A week in the trenches reinforces respect for my staff

A week back in the trenches with his IT staff reminds CIO Scott Lowe of all the things that go into creating a successful network that serves the needs of all users -- focus, teamwork, technical expertise, and a lot of manual labor!

Let me begin by saying that I love the IT staff that I manage at Westminster College. I have a well-balanced group of extremely talented and dedicated people working for me that make it easy for me to do my job. Of course, like many of you, I wish I had one or two more people on the team, but that's the way things go when budgets are tight.

Westminster College faces the extremely positive position that we'll have a record number of students joining us this fall and everyone on campus needs to pull out all the stops to keep them here. In the world of higher education, this is the well-known and well-documented metric called retention. When students aren't retained that can signal problems somewhere along the line, be it failed promises, homesickness, desire to be in a different environment, or one (or more) of thousands of other factors. Obviously, poor retention also results in a direct financial impact - and not in a good way. As anyone in sales knows, it's much easier to keep the customers you have than it is to find new ones, so you do your best to keep people happy.

As we prepare to welcome a record number of students, we have not staffed up across the board. As this is our first year having such incredible enrollment gains, we want to make sure that we're not experiencing a "blip" and are avoiding making long-term hiring commitments for the time being. That said, we need to do our best to welcome and support the incoming students and meet their expectations. In fact, our president has made it very clear that the college's number one short-term priority is making darn sure that we're all ready for the barrage.

For its part, the Information Technology Services department at Westminster College has spent the summer undertaking a number of projects designed to benefit students both in the residence halls and in the classrooms. From implementing a new, friendlier network access control system to finalizing the implementation of a proximity card-based door access system to extending the reach of the campus wireless infrastructure to overhauling the technology found in a number of classrooms, the IT staff has been going strong during the summer months to prepare for a new group of students.

Now, we're coming up on the return of students and we're all working longer hours to make sure we meet the commitments we've made. This last week, my network administrator and web person spent most of the week troubleshooting a critical problem with our new network access control system. Since that system touches every student at some point, keeping them focused on that was pretty important. Unfortunately, my network administrator has another key project in his summer portfolio that, due to a delay by an outside vendor, was behind schedule. Likewise, every other person on the staff was working hard on projects that are due within days and weeks so I couldn't really ask one of them to pick up another project.

The project in question requires a lot of manual labor. The college owns a number of regular, everyday residential houses in which we house students. Being close to the college, I decided early this summer that we'd extend the campus fiber network to these houses rather than continue to pay an exorbitant bill to AT&T each month for DSL and phone service. An outside group ran a combination of fiber and copper lines to all of the houses and, once they got done, it was our turn to hook it all up and light it up.

To do so, we needed to get equipment into each house, including a switch, battery, patch cables, wireless access point, phone and hang it all on a piece of plywood, which we also needed to install. With my network administrator engrossed in troubleshooting network access control, I talked to him and offered my help on the residential house networking project. In short, I decided that I'd be the grunt and get as much done as I could for him and he could then just go in behind me and do the configuration side. He enthusiastically accepted my offer for help, so I did.

I spent three days of last week and some of the weekend hanging plywood in the houses we own, attaching our network equipment to the plywood, running to Best Buy to buy the UPS's, installing wireless access points and hooking up all of the various fiber and copper patch cables. The way I look at it is this: Part of my job is helping my staff to clear the hurdles in front of them so that they can keep forging ahead. By getting the heavy lifting out of the way for my network guy, I was able to keep him focused on a much more critical problem and help him move ahead on another project at the same time.

Obviously, I can't spend all my time doing this kind of work as I would quickly find myself in the unemployment line. That said, sometimes we all have to just roll up our sleeves, pitch in and do whatever needs to be done, no matter how trivial it might seem. And, I'll be honest - I probably haven't worked that hard (as in manual labor) in quite a while. In a former life, I was a network engineer, but it's easy to forget the manual effort that goes in to making things work the way they should. Jumping in every so often (with the person's blessing, if at all possible) just helps to remind me about the effort that goes into things and helps me to make better decisions down the line, I hope.

Related: I ran into our Dean of Faculty while I was out and about this week. She asked what I was doing and when I told her, she gave me a funny look. Then, however, she smiled and said, "I'm not one to talk... I've been out dusting adjunct faculty offices to make sure they're ready." One of the things I really like about Westminster is the willingness for people at every level of the organization to simply get things done.

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Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

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