Show Your Techie Some Love Today!

Today, we are appreciated, thanks Karen!
Image by insomnike via Flickr

Did you know that today is SysAdminDay? This day, created to celebrate and appreciate System Administrators means so much more to me because I know that nonprofit techies out there all function at some level as a System Administrator, even if they do not feel that they do.

On the website http://www.sysadminday.com, they have a page that outlines all of the things that System Administrators do. I see it. I appreciate it. Yes, I do most of that stuff. Until there is a holiday for the Nonprofit Techie, this is the next closest thing.

Now I know that most people aren’t going to go out and buy gifts for their nonprofit techie or their system administrator today, but I think this day should give everyone a moment to pause and think about all the specialized things that these individuals do, that you might not quite understand. It might seem as if this person as a magic wand that they wave to fix things. It might seem as if this person has some sort of magnetic field that when they arrive at your desk all things start to work again. It might seem like geeky voodoo. But really it is just skills that these nonprofit techies and system administrators have that other types of workers do not have.

Yet, I know that it sometimes hurts when our skills are seen as a magic wand or  magnetic field, and especially worst when seen as geeky voodoo. Technology is needed by the organization, and all too often, especially in nonprofits – where the technology department sits isn’t natural. Are we a support to users and therefore only focused on customer service or are we a program that is needed to run the agency? Should technology be separate from the fiscal department or not? Should technology be development, marketing, or media also? It’s all things that add to demands of the job.

Today is just a day to think about these special people who help organizations run. If you run across one today, simply thank them for their work. Let them know that you realize that it”s really work for them and not some magical wand. I know from experience it is so nice to hear from some end-user in a department that I rarely ever see simply say “Hey, good job”.

Of course, if you feel that you need to go out and buy a gift, I don’t know a nonprofit techie out there that would turn away an iPad.

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The Right Tool for Easy Access to Servers

Visionapp Remote Desktop software

A tool to harness access to multiple servers and applications.

I can remember ten years ago when I only had to worry about two servers, one for the entire agency and one for the computer lab. I can remember seven years ago when I only had to worry about five servers – one for the agency, one for email, two terminal servers for other offices, and one for the computer lab.  I can remember five years ago, after adding in VOIP, I only had to worry about eight servers because we added three for the VOIP and one additional terminal server.

It was probably around five years ago that it started to get difficult to manage all the connections to the servers for one person. That was the last time that I could easily off the top of my head perfectly indicate how many servers I had in service. The wonderful use of virtualization made it way too easy to do what software vendors wanted you to do – keep their application isolated on its own server. You can blink your eyes and “Viola!” you now have doubled your server counts in 1/4th of the time it took to bring up one physical server.

But this growth did come at a cost to me and I started to use a tool that I didn’t realize that I needed as badly as I realize that I need now. The application is called visionapp Remote Desktop. I cannot even say that I went out and researched this one on my own. One day, one of the engineers from our IT Support Company was on site and I turned around and said “What’s that?” and he started to explain this application that he used to keep not only connections to all of my servers at his fingers tips, but other customers too. I feared to find out how expensive it was, and boy was I surprised.

Yes, nonprofit geeks out there celebrate – I was able to start using visionapp Remote Desktop for free. Yes, now there is a trial version, but look again at their website, there is a freeware version of this application. If you have more than one server, I suggest you go to their website and get this wonderful tool.

VisionApp Remote Desktop helps with collaboration, administration and management.I started out with just my servers on this and with my credentials to logon to the servers. While I was on the trial version of this software, I didn’t have many different types of usernames and passwords for the servers. It was just the one username and password that I used to be the Administrator. I had a long history of fat-fingering that bad-boy hardened password for the Administrator account and now all I had to do was make sure that I got it right twice when entering in the credentials. As long as I didn’t go changing that password, I was in a good shape.

But this is more than a hyped-up “Remote Desktop” application. The power of this application became much more apparent once I exceeded the 15 connections limit and purchased the software for enterprise use. That was around the time that upper management allowed me to hire another staff member.  I was worried about how I was going to have to get all of this information ready for the new staff member to have access too. When in the Tech Department, that staff member was going to need to have their own access to all of the servers I painfully setup in my visionapp. That is when I found the export option. The export option allowed me to take all the connections that I had already set up and put it into a file, without my credentials attached to the connections. The new staff member installed visionapp, imported the connections, and only had to set up their own credentials. Easy-peasy! No hours of sharing IP addresses and explaining why these three servers have dashes in their names and none of the others did.

That export has saved me multiple times too. When we were suddenly maxed out on network resources and needed another server, the only machine that could operate as one was my desktop machine. (Yes, that’s another story for another time). This started a chain reaction of having to jump from my desktop to two laptops, and the last laptop ended up needing to be rebuilt twice. The easiest process of this was reimporting my server connections to visionapp.

Visionapp Evaluation Process

A flowchart of how the visionapp Remote Desktop evaluation process can go

Last story about how visionapp has made things so much easier. My department has been overseeing a huge transition to a new stand in preparation to move to a new building. During this time, all of our servers have been moved from one virtualized server platform to another virtualized server platform. They have been renamed, readdressed and updated so many times in the past several months that no one would ever want to make a flow chart of the changes. But, since the engineer overseeing all of these changes uses visionapp, no big deal. To make sure that my entire department had the right names nad IP addresses, the engineer simply exported our folder of connections so we could just import the new information. With less than 5 minutes, my department was as up-to-date as the engineer implementing all of the changes.

I’m only highlight the parts of visionapp I believe are the most valuable to me as a nonprofit techie. (Until I went over 15 servers, all of this was available to me as the freeware version.) Visionapp does a much better job presenting all of this material and you should visit their site at http://www.visionapp.com/ to read more about how visionapp Remote Desktop can even help you with more than just RDP connections. (Yes, you can connect to external applications from visionapp too!)

When You Can’t Juggle Any More Projects

Cover of "Juggling (How to Make Series)"

Cover of Juggling (How to Make Series)

I know a lot of other nonprofit techies out there. When I have a chance, I get to talk with them about once a month. I’ve easily identified one thing about all of us – we all are juggling a lot of projects. To some, we may even be trying to juggle too many projects. Right now, I am personally in that spot where I feel that all of my projects are up in the air and not many of them are in my hands being controlled by me. It’s a very scary spot to be. So, I started to research this “juggling projects” for some insight on what to do and how to do it and unfortunately, there is no step-by-step guide on how to manage this little side-show my tech projects have become in ways.

One of the best resources I came across very early this morning while I couldn’t sleep (worrying that one, or more, of my projects was going to suddenly become a medicine ball and crash down on me) was by Vijay Aluwalia titled Juggling Projects With Forgotten Strategies.  One of the things I liked most was there wasn’t one suggestion that said “Say No” – because most often, I find that the art of saying no is disallowed for my situation right now.  But I want to list her suggestions and give some of my interpretations of what she is pointing to, especially from the angle of the nonprofit techie.

1. Identify the current universe of projects, both  being worked on and desired. – It is sometimes very difficult for me to not focus on all of the projects already up in the air. These are projects that are essentially outlined for me in our Tech Plan. Yet, I also have that internal list of “I would like to do” projects that I know will benefit my agency. It was refreshing just to take a moment and split a piece of paper in two and write down current ‘have-to-do’ projects and future projects. It also reminded me, as soon as one of my current projects is completed, another one is going to be added into the mix. Another thought here is that it’s much easier to juggle projects that I help determine than projects given to me. I need to find a voice about these “I would like to do” projects and advocate for them.

2. Clearly link the expected value of the project to  the strategic objectives. Map out the resources required to implement each  project. – I admit, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to really important projects. There are always issues or concerns when I bring in too many other people. Interestingly enough, I read another resource this morning about by Matt Cohen titled Juggling Projects. He quotes Charlie Dancy as saying “The extra hands are an advantage, the extra brains are a problem.” This quote is my stumbling block and I need to learn how to handle this better. However, Vijay Aluwalia points with this suggestion to one way I can make giving parts of a project over easier – link it to a strategic outcome and provide the resources. I can’t just assume that my coworkers have the clear vision that I have of a task so I need to make sure to take the time to provide the vision.

3. Create a decision-making process for prioritizing  projects. – I admit it, my gut screamed “But I don’t have the decision-making process!” when I read this suggestion. But taking a deep breath and truly thinking about this suggestion made me realize that I do have some ways to prioritize projects. I find that I do this much more successfully with steps within projects and very well when it comes to address the onslaught of HelpDesk tickets that I find myself facing. I think for projects that can be clear-cut – rolling out new computers – the best strategy is outlined in David Allen’s Getting Things Done process. This is the way that I address HelpDesk tickets. Take it a step further and explain to others how you are making decisions. I find that my tech department staff is starting to follow these principles too.

4. Conduct a gap analysis on the resource  requirements against higher priority projects. Get the resources you need to  succeed. – I didn’t get to this point of feeling that there are too many projects in the air without realizing it doesn’t seem like there are enough hours in a day. To think that I am going to stop and do a gap analysis right now, well, it’s not going to happen. But I didn’t want to pan on this suggestion because there are some projects, especially with nonprofit tech, that you actually do this with and you might not know it. I equate gap analysis to be like writing a grant for technology. When you are writing a grant, you have to justify why you need the monetary resources to purchase equipment or to develop a database. You gather quotes and you outline the anticipated outcomes of completing the project. You provide timelines of when you expect outcomes.

5. Implement a process for how projects are  initiated, delayed, accelerated and cancelled. – Again, my gut screamed out “You aren’t allowed to cancel projects!” when I read this one. I’m not going to focus on that part of this suggestion. But the other suggestions of initiated, delayed and accelerated really are things that I can control. Last year when I found myself with a network that was beyond maxed out, I had to get that project to replace the hardware of the network accelerated. It wasn’t easy. I found myself having to outline the pros and cons to addressing the issue right then to upper management. It was scary because that list of cons were very scary to  me. Guess what, they were scary to the upper management too. By addressing those pros and cons when trying to identify if a project needs to be slowed down or sped up, you will see who your allies are and more often than not, those pros and cons will provide you the buy-in you need to delay or accelerate.

6. Involve team members from various groups in the  entire process. – I find my champions of certain projects very easily. They aren’t all tech department members. Some of my best champions are from the accounting department and development department. I also think this step points to something that no one really wants to write out as a tip – but you naturally also know who aren’t your champions. Without identifying them and having a strategy on working with them on a tech project, that project can end up in the air a lot longer than you desire. These people appear to me to react more encouragingly towards tech projects when they see more than the tech department driving the project.

7. Get buy-in from senior management  throughout. – I’ve alluded to several things that indicate that I work hard towards the senior management buy-in on these tech projects. I have an Annual Tech Plan that is written by my department but ultimately is approved by a board Tech Committee. Larger projects get managed by someone in upper management (this can create other challenges, but that’s not for this post). Having this support makes it easier to go upward and say “I’m really struggling with this many things on my plate, I need your help in addressing the details”. If my superior is not on the same track as me, I am not going to get the help I need.

8. Make the data (from all the points above)  visible. Colleagues will be so much more supportive if they see and understand  the bigger picture, why decisions are made in a certain way and how they are  impacted. – I’ve already shared one way of showing the information – making a pro and con list. But there are two other things I have been doing to help support projects. First, for large projects, I provide at least two options on how things can go and I spend the time to make it as easy to understand. This usually means graphics to illustrate the technical aspects. By providing options, they are part of the process. Very rarely do I not get asked “which one do you think we should do?” Second, proof of concept. I don’t just take the word of the vendor that the equipment is going to do exactly what they say it is going to do. I found out from a decade of experience that there is always something about my network that makes it harder after I have made the purchase. So the new digital screen software that I wanted, that company had to provide me a demo and equipment to make sure that it worked in my environment before I signed off on that contract. Vendors are willing to do that and upper management likes to see you taking the extra step to ensure success before starting.

9. Have the courage to make tough decisions and get  senior management to support compliance. – Yep, that gut was screaming on this last one too. I know some nonprofit techs that got this art of saying no down to a science and it is accepted. I know that there are others like me that are in unique situations that make saying no a lot harder. Sometimes I find that the tough decisions that I have to make are to reboot a server in the middle of the day. It really just counts on the environment. Yet, I’ve never had upper management get upset when I’ve rebooted in the middle of the day because they realize that I do not just randomly reboot things without a reason.

I’m hoping that some of you have suggestions for juggling projects. Do you have a book that gives a step-by-step process guide on how to handle it? I’m looking for the resources and I’m sure others are also. I know that I feel better when I can identify that there are so many things up in the air.

And lastly, my own suggestion – plan a vacation or trip to make you look forward to walking away from the juggling act for a while.

Additional reads:

Balls of Steel: Juggling Projects

How to Juggle Multiple Projects and Clients Without Going Crazy

“If the throw is right…” Juggling multiple projects

Get Your Tech Maintenance Emails Read

Email email email
Image by RambergMediaImages via Flickr

I was surprised when I found out that my co-workers were not reading important emails about our network. It didn’t just come out. No, I had to learn the hard way as employees were starting to complain about things that they didn’t know about when I had sent out an email explaining all about the change. They indicated that they simply didn’t read that email. Emails about tech maintenance or other tech-related topics had been almost relegated to the trash immediately. That was when I started to use Publisher to make the emails pretty. That worked for a bit – but soon, the emails were being discarded again and complaints were piling up again.

To combat this, I have to say, I got advice from someone on our Tech Committee. He outlined what he felt needed to be in an email and I have tweaked it to be this process that I now use. It truly was easy and so far, it has been more successful than ever before. That doesn’t mean that each email that pertains to employees maintaining their email boxes or upcoming outages get fully read, but there is a higher possibility now that they are read with the implementation of these few easy things.

  • Create an internal email account to represent a “tech team” – It was difficult to hear that some employees would read emails from another member of the tech department, but wouldn’t read another member’s emails. It made no sense to me. We wanted to get the information out as quickly as possible so it just came from whomever had the moment. Since that was a problem, we simply created a Tech Team email account which we send out important announcements out from to staff. We also receive email on it, although that adoption has been much less successful.
  • Give Clear, Concise Subject Lines – Subject lines can be the one thing that makes your email get read or not. You can learn a lot about this from marketers. Before when the concentration had been on identifying a date that a task was needed or identifying the project, now the focus is about being short. If the email is going to outline a task that employees need to do by a certain date the subject line starts “Action Needed”. If the email is about an upcoming outage, the subject line starts “Planned Outage”. Make sure that these are used consistently if you have multiple people sending these types of email.
  • Use the “High Alert” Flag Sparingly – Everyone believes that their email is the most important and I think that breeds quickly in a tight-knit organization. I remember the one day sitting in my office after sending out an email about an upcoming outage with a high alert flag on it and listening to all the audible warnings ring around my office. Then some people even forwarded it to their coworkers so there was a second round of audible warnings. Then another coworker sent out an email about an upcoming birthday party for a staff member with a high alert. So all the audible warnings started once more. But it wasn’t done because another worker sent out an email with a read receipt and a high alert flag, which meant all the audible warnings happened along with her machine giving the same annoying alert noise when she received the read receipts.  Obviously, these alerts are used too often and should be used sparingly. If you have a good subject line, you won’t need the alert.
  • Create an email template – A consistent look and feel has been the most successful thing in getting employees to read these emails which they previously would not have read. They know what information that they are going to get in these emails and they aren’t concentrating on what pretty color schema was used in Publisher this time. Make sure everyone on your team uses this email template. Make things easy to fill in and send. More importantly, break this email template up into three different sections:
    • Summary – Start off the email with a quick summary of the most important details. Try to keep this to about a paragraph with 5 to 6 sentences at the most. If they read this part, you have done most of the work the email was meant to do.
    • Action Steps – Outline, in bullet format exactly what you need the staff member to do. If you need them to be logged off the network at 6 am, make that the first bullet point. If you need them to clean out email accounts because Exchange is getting bogged down, write that as a bullet point. Use these bullet points to also point them to further information – don’t try to put step-by-step directions on how to clean up their email accounts here, give them a link to those directions. Try to keep this bullet list short too – if you are getting beyond 10 bullet points, this might indicate you need to replan your email as you might be trying to cover too much in one email.
    • Details – This is the section for the employees who want to know the nitty-gritty details. In my experience, most employees aren’t going to care about the details, they just want to know what they have to do. But there are those few and mighty that want to know exactly why or more of the technical reasons behind why they are being asked to do a task. This section, since it is last, provides that information so you don’t have too many follow-up emails with questions to answer. I will provide internal and external links to information that is contained here and if there is going to be any section that has multiple paragraphs, this is the section.
  • Always offer to answer questions – This is the polite thing to do and it makes for more dialogue to happen. There isn’t a feeling that you are separated from the other employees. Most often there aren’t many questions when I follow this process of writing an email, especially in comparison to when I would put all of this information into a pretty Publisher email – where staff concentrated too much on the pictures and graphics and not the content.

This isn’t a completely foolproof solution. There are still going to be some times when the email simply gets lost because you can’t control how much information overload one of your coworkers may have when your email gets sent out. But having this in place helps so when  you do encounter to the complaint that they didn’t receive an email about an outage or a task they needed to complete, you can explain that the email did get sent out and often the conversation will end there. It has been so much more useful for me and all the feedback has been that staff like this method and more are reading these emails than ever before.

Stop Vacationing From Your Blog

On top of Monument Mountain in the Berkshires - my 2011 vacation highlight

No man needs a vacation so much as the person who has just had one.  ~Elbert Hubbard

It had been a long time since I posted on my blog. It wasn’t just because I had one really long vacation – but in ways it was like I was taking a vacation from my blog. It has taken me a long time to get back to it and now I regret that I’ve been so lax in coming back to this blog. There are absolutely pitfalls for not posting to your blog, most importantly how quickly anyone who is reading your blog disappear – and they may not come back.

So, I’ve gathered the things that helped me to come back to this blog, and hopefully, crossing my fingers, I still have some people out there reading this blog. Maybe this will get you back to your own blog, or your work’s blog, or you will see that you can even start blogging (either for yourself or for your work).

  1. Identify why you blog – Some of us are required by work to blog. Some of us aren’t. For those of us who are not required to blog, it’s a hobby or something we do for ourselves, its easy to stay away from the task of blogging for longer. There is no perceived penalty for not getting a post up. I found it important to really think about why I started this blog, what I wanted to do, and how I could go back to it. In the end, I know how vital it has been for me to hear other stories from other nonprofit techies on how they handle things, that I want to share just as they have done for me. This is not part of my job, but I know that it makes me better at my job. Once you have that focus again, it’s easier to open up the blog and start writing.
  2. Clean house – I don’t mean pick up the broom and start literally sweeping. But I did find that I had to do this to all of my social networking sites – particularly Twitter. I took a week and really looked at all the Tweets that I got and found a whole group of people I was following that were just retweeting the same thing – and not offering anything new to the initial Tweet. I’m all for sharing information – but I don’t need to get 50 copies of the initial Tweet, which I also got. I didn’t stop following these people, but I have filtered them out in various methods. Turning off the noise has helped. I’ve also done this to LinkedIn and RSS Feeds.
  3. Split the task up – I was trying to research, write and post all in the morning in my free time before I started to work. That free time was getting sucked up by other things that were much more important (such as rebooting servers). I started this post last night while at home and I’ve tweaked it, added the formatting, and inserted the picture. Not having to spend the whole chunk of time all together at one time is helping out.
  4. Be like an extreme couponer – stockpile – I don’t advocate this as the best way to handle things, but it can take some of the stress off if you are under a time crunch. Take some time and gather things that can be posted. Some of us may only need to have a list of ideas. Some of us need to go beyond that list of ideas and  even start the blog post. If you start a post and keep it in drafts until you are ready to go live with it, there is less work to be done. That way if you have one of those weeks that every single device is working against you, you can still find a way to get a current post up without all the time into it. But I would warn against writing all of the content and not reviewing it again before posting. If you write ten posts at one time, they might all sound fine when the initial creation is happening, but it might be stale or dated by the time you post. Give the post a review and breathe some fresh air into it before hitting that publish button. That way, none of your stockpile posts will go past their expiration date.
  5. Admit to the vacation and start off fresh as if you just started your blog – Pretending that you haven’t posted a blog in six months is not going to work in this day and age. Just face the facts, admit the truth, and move on. This might mean you have to start all over again and do all the work that you did when you first started your blog. You may have to refresh your automatic links to your social media because passwords might have expired. In fact, it’s best to check those settings out in case something has changed or a new feature as come along during your vacation. There is nothing wrong with starting over. Start to advertise your blog and get the word out of what you are doing.If you had loyal readers in the past, they’ll understand and come back. You can even get new readers now as you start to get the word out about your blog.

I know that I still have a busy summer in front of me. I already had a nice long vacation (I climbed Monument Mountain the one day while in the Berkshires in Massachusetts) and I know that I always feel better when I get a post up. Writing this blog post, is also a step to help me to spend the time that is needed here.  

Some End Users Are Like Squeaking Brakes

It has been a busy couple months and amongst the multiple projects I have been involved with, I have been living through a complete revamp of our network. During this time, I happened to be going thru some car problems too. They don’t seem to be like topics that go together, but stay with me for a second.

We all have  been behind the car that has the squeaking brakes (I hope they weren’t mine) and most of us realize that when your brakes are squeaking, you have to pay attention to them. Well, if you are a nonprofit techie, you probably know which end users are your squeaking brakes. You can probably start rattling their names off without even a moment to think. I believe that they tend to be your more computer-savvy users and they have a defined idea of how things should work. They are probably the most likely to identify their computer that they use at work as “their computer” and challenge you at all times. Often, you don’t have to go to them to ask them out things are going – they are coming right up to you and telling you what isn’t the way that they desire.

But there are other problems that I had with me car this year. I had a lot of vibration in the steering wheel and my mind started to churn all kinds of problems that it could be. All were expensive to solve too. Well, I think that there are end users that fall in this category too. You may not have to do much with them, but when something starts to go wrong with them, it tends not to be an easy solution at all. Since it is more sporadic, you may have to actually stop and think about who falls in this category, but once you start thinking about it, you know who these end users are. I believe that they are the workhorse workers and they can go with changes to the computers that you are doing usually without any problems. But once one thing, that is most vital to their job, starts going wrong, everyone is going to know – especially their boss and their boss’ boss. You have to solve problems with this group pretty quickly.

There is still another group. This is the oil change group. You know of horrible things that can go on if you don’t change your oil. But really, there aren’t to many symptoms that you are due for that 3,000 mile oil change in your car. You actually need that sticker on the driver side of the windshield to remind you that you have to get your oil changed. These end users haven’t fallen into any of the other two types and you might have to actually think about them. They may not even know that you have a techie on staff. Because these end users aren’t going to show signs of problems such as squeaking brakes or vibrating steering wheels, you have to stop and focus on them.  For your entire car to run, all parts have to run.  These end users may even need more of your attention than the other two groups – and you may not even know it.

In the end, the work that I had to do on my car wasn’t as expensive as I feared. But I still have the squeaking brakes (they claim that they are A-OK and sometimes brakes just squeak. The same goes with your end users. Some are never going to stop needing that specialized attention that you don’t have to go find out about. But please, don’t forget those silent end users. They need just the same amount of attention!