The help desk is often the place where careers begin in IT, providing opportunities for college graduates or internal transfers to gain some technical knowledge. Getting new team members up to speed quickly without diminishing overall team productivity is integral to success.
At Synopsys, we take this a step further and partner with a local community college occupational training organization. Five interns work with us all year long; they may stay for as little as two quarters or as long as two years (the average tenure is six to nine months). When we first started our partnership with the DeAnza/Foothill Community College Occupational Training Institute in 2005, our goal was to use interns to staff our walk-up help desk and provide phone support. To improve the efficiency of training our student interns, we developed a thirty-day learning plan, created a training website, and delegated the management, supervision, and scheduling of the walk-up help desk team to various members of the regular solutions center team.
We believe it’s important to get training right every time, not only because it benefits the people who need our help but also because professional development is an important part of maintaining employee satisfaction.
Where We Started
For more than twenty-five years, Synopsys has been accelerating innovation in electronics, with engineers around the world using Synopsys technology to successfully design and create advanced chips and systems. The IT Global Solutions Center team manages the company’s single-point-of-contact support hotline from the corporate headquarters in Mountain View, CA, with additional support provided by team members in Hyderabad, Shanghai, Lisbon, and Durham, NC.
Ten years ago, because of a decrease in IT staffing and an increase in the number of laptops and mobile phones in our environment, our IT support structure was significantly undermanned. However, it was at this point that we began to see an increase in the volume of internal employees who were “dropping by” the help desk to request assistance with their laptops and other devices. Employees would stalk the rows of the IT team’s cubicles, looking for any support technician who would make eye contact. This wasn’t an efficient process, so we decided to create a walk-up help desk where we could provide more targeted assistance by greeting customers and documenting their issues. We defined a limited scope of work (SOW) for what the walk-up help desk could quickly handle, as well as a process for addressing tickets and assigning them to the correct team for a resolution. But we had difficulty staffing the desk with our small team.
Then, at an HDI local chapter meeting, we met the program manager for the CompTechS program at the DeAnza/Foothill Community College Occupational Training Institute. CompTechS is a work-based program that assesses and trains students (mostly those pursuing degrees or certificates in information systems) and then provides them with internship opportunities with local companies. To qualify for an internship, students are first required to work in the on-campus computer donation lab. The lab refurbishes donated systems that are given as grants to students who need computers but can’t afford them. This way, all students develop baseline knowledge of Microsoft Windows operating systems and related software.
Our existing training program enabled us to bring new help desk team members up to speed within ninety days. However, to be successful with student interns, we knew we’d have to be able to train them even more quickly. Based on our existing training program and SOW, we identified the most common phone and walk-up issues and began developing an additional program, led by our senior team lead, to help new interns successfully help employees with those issues. The challenge was breaking solutions down to a level that would allow novice technical support professionals to be successful but would also provide employees with a good support experience.
The interns were to be an extension of the regular team, not replacements. Our team uses a rotating frontline approach whereby the frontline responsibility is passed around to several team members during a shift. As tickets come in to the queue, they’re owned by the frontline team member. All tickets opened by the interns would go into the help desk queue, and if they encountered issues they couldn’t resolve in five minutes using their existing knowledge, they would be instructed to pass those tickets along to the frontline team member. If a case needed to be escalated more urgently, the intern would work directly with the frontline team member.
This process would not only give interns an opportunity to work with all of the other team members, it would also give team members the opportunity to provide interns with instructive and constructive feedback on how they followed the process of documenting and verifying the issues in the ticket. In this way, the interns would be active participants in the process of improving the overall customer support experience.
In January 2005, we hired our first two interns. With the interns in place, we were better able to balance calls and tickets as our volume increased, and we were able to reduce our call abandonment rate. By greeting them up front, the interns, who were quickly accepted as new team members, also prevented employees from wandering down the hall looking for help. Out of the gate, the walk-up help desk was successful beyond our wildest expectations!
Training as Employee Development
Over time, we expanded the program from two to five interns (up to seven in the summer). We try to replace no more than two interns at a time. This allows us to always have at least two experienced interns on board. These interns get to work on their own leadership, training, and communication skills by being the go-to contacts for the rest of the team. They also review and update existing training and operations documents and create new content as needed.
The training site we built using Microsoft SharePoint has been integral to our success. The site has a defined ninety-day learning plan with activities, self-study materials, internal certifications, instructor guides, training checklists, and skills assessments. Each new intern is assigned a training buddy. The intern and his/her buddy use the training checklist to keep track of which topics have been covered, and internal certifications help define success for the primary SOW. Certifications require training by one staff member and an audit by a different staff member.
Over the years, the site that began as a simple webpage with a list of links has evolved into a robust resource. It is reviewed on an annual basis as one of the summer projects managed by the teacher fellows who work with us through another internship program for educators. Different members of the regular team take on the project coordinator role to develop additional skills themselves. Some of their accomplishments include learning HTML and SharePoint, managing projects, and scripting and producing videos.
Setting Goals on Projects
Synopsys is disciplined about management by objectives (MBO). MBOs that include activities with the intern team have become part of the regular team’s list. For example, one of the first projects was Tech Refresh, our new and replacement laptop imaging process. We felt that by delegating some aspects of the imaging process to our interns, we could reduce the amount of staff time required and improve overall time to deployment. One member of the regular team was the project coordinator. Interns were taught the Tech Refresh process and they drafted the how-to documentation using provided templates. This documentation was reviewed and tested first by other interns and then by the regular staff, enabling interns and staff to serve as both trainers and testers.
Another goal was to figure out how to create team coverage schedules for our interns. While our walk-up help desk schedules are not as complex as those of the service desk, they often change due to student availability, and establishing schedules can be very time-consuming. To distribute the burden, we rotate the responsibility among members of the regular team. This ensures that everyone learns how to create effective and successful schedules.
The Benefits of the Intern Program
The intern program has gotten rave reviews. In fact, our end users are often unaware that the walk-up help desk is staffed by students.
The program has also given us an excellent way to bring new blood into the IT team. Two of our Mountain View team members started out as walk-up help desk interns, and two former interns currently work on our desktop team. Other walk-up help desk interns who are still in school have returned as contractors or summer interns in other departments.
Another sign of the program’s success is that other IT teams often ask to borrow our interns to help them with short-term projects, such as receiving and tagging new computers, deploying new mobile phones, and assisting with our global PC encryption project. Our interns have an excellent reputation for the quality of their technical expertise.
Expectations Exceeded and Lessons Learned
In the nearly ten years since we started working with interns, this program has exceeded our expectations. Still, we’ve learned a lot about managing interns and promoting employee development. First, employee development doesn’t just happen; it requires strategic planning. If you’re thinking about bringing on interns, you also need to be thinking about ways you can team your regular staff up with your interns to achieve their individual development goals. Second, remember why you have interns; they’re not the same as your regular employees. Don’t let the scope creep.
Third, interns are students, so help them learn. Give them opportunities to talk to people in other areas of IT so they can learn about the career paths and opportunities available to them. Encourage them to do informational interviews with other IT members. Fourth, involve the interns and let them contribute. We make it a point to involve our interns in as many regular team activities as we can—staff meetings, process re-engineering projects, special projects, etc.—and we encourage interns and regular team members to share and discuss their ideas, which often leads to new ideas. Interns are a fresh set of eyes; don’t hesitate to use them.
Finally, when it’s time for interns to move on, help them. Ask them about their plans, how they’re doing in school. Encourage them to network with each other and with other people in your organization. This will help them build their careers, and it will help you raise the profile of your program.
Terri Oropeza has been in IT support since 1985, the last eighteen years at Synopsys. She has been the IT Global Solutions Center manager since October 2000, and she was responsible for transforming the traditional help desk into a full-service Solutions Center. Terri has experience in project management and business systems administration, and she is highly skilled at team inclusion, employee retention, mentoring, and cross-team effectiveness. Terri has been an HDI member since 2000, and she is a former HDI local chapter officer.