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June 8, 2006

Making Pitt Work: On the help desk

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 6,500 strong across five campuses, perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.

Justin Stewart has been a University employee for less than four years, but his face may be among the most recognizable around.

Stewart, a Financial Information Systems (FIS) support analyst, isn’t the typical computer help desk employee who spends his days on the phone with users who need assistance.

His work more accurately is called desktop support for the approximately 600 computers FIS oversees in departments under the Office of Budget and Controller and Auxiliary Services. He’s among the handful of computer analysts who support users in areas including Accounting, Food Service, Copy Cat, Finance, Purchasing, Benefits, The Book Center, Motor Pool and Panther Central, to name a few. He also troubleshoots other hardware such as card readers or auxiliary devices including printers and personal digital assistants.

“It’s not a typical help desk,” he explained. Stewart carries a pager and is required to respond within 10 minutes when a computer user calls for help. If he can’t solve the problem remotely, he heads for the door. “If I can’t fix it, I go visit,” he said.

His work requires him to be a jack-of-all-trades and to see a problem through to its resolution. If he can’t fix it himself, it’s his job to find someone who can.

“I do a lot of hands-on stuff — printer maintenance, troubleshooting paper jams,” Stewart said, adding that his job takes him across the Pittsburgh campus to deal with staff members at every level. “I go pretty much anywhere,” he said.

In addition to the inky jobs, his day-to-day work could range from dealing with software problems to issues such as a broken mouse or a drink spilled on a keyboard.

“You never know what you’re going to get into while you’re there,” he said, adding that he enjoys the variety and the opportunity to meet people.

“I like people a lot,” he said. “I’d rather deal with people than sit at the computer all day long.” Those he deals with range from entry-level computer users to vice chancellors, from the tech-savvy to the not-so-computer-literate.

“I try to teach people stuff as I go through,” he said. It not only helps educate the users, but it can save him a return trip if he can teach people how to help themselves.

While still a student, Stewart joined the Pitt staff as a part-time computer lab consultant with Computer Services and Systems Development in 2002 then moved to a full-time FIS job in 2003. He graduated with a degree in information science last year.

Having more than three years’ experience under his belt has made him confident that he can solve a variety of problems under pressure.

He’s also earned a number of computer support certifications including the Microsoft certified desktop support technician designation. Support employees are required to add a new certification to their qualifications every six months, he said. And, while Stewart admits he occasionally sees new problems, “I don’t get surprised as easily,” he said.

Stewart is good at what he does, and he has the numbers to prove it. He resolves about 70 percent of his “tickets” — the help desk term for problems reported by users — on the initial call. The rest he handles by finding the right person to solve the user’s problem. A typical year might bring about 6,000 incidents, of which his share would be about 1,500.

“The toughest time is when the University is busiest, like when the new students are coming in. We get running-around busy,” he said, explaining that often the problems that come up during peak times are ones that just won’t wait. If there’s a line of students at Panther Central and the equipment isn’t working right, there’s pressure to fix it right and fix it fast, he explained.

His expertise prompted his supervisor, Ivy Novick, to nominate him for the Help Desk Institute’s Pittsburgh Service Support Professionals chapter’s annual competition.

In her nomination, Novick praised Stewart’s people skills, his eagerness to tackle big problems and projects and his willingness to learn new software and systems and train co-workers and users in other departments on their use.

“He enjoys being creative with projects and seems to be able to find a new and refreshing way of completing assignments. Some of his best work is in the field of Root Cause analysis and large-scale problem resolution. He seems to be able to pick out tickets that are seemingly unrelated, bring them together and resolve the problem well before the problem becomes large scale,” she stated.

And she couldn’t help but mention how well received he is by those he helps. “He is always friendly and enjoys talking with customers and our customers really love him,” Novick stated. “Often they ask for him by name and are constantly saying positive things about him in returned surveys.”

His desk now sports a sparkling crystal Help Desk Analyst of the Year Award.

Still, he can’t fix everything, he admits. “People think I have more control over things than I do. If someone asks why they can’t have computer games… it’s not my decision,” he said. That rule isn’t meant to prevent users from enjoying a lunchtime diversion; the rationale is to help keep the computers free from the spyware that may accompany downloaded games, he explained.

When they’re not answering help calls, Stewart and his co-workers in FIS support take on side projects such as installing new software, training new employees or advising departments on decisions about new software or business solutions.

Currently, Stewart is working on a new software system for Mailing Services and training three newcomers, he said. Another of his sidelines is teaching two classes: one for new users and a Microsoft Office course.

Stewart aspires to become an information technology department manager someday and hopes to further his education to reach that goal. Meanwhile, he said he enjoys his work.

“There are not really any downsides,” he said. “It’s a fun work environment. I work with great people…. There’s nothing I don’t like about the job.”

Stewart has one simple tip for users who’d like to help him in his work: Re-boot the computer before picking up the phone. Often, that simple action can solve the problem.

“It’s one of those things that if people did, it would make my job easier,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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