The Creative Problem Solver’s Guide to the IT Help Desk

If you’re considering a career in IT but you’re concerned that the hard facts of computing would make for a dull day, think again. Doing help desk-level IT work requires a ton of creative problem solving – at every step and every day.

CompTIA A+ Problem SolversIT is a profession that’s built around the hard science of computing, so for those casual users who haven’t spent much time investigating the ins and outs of computers, it might sound a little dry. Or intimidating. But while there’s plenty to learn about the way computers and networks function in order to manage the technology in a professional environment, hard facts are hardly the half of it. A help desk technician or technical support specialist who’s been in the game for even just a little while can tell you that there’s an art to IT: the better part of providing high-quality service is bringing knowledge to life with creative thinking.

Every help desk ticket poses its own unique challenges, so being able to think on your feet and use creative problem-solving skills is a key to success in IT at every step of the game. This is why the latest update of CompTIA A+, the foundational entry-level IT certification, tests as heavily on the ability to think through problems as it does on the knowledge it takes to recognize them.

If you’re considering IT as a career path, don’t fear that you might be setting yourself up for something boring. Help desk-level IT work is anything but that. To understand how, take a look at the following ways creative problem-solving skills come into play, every day, at the help desk.  

Figuring Out What an End User Means Versus What They Say  

For the Tier 1 help desk technician, simply figuring out what the problem is can take a lot of creative horsepower. That’s because, depending on the end user’s technical abilities, what they ask is not always what they mean.

One of the most common things a help desk pro hears is, “My computer doesn’t work.” This could mean a lot of things – and drilling down to figure out the simplest problem can be a complicated process.

For instance, if an end user complains about a cursor that won’t move around on the screen, that could indicate a computer that has momentarily locked up, a USB mouse that’s not plugged in or even the presence of malware. Help desk pros even run into people who confuse an internet browser window with network connectivity.

It’s all part of the gig, and managing it requires IT pros to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the less tech-savvy – to think broadly about what’s happening on the other end of the call or chat, reverse-engineer the thought process and figure out what’s actually going on, and then communicate a solution in the way that makes the most sense.

CompTIA A+ Exam Objective Core 2 (220-1002) 2.0 Security and 3.0 Software Troubleshooting    

Connecting the Dots to Get Back Online

“I can’t get on the network,” is another common – and frustrating – issue for end users. Both the cause and the resolution can be one of many – hardware, software, network connections, security issues. Two users could report the same problem and require very different resolutions.

While diagnosing and addressing a network connectivity issue certainly requires understanding hard tech facts, like the difference between TCP and UDP ports and their purposes, there's not a single schematic that tells the whole story to an IT pro doing the work.

Manufacturers build things differently, different device models vary in how they're built and computers can have innate design flaws that cause problems. Approaching network connectivity problems can take a combination of next-gen knowledge and old-fashioned elbow grease to fix. Figuring everything out can take some intuition and some artistry on the part of a help desk pro.  

CompTIA A+ Exam Objective Core 1 (220-1001) 2.0 Networking   

Get Ready to Get CompTIA A+

You have many training options to help you prepare for your CompTIA A+ exam, including self-study materials, virtual labs, videos, online classes and in-person career prep classes. In 2020, CompTIA Tech Career Academy is bringing its IT-Ready Technical Support program to classrooms, so that students get the training they need to earn CompTIA A+ and launch their IT careers on the help desk.

Learn More about the CompTIA Tech Career Academy.

Creative Researching and Knowing Where to Look

No help desk pro has every fact about every computer committed to memory – and not every problem that arises is something you can learn studying for an exam. For instance, if a particular operating system recently received a patch that began to cause conflicts with a software package, that’s a development that no one can really anticipate.

Part of the creative problem solving the help desk does involves identifying what might be going wrong and knowing where to look to find a fix. Knowing which online user community to visit or what YouTube tutorial might hold an answer to an emerging problem is key to implementing the right solution. Help desk technicians need to be resourceful in finding the answers they don’t know off the top of their heads.

CompTIA A+ Exam Objective Core 2 (220-1002) 3.0 Software Troubleshooting and 4.0 Operational Procedure   

CompTIA A+: Learning to Think Like an IT Pro

Whether an IT pro is thinking through the questions an end user is asking, diagnosing an issue or researching a glitch on the fly, these tasks all demand creative thinking as much as they require someone who understands the nuts and bolts of IT.

Tech knowledge is crucial, but it’s knowing what to do with that knowledge that makes IT pros successful. Help desk work can be challenging, but it takes a lot of thinking, and that can mean a lot of fun – and a lot of satisfaction with a job well done.

Build your creative problem-solving skills and start your IT career with CompTIA A+. Download the exam objectives to get started.

Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.

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