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Technical Support: A Different View of Science


My PhD project, at the University of Madrid, was very interesting--and very laborious. I was studying a handful of families in which people had inherited a recessive disease affecting platelet aggregation, looking for mutations in their genomic DNA. After pouring many manual sequencing gels and working with annoying radioactivity, and after many months of negative results, you would find a mutation. Then you would have to generate the mutation in a wild-type genome to verify the effect of that defect, in order to confirm the phenotype.

I liked the science itself, but unfortunately the atmosphere in which I was working wasn't for me. I couldn't cope with the competitiveness of my own bench colleagues, who were working on the same project as me and trying anything to get results first. After 3 years I had had enough of research, but despite that I was willing to give it another chance. My then-boyfriend, now-husband, Jesús, was a scientist and he really wanted to continue in that career. He was doing a postdoc in Madrid while he waited for me to finish my PhD, and we were both applying for postdoctoral fellowships to go to the UK.

Around that time, I met a woman who had done her PhD at the same research centre as Jesús and I, but who was now working in technical support for Perkin Elmer (now Applied Biosystems). We chatted a little about it, just enough to make me realise that this was the kind of job I would like to do myself. She was working for a well-known company, had people around her that would help her and care about her, she organised her own time, had great relationships with her customers, travelled around, got a car, and was still in touch with science! Perfect, isn't it?

And in a stroke of luck, just a month after I finished my PhD an advert for a second tech support position at Applied Biosystems appeared on the notice board of the building. Oops, dilemma, what to do now? I really wanted that job and I fitted the profile very well, but I still wanted to be with my boyfriend. ... So I thought I would try to convince him to go for the job himself so he would stay in Madrid, and I would find something else. My persuasion worked and he sent his CV ... but he sent mine, too!

So in the end it was me who got the job, as I had the knowledge of the molecular biology techniques that the company needed. We decided I would start the job and see how things went. A year later, Jesús moved to the UK on a postdoc fellowship, but I stayed in Spain--I enjoyed my job so much that I didn't want to leave it, and I thought that the 2 years would pass quickly!

So in that way I started my career in technical support! It was amazing how easy the cycle sequencing and the automatic sequencers were to use. I had never seen machines like these before, although I had spent over 3 years sequencing. During my PhD I needed 3 to 4 days between the sequencing reaction, pouring and loading a gel, and the exposure of the film to get a good or bad result. Now I discovered that with the right equipment you could get it in a single day! I realised I could have finished my PhD in just a few months. But doing all the work by hand had given me a really thorough knowledge of the chemistry; and that's just what I needed for the job. Anyone can learn to use the instruments, but it is the knowledge of the chemistry that gives you the confidence to troubleshoot problems.

When I first joined the company I spent 2 weeks with my colleague, that same person who first put the idea of working in technical support in my head. She trained me as much as she could in the lab in Madrid, and in customer visits where I shadowed her. Then she went on holiday for 2 weeks, and there I was, with my sequencer, my user manual, and a very good service engineer.

The day after she left on holidays I had my first customer with problems on the phone ... Panic! He was very patient and very kind. It was a very stressful couple of weeks, but I got up to speed very quickly.

From time to time we have meetings with the rest of our European counterparts, and also worldwide meetings in the States for product updates. In one of those meetings, when I had been working in Spain for one and a half years, I was chatting with one of my UK colleagues. When she found out that my boyfriend was living in the UK, she suggested that I move within the company so we could be together again. It was something I had never thought about before, but Jesús was really enthusiastic about his project and he had many more chances of funding in UK than he would in Spain. So here I am, living with my husband for the past 5 years in a foreign country. This kind of flexibility is one of the benefits of working for a big company like this one.

Incidentally, before I moved I helped in the recruitment and training of my replacement in Spain--who happened to be that first customer I dealt with on my own after my first 2 weeks at the company!

My role changed quite a bit when I moved from Spain to the UK. I left a country where we were two people covering every kind of application, to move into a much bigger group where each person has a certain level of specialisation within the different areas. Customer-wise it was also different; quieter and more polite--less Mediterranean, let's say! I think my colleagues, too, needed to get used to my Spanish blood. ... I'm the noisiest person in the team!

I still enjoy my job after 7 years. You do so many different things and have a role in every step of the sales process, although you are not a sales person as such. What we sell is science, technical knowledge, and for us there is never money involved.

Our activities start in the presales situation, and here we are always paired with one of our sales engineers. We may give a seminar in a research centre, for example, to tell scientists about the technologies we provide, chemistry and instrument-wise, always making them aware of the different applications they can develop with them. This is always a very technical talk.

Normally the second step is a demo; one of the customers from the seminar thought that the chemistry and instrument you mentioned would work well for her project, and she starts shopping around to see which other companies provide similar solutions, for a cheaper price, of course! We arrange a demo for her, during which we ask her to prepare samples, and we design an assay for her targets of interest. Depending on the instrument we are discussing, the demo can take place in our labs or in the customer's lab. The day of the demo is always a challenge, as you don't know how good or bad the samples are.

In many cases, if the samples work in your platform they will quite likely work in the competitors' instrument, in which case you will get bombarded with questions about why they should buy yours. In this situation we never talk about the problems the competitors have, but rather try to emphasize why our solution is technically better. However, you find that many companies use aggressive arguments against your technique/instrumentation and you have to be ready to face those situations.

The other scenario is a bad result from the customer's sample. That doesn't mean that all is lost; as long as you can explain why it failed and how it could be sorted, it can still reflect well on your product.

I have to admit that demos are the part of my job that I like most; you establish the initial contact with the customer and you start building the relationship there. In particular, 'small customers' (those from academic and small company labs, as opposed to big multinationals) often love to talk to you about their research, which makes the job very interesting, and you build up the customer's trust based on your knowledge. The demo is also one of those stages where you need to work in a team and you get to know your sales partners very well. The sales staff learns what you need to know before the demo, and you learn from them what you need to watch out for and what you need to emphasize during the demo. Perfect teamwork removes the pressure from the event, making it very enjoyable.

After the instrument is sold, the customers need to learn how to use the instrument and set up their applications. Training them and keeping the training materials up to date is also part of my job. The training sessions can be very interesting when you get customers asking questions about their specific applications, or can be terribly boring if nobody says a word and you keep going through the same presentations time after time. We normally run 2-day training courses, so the afternoon of the second day can be a nightmare if the trainees don't show any interest. Usually these courses are held on our own premises, but if the same site needs to train several people, we go to them ... and in this case anything can happen: The courier couldn't make it on time and there are no manuals or reagents; one of the customers has a meeting at tea time or the other one needs to prepare a reaction.

Last but not least, when the customer is trained and starts working, they can have problems with the instrument or its applications, or questions about how to use it. It is our role in support to troubleshoot these situations and deal with the problem if it is chemistry related, or to pass it onto our service partners if it is instrument related. Here again, teamwork proves to be a very important part of the job.

With the years I have gained some extra responsibilities, becoming the 'single point of contact' (SPOC) for some of the new instruments that the company has introduced. I find this really interesting; it is a sort of liaison role and means collecting feedback from colleagues across Europe who are selling and supporting the new instrument and passing it onto the R&D group in the States, and vice versa. When a new platform is released problems often arise on customer sites that were never seen during the product test phase (for example, software bugs, etc). Customers report these problems to us, and as we have a much closer contact with them, we have a better understanding of their needs and therefore are in a very good position to communicate this to our R&D groups to try and make the products a better fit for our customers. It really gives you the feeling that you are doing something important.

So far everything about my job sounds great, but there is also a less appealing side, which is the amount of travelling and the long hours that involves. Any of the activities that I have mentioned can happen anywhere in the country. I'm based in Cambridge but most of the training courses are run 200 miles away from where I live. That means a 4:45 a.m. start on the first day and leaving the office anytime around 4 p.m. on the second day ready to face another 3- to 4-hour drive back home. The workload is variable: You can be travelling for a whole week, or in another week have local calls every day. In any case we need to keep up with our e-mail, as customers often approach us with questions by that route, so even at the end of a long day on the road, there's still e-mail to answer

The flexibility of the job can be very good, as many times you can arrange your own agenda. But it also means that things can change at the last minute. When you thought you were going to be at home on Tuesday evening, suddenly you will be having dinner on your own in your hotel room in Aberysthwyth. So forget about evening classes during the week!

The extra responsibility of a SPOC position doesn't really reduce the amount of travelling, and it involves many conference calls in the late evenings to catch up with the guys in the States. An alternative promotion route is going for a team leader position, which can reduce the travelling to some extent but involves loads of paperwork and less technical work. From tech support positions some of my colleagues have found other alternatives; some have chosen to move into sales or marketing departments within the company; others have decided to use their training skills for teaching purposes, and some have found opportunities in other companies, giving them the option to perform a similar job in a different arena, or even within a similar one, and getting a good salary raise in the move.

Due to the travelling, this is probably not a job you want to do forever, but I personally think that this is a great opportunity right after your PhD, when you have plenty of energy and are willing to travel. And along the way, you will pick up valuable skills that will allow you to move into many different areas.