Just what do techies really need to know?

Most of our districts have techies in some form or another. I'm talking about the folks who provide direct hardware and software support to end users.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Most of our districts have techies in some form or another. I'm talking about the folks who provide direct hardware and software support to end users. Maybe they are just well-trained power/champion users among faculty (hopefully with a stipend of some sort, or just a deep vein of generosity). Perhaps they are full time tech support, if you're lucky. Many districts hire so-called "para-professionals," who bring some skills to the table, but are generally not salaried staff (they are usually paid hourly and contracted for a certain number of hours of service every week). In any case, it can be incredibly challenging to attract solid talent when paychecks in the private sector tend to be so much larger.

Even in higher education, as skills become more specialized and parent volunteers who know how to pull cable are no longer good enough, turnover into private industry is a major problem (ironically, I went, with a few stops for statistical programming along the way, from hardware/software support at a research university to private industry and then back to ed tech, but in K-12).

The needs, however, in higher ed are fairly well-defined. Such is not always the case in K-12. Should they be able to swap out a hard drive? Should they be able to pull cable? Program a router? Troubleshoot database problems? Oftentimes, such staff are jacks of all trades and masters of none. Are there a few trades of which they should be masters? Obviously, there may be very specific needs for your schools and you'll need to hire to meet those needs. Absent such specific needs, here's my short list of reasonable and necessary skills for the average K-12 technical support staff.

  • Confidence - It's remarkably hard to break a computer. Assuming it's not a mission-critical server, get in there and fix it.
  • Communication skills - Can you take elementary teacher speak and turn it into a meaningful problem statement? Can you train a middle school English teacher how to log her students in in the computer lab? Can you effectively liaise between administrators, teachers, staff, and the technological powers that be (if they exist)?
  • Internal motivation - This has two components: You ain't doing it for the money and you have the wherewithal to identify problems, find answers, and implement solutions with a minimum of fuss from your users and administrators.
  • A very solid understanding of the operating system(s) that you will support, including how to install/upgrade operating systems, install software, install peripherals, and troubleshoot the usual suspects of user complaints (I can't get online, the Internet is broken, I can't print, I think I have a Trojan, etc.)
  • A power-user level of understanding of office productivity software; often users simply need to know how to get their jobs done and first-line tech support should be able to answer such questions.
  • The ability to navigate rich and/or data-driven Internet applications. We are headed down this road very quickly, whether with our student information systems, communication software, or productivity tools; the term Web 2.0 should be more than a buzzword.

What do you think? The fact that the top three skills are soft skills is not an accident. Talk back below and let me know what I've missed.

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