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Shelby Strahl: Putting empathy to work on the IT help desk

Shelby Strahl aims to brighten the day of everyone who submits a help desk ticket.

Shelby Strahl aims to brighten
the day of everyone who
submits a help desk ticket.

“When you’re on the phone, always smile.”

The lesson Shelby Strahl learned at age 18 during the one week she spent cold-calling for a vacuum sales business has stayed with her throughout her nearly 20-year career doing IT support.

“While that job wasn’t for me, I always remember the power of smiling. It keeps you in a good mood and it helps change a person’s perception on the other end of the call, whether they can see you or not,” said Shelby, who is a part of Wipfli’s tech support team.

“I can divert people with small talk, so they forget what they were angry about. I truly care about people,” Shelby said. “If you’re having a bad day, I like to find a joke or say something embarrassing about myself. The work is not just computer issues.”

The help desk is not a career for the faint of heart. But it helps that Shelby has a big, empathic heart. Having high emotional intelligence has helped her throughout her IT career, whether she’s working with someone frustrated that they can’t figure out a tech issue themselves or in tears because they feared their critical data is lost forever.

Energetic troubleshooter

Joining Wipfli as a tech support analyst was a breath of fresh air, she said, after frustrations with operations at her previous employer Air Wisconsin where she worked for 11 years.

Throughout her career, she has fearlessly gone where others didn’t want to go. When she was hired in 2006 as a contractor for the Bureau of Reclamation in Colorado in her first help desk role, she quickly discovered the department had no documentation for fixes or upgrades. Rather than complain about it, she rectified it. “I took on creating the manual for the whole department. We served 6000 employees west of the Mississippi.”

Later, at Air Wisconsin, she was a one-person IT dept for most of her time there, which meant handling all hardware upgrades, account management and asset audits as well as help desk calls. “I trained everyone including all 700 pilots. I set up their accounts and trained them to use the iPads they use for every flight plan. iPad checklists replaced the paper charts,” she said. “We were the first regional airline to move off of paper charts.”

At the airline, she frequently had to deal with male pilots who asked to speak to a man when she answered their calls. “I told them, ‘you only have me. There’s nothing else we can do. So, let’s see if we can fix this right now,’” she recalled. Her ability to remain unflappable during difficult encounters was clearly an asset. “I usually fixed their problem within minutes.”

Her transition to Wipfli, where five of the roughly 20 IT support staff are women, has been virtually seamless. One day after she updated her LinkedIn profile (“I maxed out the number of tags allowed for skills,”) to begin her search for a job, she heard from Wipfli partner Michael Pynch, the firm’s internal technology team leader, who let her know her she appeared to have the qualifications Wipfli was looking for.

Hours after her interview, Shelby got an offer from the firm. “It’s better pay and I’m only on call every eight weeks compared to half the time at my old job.” she said.

With her work-life balance much improved, she has more time to devote to her dog-sitting business, a fun sideline activity. “I would love to travel more and dog-sit for people anywhere. As long as I have my computer with me, I’m good,” she said.

With an active dog-sitting business on the side, Shelby is similarly focused on keeping her canine clients happy.

With an active dog-sitting
business on the side, Shelby
is similarly focused on
keeping her canine clients happy.

Future teacher

While she’s based in Appleton, Wisconsin, Shelby splits her time between training colleagues and troubleshooting issues for them remotely across the firm. She’s also working to complete her associates degree in computer support at Fox Valley Technical college in Appleton with the goal of teaching there part time in the future. “I was able to test out of half of my classes because of the work I do,” she says.

Shelby appreciates the support she’s getting from her Wipfli team. “They know I need flexibility for some of my in-person classes. They want you to continue learning and will never turn up their nose at that.”

Equally important to Shelby is the firm’s culture, which aligns with her strong caring side and persevering nature as a friendly troubleshooter. “What I appreciate is that when I see things here that need to be fixed, people take it seriously,” she said.

“A year after I started, I made a list of six or seven ways we could handle a process or help somebody more smoothly. My manager wrote it all down,” she said. “And within a month, things changed.”

For one thing, the team has gotten much more collaborative in sharing solutions when a team member is stuck on a problem. “It warms my heart that someone cared enough to put in the time and effort to actually take action. I’m still smiling inside,” she said.

A smile that, no doubt, that the teammates and associates she helps throughout the firm can feel every day.

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