Meet the Channel: How the Help Desk Went from Password Resets to Network Analysis in 10 Years
A decade ago, Zac Shannon had just gotten out of the Navy and was looking for a job — any job. In the Navy, he’d been a firefighter and a repair welder. Noble work, but he wanted something different. Despite almost no technical experience, Shannon landed a job at a call center with Unisys Technical Services, a global IT services provider. Over the next five years, he worked his way up the ladder at Unisys, gaining experience with help-desk operations and the technical know-how needed to support mission-critical applications.
Four years ago, he heard of a company called Datto that was looking for good help-desk techs. It seemed like a cool place to work. Laid-back yet driven people, promising technology and hey, free slushies.
Today, Shannon is Datto’s director of elevated support. We sat down with him to chat about how the life of a help-desk tech has changed in the last 10 years, and what he thinks is coming next.
Channel Futures: Take a trip down memory lane for me. What was it like at the help desk 10 years ago?
Zacary Shannon: In the beginning, it was 100 percent break-fix. Everything we were doing was resetting a password, changing a cable or teaching somebody how to use Microsoft Paint.
CF: Ha! Really?
ZS: Just about. It was a shotgun approach to support. Anything they called in about that was broken — fix it. Where I am now, my sole purpose is [to fix] things that are unfixable or need engineering intervention. Ten years ago it was “gnaw on the problem until it’s resolved.” If you couldn’t, you were dead in the water for a bit until you figured it out. It was like working on a single 12- or 13-inch CRT monitor. Now everyone at Datto complains if they don’t have six monitors. That right there there shows you how it’s evolved.
CF: I guess the calls you get aren’t exactly cut and dried anymore.
ZS: At Datto, the company has evolved into, “Yes, we can do that regardless of what you’re asking, whether if it’s involved with our product or not.” Coming into Datto four years ago, the Level Ones had Tier Two/Tier Three access to tools and ability compared to other places. The varying depths of Linux knowledge, networking knowledge, depth of knowledge of virtual machines and networks — it’s pretty impressive. I’m in charge of Level Two and Three cloud support, problem management, incident management and escalation-management teams. Everything that isn’t first-tier solvable hits my group, which does everything from root-cause analysis down to “your SonicWall has a weird rule.” It’s very specific, and our techs have to be masters at everything. Our MSPs are very central to a vertical: health care, legal, nonprofit, manufacturing, finance. We need people here who know the compliance requirements and can speak to that for each industry, know the client our MSP is working with so we can better help them.
CF: That sounds like it requires an awful lot of internal training compared to the past. How do you make sure your techs have the knowledge required to support that variety of issues?
ZS: Not being a technical person when I started 10 years ago, I learned if you knew how to Google you could learn. Everybody comes here with a good ability to self-educate, and they’re driven to know this stuff. They have virtual environments at home that are pretty crazy. We give them Datto devices, old servers. They can set up mock environments at home. The office has support labs with every single Datto device, all the way back to the beginning. We have separate networks in there where they can break things and fix things. We give them a lot of hands on learning ability, kind of “learn at your own pace and figure it out.”
The people we hire are self-motivated and passionate about this stuff. We’ve got their buy-in; we’ve almost got to hold people back from doing too much. When they get up to my group, the Level Two and Three cloud and problem management people especially, they start to focus in on their core passion. They’ll have a primary passion like, say, virtual environments. We’ll have a VMware guy; we’ll send them to trainings. Whenever a partner calls in and they have a virtual environment, [that tech is] responsible for working with the partner and troubleshooting the problem, and then spreading the knowledge to the rest of the group. Everyone tries to have a secondary focus, so they’ll also be an expert in SaaS applications or whatever.
CF: So they’re learning and teaching the rest of the team at the same time.
ZS: Yeah. We hold internal trainings, so those experts work with the training department to put it together. The Tier Two and Three groups are also responsible for writing all of the knowledge-base articles. We get our hands on the products or learn something about a new feature or product hitting the space or an update that’s gone out and broken something. My team writes a KB article to deal with that and when you can hit certain milestones that maybe you can deal with as a Level One or you have to hand it over to a Level Two or Three.
CF: You mentioned the intimacy your techs have to have with compliance in certain verticals. Does that mean your knowledge base has to extend beyond Datto products? To what extent can you advise partners?
ZS: To an extent, we make suggestions to partners if we feel where they want to go with the situation might not be in their best interests. If they want to run a RoundTrip or something and it’s going to cost them XYZ, we may find a quicker, more cost-effective solution for them. We’ve helped partners optimize their networks because it helps us in the long run by decreasing our cost of service. If we help them optimize their network, they’re not calling about slow backups. The appliance tends to highlight a lot of inefficiencies or odd rules, because these MSPs are out with a hundred clients with a hundred different environments.
CF: We’re hearing a lot of buzz about how AI and automation is changing call-center and help-desk operations. Are we close to having a Datto chatbot helping us troubleshoot basic stuff?
ZS: We are [really looking] into chat. But the weird thing about Datto, and it’s completely different from anything else I’ve experienced, is we do a Direct to Tech model. Our MSP partners, if they need us, they need us now. What Direct to Tech allows us to do is pick up the phone right away. No [interactive voice response], no hold time. If you need a Datto support rep, you call the hotline, the phone rings a couple of times, and you get a person.
Generally, that’s a Level One … usually they walk customers through a setup or a weird condition a partner has run into on the network. If they can’t solve it, they will manually route them over to someone they know [is an expert] internally like our networking team or our VM people or a Code Red, which is our disaster-recovery line. If you have a disaster and everything is down, and you need your entire space spun up in the cloud, we’ll throw a Level Two or Three at it right away. There’s no wait, no IVR.
But the best call is a call we never get, right? We’re doing a lot of work at Datto … recognizing what are the common symptoms of a problem before the problem comes up, and seeing if we can solve it from the device side. It’s recognizing certain conditions and taking action based on those conditions, making it self-healing. If you solve the issue before you know there’s an issue, it makes it a lower cost for the MSP and ourselves.