Computer Support Specialists are responsible for providing technical assistance and many forms of computer-related support to a wide variety of potential customers, clients, and employers. The field is rapidly growing, due to the fact that nearly every company now uses computers in some capacity (as do individuals) and needs specialists to support them. The explosion in the use of computers has created a big demand for specialists who provide advice to users, as well as those who troubleshoot problems and/or perform the day-to-day administration, maintenance, and support of computer systems and networks. Typical duties for a computer support specialist may include daily oversight of a firm's computer systems, responding to calls for assistance from the organization's computer users, repair of computer hardware and software, and training users in the use of newly-acquired computer programs.
Simply put, computer support specialists provide technical assistance, support, and advice to customers. This general category of worker is comprised of both Technical Support Specialists and Help-Desk Technicians. The distinctions between these groups can be summarized as follows:
- Technical Support Specialists provide support to other computer users within their organization. In addition to resolving problems, they install, modify, clean, and repair computer hardware and software. They also oversee the daily performance of their company's computer systems. These specialists are often called upon to write training manuals and to train computer users in the use of new computer hardware and software.
- Help-Desk Technicians are responsible for fielding telephone calls and e-mail messages from customers seeking help with computer problems. They are required to discuss the problem with the customer carefully, fully understand it, and then patiently walk the customer through the problem-solving steps. As a firm's most direct link to its customers, help-desk technicians are highly valued as a source of feedback on the firm's products. They are looked upon as a valuable source of information about customer concerns and the things that are causing the most problems for customers. In most firms, computer support specialists start out at the help desk.
A partial list of the typical duties of a computer support specialist might include the following:
- Answer telephone calls
- Analyze problems by using automated diagnostic programs
- Help clients with hardware/software installation, printing, word processing, e-mail, and operating systems
- Resolve recurring difficulties
- Provide assistance when computers crash
- Provide advice to customers
- Maintain records of daily communication, problems and remedial action taken, and installation activities
- Read technical manuals
- Confer with staff, users, and management to determine requirements for new systems
- Train users in the proper use of hardware and software
- Develop training materials and procedures
- Refer major problems or defective products to hardware or software vendors for service
Computer support specialists typically work in comfortable environments, which most often include offices or computer laboratories. They usually work about 40 hours a week, but it is not uncommon for employers to require computer support over extended hours on a semi-regular basis. Many support specialists are often "on call" for rotating evening or weekend work and can expect to work overtime when unexpected technical problems arise.
As is somewhat common for those who are required to type on a keyboard for long periods, support specialists are susceptible to back discomfort, eyestrain, and hand/wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome. In a profession which involves a lot of interaction with customers and fellow employees, specialists are also susceptible to both the good and the bad consequences of dealing with the public. Specialists who work as consultants tend to spend a significant amount of time away from their offices, sometimes spending weeks or months working at a client's locale. On the other hand, expansion of computer networks is allowing a growing number of support specialists to provide technical support from remote locations, reducing or eliminating the need to travel as often to the customer's workplace.
Individuals interested in becoming computer support specialists need to have strong problem-solving, analytical, and (most especially) communication skills in order to effectively troubleshoot problems and help customers. The need to continually interface with customers, employees, and other computer personnel requires a specialist to be able to communicate effectively in many different ways: in person, over the phone, via e-mail, and on paper. Strong writing skills are useful not only in communicating, but also in preparing manuals and instructions for employees and customers.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (USDL BLS), employment of computer support specialists is expected to increase at least as fast as the average for all occupations over the next decade. Demand for specialists will be driven largely by the need for support by organizations and individuals trying to adapt to increasingly sophisticated computer-related technology. As computers and computer software become more complex, support specialists will be needed to provide technical assistance to a continually expanding customer base. The influx of emerging mobile technologies will contribute to the demand for support. Consulting jobs for computer support specialists will be plentiful as businesses seek help managing, upgrading, and customizing their increasingly complex computer systems.
Support specialists who have strong computer skills but lack a college degree should continue to qualify for some entry-level positions. In general, however, job prospects will be rosiest for college graduates who possess the latest technological skills. Graduates who have supplemented their formal education with relevant work experience will be especially well-positioned in the job market. Employers will prize specialists who are able to combine strong fundamental computer skills with good interpersonal and communication skills. This type of employee will be in highest demand.
Although employment will continue to rise at a good rate, there are factors which will cause job growth to be less explosive than during the previous decade. One of these factors is a general maturation of the information technology industry. Another is a growing trend towards outsourcing of certain types of support jobs overseas where prevailing wages are lower. The fact that a physical presence is not always required for computer support work has opened the door to remote assistance which can be provided around the clock across time zones.
Computer Support Specialist Schools, Certification, and Licensing
Training requirements for computer support specialist positions vary widely depending on the position and the employer. Many positions require at least a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, although others may require only an associate's degree or merely a diploma/certificate coupled with some level of relevant experience. Those companies which do show flexibility in degree requirements tend to insist on a high level of practical experience and/or certification for support specialist positions.
Certifications are important for all who wish to work in this field and vital for those with lesser educational credentials. A variety of certifications exist at many levels: general, product-specific, and application-specific. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) awards an industry-recognized vendor-neutral certification known as A+, which confirms proficiency in the areas of installation, configuration, preventive maintenance, diagnosing, and basic networking. Candidates who would like to earn an A+ certification must pass an exam, for which there are numerous books and websites dedicated to test preparation. Vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco award their own certifications which establish proficiency in one or more of the vendor's products. Some of these certifications are prerequisites for certain support jobs where these products are heavily used.
Because the expertise required for this field of work is constantly evolving and expanding, computer support specialists need to continually strive to acquire new skills. Continuing education is a standard practice in the industry and many such programs are regularly provided by employers and also by colleges and universities, hardware and software vendors, and private training institutions. In addition, many computing services firms offer professional development seminars which provide a good opportunity for specialists to enhance their skills and strengthen their advancement opportunities.
- Association of Support Professionals
- The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA)
- PC Tools - Software Registry Guide
- Microsoft TechNet
- The League of Professional System Administrators
- Netscape Netcenter
- ZDNet Shareware
The proliferation of computers and computer networks in all facets of business is leading to an ever-widening range of potential employers of computer support specialists. Specialists can be found in startup companies and also in offices of established industry-leading businesses. As things stand now, a large number of specialists work in the professional, scientific, and technical services industries, many of them employed by computer systems design and related services. Other major employers include financial institutions, insurance companies, health care organizations, administrative and support services companies, government agencies, educational institutions, software publishers, and telecommunications organizations.
Schools for Computer Support Specialists are listed in the column to the left.