The Human Side of IT

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I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get a call like this. I wish it wasn’t raining, so at least I could look out the window from the confines of my 2nd story office, with its unforgiving gray walls and harsh florescent lighting and find some sort of comfort. But there isn’t any – not today.

I don’t know why I’m upset. I only worked a couple issues for this client, but all the same I feel very protective of all those who come to me for aid. They call me because I know something they don’t. They entrust me with their information and productivity and their ability to perform their job and provide for their families. So when I answered the phone this morning and heard that someone in this person’s office had passed away last night and they needed assistance with passwords and PCs and such, I was gutted.

Immediately I wanted to do something. Flowers. A card signed by everyone in the office. I went over to the cubicle floor and solemnly gave the news to my supervisor, who simply let me know that we were stretched thin and that someone would be sent on-site to assist with the merging of user profiles and computers after this afternoon’s meeting.

I sent out an internal e-mail asking everyone to keep this person in their thoughts and received a sparse smattering of nods in my direction. It was then that I realize how callous the IT field can make people. They call us “network doctors”, and I imagine that medical doctors become this way after a while as well – every patient is just another patient, not a person. No time for people to be people.

It’s funny, really, that just last night I was lamenting that my personal stake in my client’s issues was causing me more stress than is probably healthy, and that if I just stop caring so much that my productivity would go up and my frustrations would go down.

So it begins. One of us, one of us.

It’s hard to work in this field and be empathetic. We’re lambasted all day by clients whose emergencies aren’t really emergencies. They “just want it to work”, as if we don’t. They “don’t understand why this keeps happening” as if we wrote the very programming that keeps failing on them. Over time, this turns the friendly neighborhood IT guy into a “tech”, and it’s then that you know his personal stake in his work is just enough to not get a poor survey back from the automated correspondence requests that get sent out by the COO in order to populate a performance metric.

It’s no secret that the IT field is plagued by people with horrible soft skills, but I think it’s also woefully deficient of soft hearts as well. I’ve been told that it is part of my company’s mission to “wow” every customer, but I never did subscribe to what some business major thinks is a trendy way to get people to work harder – I just want to be happy. I can’t be happy knowing that someone who comes to me for help isn’t.

Maybe I haven’t worked in this industry long enough to become a “tech”, but I hope I will never stop being human along the way.

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What is a Managed Service Provider (and Who Needs One)?

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A Managed Service Provider (MSP for short) in basic terms is a company that, at its most fundamental level, provides IT services to another company. Usually this takes the form of a help desk-esque service where a company can put in tickets and have their computers defragged or their printer mapped or whatever it is. MSPs are very appealing to small businesses, because it is financially the better move when you’re crunching numbers. Let’s talk numbers for a second.

There are varying pricing models that MSPs adopt. Some are a flat rate, and this seems to be the preferred pricing plan of 2016. By “flat rate”, I mean the company charges X amount of dollars “per seat”, where a seat is usually an endpoint and a mobile device, though they aren’t usually too picky about that. In speaking with five major MSPs in my area, they usually charged around $100-130 a person, depending on what sort of support you wanted. Some MSPs are even more flat rate than that, charging a fixed rate per month for the entire organization. This is usually done by rather scrupulous, newer MSPs who want a predictable cash flow coming in. From a client perspective this is much more risky, because there is a high chance that that MSP will target a small business and give them that flat rate to simplify things, but a single division equation will often reveal that price being much higher per user than, well, a MSP that offers a per-user pricing plan. Obviously the blanket fee is also the most rigid of the pricing models and as a client you have to be more careful than usual to gauge the projected growth of your business against the scalability of your MSP.

Focusing in on just the help desk function a MSP offers – the support itself is broken up into during business hours and not. When interviewing a MSP, you need to have them define their support, because it is not the same across the board. Your operating hours might be 8-5 but your MSP might be 7-4. You might get unlimited tickets during operating hours or they might accumulate towards a set quota in the contract. After hours is where it can get incredibly expensive and frustrating. The first item to note is that not all MSPs handle their own after-hours calls. Many instead elect to hire a MSP of their own so that they can sleep at night. You can bet that the client will be charged a mark-up when dealing with a MSP that doesn’t handle all their own support. Some MSPs (the ones who have decent staffing, I mean) will charge you extra per person and offer you that 24/7 support. The companies that do offer 24/7 support are going to work very hard to make sure your IT infrastructure is running well so they don’t have to keep waking up to field a call. For simplicity’s sake, the client is usually going to have to pick the operating hours support package or the unlimited, or some weird hybrid plan. You’re not going to get away with the CEO having 24/7 support while the lackeys get 8-5. It’s too difficult to manage when you have hundreds of clients (I asked).

Help Desk support is given mainly through a remote access client of some sort, and I think even if you don’t have a tech-savvy person in your company it’s still worth it to research what that software is. A proper MSP will have a powerful tool that they can use to not only log into computers, but to also deploy software and patches, run antivirus/malware scans, perform basic user administration, gather reports and go through logs – things like that. If your potential MSP is using individual RDP connections to manage an entire organization, it’s probably a good idea to look elsewhere. The reason I say that you should know what the software is is because the best ones are frighteningly powerful. Kaseya, for example, can be used to wake up and log into any machine it’s deployed on at any time without anyone on the other end ever knowing about it. Don’t you think it’s worth knowing what your MSP can do? A non-disclosure agreement will only get you so far.

It isn’t enough for MSPs these days to just do a help desk function, and their capabilities have to grow as their competition grows. It is now commonplace to see MSPs that are still at small business status providing hosting, web design, database management, cloud and virtualization services, staff augmentation, backup and restoration services, and other IT-related offerings. I would say as a client to just be wary of one company trying to do too much – if a MSP claims to do everything I just mentioned and only has 10 people then you’re likely going to be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointment, let me touch on the relationship the client should have with their MSP. There’s 2 ways I’ve seen this played out, really: The Finance department will say “we give them money so they better be perfect”, and if the client has IT/technical people already they will (hopefully) say “bringing a MSP on is like hiring an entire IT department at once to work for and augment us”. There seems to be a very gray area when it comes to managed services, and I don’t know that most companies treat a MSP like an extension of their company, even though that is far and wide the most effective way to view it. A MSP recognizes that, for example, X company doesn’t want to pay for an IT staff and no one there knows how to do IT stuff so they’re going to outsource it. That’s fine, but they need to also remember that if they want a truly personal IT experience, they’re never going to get it unless they bring on/keep IT people in-house. Their company is going to be prioritized, categorized, labelled, and managed like the bajillions of other companies the MSP handles. Support will not be instant. It will take time to understand the business and its employees – longer the more corporate the MSP is and the more clients it has. To most businesses, I’m sure that suits them just fine – they just want the damn scanner to work. For others, though, they might want someone on-site to help the elderly receptionist replace her mouse batteries.

So to answer the question “Who needs a MSP?”, it’s companies whose end-users are doing IT work themselves and either don’t have IT support on-hand or has IT support but it isn’t good enough for the direction the business is heading. It’s also for companies who need a relatively small technical thing done but it really isn’t worth it to hire an IT person specialized in that task – for example a company might have a MSP host their SharePoint site as opposed to shelling out the hefty salary a SharePoint expert makes. A company can also use a MSP to gain access to greater hardware and software capabilities – such as having email route through the MSP that can then use their mail servers and spam filtering software as opposed to Janice the Janitor setting up Exchange and Spiceworks.

Conversely, there is a time when companies just need to shell out for that IT staff. Dealing with classified data is a pretty big indicator in my book, as well as when they need that immediate response time. Also when a company is dealing with frequent IT projects – a MSP is limited in the project management area simply due to how much other work they have to do. There’s a lot that goes into this choice, and it (hopefully) involves HR and leadership input as well as finance.

If you’re thinking about interviewing a MSP for your company, here’s a list of the top ten questions I asked MSPs that can help you with your choice:

  1. How many people work for your company?
  2. What are your support hours?
  3. Do you do your own after-hours support or is it outsourced?
  4. How are backups handled?
  5. What software do you use for antivirus, spam filtering, and remote access (to include VPN)?
  6.  What is your definition of a project (usually this is defined in terms of man-hours) vs. what is considered general maintenance?
  7. When is server maintenance typically scheduled (sounds common sense but you’d be surprised at how often I heard MSPs say they reboot servers during business hours)?
  8. What affiliations/partnerships do you have with other vendors (Microsoft, VMWare, etc.) (You can often get discounts on hardware/software if you buy it through your MSP because they may get discounted rates for being a partner)?
  9. Do you have your own server room or is the hardware off-site?
  10. What are the specifications of the site the company’s data is hosted at (redundant internet/power connections, physical security, geographical location, etc.)?

Information Hoarding: Why We Do It

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If you’ve spent a month in the IT field, you know how rampant information hoarders are. They have the credentials you don’t, the access you could desperately use to make your job easier, and hold a position in the department that is as critical as it is nebulous. Some people don’t even know they’re doing it – these are the ones that are over-tasked and under-managed, and just don’t have the time to worry about your job. Some people cling to information because it makes them feel powerful – they have something you don’t. You have to go to them. You can’t do your job as well without them. You need them. Then there are those who understand what I was told during my undergraduate studies: “You are paid for what you know.”

I never really understood this until recently, and there is a real danger in the IT department being too transparent. I think internally, IT should and needs to help each other out, but does the finance department really need to know how the Quickbooks server is set up? Maybe not. I used to think that IT was one of the most stable jobs in the market, drawing a parallel between demand and stability, but it really isn’t. Us IT professionals are treasure troves of knowledge to end-users, and there are many people who would love to suck that knowledge out of us and toss us aside when they’re done. Instances of this happening are rampant in the corporate and especially the small business environment.

When I take a step outside my own shoes, however, I can understand how this happens. IT will hardly ever make a company a profit. In actuality, IT costs can escalate very quickly to be the biggest expenditure for a company. We’re one big red number, and I think the fight to communicate the value of IT to the officers of a company is all but a lost cause. To them, we are both the car they drive to work and the insurance on that car. We get them places, and we can fix ourselves when something breaks. That being said, what happens if we tell them about Uber or Lyft? What if we teach them to fix their car themselves? Then they no longer need us, and we will have effectively put ourselves out of employment. That is why information hoarders exist – to save themselves from not only things like outsourcing, but also as a way of recognizing that there is very little we do that can’t be learned on the Internet.

Just think about it – almost every IT professional has their own physical and digital toolbox, and we guard it with our lives. If we were so secure in our positions, then why wouldn’t we let any Tom, Dick, and Harry use them? While the bulk of that reason has to be because they’re worried about them breaking something, I have to believe as well that it’s because they don’t want them to know how we do our jobs, for fear they might take it upon themselves to run with that knowledge and un-employ us.

It’s for all these reasons that the CIO position is so critical in the corporate environment. Us lower-level techs and admins really do need someone above us in the chain of command who serves as a buffer, communicating our value to the other agencies who just don’t get it. If we’re forced to fend for ourselves, nine times out of ten we’re going to lose that battle, and the only thing we’ll have left is whatever information we managed to hold onto.

Introduction

Welcome to The Only IT Guy – a blog created by an IT guy for other IT guys. When I say “IT guy”, I’m not referring to a gender. I’m referring to those of us who are or feel like they’re the only IT employee in their organization. In my case, I am not only the only IT guy in my organization, but I’m also the first one they’ve ever had. No one knows what I do here, and most of the time I’m treated as a zoo animal in a pit, until they realize that I hold the keys they dropped over the railing and suddenly I’m the most popular kid in school.

This blog is for the IT guys who are responsible for everything that runs on power – from someone’s XBox they brought in from home to the microwave that keeps popping the breaker to the premise security system that they’re not entirely sure they should ever have access to. It’s also for the IT guys who field 3AM calls for a dead keyboard, report to departments that don’t make any sense in a traditional corporate structure, collect certifications like they’re Pokémon gym badges, and struggle with the idea that “The production environment is not your test environment”.

The content of this blog will be heavily focused on the weird things that I come across, the weird things my users, er, co-workers do, and most importantly, how I fixed them. It will also include new pieces of software or hardware that I have tested and recommend, and news items that are relevant to the lot of us. Thank you for your patronage and enjoy your visit!