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In my experience, some businesses assign responsibility for desktop support to system administrators.

I'm not talking about small business where there is one IT guy who does everything. I've seen medium sized firms who have 3-4 system administrators and would rather hire another system administrator and spread the desktop support duties around the team, than just hire a dedicated desktop support specialist.

Is this a common phenomenon? Should system administrators accept desktop support as "part of the job"?


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Good answers here... perhaps the question I should have asked is "What size should a company/IT team grow to before it's appropriate to hire a dedicated desktop/helpdesk person?" –  Nexus Dec 5 '09 at 0:00
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Even in places with 20+ administrators and 12+ desktop techs the admins end up doing desktop support when things need to be escalated. The person installing the application should expect to understand their whole application and not just how to run the installer and do a few cleanup tasks.

You never completely escape desktop support as an administrator. There will always be new random things that break and require the attention of someone with a better understanding of what is going on.

I've worked at a university with ~15 'helpdesk' folks, ~9 unix sysadmins, ~6 windows/novell sysadmins, ~6 network admins, and ~4 firewall admins, and our most senior unix admin still got stuck dealing with VPs having problems sending email. (and officially, he wasn't the mail server admin) –  Joe H. Dec 4 '09 at 23:39
It isn't directly relevant, but I've had experiences as a senior unix admin where I had to diagnose and correct issues with Windows systems in order to prove to the Windows admins that the unix network was not the problem. Not that I'm bitter or anything. –  David Mackintosh Dec 5 '09 at 1:52
I'm the only sysadmin here, with two desktop techs. It's interesting to see other sysadmins get desktop issues "escalated" to them. I can also relate with David, I often have to fix desktop issues myself just to prove it was not a server issue - "hmm, Outlook won't open for this one person; it MUST be a server issue" (never mind that is works fine for 300 other users). Anything seems to become a server issue if it takes longer than 30 seconds of effort to fix. –  James May 13 '11 at 16:47
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Generally, yes. Desktops are systems too. If you only have a team of 3-4 people, then you should probably all share desktop support.

Obviously, YMMV depending on the specific needs of your company/industry, but IMO a 3-4 person team is not a big enough deployment to justify a separate "desktop support" person.

Keep in mind that you're using an extremely general term, "system administrator". That can mean anything these days from level one desktop support to head of systems services.

Unless your company is big enough to actually have a separate department for desktop support, expect to do some. As an upper-level admin, you are an escalation point. The people you are supporting are your customers, and you need to be ready to support the entire solution stack.

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Do you want to keep your job? Do you enjoy the work? Are there other employers in your area looking for someone who just does whatever it is that you wish to specialize in?

I frequently think that we might be better of where we work if he had someone focused on just desktop support. Or at least I think we would provide better support if the task was primarily handed by one person. On the other hand, adding additional staff is not an option right now, and because we mostly have a Terminal server environment there isn't a lot of what I would call desktop support.

I think this is simply a case where you either need to accept it, or look for alternatives that are better fit for what you want to do.

I pretty much agree with you, but just to clarify, I'm not talking about my current position. At the place I work at now, the helpdesk and desktop guys outnumber the sysadmins, which is not completely unusual in my experience of the industry. –  Nexus Dec 4 '09 at 22:49
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Here is my belief on the topic as pertains to a typical IT shop with roughly 2 to 4 people:

(I do understand that I'm about to generalize things a bit. I'm sure there are special cases where my surmising is wrong. However, in gerneal, I believe what I'm about to say is true.)

SysAdmins should expect to do helpdesk work occasionally, especially trouble tickets that might be caused by deeper issues that only a systems person would know about. But sometimes, as much as we hate it, we've got to show someone custom views in Outlook or how to create a new menu item in Gnome. However, if an admin is consistently doing helpdesk duties, it's probably a sign of deeper problems. The three most likely culprits are:

  1. The admin himself isn't doing a thorough enough job
  2. There is a lack of backing by corporate leadership to implement best practices and mandate that people follow them.
  3. The primary helpdesk person is a slacker and needs training, electroshock therapy or a pink slip

Another problem that I won't address here is that some IT departments simply have more users and systems to manage than 2 to 4 people can prudently handle. For info on that topic, check out the ServerFault thread "What is your IT-department to staff ratio?"

If you're an admin and find yourself consistently doing helpdesk tasks, ask yourself three questions:

  • Am I the cause of this? Are their centralized, streamlining systems that I can put in place to relieve this workload?
    • If you have to pitch in to image a fleet of new PCs... why isn't there a centralized image managment system in place that could take care of it in just a few minutes? (FOG, for example) An admin's job should include putting a system like that in place... not cleaning up the mess caused by a lack of said system.
    • Don't whine that you don't have enough budget to implement Mega-Manage-App-2015-Premium. Yes, Tivoli or SCCM or whatever-else-you're-pining-for would roxor your soxors, but you can't have it so get over it. pstools and some batch scripts can still work surprising wonders on a Windows network. The same and much more can be said for equivalent free tools on a *NIX network.
  • Is management aware of this problem and are they interested in addressing it?
    • If you find yourself consistently having to restore files from backup, when the user as an agent on his PC that allows self-service file restoration -- but he disabled it, then management should make stronger demands for compliance. That also includes mandating a lack of administrator privileges on the PC so this couldn't happen in the first place.
    • As much as it may not seem like it, this potential problem can also be handled to a limited extent by you (or the head of IT if you're not it). Gather data, present your case in a calm and respectful manner and offer clear, concise solutions with the benefits clearly laid out. If at first you don't succeed, keep on sucking 'till you do suck seed (can't resist a good Three Stooges reference). Don't quit too early... but of course don't be a total pain in the posterior.
  • Can I teach people to fish instead of handing them baked salmon fillet?
    • If your help desk is constantly passing the buck up to you, take that help desker under your wing and teach him Zen and the art of motorcycle repair. Play Sherlock to his Watson (sans the cocaine and keeping shag tobacco in a slipper). If they show no signs of improvement, move to have them dismissed.

To summarize, Systems Administrators / Engineers / Architects (or whatever fancy title you've managed to snag =) ) have high-level, expensive skillsets. What good does it do your company if they have a $90K a year help desk technician? None whatsoever.

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I'd say it depends, but in general, yea, you're going to have to support users and desktops.

System admin covers a lot of ground. I do unix and mainframe admin and I rarely touch a desktop...but rarely is not never. And I've never seen a windows admin who didn't have to get his hands dirty every now and then.

I think, these days, that a dedicated hardware support guy is almost always a waste of money. You're paying a guy a salary to deal with an occasional problem, on commodity machines? Cheaper just to use that money to buy new hardware. And admin work, if you're doing it right, shouldn't be a constant hassle.

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Depending on what kind of you support you offer, a lot of the questions might require a rather good understanding of the underlying systems. That kind of specific knowledge can be rather non trivial for a dedicated support person to gain.

Of course, being interrupted with support questions whenever you try to get some "real work" done can be all to distracting. For that reasons I know companies where the system administrators are on a rotation support schedule.

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My opinion is no, you shouldn't be involved in direct front-line support, but yes, you should keep your hand in from time to time. The rationale is that the end-users are the reason why you do your job in the first place, and unless you're aware of what's actually going on in end-user land you won't really know whether or not you're doing a good job.

This will differ for different sized organisations of course, but even if it's the case where there is a dedicated helpdesk/support team, as an admin I think it's still of value to sit in on support calls on occasions.

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Nobody starts their career as a sysadmin by building out a rack of servers or installing a network infrastructure day 1 on the job...

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3-4 sysadmins is still a very small shop, where I would expect lots of cross-training, and minimal specialization -- no one sysadmin who's completely indispensable.

I wouldn't expect to have a 'dedicated' helpdesk until you can justify having 2-3 people who focus on desktop support.

Obviously, some shops are going to be more weighted towards servers than desktops, and so it might take a dozen or more sysadmins before you have can justify a dedicated helpdesk staff. Those with lots of desktops might have more 'helpdesk' type folks than 'sysadmins'.

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It depends on your definition of desktop support. Keeping an image/unattended install, updates and the systems management stuff for the desktop is both essential and non-trivial. You're not going to have an intern successfully manage desktops with SCCM or Altiris.

On the other hand, if you're paying a highly skilled individual to help users find the "any" key and setup printers, you're wasting money.

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Yes they should.

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