The lost art of listening to users

Beyond book learning and college courses, there's a way to hone your tech skills and solve users' IT issues: Lend them your ears

Admit it -- we were all IT newbies once, simultaneously filled with the wonder of learning and wide-eyed at the possibilities ahead, yet overly confident in our underdeveloped perspectives. Yes, the mistakes will come, but if you keep an ear on users' needs and goals, your tech skills can only keep growing -- and you might even pick up an unexpected tip or a treat along the way.

For what it's worth, I'm not one of those IT lifers. I started my career outside of the field, then transitioned into a technical role. I'd spent plenty of time as an end-user before I moved into program development, but I found early on that I enjoyed working with other people to figure out their tech problems.

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I was working at a non-IT job at a large insurance company as part of a 20-person team when my coworkers learned I was taking classes for a computer science degree. From that point on, they'd typically ask for my advice on basic computer problems before calling the help desk.

I didn't have admin rights, but I tried to help with the more basic questions -- for example, if someone saved a document but couldn't remember where to find it. The help desk appreciated my assistance on these issues, and if the problem needed documentation, I'd let them know.

Will work for candy

One person who'd often call me over for tech problems was a coworker who was a little older than most people on the team but had taken some computer programming courses back when she was in college. Unfortunately, those courses required the use of punch cards, so her computer skills were a bit behind the times.

Still, whenever I got called over to her workstation, I knew the problem would be interesting. They ranged from the utilitarian, like deleting most of the formulas on an Excel spreadsheet, to the bizarre, such as when all the emails in her Outlook client showed up as PDFs (still not sure how that happened).

I was glad to help, but she offered added incentive: Whenever she brought food, she made sure I got an extra candy bar or some other sugary snack. Yes, that had a direct result on my response times for her tech problems. I admit it -- I'm susceptible to bribery (though now that I'm a full-fledged IT pro, I can't make that known).

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