment at sane levels for maybe 3 or 4 months, and then I’m floating resumes and looking for my next job.

    I also strongly suggest, that if or when you ever have to pack and leave because an employer can’t manage your work environment adequately, that you make really sure that you carry zero guilt when you go. Clearly explain to yourself, that it is not your failure as employee because you “couldn’t hack it” or some such. It is their failure as a company to manage a work environment that is not psychologically toxic. If they can’t manage to do that one little thing for you, then you owe them nothing, and are not responsible for their failure.

So, there you have it, some (I hope) good advice on how to be a happy and healthy tech support jockey. There’s certainly more I could talk about, but I’m about to take my own advice and go spend some time not staring at a computer screen. 🙂

— Jack Lambert