What I Learned from my First Job: From PEBKAC to Empathy

The following post was part of a LinkedIn Canada initiative to inspire creativity and discussion amongst our network and followers. It was drafted in June of 2015.2015-06-02_1433212611


My first job was doing tech support at the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C. I had always admired my dad, a diplomat, and I was excited by the opportunity to work near him in our gleaming Arthur Erickson-designed embassy right across The Mall from Congress.

My day-to-day work was far more mundane than the descriptions on my resume might suggest. For instance, “Supporting and reconfiguring the Embassy’s telecommunications protocols and systems” basically entailed fixing phones and voicemail. But as an ambitious high school student, the opportunity to work with our diplomats and even, on a volunteer basis, take notes at Congressional hearings, was exhilarating.

The job came with its ups and downs: I spent countless (frustrating) hours on the phone with Verizon when we rolled out the first Blackberries in D.C. Another time I had to get Secret clearance in order to manage the fibre optic lines that we leased connecting all of our posts in the Americas.

And it was not without risk and responsibility either: I connected dozens of computers to new dual input monitors (one secure, one not) but didn’t realize the voltage was different. I walked away and as each user flicked the switch to change the input device, they would blow their monitor, one after the other, until we figured out what was going wrong.

The most important lesson from this job, however, was about people: There is an aloofness inherent in knowing more than someone else even when you are their junior in age and function. This is particularly true of knowledge about technology which can be both specialized and practical. And this distance can get in the way of understanding. More than any other skill, doing tech support requires empathy. The ability to understand your client’s perspective and problems, to see a computer or phone from their level of skill and take into consideration their frustration, was paramount.

At the embassy I learned the acronym PEBKAC for Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. This reference to by far the most common reason for a tech support call, user error or ignorance, gets it wrong. Rather than the problem, we had to understand that the solution existed between the keyboard and the chair. By understanding that my clients, my colleagues and eventually, my friends, were raised in different generations and perhaps didn’t understand the analogy of a folder in an operating system, or how to access a “context menu” (usually, right clicking), I was able to help them better.

I could help them understand their devices and software in a more productive and lasting manner by explaining the solutions in their terms. And once I did, I would unlock perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my job, their gratitude. Spending that extra half hour to work through how to create an out of office message or deal with a “full” mailbox resulted in lasting relationships that continue to benefit my career to this day. And learning the value of empathy, in and of itself, made my first job worthwhile.


What I Learned from my First Job: From PEBKAC to Empathy

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