I receive many questions on the career advice forum from software engineers who are dissatisfied with the fact that they have been placed in production support. I have tried to list a few positive points about being in production support based on my what I have practically observed in the industry.
Life as a production support engineer is often viewed as being a second-class citizen. Peers look down upon you saying that you are not doing "real development" work. In general, this is the trend in most organizations and eventually the individual starts asking himself whether he belongs to the software development industry itself or whether he has landed in something which will be hard to get out of. Many persons quit jobs just to get out of support roles. But this is far from the truth - I have tried to list a few points below which I hope will help you to understand the importance of the role better, and also the hidden opportunities available, if only you exercise a sharp eye and open mind.
1. The application support engineer is the front face of the IT department Depending upon whether yours is an in-house production support role or one catering to an external client, you will inevitably be called upon to interact with the internal or external customer regularly across email, VOIP, video conferencing, etc. The role is such that it involves high communication with customers since you are trying to trouble-shoot what problems they are facing. Without realizing it, a person automatically becomes an expert in communicating with different types of customers, in some cases, people from different countries. This is an invaluable skill to possess over the long term. Communicating with people from diffferent countries, across different cultures, learning to be culturally sensitive, these skills need to be polished to prepare you for bigger and better roles.
Secondly, the IT department in general is hidden from the rest of the organzation. The quality and professionalism of the production support executive sets the benchmark based on which the customers rate their IT department. In short, the maintenance persons who interact with customers on a daily basis are the ambassadors of the IT department. Once you realize this, you will automatically experience greater pride in your role.
2. The role demands excellent analytical and debugging skillsTypically, the support engineer is expected to know the entire application functionality so that he can quickly debug and figure out the root cause when an incident is logged. This is easier said than done, usually you will have a 4 man team for an application which took 50 developers to develop, operating in shifts. So you are more or less on your own.Moreover, you have limited time at your disposal as a production application has to become operational quickly to lessen the business impact. Either the problem has to be resolved or a workaround has to be provided to the business. This requires very good debugging skills and complete functional understanding of the application.
Debugging skills could involve multiple technologies particularly if it is a service-oriented application. Identifying the area in which the problem has occurred itself may take time and it is a skill which has to be developed like any other skill.
3. The role demands high crisis management ability
The higher the business impact of an incident, the higher the pressure. Particularly if you have landed in the production support team supporting a mission critical application which is unfortunately unstable, you will need to perform well under pressure. Time will always be against you. Only persons with the ability to tackle high pressure do well in such projects.
Performing under pressure is a much sought after skill, no matter what level you are in an organization, not everyone can do it. This is one of the permanent qualities which open the doors for bigger roles in the future. Taking decisions, under pressure when you know that a mistake could lead to a business loss is not an easy task. Typically development teams are never exposed to this situation, so they do not have first-hand experience of how to handle the pressure but a support person has to face it sometime or the other in his career.
4. One needs to be an all-rounder in support
Typically, support teams are lean in nature so the team is expected to be conversant in all the technologies which constitute the entire project. Lack of incidents also means that there are potential opportunities, some of which are listed below:
(i) Poorly performing stored procedures
More often than not, a production system begins to grumble once the database size and transactions begins to grow. A small percentage of projects undergo stringent perfromance testing before being put in production. This means that at some point index optimization, stored procedure optimization, etc will become the responsibility of the support team. This requires specialized skills in the area.
Code refactoring may be required if the project is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, is experiencing memory leaks, etc. This again requires specialized knowledge as one cannot afford to make a mistake in a production application. Contrary to belief, the support role does require good technical skills.
(iii) Change requests
Usually, the real requirements of the business users emerge after the project has gone live and users have used it for a few months. Change requests may involve tweaking existing functionality or it might involve building new features from scratch. Once again, there is development work contrary to belief.
5. One needs to possess a service mindset
The Service Delivery function is a critical arm for the business in any organization. As part of the production support team, if you have a good foundational understanding of service delivery best practices like ITIL you are automatically going to do a good job. Business will be able to see a lot of value in your role as that is the manner in which ITIL is structured. Once you understand ITIL you will begin to see your role in a different light.
6. Ongoing revenue generator
In typical service based companies, the support projects are ongoing sources of steady revenue. Particularly, in times of recession, organizations are unwilling to spend money on new projects. But support projects cannot be aborted as operations have to run. So this becomes an important factor in company balance sheets.
7. Platform for higher management roles
Typically, a person who has spent enough time in development and production support roles is aptly suited for higher management roles as he has seen both areas deeply and understands the unique demands of both areas. If a person makes it a point to consistently take up more responsibility, upgrade skills, rise in roles, then eventually such a person does well in a higher management role. While it may not be immediately obvious, supporting critical systems does equip one with required skills to rise to higher management roles.
8. Solution designing
Contrary to popular belief, solution designing is part of the role but more correctly stated, it is solution design within the boundaries on an already implemented solution. This is not as easy as it sounds, particularly if the original solution inherited is not a good one.
9. Business continuity
Typically, an organization has an annual disaster recovery drill or a full fledged business continuity drill to gauge it's disaster readiness and value of the investments made. This involves quite a lot of work for the support staff, once again, it's complete system knowledge which comes to a person's aid for such assignments.
Moreover, IT DR(Disaster recovery) and BCP (Business Continuity Planning) have become specialized areas in themselves and knowledge of the same prepares you for higher management roles.
10. It has it's downside, like everything else The role has it's disadvantages, some of which are mentioned below:
(i) 24 X 7 requirements
Some projects require 24 X 7 support, this can be a huge health strain on the staff when you have to work in the night shift or be on call wherever you travel on weekends. In a way, you are constantly under pressure.
(ii) High pressure
The role is not cut out for individuals who cannot handle pressure and can experience health problems due to the same.
Conclusion Unlike popular perception, the support role involves possessing a basket of many skills and excelling in the same will eventually lead you towards higher management roles.
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