Service desk staff member helping a student

// Planning and strategic initiatives

Feature story from Penn State News >

IT Service Desk offers 24/7 support to Penn Staters

Service desk is a one-stop resource for tech help

It’s 7 a.m., and after an eight-hour shift answering middle-of-the-night technology support calls and emails at Penn State’s IT Service Desk, Jessica Henry is about to head home. Before she leaves her post, she touches base with Chris Hirsh who has just arrived for the day about the goings-on of the night: A printing issue in Pollock Lab was resolved around 5 a.m. and the queue of pending help requests has been whittled down to about 30.

Hirsh, who has worked at the IT Service Desk in Information Technology Services (ITS) for five years, starts his morning by mixing himself a bright pink glass of caffeinated Crystal Light.

“I do community theater in my spare time, and like many theater people, I don’t consider myself to be a morning person, so this extra jolt of caffeine helps get me going on these early mornings,” joked Hirsh, a learning management system (LMS) support lead at the IT Service Desk. “No two shifts are ever alike, but in between meetings and training I’ll respond to help requests and focus on any priority issues that arise with Canvas and ANGEL.”

Hirsh is just one of the 20 students and full-time staff members who spend their days (and nights) helping Penn State community members from every campus location who call, email or drop by the service desk with technology-related questions. With two University Park locations — a sun-filled call center in Wagner Building and a walk-up help desk in the Knowledge Commons in Pattee Library — the service desk responds to up to 600 requests per day on their busiest days.

quoteI love translating technical information into everyday language ...”

“We’re here to help 24/7, every day, except for University holidays,” said Ryan Wellar, operations manager for the IT Service Desk. “In addition to providing assistance to about 100,000 students, faculty, staff members and retirees who have questions about technology and IT tools, we’re also on the frontlines helping to support Penn Staters as they transition to using new IT services.”

Wellar says the majority of questions his team fielded this spring were related to the University-wide rollouts of Canvas, LionPATH and two-factor authentication (2FA).

“For the most part, people reach out to us when they’re having an issue, and our main goal is to help them quickly resolve the problem without it affecting their work — whether it’s enrolling in or using 2FA for the first time or resetting their Access Account password,” Hirsh said. “I love translating technical information into everyday language, so if I can also turn a quick fix into a learning opportunity, then that’s a plus.”

While Hirsh enjoys the personal connections that come with helping customers over the phone and in person (sometimes people even recognize him from his roles in local theater productions), he says it’s not the only way to get in touch with the service desk. By logging in to the University’s new help request portal, students, faculty, staff and other Penn State community members can submit help requests, explore a list of IT services offered by Penn State and check the status of their questions all in one place.

“We’re working on enhancing our processes to make customers’ experiences getting help more streamlined and efficient, and the online form — which is the fastest way to get help — is part of these efforts,” Wellar said. “In the future, we’re also going to be offering an expanded library of self-help information and resources for people to work through common tech issues on their own. Of course this won’t work for every problem or question, so we’ll always be a phone call or email away.”

Service desk staff member watching woman work on computer
Photo Credit: Angela Kendall

Kalaria helps a student with a technology issue at the IT Service Desk.

To manage the hundreds of incoming help requests the team receives each day, the service desk relies on an automatic call distribution software and a tool called ServiceNow. When a customer makes a request, ServiceNow turns it into a ticket that is automatically filtered into a dozen or so online service queues.

Service desk staff monitor these queues — and respond to customers — based on their areas of expertise and the online systems in which they have special access. For example, as an LMS pro, Hirsh typically sticks to offering support for Canvas, ANGEL and the Pollock Testing Center. However, during high-priority incidents (such as helping to reset Access Account passwords after cyberattacks on the College of Engineering and Liberal Arts) all hands are on deck.

In addition to full-timers, a team of student workers also plays a big role at the service desk.

“Since our full-time staff have responsibilities beyond customer service (such as creating educational materials), students have become the public face of the IT Service Desk and are often the first people you’ll come in contact with if you call or drop by,” Wellar said. “They’re a valuable asset, and the experience gives them the chance to pursue higher education while working and developing problem-solving and people skills they can take with them into future careers.”

Karan Kalaria, a senior who worked as an ITS lab consultant and lab supervisor before joining the service desk, answers calls and tickets about LionPATH, 2FA and various IT services on Tuesdays and Thursdays from his post in Wagner Building. Kalaria says the IT knowledge he’s amassed will be invaluable for his future career in accounting, but that it’s the people who have made his part-time job so rewarding.

“We’re a 24-hour help desk and the people here work day in, day out,” Kalaria said. “I want to be challenged every single day when I come into work and the colleagues and customers I’ve met have helped me grow on every level — not only as a team member and leader, but as a person.”

Whether he’s dedicating an hour on the phone to one person or responding to 40 tickets a day, Kalaria strives to turn often stressful situations into positive experiences for his customers.

“The advice I share most often is ‘change is the only permanent thing,’ and that’s especially true when it comes to technology.” he said. “Most people are usually so happy and appreciative when I fix an issue or talk them through a problem. And that makes me feel really good to know I helped someone.”

Planning and Strategic Initiatives

In support of a variety of strategic and organizational needs, three groups—the Information Technology Leadership Council (ITLC), ITSCollab, and the Service Management Program team—led efforts to redefine how Penn State IT works together, delivers IT services, supports the University community, and plans for the future.


Comprised of more than seventy IT directors and managers from across Penn State, ITLC is a University-wide group that ensures IT services, goals, and processes align with Penn State’s teaching, research, and service mission. During fiscal year 2015–16, the council led and supported a variety of initiatives to promote collaboration, support the IT workforce, and deliver IT services to students, faculty, and staff. This fiscal year, ITLC:

  • Supported the roll out of two-factor authentication (2FA), which improves Penn State’s security posture by offering students, faculty, and staff members an additional layer of protection when signing in to online sites and services. The 2FA implementation plan was completed within the established timeline and with minimal disruption to the University.
  • Sponsored a working group to investigate the potential of leveraging Penn State’s relationship with Microsoft to offer a single email and calendar solution across the University.
  • Established goals to help enhance community understanding of IT endeavors and prepare the IT community for new leadership. Efforts included creating an IT project portfolio, establishing metrics for community feedback, and improving the overall function of ITLC.
  • Offered insight on organizational alignment in preparation for the new vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer, as well as provided recommendations for reports about strengthening Penn State’s institutional cybersecurity posture and establishing a chief information security officer role.
  • Led efforts—in teams comprised of faculty members, IT professionals, and administrators—to improve high-performance computing, data centers, software, data governance, IT career tracks, research networking, and data classification policies. As part of these efforts, the Research Computing and Cyberinfrastructure Committee worked to foster collaboration among key research stakeholders across the University.


ITSCollab is a group of ITS staff members working to transform the organizational culture of Penn State IT and ITS. This fiscal year, ITSCollab:

  • Conducted a self-assessment to reflect on group initiatives that fostered “OneIT,” advocated for service management and portfolio processes, and provided change leadership. In addition, ITSCollab worked to increase working group input and deliverables and vary its activities to better engage with senior leaders across IT.
  • Developed recommendations for potential governance and advisory structures, strategic alignment, search characteristics for a new vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer, and redundant capabilities within ITS.
  • Formed a communications working group that created an ITSCollab website, reenergized the creation of meeting summaries, and organized ITSCollab’s repository storage using Box at Penn State.
  • Continued to operate a guest program for ITS staff and welcomed nineteen new full-time members (which reflects a 60 percent change in membership since ITSCollab’s inception three years ago).
  • Hosted multiple panel discussions with ITS senior leaders who provided an overview of Plan-Build-Run efforts.

Service Management at Penn State

Penn State’s Service Management Program is responsible for evaluating and redefining the ways in which Penn State IT approaches and manages customer relationships and service delivery. This fiscal year:

  • The Service Management Office (SMO) worked with Services and Solutions to complete a service design plan for the Penn State Service Management Program (SMP). In addition, the SMO proposed three funding model options to ITLC and ITS senior leaders for securing permanent funding for the program.
  • The SMP trained individuals to use the Shared Service Environment, which had about 850 active participants (or about half of Penn State IT staff) throughout the fiscal year. During the first week of the fall 2015 semester, pilot and early adopter groups resolved about 7,300 tickets in the Shared Service Environment.
  • Knowledge Management, one of the Shared Service Environment processes, was enabled, and nearly 300 communications and IT staff members began the process of reviewing and moving approximately 3,000 knowledge base articles and creating 500 new articles to the new ServiceNow knowledge base and end-user portal.
  • The University signed a new contract with Internet2 for ServiceNow, an online incident management software and self-service portal, which provides additional licenses to continue on-boarding new Penn State units to the program while lowering the per-license cost for participating units. The contract is projected to save the Unviersity about $750,000 over the next four years.
  • The SMO continued to help campuses join the SMP (Penn State Harrisburg and Penn State York were early adopters) to improve the consistency and efficiency of IT services through a standard set of service models, processes, and tools (such as ServiceNow).
  • IT staff in the Office of the President started using ServiceNow to replace multiple help desk ticket systems, boost efficiency, and improve customer service response times and experiences.