From social work to software customer support – by Emily Axel
Emily Axel | November 19, 2020
Three years ago, I was stuck. I was 37 years old, had worked in the non-profit sector my whole adult life, and I had started to loathe it. Not because of the work itself; helping people with their problems was stressful, and sometimes the widespread issues caused by capitalism felt insurmountable, but I could cope with that. My education and training had taught me how.
What really got to me was the sector. Everything felt backwards and slow. Innovation and efficiency were never priorities; instead people would spend hours of staff time to save a few bucks, never acknowledging that the staff time always cost more than those few bucks.
I needed a change. I had been instructed to use Microsoft Word to design a flyer one too many times.
The problem was, I couldn’t see what this change would look like. Not only had social work become an ingrained part of my identity, I also felt like I had no other skills. I’d spent fifteen years working with older adults in various community-based organizations, and that’s what I knew how to do.
I needed help.
Luckily, I would find it. Loads of it.
Looking outside the box
Through what may or may not be coincidence, my social circle was full of tech people: developers, documentarians, sysadmins. I’d picked up bits and pieces about the sector just by having conversations with these folk, but didn’t necessarily picture myself there.
I’d been bringing that knowledge to the non-profit offices I worked in, fighting an uphill battle to introduce technological solutions to some of our everyday problems:
● What if we used a password manager instead of everyone sharing passwords around on sticky notes?
● What if we used cloud storage and shared documents instead of sending endless new versions of work back and forth via email?
● What if we used online graphic design software to make those flyers?
I won some of these battles and lost some, but for those I won, I was inevitably the go-to person when someone needed help using the new tool. I became our in-house help desk.
Something sparked. I found I loved being the one people would come to with questions, and I found that I was good at answering them. I could read the user’s skill level, comfort with technology, and adjust my style of explanation to work for them.
At the same time, I was starting to talk to people about potential new career paths. I knew that I wanted to keep working with people, and I knew that I wanted to keep helping them solve their problems.
My “AHA!” moment
One day in June 2018, I went to a Write the Docs event called “Build your Docs career.” Though I’d been a fan of Write the Docs for a while, through my social connections, this was the first time I’d ever gone to an event. I didn’t really think I wanted to build my docs career, but I was just trying to learn as much as I could about potential options. Over lunch, I ended up having a life-changing conversation with someone who asked me “Have you ever thought about SaaS support?”
“What’s SaaS mean?” was my first question. “Software as a service.” I had a lot to learn.
So I started. I joined the Support Driven community, started working with a mentor through their Aspire program, and took an HTML/CSS class. I did a short stint working for a local online retailer helping respond to customer complaints. (That experience was invaluable; eBay is a wild frontier when it comes to customer support, but that’s a topic for another day.)
And I started applying for SaaS roles.
I told potential employers that I was “bringing social work skills to the tech sector,” selling the idea that technical knowledge could be learned. My unique selling point was the people skills: empathy, conflict resolution, reflective listening, problem solving. These came as second-nature to me, the so-called “soft skills” that are actually incredibly hard. (Also a topic for another day.)
The job search was arduous. Full of multi-step interviews and almost-offers and a lot of rejection. “We need someone who can hit the ground running.” “We’re going with someone with more technical expertise.” “We’re looking for someone who can do API troubleshooting.”
But I persevered, and almost a year after starting to think about changing careers, I landed my first software customer support job at Olo, an online ordering platform for restaurants. After about a year there I moved on to my current role at Whereby, a video conferencing platform.
New world, same goals
The environment has changed, but the goal remains the same: helping people solve their problems. Early into the transition I worried that I might not find the same fulfillment that I did working for non-profits, like I wasn’t making as important a difference. The stakes were different, for sure, but at Olo I was helping restaurant franchisees make sure their customers could order from them smoothly, as they worked to squeeze a livelihood out of an industry with notoriously low profit margins.
And at Whereby, I’m helping people stay connected to the important people in their professional and personal lives; that’s pretty fulfilling, especially in the COVID landscape.
New world, same skills
I use my social work training on a daily basis. At Olo I spent a lot of time on phone support; I would often pick up the phone and be speaking to someone in a small panic. Their system wasn’t working, and this was their bread and butter. I was used to talking to people in crisis and could easily adopt a calming tone, reflect back what they were saying to make sure I understood the problem, and guide them toward being able to solve it on their own in the future.
Any customer support person will tell you that resilience is also crucial. We’re on the receiving end of people’s frustrations, either with the technology itself or with their own difficulty understanding it, and sometimes that frustration gets taken out on us.
The same is true in social work; over many years, I developed a knack for not taking things personally, for realizing that everyone is just trying to get their needs met. So how do we move from the problem on to a solution?
As a social worker I was constantly putting myself in my clients’ shoes; reading between the lines and getting to what they were actually saying, even if they weren’t saying it. The value of empathy really can’t be overstated. I know what I’m looking for when I contact support as a customer; I want to be heard, I don’t want to be told that the problem is my fault (even if it is), and I want to be guided to a solution in language I can understand.
A year and a half into my SaaS support career, I can see many different potential paths, which is incredibly exciting. I will keep strengthening my technical knowledge. I will keep learning. At Whereby I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to participate in some user research interviews, which I’ve discovered a love for.
I know I want to stay people-facing, whether those people are my customers or my teammates. I recently flexed my event planning and group work muscles by helping to organize a remote team-building week, in place of the in-person retreat that would normally happen. I’m helping to build a better team which in turn is building better products.
I got into social work so I could help make the world a better place. And here I am helping make the world a better place, just not quite how I first pictured.