CXO

Put a little slack in your electronic leash

With information systems accessible from any time zone, 24/7 support is becoming a necessity—and network admins' leashes are getting shorter and shorter. Jason Hiner provides some concrete suggestions for getting a little more breathing room.

We are currently transitioning into an integrated global society where someone somewhere is always going to be accessing the information systems we manage, and 24/7 tech support will become the standard. This increased dependence on technology means that the electronic leashes (aka pagers) of IT administrators are getting tugged on more than ever. This can be one of the most stressful and dissatisfying parts of an IT job. We're going to look at some ways to ease some of the tension from your e-leash.

The good news is that there are definitely some things you can do to better manage the e-leash arrangement:

  • Train your end users about the kinds of things that justify an after-hours call. This can best be accomplished with some written guidelines distributed in a handout.
  • Provide end users with some documentation on resolving common errors and problems. We'll look at a number of effective ways to do this.
  • Leverage current technologies to make troubleshooting much easier and more efficient when problems do arise.
  • Organize your IT department to best accommodate your organization's support needs.

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Train your staff

The first key to improving e-leash duty begins with the training of your staff. Teaching people how to do their own basic troubleshooting will both empower them and improve their efficiency. It will also decrease your IT support time and after-hours calls. It's crucial that you educate your staff about when it is appropriate to use the after-hours pager and when it's not.

In my experience, staff members often go to extremes in this regard. Some will page you at 11:00 P.M. when they are working from home and their toolbar unexpectedly changes colors. Others will not page you when a server goes down and they lose four hours of work time because they didn't want to bother you. Both of these kinds of users, as well as everyone else in between, need written guidelines on the proper use of the after-hours pager. If you're real handy, you can make a trifold brochure in Microsoft Word that explains your company's guidelines and includes a list of the after-hours numbers to call.

Provide troubleshooting tips

As I mentioned earlier, one of the best ways to decrease support time is to train your end users to do some basic troubleshooting and provide them with some kind of reference that has a list of troubleshooting tips. There are several ways to accomplish the latter, but I prefer using HTML documents since most users are now familiar with Web browsing. If you organize your tips into categories, people can find the information they need quickly without having to scan a whole list. It's also fairly easy to set up a feature for searching by keyword.

Once you set up your troubleshooting tips in HTML documents, there are several ways to deploy them to your staff. You can publish them on your internal network and provide a shortcut to them on your staffers' desktops. You can push the documents to all staff members' machines so they can still access them if there are network problems. You can burn the documents onto CDs and distribute them, and of course, you can always print them out. Even if you don't print them yourself, you should format the documents so that your staff members can.

The keys to making these troubleshooting tips work for your organization are:

  • Organize the tips well and set up a good search tool.
  • Train your staff on how to use them.
  • Update them regularly to keep up with technology changes.

Leverage technology

Several technologies can help make the e-leash arrangement much easier and more efficient for everyone involved. First, if technicians are carrying a pager, give them a cell phone, too. That way, they don't have to search for a pay phone if they get paged while they're out. This decreases the technicians' response time, and it saves them out-of-pocket expenses for pay phones and long-distance charges that have to be processed later on company expense reports. There are a number of cellular companies that now include paging features with their cellular service, so technicians can carry just one device and the company can save a little money.

Another timesaving feature for on-call technicians is alphanumeric paging or cellular messaging. This allows users not only to request a call from a technician, but also to send a text message detailing the nature of their problem. Technicians can then gather their resources before tackling the issue and look up any specific error messages a user may have encountered. Plus, if technicians have a laptop and remote access, they can sometimes simply dial in, fix the problem, and then send the user a message or make a quick call to say everything's been fixed.

That brings us directly to our final technology helper. A laptop with remote access software such as PCAnywhere, LapLink, or (my favorite) Remote Administrator can make troubleshooting much smoother. These software packages combined with dial-up or VPN access allow technicians to connect to a malfunctioning desktop or server and see things just as if they were sitting at a monitor in the office. The software also allows technicians to see a user's screen and guide the user through a problem or take control of the PC and fix the problem themselves. In addition, you can purchase a cable that will allow you to connect from a PCMCIA modem card to a cell phone so that technicians can connect even if they don't have a phone line to use.

Organize your IT department

Setting up an on-call schedule for technicians in an IT department is usually the first move that an IT manager makes when the volume of after-hours calls gets too intense. This approach certainly has its merits and can work well for many organizations. However, there are times when it can run its course as a solution and require some rethinking. For example, if an on-call technician regularly receives five to 10 calls and spends over an hour working things out every evening, it may be time to consider other options. One of the best solutions might be to move a support technician to second shift, especially if the organization you support has people working that shift.

If that won't work for your organization, you might consider splitting up the e-leash duty between two technicians. There are several ways to logically split the responsibilities. For instance, you can give some departments one pager number and other departments a different pager to call, or you can have some issues directed to one pager and others directed to a different pager.

However, if it is ultimately decided to rotate your after-hours call duty among single technicians, the technicians should receive comp time for the extra hours they put in. For more on the importance of comp time and organizing your IT department's on-call system, see "Get IT Done: Commonsense strategies for supporting mission-critical systems."

E-leash duty doesn't have to be so time-consuming or stressful—but in order to make it more bearable, you need to educate your staff and give them some good problem-solving materials, take advantage of troubleshooting technologies, and organize your IT department so it can effectively meet your organization's support needs.

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