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Wistar’s Help Desk: Up-close with Nico Tamborello

Talking Shop at Wistar

How would you describe what you do?

In a nutshell, we at the HelpDesk provide support for anything tech related. Anybody at Wistar needs IT support — all the scientists, all the staff — they come to us. Every day, a big part of what I do with the HelpDesk is monitor that queue of tickets that streams in, and from there, I work to help people with basically anything that involves computers: onboarding, offboarding, orienting new staff members, getting people acclimated to our systems.

So even if an issue comes up where things need to get passed off or escalated to someone with more specialization, we at the HelpDesk take the initial call and see what we can do before passing things on if we need to — it all comes through us. The job keeps us busy.

How did you get into the IT business?

When I was around 13 or 14, I had some really good mentors who helped me get into IT. They were already in the industry themselves, and they taught me how to build computers, fix computers — they really gave me that start, and we became fast friends. I didn’t go down the traditional IT route with school for computer science or anything like that — I actually have a media art background — but I worked with those mentors for a few years, and I ultimately decided to pursue an opportunity at Wistar. I’m coming up on one year here, in September.

Can you walk us through a typical day?

The first thing every day is to check the ticketing system and see what’s come in, what’s still outstanding, and from there, I prioritize things for the day based on which systems are affecting which people or affecting other systems. Then I reach out to people, see what’s going on and go through the documentation associated with the requests; a big part of providing tech support is making sure we have enough information on an issue to try to diagnose and troubleshoot. And once I’ve got my priority list for the day, that’s the day: just going through the tickets, first to last.

How much walking around do you have to do in a given day?

It depends on the nature of the request. A lot of the issues that come in can be handled remotely, but some things do require physical intervention: computer deployment, computer modification, a configuration test or scientific equipment installs. For equipment installation in particular, that might involve a lot of planning with a vendor to make sure we have a smooth rollout on a piece of equipment, getting it set up on our network and functioning properly in the right timeframe.

Scientific equipment — that sounds like it might involve specialized knowledge.

Sometimes with a piece of hardware, you’ll have proprietary software on that equipment. So yes, in that case, it’s a matter of me working with the vendor to make sure that their specialized machine with specialized code is connected to and working with Wistar’s network and other important Wistar devices. It’s a little like puzzle-solving, in a way, making sure everything with a piece of scientific equipment is communicating and functioning the way it should. The process requires a lot of notetaking and going through several steps, but it’s one of my favorite things: I get to work through this technical process, and at the end of it, I’ve learned a good deal about how the machine works and I have it doing its job for the scientists in a way that meets Wistar’s specs. That’s a very rewarding thing for me: I’m supporting science and supporting the individuals.

So scientific equipment is something you’d say you’re passionate about?

I’d say so. Just recently, we installed a new machine from NanoString, and we were able to get it fully functional and live after a day of work, which I really enjoyed. A lot of vendors are really great to work with because there’s this sense of collaboration and learning — you become familiar with all these different sub-sections and walks of life within the scientific computing industry, but you also get to learn about critical systems technology in general, which is very cool and rewarding. 

My experience here at Wistar has really gotten me interested in the specifics of scientific computing. I think that the technology world I work in pairs perfectly with the science world; institutions like Wistar support critical tech systems that science relies on, and I find that fascinating; the computer and research pairing is just so perfect for me.

What’s the thing you like most about the job?

I think it’s just the experience of being put into a situation where I’m confident in what I’m doing and confident in the technology. Specifically, I’d say my favorite part of the job is tackling issues that I’m not completely 100% sure of what I need to do to solve them, but then — by using my skills, my background and what I’ve learned on the j ob to fill in the blanks — I get to a place where I can solve the problem. That whole process is learning, you find out what you don’t know, and you figure out better solutions, better fixes that you didn’t know before, how certain pieces of equipment work.

To get back to the scientific computing element of it, there are things that I’m able to learn and machines I’m able to work with here that most people don’t ever get to experience because the tech is so specific and so specialized. At Wistar, I’ve been given the opportunity to start to specialize my skills in an area I’m passionate about. I have a multifaceted background and a broad IT familiarity, but Wistar’s really given me the chance to apply those skills to become more of an expert in scientific equipment and computing. That’s really the heart of what I like most about the job: being able to get to that level of familiarity where I can keep learning while also being able to positively impact people’s lives.  

Is there a particular tech issue that frustrates you?

In a way, the tough issues that can drive you crazy are what I like about the job. Any time I see something like that — like, “oh, that’s annoying,” or “that really shouldn’t be happening” — that gets me passionate about making it not annoying, about solving the problem. As an IT professional who’s all about fixing things and making sure systems work, I’m excited by the irritating problem that won’t go away or the error that doesn’t make sense. The challenge is why I do it.