Many Information Technology (IT) professionals enter the field as Tier 1 Help Desk Analysts. Some shun what is perceived as a mundane role; however, our team’s experience has shown that the Tier 1 professional is vital to IT Operations. Absolutely nothing is routine about the TrAMS Help Desk, especially when you’re empowered through robust and rigorous training to help users acquire the funding they need to continue to safely operate this nation’s transit systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the country adjusted the “new normal” of life under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, many citizens experienced far worse. Entire industries shuddered their doors and millions of Americans found themselves out of work. On March 27, the United States Federal government earmarked $2 trillion to support this vulnerable population through the aptly-named Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. With the world at home and no longer on their daily commute, local transit authorities found their ridership way down, straining cash flow and placing employees at risk. Part of the CARES relief package was routed to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT), to supply the nation’s local transit providers with critical funds through the Transit Award Management System (TrAMS). The CollabraLink Help Desk team has been hard at work supporting applicants through the grant process to get much needed Federal dollars into the hands of the most vulnerable and save workers’ jobs.

Days on the Help Desk for the TrAMS start quiet and last long. Team CollabraLink runs two shifts: The first starts promptly at 8:00AM, and the second shift starts at 12:00PM and does not end until 8:00PM. Still, Help Desk Lead and Help Desk Analysts are all smiles and good spirits despite their workload. While it ebbs, flows and occasionally trickles to almost nothing, this nimble and dedicated team is typically very busy. In fact, they have created an average of 301 tickets per month since May 2020 and resolved an average of 229 monthly for the same period of time.

The day starts with reviewing the daily Help Desk report, checking emails from the Tier 2/3 teams and DOT FTA customers, and updating the weekly status report used for FTA Oversights meetings. Knowledgeable from cross-training, team members alternate the responsibility for developing routine reports and responding to ad-hoc report requests. While waiting for calls, the team reviews the TrAMS Knowledge Base, a collection of instructional videos and system documentation, such as the 324-page Recipient User Guide that CollabraLink maintains, and checks the FTA website for updates that they need to communicate to users. As one of our Analysts pointed out, “Reviewing the knowledge base keeps the mind fresh! You may learn one thing about the TrAMS and the help desk, but you may not use that knowledge [to help a user] for months”.

As our Help Desk Lead stated and the team agreed, most calls are straightforward and to the point with users asking, “Heh, why can’t I do this”, jokingly stating that, “Honestly, a lot of people don’t pay attention to emails and forget deadlines”. An Analyst added, “We get a lot of people who procrastinate. As luck has it, they get a lot of error messages. It never fails. Our users call in a little annoyed and confused. We get on the same page with them [as to the nature of their issue], and it all works out”.

The Tier 1 Help Desk role tests our team’s collective emotional intelligence. In the time of COVID-19 and with most TrAMS users now working from home, some struggle to meet deadlines for grant application submissions as Wi-Fi speeds lag and brash children and boisterous pets clamor in the background. Others break from fear of losing their jobs. One of our Analysts recounted a call with a hysterical user, crying from fear of being furloughed from their job, adding that, “They had not logged into the system in a long time. They kind of lost it for a quick second, trying to submit a grant application before the deadline or before they were sent home. It was an emotional time, but I told them, ‘Heh, no worries. We can get you into the system’”. Like many of the calls that our team receives every day, our Analyst only had minutes to help this already stressed out customer submit a grant application, and breathed an oh-so-familiar a heavy sigh of relief when the application was submitted just in time.

Once CARES Act funding became available, our team experienced an uptick in requests from users struggling to modify previous grant applications to reference the new scope code. Users were upfront and honest about being “annoyed” and “perturbed” by the tedious and time-consuming tasks of re-entering data into applications many of which contained dozens of lines of funding data until a permanent fix was put in place to make the process easy. Our Help Desk Analysts ability to remain calm and focus, and commitment to helping customers submit grant applications combined with strong technical skills of the Tier 2/3 teams contributed to TrAMS supported awards of nearly $25 billion in Federal funding for CARES Act to help transit agencies prevent, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Take-Aways:

Regardless of the emotions involved, CollabraLink’s team handles every call with compassion and skill gained from our vigorous training program. Our experience gained from operating TrAMS since 2016 demonstrates that our training works, empowering our team to be a high performed one, but as the saying goes, “Teamwork makes the dream work”. Our team agrees and emphasized, “We’re on the front line, but we are backed up by Tier 2/3 Production Support. TrAMS itself is always a learning experience, but working in a team just makes everything work.“