This is a text-based version of the presentation I gave at SupConf on May 24, 2016.
Hi! My name is Mercer Smith-Looper, and along with being an avid fan and participant in the Support Driven Community, I am a Support Engineer over at Trello.
In 2010 I moved to Boston for Graduate School without any job prospects or ideas for what I wanted to do for work. I’d slung coffee before and had certifications from the national barista exam, so I relied on that and ultimately found a job making shitty espresso for hipsters and getting paid under the table. I looked like this:
“Wow, Mercer,” you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What impeccable fashion sense! I really love that avant-garde thing you’re doing with your hair there.”
What you’re probably thinking is “Wow, that was just 5 years ago? How the heck did you get here?” And that’s what I’m here to talk to you about, friends. Specifically, how I started as a minimum-waged barista, and now I’m getting paid well to do a job that I love in a career that is fulfilling. Let’s amp your career up to 11.
Everyone wants to grow their career but, both fortunately and unfortunately, there is only so much of that that your company can do for you—the rest has to come from within and be driven by yourself and your own will-power. When we think about career development, we often think within the confines of our current job at our current company. We try to focus on what we can flex in order to be the best person that we can be there, when really there is a whole wide world out there that we could be excelling in. There is only so much you can do when thinking inside of and limiting yourself to the box of your company and, similarly, there is only so much that you should expect them to do. Here are the three things that I focussed on that took me from zero to hero without using any of my company’s resources or time over the past half a decade.
Most of you have been working in support for a while, I think it’s safe to assume, so you already know that when you’re first starting in the industry there’s a ton of little things to learn: tone, specific product knowledge, pains within your specific company’s user experience. But what happens when you’ve grown beyond that? Do you just stagnate? Ideally, no.
After you’ve mastered the basic tools required to provide excellent support, you can start to get even more macro: how are other people solving similar problems? You move out from the microcosm of personal knowledge, onto product knowledge, onto the universe of providing support as a whole. It’s no longer a question of how you support your individual customers, but how other people support theirs and what you can learn from it.
Start by developing niche knowledge from other companies that do similar things to yours. For example, if you work for a help desk company, find other help desk softwares and read about their struggles and successes with support. It’s likely that they will have different problems from you as, presumably, they have a different audience, but use some of those ideas to make suggestions for your own company’s preemptive support.
Read newsletters. I know, this sounds ridiculous, but round up a few really solid newsletters and subscribe to them. Not only does this save you time from having to go out and actively wade through social media profiles to find useful information, but you can hand select information that is pertinent or valuable to you. Also, reading newsletters designed by other companies or individuals might help you better understand how to make your own if you decide to in the future. I’ll get into that a bit more later.
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. For example, I started at Wistia—an awesome video hosting company—even though I knew little to nothing about video other than the cat videos I watched on Youtube. I then moved to Campaign Monitor—an email marketing company—despite the fact that most of what I knew about email marketing was from the newsletters I read. There is an opportunity to learn from everything even if it has nothing to do with what you are currently working on. Who knows what you’ll get the opportunity to work on in the future, after all. Try to be an active participant in everything that you engage with, rather than just passively consuming it. You can then pull that information, if needed, and reference it later.
Having this knowledge will make you more valuable to your current company, thus allowing you to level up your support career from an entry-level team member to someone who is able to move and shape the path of support for your company. By taking initiative and learning from other’s mistakes and successes, you will be able to suggest more forward-thinking, proactive options that others on your team might not have thought of yet. You’ll be on the forefront of industry knowledge in an industry that is bursting with new experiments to try.
The benefit of knowing about how other people are doing support or have done support in the past is that you can skip the step of having to make those mistakes and deal with those pitfalls yourself. You can get right into the meaty bits, and reap the benefits. It also sets you up with more data to create your own experiments to learn from and share about. Cue “It’s the Circle of LIFEEEEEE” music.
Talking to people is a skill that you inevitably need to have when working in support. If you didn’t want to talk to people, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a job in which you talk to people, sometimes even irate people, for a majority of your day. Because of that, it’s safe to say that you are probably pretty good at that, and have had other jobs that required you to flex that muscle as well.
That being said, as much as I love it, communicating is a soft skill. What I mean by that is: tracking the ability to speak well in any quantifiable, data-driven way is close to impossible. Trust me, as someone who has a Masters degree in Creative Nonfiction. You can use the number of years that you’ve been doing it as a measure, but that is qualitative rather than quantitative. Qualitative skills are helpful and wonderful, but can be tricky when it comes to conversations about compensation and your qualifications for a position. Quantitative skills can be tracked whereas qualitative skills must be experienced.
For example, the writing style at one company may be very different from another. A good example of this is Dollar Shave Club’s support style versus, say, a company in the financial sector. Dollar Shave Club puts value on a jovial, even colloquial, style of communication with their customers, whereas something in the financial sector would most definitely not want you calling their customers ‘dude’. Different strokes for different folks, as it were. So, even if you’ve been supporting people excellently at one company for years, it doesn’t mean that you will be a good fit at another. Because of this, it’s important to develop skills that are measurable and can be considered alongside your impeccable communication abilities.
The next step in your personal growth, after you’ve built up your knowledge of support as a whole and are able to customer service the shit out of people is developing hard skills. Hard skills increase the perception of you as a valuable member of teams because they differentiate you from other candidates and are measurable. For example: if you have been supporting people well for 5 years at XYZ company, but also are familiar with troubleshooting code-based API issues, and know how to record and edit video (you know, just a random selection of skills...definitely not person reference) you are more likely to be a contender for a position than otherwise.
To be clear: “hard skills” does not just mean “code.” 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. That’s what engineers and developers are for. If you do not want to learn code then don’t. Learn some other measurable, differentiating skill. For example, French. Or Icelandic. Or something else that nestles itself in neatly between your personal interests and professional life. Find what you are passionate about rather than what you feel like you need to be able to do. If you don’t care about something but are forcing yourself to learn it because you feel it is necessary you will just end up hating learning it and resenting the shit out of any job that hires you because of it.
This goes hand in hand with a very important point: you do not need to change companies in order to up your career. You DO, however, have to be with a company that understands where your goals are and is willing to work with you to achieve them. 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. Maybe even see if your company already has a skills development program in place, such as a conference budget or something else, that you could use to help pay for your learning. Use whatever resources are in your hands to get what you need and want—the internet has a site for almost anything, and oftentimes it’s free. You have no excuse.
If you’ve spoken with your company about where you want to go with your career they can either help you understand how to get there within your company or they can reciprocate transparency and let you know that that’s not really in the cards where you are at. If that is the case, leave. Even if you love the company, you should love your career and yourself more. You can always stay friends with them after you leave, it’s not like you’re being voted off the island or anything.
Develop hard skills to point you in the direction where you want to go, and you will go in that direction whether or not you stay with your current company (though I’m personally in favor of staying, rather than going).
This is the scariest part because it involves doing things not on your own. It involves coming out of your own shell and admitting to yourself and others that you have something to say. For me, this took the longest. Imposter syndrome is a very real feeling and something that plagues support people because, by our nature, we are very humble and fairly supportive (rather than “braggy”) human beings.
You ready? You have to get out there. You have to share your story authentically and help others learn while continuing to learn from others. Doctor Seuss once said “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Let that drive you through every time you start wondering about whether your story is as interesting as you originally thought it was, or if people really are going to be surprised to hear what you have to say. They will. No one else has been in your skin or your brain or had the same experiences as you. It’s the joy (and strife) of the human condition that no one will ever be able to see things the exact same way as you do. Help others learn from what you have seen.
This can be as small as going to local MeetUps, or writing blog posts, or as big as proposing to give a talk at a conference and then going and doing the damn thing. Make talking about support and caring about support as second nature as biting your finger nails or wearing lipbalm. Not as natural as breathing, though, because no one wants to be working all the time. Gotta have that good, good balance.
A good way to start this, if you’re not sure where your path lies, is to talk about what you’re reading and doing. If you’re already following my advice from the first two parts of this talk, you’re doing tons of reading and development on your own time. Share information about that. If you like a link, Tweet it out, if you find a great place to learn new skills, share it with your network. This is an easy way to start having dialogue with people, even if just in a casual manner and to set yourself up as an “influencer” in the Support space. And you don’t have to do anything extra, just actually Tweet or link to what you’re already doing.
Remember: talking about what you know is not bragging and it is useful. There is someone that wants to hear what you think and wants to engage in a meaningful dialogue with what you have to say. Even if it seems small and second-nature to you there is always going to be someone out there who has not thought of it before. Remind yourself of this every time you start to get that niggling “but why does any one care about XYZ” thought in your head. You’ve built the industry knowledge, you understand the temperature of the support world, you know what is out there and what isn’t. Talk about what isn’t. Talk about the things that come into your brain late at night when you are just about to go to bed, or what you wish that someone had said to you when you were just starting out. You can do this and it will be important and valuable and you will feel like a boss after you share it.
Create a social media presence. I know that this sounds like a crock of shit, and 5 years ago I didn’t even have a Twitter. Having a social media presence not only helps you more easily connect with people who have similar opinions, it allows people who are just meeting you to see what it is you have to say and how you think and to engage with you in a way that isn’t face-to-face. The internet is a magical place that, along with being total crap sometimes, can help you meet and speak with people who otherwise you’d have no chance of meeting. Use this to your benefit by talking about your career and forming relationships with other people who do the same. Pstttt, you’re doing it right now! Support Driven is literally built for exactly this!
What the theme tying all of these things together? It drives me crazy when there are three unrelated things in a talk and they are just left floating amorphously with a smile and a goodbye at the end. The theme that ties all of this together is you. 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.
It’s easier to do something for yourself because it means that you are self-driven and directed and are able to pursue the things that you care about, rather than the things that need to get done because they are on a list of tasks for the day.
It’s harder because it means you need to commit the time to do these things outside of your regular work hours which means that you really need to set aside time. It reminds me of something that one of my old professors used to say: “If you want to be a writer, you need to set aside at least an hour a day to write. Even if you just sit and stare at your keyboard for that hour, in that time you are a writer. Without that schedule, you are not.” Set aside time every day to work on these things: whether that be to read articles, or to practice your language or code or whatever other hard skill you want to work on, or practice your talk for the next Meet-Up that you are speaking at.
Time is the one thing that is not infinite in this case: there are endless things to learn, read about, understand and subsequently speak about. I can’t tell you what direction you need to take, just that you’ll need to find a passion and move towards it. Support is an endlessly growing scene, and there are opportunities blossoming for the right people to take them. Do you get amped up on analytics? Maybe you should master SQL so that you can be a database master. Is writing support emails what gets you going? Maybe try learning a language so you can do so in another tongue.
What I mean is, because time isn’t infinite, you will never be able to learn everything. Set your sights on something and plod your way to that point. Your career isn’t about what you think you should be doing, but instead what feels good for you. If along the way you realize “hey, this isn’t for me” pivot as quickly as you can, because you will never be able to regain your lost time. If you are making a ton of money, but you aren’t satisfied with your day-to-day, make shifts to change it. Find a thing that makes you passionate, that wakes you up with excitement for the coming day, and drive yourself towards that. As you find your passion, as you grow your knowledge, all of the other things will fall into place: your career will blossom and your finances with it.
Why should you do this? Because nothing that is worth it is going to be easy. Would you pick up a guitar and immediately put it back down again after you couldn’t form a note on your first try? Not if you really wanted to play guitar. If you really want to make a career in support, you need to dedicate time to practice it, just like an instrument or a sport. Will it always be fun? Probably not. There will be times that you will probably get frustrated because you aren’t as good at something as you wish you could be or you’ll still be working on something when everyone in your house is asleep. Take those moments and remember them. They are the fuel for your success, possibly even more so than when everything is easy.
A little over a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about how if you say that you don’t have time to do something, you probably just don’t care about it enough to do it. In the blog post I noted that this was neither a good or a bad thing, but that if you genuinely cared about something and wanted to do it, you would find the time to. You would stop making excuses and prioritize it over something else that might come more easily.
I will be the first person to say that taking time out of your regular life outside of work to work on self-development is hard. But if you do, and you take the time to actually implement these three practices into your life on even a weekly basis, you will see greater success in your professional life, whether that be where you are right now, or somewhere else. It might take a year, five years, ten years, but what you put in will be exactly what you get out.
When I left my first support job to move on to a bigger, better paid new position, I cried as I gave my notice. I was sad to leave a company that had taken a chance on me when I was just starting out, but I knew that I needed to try to push myself further in order to advance my career. I was scared that I was making the wrong choice and that I would be a small fish in a huge pond at my new company, unable to make any impact or actually bring anything to the table. I knew, somewhere, that the work I had done in my own time had set me up for this bigger, better job (Heck, I met the person who hired me at a conference), and that my current company wasn’t going to be able to support my growth, but the leap into the unknown horrified me. Luckily, I made the right choice. And now that I’ve made a few pond-hops since then, I can tell you that there will always be larger ponds as long as you can grow to fit them.
Don’t stifle your growth. Be scared, break things, get stronger. Focus on yourself, practice and all things are coming.