How long should I stay in the help desk?

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much experience...

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Hey, do you remember that Robert DeNiro movie where he plays that tough guy? Yeah, you know the one: he plays that bad-ass gangster?

Oh right – that’s pretty much all of his movies. That’s because after years of playing the same role, Robert DeNiro has been typecast.

I suppose being typecast isn’t so bad when you’re rich and famous like DeNiro, but I guarantee you it’s a lot less glamorous when you’re not a movie star. You see, as it turns out you can get type cast in the IT world too. This can happen when you become overly experienced in one thing. This is a particularly dangerous trap for new IT Support folks who remain working in the help desk for too long.

Two years in the help desk? Sure – you’re gaining valuable experience. Ten years? You’re starting to look like a lifer!

So, what is the ideal amount of time you should stay in the help desk?

You’ll most likely do most of your learning in the first year, so you should at least stay that long… unless your job is horrible. I wrote a previous post on how to tell if you’re at a job you should try to leave quickly. One year is also a magic number of sorts, as many jobs ask for at least one year of experience.

At the one year mark, take a look around yourself and evaluate your job. Are your peers getting promoted out of the help desk? Is there a clear path to Systems Administration, Network Engineering, or another career path? Or have the other people at the help desk been there for more than three years?

If you’re at a place that promotes from within, great! Providing you don’t hate working there, stick around, do your best, and get promoted. But if you’ll be staying in the help desk as long as you’re at that company, then it’s time to look around for something else.

You may be tempted to look around for a Systems Administrator job, and if you can land one, more power to you. But this may not be feasible with only one year of experience. Or even two. It really depends on the quality of your experience. If you haven’t had good mentorship or been provided with the opportunities you need to get on the next rung of the career ladder, don’t despair – you’re not typecast yet. Start looking for another help desk job. This may sound counter-intuitive, but bear with me. This time around, you can afford to be a bit choosier with the job you’ll accept since you have some experience.

To find the right job, you want to find a place with most of the below attributes.

Clear career path

Places with a clear career path may advertise jobs with levels, such as “IT Technician Level 2”. Or they may not – you should ask how they feel about promoting from within during your interview. If they never promote from within, keep looking!

Mentorship

The right job will have someone guide you in your career. This can be a mentor, a manager, or a team lead. But they should help guide you in what to learn, certifications you should obtain, and trainings you should take. This is another great question to ask during your job interview.

Training

Is there formal training offered, or is it all on-the-job training? Will this company encourage you to increase your knowledge by paying for your certification exams? Will they send you to conventions or bootcamps?

The overarching theme here is that you’re looking for a company that will invest in you and encourage you not to stagnate in the help desk.

Once you’ve been in the help desk for more than five years, you start running the risk of being typecast as a help desker. It will become hard for you to find a place that will hire you for anything but IT Support.

Maybe this doesn’t sound too bad to you – hey, a paycheck is a paycheck, right? But roll the tape forward here. Help desk work may suit you fine in your twenties, but ten years later, you may find yourself incredibly bored or burned out with the work. And how much job security will you have when places can hire someone with one year of experience for half the price they pay you?

So don’t be satisfied to just stagnate. Keep pushing yourself to grow your career and your knowledge, and it will pay off in the long run.

With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. And make sure to check out these top interview questions before you start interviewing!