Mercer Smith-Looper gave a great talk at SupConf in San Francisco this past week and just today she published a blog post version of her talk: 3 WAYS TO AMP UP YOUR SUPPORT CAREER; SUPCONF, MAY 2016. If you're getting started in support, go read it now. The high level points she's addressing are spot on. In this post, I'm going to take a different angle on some of the aspects in her post in attempt to further the discussion.
A few housecleaning items before I dive in: I head up the support team at Trello and Mercer is on my team, so it won't be terribly surprising that we're on the same page about a lot of things. Separately, Mercer's story reminds me a lot of my own in that I scraped together whatever knowledge I could find to move my career forward. You can read a bit about my own journey getting into tech seven years ago: Finding a Job the Unconventional Way.
With that out of the way, let's jump in. I'm going to use the same headings that Mercer used.
Mercer puts a lot of emphasis on newsletters and gleaning as much as you can by reading what others have done in your industry. I agree with this approach when breaking into an industry—it happens to be how I got plugged into .NET software development—but I find that's not where I'm spending the majority of my time gaining industry knowledge nowadays. I've been spending my time in other channels, namely Slack and one-on-ones with industry peers.
Professional Slack communities, such as Support Driven, are a gold mine of industry knowledge. It's one thing to read blog posts about what leaders in the industry are doing. It's an entirely different thing to watch those same leaders share their perspectives with each other right before your eyes. That's what professional Slack communities make happen. If you're paying attention, you can be constantly learning.
The other channel I hit up regularly is one-on-one conversations with industry peers (or even those outside the industry). I regularly speak to a leadership coach, my former manager at Fog Creek, and others who have walked the path I'm currently headed down. The biggest benefit I get from these conversations is clarity. I start with some fuzzy ideas about what direction I'd like to head, and by talking it over with someone who has been there before, I then feel confident about taking the next step forward.
Mercer made an excellent point about experience:
Building up knowledge of how other people handle support outside of the industry I was in has allowed me to chameleon my way into some very unique and interesting jobs.
As a hiring manager, I find it incredibly valuable to bring people onto my team who have have done support at multiple companies before they join Trello. They're able to bring ideas and perspective that we may not have, simply because we don't have the same experiences. For example, if you did phone support in two previous jobs, you might be able to say: "Two jobs ago, phone support was awful, always leading to burnout. In my last job, we scheduled calls and I found it to be much better. Here's what I know about phone support: [brain dump]" If the company ever decides to implement phone support, you now have someone on the team that you can go to for help.
I really like what Mercer has to say about communication being a soft skill. It is incredibly difficult to quantify. Even so, when I'm interviewing candidates for our Support Specialist position, one of the things I'm looking for is writing quality mixed with support acumen.
Because of Trello's growth (and, I'll admit, sometimes lagging on hiring), I've often been in the position where I need to bring someone onto the team who can hit the ground running. I need to onboard and get them into the inbox, and fast. The only way to do that is to bring someone in who has done this job before. Being able to write quality emails—and do it quickly—is immensely valuable to me in this situation. I test for that kind of experience in my interview, and for the most part, it works. I like having folks who can e.g. write code or edit videos, but if primary thing I'm hiring for is "experienced support professional who can handle a queue", those "extras" take a back seat.
Let's talk about writing code. Mercer says:
There is an upsurgence in support that, in able to be able to do “good support” you also need to be able to code. That is not true.
I mostly agree with that. Actually, when it comes to doing "good support", I'm in full agreement—unless you're supporting developer tools, you don't need to write code to provide good support.
When it comes to your career, though, I still recommend that you give some serious thought to learning to code, not so that you can hang with the engineers with your company, but rather so that you can solve interesting problems on your own. Here are some examples:
- Write a python script to do bulk operations, e.g. add a new team member to all of your team's boards in Trello
- Learn SQL so you can query your customer database, perhaps to having a starting point for sending NPS Surveys
- Combine the customer list you got using SQL with a script to email customers to do some quick market research for a problem you're having in support
If coding isn't your thing, that's cool. But if you're even the tiniest bit excited by it, dive in and start learning how you can use code as leverage in your job.
I love what Mercer has to say about pursuing your own goals:
Transparency, in this case, is the best policy. Let your team lead or boss know where you want to go and that you are taking action to go there.
As a manager, I love it when members of my team come to me with their own sense of direction for their career. I call these "development goals". They're the things that you, personally, want to develop within yourself. Knowing what these are is key, because if I have the chance, I'm going to do my best to make your development goals intersect with the company's "performance goals" (i.e. the jobs that need to get done). I can't always find a perfect fit, but just knowing what your goals are means I can get a lot closer.
Mercer's comments about what to do if your current company can't support your development goals is probably the most important point in the entire article:
If that is the case, leave. Even if you love the company, you should love your career and yourself more.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Especially when you're just starting out, it can be hard to see past your current employer and the opportunities that they do or do not provide. Sometimes the only way to get new perspective is to pursue an opportunity somewhere else.
The only thing I'll add to what Mercer said here is that if you work at an awful company with a toxic culture, get out fast. No amount of professional development at a toxic company will match the development you get at a great company, even if the type of work doesn't exactly match what you thought you wanted to do. Take a dose of perspective by being at a great company, then reevaluate your goals. If you can't get out fast, spend time learning some hard skills—that's usually pretty easy when you're surrounded by underperformers. (But still, get out of there).
When I was trying to get into tech, I was doing whatever I could to network and share what I learned. Looking back, most of what I did was probably way off base (hosting a blog on SharePoint, anyone?), but when you're just getting started, you have no idea what will work and what won't, so trying everything is the only way you're going to catch a break. For me, that meant being on Twitter at just the right time to spot job opportunities. For you, it could be going to the next Support Driven conference.
If you say that you don’t have time to do something, you probably just don’t care about it enough to do it.
Ouch. She's probably right. When I first was getting started in tech, I was recently married and had a ton of free time to attend meetups and write code in the evenings. Now, with three kids and a job that demands my full attention, I find I have to be creative in how I pursue my career growth. Mostly I do that as part of my current job, and as head of support at a growing tech company, there are plenty of opportunities for that.
The last thing I'll comment on is this:
You are the person that accomplishes these things for yourself—not the company that you work for—and that makes them simultaneously harder and easier than anything else that you will have to do in your career.
I fully agree. The only nuance I'll add is that if you have a good manager, they can help you focus your growth within your current job, which can be immensely valuable if you don't have hours to give to professional development outside of the nine-to- five. Still, when it comes to your growth and development, the buck stops at you.