Desktop Support: How the evolution of the role has impacted the skills needed to succeed

Desktop support engineer helping a user over the phone

It would be an understatement to say that desktop support professionals have seen their jobs change with time and technology. But technological advances in "how computing happens" have not changed the fact that an organisation’s users need someone to provide hands-on help and troubleshooting. Still, it’s interesting to take a look back at how the desktop support pro’s role has evolved through the decades.

The PC revolution

In the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the popularity of MS-DOS and relatively inexpensive x86 architecture, it became possible for organisations to put computers directly on their workers’ desks. Software such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect provided the push for businesses to deliver computing to a larger group of users. As a result, organisations began bringing desktop support professionals into the office to provide assistance and fix problems.

With personal computers costing many thousands of dollars more than they do today even without accounting for inflation, simply replacing equipment was not in the budget. Instead, it was up to a desktop support professional to fix faulty computers. There was no Internet as we know it to quickly search to see how an issue had been resolved in the past, so these professionals needed to understand on their own how to fix a variety of problems.

It could be confusing to make even simple changes like adding a second hard drive to a PC. Without networks, "making a backup" usually meant copying a file to a floppy disk and hoping that disk still worked when your hard drive invariably died. In addition, computers were often customised. Some used proprietary technologies such as Micro Channel Architecture while others didn't. On some devices, settings were changed by adjusting jumpers on hardware and required consulting with a manual to know the right configuration.

Things were no easier on the software side of things. Users had to learn to use MS-DOS or a similar command line system just to run their applications — and they frequently needed help. When it was time for a major upgrade, a desktop support professional would need to go from desk to desk inserting floppy after floppy, doing the upgrade and having no plan B in case of failure. Each PC was configured and deployed individually, making the task time consuming and error prone.

PC dominance

As PCs began to dominate computing, they became faster and cheaper. In the mid-90s, the idea of networking and centralised control became baked into the system as users shifted from MS-DOS and MS-DOS-based operating systems to Windows NT 4 and its descendants such as Windows XP (2001) and Windows 7 (2009). This was good news for desktop support professionals since it allowed system administrators to manage the desktop computers' settings and monitor their health remotely. Standardisation in peripherals and upgrades with technologies like PCI Express, USB, SATA and RAM allowed desktop support professionals to more easily and quickly fix minor issues and make upgrades. Falling hardware prices made it reasonable for organisation to keep a pile of spare machines on hand and swap them instead of calling in the experts to resolve tricky issues. New software tools like disk cloning utilities enabled desktop support technicians to wipe systems and restore them to a base configuration quickly. And because applications stored data on the network file shares or in central databases, minimal information would be lost.

Users in the late 1990s and early 2000s were much more familiar with computers either from growing up with them or being around them in the business world. Along with increased knowledge, operating systems became easier to use. At the same time, applications and operating systems became much more sophisticated and complex. The desktop support professional spent most of his or her time teaching users how to get the most out of their PCs.

Current era

The traditional desktop or notebook model of computing is still in business use but tablets, phones and other devices have become an important way to get things done as well. Desktop support professionals need to be able to help users with their mobile devices. If the company has a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policy, the desktop support professional may need to support a wide variety of unfamiliar devices, so the ability to quickly figure out the nuances of many devices became crucial. The proliferation of networks and access to better tools allow desktop support professionals to assist users remotely now as well.

Today the typical duties of a desktop support engineer includes:

  • Configure, deploy, maintain, troubleshoot and support computer workstations, laptops, printers, mobile devices, phones and other computer and telecommunications equipment.
  • Diagnose and resolve unique, nonrecurring problems associated with application software and operating systems; determine the source of problems and classify their level, priority and nature.
  • Install and support PC, laptop, tablet and mobile hardware and software (certifications from CompTIA, Microsoft or HDI are a plus).
  • Create alternative methods of completing tasks, correcting user errors and system inconsistencies to improve the desktop team function.
  • Participate in hardware and software reviews and recommend purchases.
  • Maintain inventory of installed software, manage software licensing and create policies and procedures for upgrades.
  • Analyse and make recommendations for hardware and software standardisation.
  • Ensure desktop computers interconnect seamlessly with diverse systems including associated validation systems, file servers, email servers, computer conferencing systems, application servers and administrative systems.
  • Document procedures, standards, best practices configurations, settings, installation sequences and back-out instructions.

As the roles of desktop support professionals evolve, businesses are seeking professionals with the following skills and qualifications for these roles:

  • Knowledge – Know your way around desktop hardware, software applications, operating systems and network connectivity, such as SCOM, SCCM, Citrix, AD (Active Directory), Office 365, cloud technology and VDI (Virtual desktop infrastructure).
  • Self-learning – Be invested in continual learning and development opportunities to ensure your knowledge remains current, for example through CBT Nuggets or other online training courses.
  • Problem solving – Resolve problems while maximising efficient use of computing resources.
  • Education –Certification is essential for the role, whether it be a computer science degree, certifications from entities such as HDI or Microsoft (Microsoft Certified IT Professional or Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) or combined training and experience through training academies.
  • Mobility – Be willing to take on a new position at your current company or accept additional responsibilities when asked.
  • Enthusiasm and drive – Professionals are driven to improve their education and value opportunities for training and continual learning are in high demand by business leaders.

The tools and technologies used by IT employees have changed what desktop support pros do and how they work over the last thirty years. But the role of the desktop support professional remains the same: Keep computers up and running and help users to work with them. The career of a desktop support professional remains an exciting option for those who want to combine hands-on technical skills and working with others and provides an excellent stepping stone into more managerial IT roles or technical experts.

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