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Early IT channel career advice: Start at an MSP or a help desk?

Trying to figure out your first move post-college education isn't easy. Dave Sobel and other MSP influencers offer opinions on what may be the best way to begin an IT channel career.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

This week, Dave speaks with several MSP owners, Dave DelVecchio, Amy Babinchack, Mark Essayian and Jay McBain, to get their advice on a user-submitted question around whether someone straight out of college should consider working at a help desk or earn experience at an MSP.

Transcript follows below.

A listener came with a great question.

'I'm 20 years old and have been working at a help desk for about six months. I don't have any certifications yet and will have an associate's in May of 2021. I would love to start a side hustle in the IT field to gain more real-world experience and income. I love how MSP sounds, but I feel like its way over my head. Should I get my certifications and help-desk experience first? Or dive into a small MSP river and learn as I go?'

This felt like too big a question for just me, so I asked several other MSP owners who I respect for their take.

Advice from Dave DelVecchio

Well, to start, congratulations, because with six months of help desk experience, and soon to be attaining an associate degree, you're off to a great start with your career. The hardest job to get is your first and you've already crossed that hurdle. And, so, I understand you're considering perhaps starting a managed service provider business. And there's a lot to know on running an effective MSP, and I'm happy to share my knowledge.

I'm Dave DelVecchio from Suite3, we're about 30 people based up in Massachusetts. And keep in mind that you need to have technical smarts, business smarts and sales smarts to effectively run a managed services provider, folks often will start a business with just a technical and learn the rest. But you'll find that business smarts and sales smarts will accelerate your pace greatly. So, I have three pieces of advice for you as you consider that journey.

Continue to work on your education

First, you have to commit to continual education, not just continuing education, where you're focusing on things you already know and relearning technology. I mean, I've been through the wars of Windows 3 to 95, to 98 to Vista and on and on. You're going to have to stay committed to technology, but it's learning service, gross margin return on W2, the importance of a clean balance sheet. In addition to running all of the aspects of a business, picking a healthcare plan, you know, administering a 401(k) plan, working with your insurance providers and your legal team and your accountants that are helping you to run your business. And so, understanding the business side as well as the technical side is going to become critical. And it's hard at 20 to have all of that knowledge.

Practice patience

So be patient; it's my second piece of advice. And when you're 20 years old, a year feels like it lasts forever. At 30, it goes by in a blink. At 50, I feel like I could stand on my head for a year if I had to. So just be patient and take every opportunity that you can to learn about technical business and sales as you go. You have a lot to learn about all three.

Work on your communication skills

So be deliberate, and most importantly, be humble. Nobody wants to work with a brilliant jerk. Nobody wants to hire a brilliant jerk to do work for them. You have to build your likability because with sales, it takes connection. And that salesmanship -- if you're building your business, you have to sell yourself to your prospective employees as much as you do to prospective clients. So, learning to communicate to folks effectively is absolutely critical. And communication isn't a text, and it's not an email. And it's not ticket notes, if you're continuing to work technically. Talk to people, learn how to communicate, become likeable and build trust, and you're going to be amazed where building trust will take you, whether you remain working for someone else, or if you do decide to branch out on your own. So commit to continual education, be patient and be humble. I wish you the best of luck.

Amy Babinchak advice: Take training courses and earn certifications

You know, as a hiring manager, I find that a lot of people get stuck in those help desk jobs, and you definitely don't want to get stuck in that help desk job. So, my first bit of advice is do not go from help desk job to help desk job to help desk job. When you go for your next job, make sure that it has some path that's readily available for you to get out of help desk.

The only way you're going to really get out of help desk is by getting training and being better. And you cannot expect your employer to provide that training, you need to go out and get certifications. So, there are lots of online things. [For example] go to the video hub of Microsoft. They provide a lot of free training. They even provide free certification courses. When you have those certifications behind you, feel confident to go to your next employer and say, 'I'm working in help desk but I've taken all of these online webinars,' document them and put them on your resume: 'I achieved my certification in help desk, in Azure, in 365.' Certification for 365 would be an awesome one, by the way. Make sure your stuff is relevant and documented, and you will move up and get that next job. So good luck.

Mark Essayian advice: Speak to MSPs

Congrats about thinking about your future making it happen for you rather than it happening to you. I'm glad to see educational goals, that's an important part of the recipe, but it's not the only thing. I'd suggest you get introduced to a few MSP business folks, and ask them for a few minutes of their time, good ones will understand their obligation to assist you in succeeding. And they'll help you. It's called the 'go-giver' attitude.

If you decide to go the MSP route, find one that aligns with you from a culture perspective -- I'm always looking at culture first and foremost. If you're aligned, we'll hire and train; training is the easy part, so don't worry about that. Once you've started, you'll need to get tickets done quickly and accurately. That will get your service manager's attention. And you should ask him to put you on a performance improvement plan.

Jay McBain advice: Volunteer and build relationships

I started my career in my early 20s in the help desk. So, you know, like you I was thinking at the time,  do I go and do services on the side with some of my IT skills? Do I do more in terms of the company I'm working for?

One thing I did personally is I volunteered. I was at IBM at the time in the help desk, and they were looking for a futurist at the time. This is in the early 90s. And they were just about to play chess with Garry Kasparov, and we know that history. They were just perfecting this personal area network where you can shake hands with someone and exchange information with the electricity that runs through your body. And number three, they were just working on teleportation, and proving out the model that, you know, one day that we could beam me up. So it was kind of a really cool thing to go around and talk to people about. But I tried to volunteer everywhere I could.

And, as I started to get out there, I started to look at the industry. And I understood in the broader industry that there was a lot of different places that you could learn about where to take your career, the things to do, the certifications to get, what's worth it, what isn't. You know, I learned over time that there's  54 magazines in our industry, there's 64 podcasts with Dave Sobel right up at the top in terms of delivering value every single day. There are 24 associations, there are 99 LinkedIn groups, there are 25 Facebook groups, and vendor communities, distributor communities, all kinds of areas where you can participate. You can do this in your free time, you can get on a board, you can start to talk to others and collaborate. There are some really smart people in this industry. When I broke down who speaks at the events, the 150 different events in our industry, who sits on the board of the associations, who does the podcast, who are in the magazines -- they tend to be really open people and helpful and will be informal mentors to you.

So you can ask questions and build relationships, and build maybe a business from scratch based on other people's knowledge. But the idea is just to be open and engaged. And click around and look at where people are and where the communities are, and volunteer. And you know, the people will be there. And you'll look back five years or 10 years from now, and probably the owner of a successful business.

Further your education, learn metrics and make connections

Here's my take. You're in the prime portion of your ability to accelerate your trajectory, and you'll do that in three major ways: certification, metrics and connection.

Don't stop learning

Your associate degree is that first step. Kudos to that. Keep that machine rolling, particularly in this portion of your career, and you can do that in multiple ways. If you can seek out college further, do it, because it accelerates your earning over your career. You can either, or in addition to, focus on certifications. My brother is a cybersecurity expert, and he cranks out tests -- he reads, then takes test after test, and he's done that systematically, and continues to do so. Keep adding credentials -- your education and anything else you can get. And [just] so you know: You will always be doing that, regardless of which direction you go. I'm constantly reading and researching to this day, because the education never stops. Regardless of your choice on job, continue to add certifications of all kinds.

Determine metrics for success

I started my career at McDonald's. I was on the front line, taking orders. It was not a hard job. What I decided then was that I was going to be awesome at that job. I made a point to learn the metrics of how management decided who was good at it -- speed, in that case. Then, made sure I was great at that. That lead me to moving up to new opportunity -- to drive-thru and eventually manager. Why? Because I always said I was going to be great at what I did, but also because I learned what the metric was for success and focused on that.

I'm going to encourage you to think not about MSP versus help desk, but about finding opportunities to keep learning new things and moving up. Be awesome at your help desk job. Learn the metrics, and understand how your management is measuring your success. This will serve you well regardless if working for someone or for yourself, because you cannot manage what you don't measure.

Build industry connections

At the same time, you're building your connections, which is my final area to advise you on. Running your own business is way more than just being technical, as you've heard from my colleagues. You want to constantly connect with people, and foster relationships. Mark mentioned a philosophy called the 'go-giver,' which is a business book I also believe in. One of the ideas is to be more valuable than what you charge or cost. That doesn't mean to undervalue yourself, instead, it means to make sure you're giving a little bit more, such that you are always giving more than you take in payment.

Be continually considering and looking for new opportunities, regardless. You pose the question as an 'or.' I would offer [to] always look for an 'and.' Is it help desk or MSP? Maybe you're looking for an and? A new role at an MSP? Or find a way to do some additional technical experience and do your job? Always ethically, of course, and not in conflict with your employer.

My advice -- keep learning. Keep pushing yourself into roles that gain experience and knowledge, and that you can continue to challenge yourself. Push those metrics and be a high performer in the role you're in, because that will always add more opportunities.

About the author
Dave Sobel is the host of the podcast The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade, and has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LOGICnow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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