Tech & Work

10 resolutions IT professionals should keep all year

Resolutions don't have to start on January 1. You can pick up these habits at any point to help manage your environment, workload, and career.

January is a time for many to reinvent themselves through the time-honored tradition of New Year's resolutions. While the optimistic mindset of "new year, new you" is commendable, quite often these would-be new habits just don't stick.

Most resolutions like eating healthier, building greater patience, calling family members more often and such are really things that should be permanent lifestyle choices, not something to think about each January (and possibly forget by February). The realm of IT is no exception; properly applying oneself to the myriad of tasks at hand merely on an annual basis is a recipe for failure. With that in mind, IT professionals should pledge to stick to these commitments year-round.

1. Work on your documentation

I'm going to get this one out of the way up front since it's likely to be perceived as the least pleasant suggestion. Nobody likes doing documentation, but the satisfaction when it's completed makes up for the pain.

Just kidding about that line "when it's completed." Documentation is never completed; it's always in need of an update, a clarification, or a complete overhaul. Screenshots in particular often require refreshing. Applications, systems, and networks change continuously and documentation which becomes irrelevant is worse than no documentation at all, since it can be confusing or misleading. It's especially important to approach documentation with the mindset of "what would a lay person need to know to support this particular piece of technology?"

Some IT professionals feel that documentation can actually work against them since they believe if they silo complex information within their heads this will make them indisposable. That may be the case, but it will also serve as a set of chains, making them the sole point of contact for supporting the applications/systems involved and can prevent them from moving up the ladder onto other, better things. Think of documentation as a ticket to sanity, since it allows others to share responsibilities you may own and paves a path to freedom.

SEE: System update policy (Tech Pro Research)

2. Educate your users

Documentation needn't simply apply to internal IT processes or diagrams; it can also include information and materials helpful for users.

If you work in IT you're likely all too familiar with the concept of routine, repetitive tasks which can unnecessarily eat away at your day. Prime example: password resets, which can be a significant time drain. There are certain strategies which can help users remember their passwords and when they need changing; password databases like Password Safe and KeePass, Outlook reminders to change passwords before they expire (such as every 60 days), mnemonic strategies to remember complex passwords, and other tips. These should be shared along with whatever else may be helpful for them to use technology to do their jobs.

Educating your users on elements such as these as well as some of the other tips and tricks you've picked up along the way in your career can both assist them and reduce your aggravation and workload.

3. Plan ahead

IT is one of the most event-driven careers one can have. Nothing is predictable, plans often go awry, emergencies come up at the most inconvenient times, and both systems and users are always needy.

Each day can be spent dealing with putting out the fires at hand, but that turns you into a completely reactionary employee, making you less effective and putting the business at risk. It's critical to regularly sit down and take some time to map out the weeks and months ahead. Assess your short-term and long-term priorities in your role and break the latter down into the former to ensure these are focused on in a timely fashion.

For instance, if you know you need six VMWare ESX servers installed in three months, scope the project out and break the tasks down to meeting with stakeholders to evaluate requirements, obtaining vendor quotes for the hardware/software, lining up the purchases, arranging delivery of the systems, physical installation of said systems, operating system setup, and virtual machine deployment. Schedule these tasks over the weeks ahead so you'll be on target. Oh, and don't forget the documentation!

4. Protect your environment

Patching systems, like writing documentation, is never anyone's idea of a big party at work, but like all unpleasant obligations it must be done.

More specifically, it must be done regularly. Too many companies ignore patching duties until a zero-day exploit is announced, and then the remediation process turns into a convoluted fire drill. Other responsibilities fall by the wayside in these scenarios, leaving user and system needs unfulfilled.

Never apply patches manually or even via the basic Windows Update process if you can avoid it. A centralized patch management mechanism like Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, IBM BigFix, Red Hat Satellite or some other enterprise-level product can help automate the distribution of patches and provide reporting capabilities as to the success or failure of patching operations. Let it run and check the results on a daily or weekly basis.

5. Refresh and upgrade

Applications and systems are usually upgraded every 2-3 years, in my experience. New technology helps deliver better performance, additional features, and greater stability. Furthermore, hardware warranties have a tendency to expire, usually at the wrong moment, so it's essential to take the time to figure out how to keep your environment up-to-date. And ensure you establish the time to follow through.

Don't just focus on product updates, however, but keep an eye on process updates. If you're using a monitoring solution which has cumbersome background operations, see if you can streamline or simplify these for better results. IT strategies which are onerous can sometimes be reduced in size or scope. Eliminate complexity where possible and offload human responsibilities to the machines (hint: automation) if you can do so reliably.

6. Network with peers

Having a wide and diverse base of peers with whom you interact in technology can be extraordinarily beneficial since it exposes you to other ideas, habits and concepts and helps build bridges.

This can be accomplished on a physical face-to-face basis (socializing with coworkers across different fields, for instance can be incredibly helpful both to share ideas and build rapport) as well as from a virtual capacity. Social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter works wonders for networking. I've come across many interesting tech people just through Twitter alone and their insights and backgrounds have proven beneficial to expanding my involvement with and understanding of technology.

7. Obtain training/update skills

On a similar note to system or application updates, you need to keep your career updated as well. This can be done via training courses, conferences, webinars, printed or digital material and email newsletter subscriptions. It doesn't have to be costly; dedicating a few days a month to simply reading online articles can be beneficial.

Skills have a tendency to stagnate and even if you consider your position stable and your responsibilities fairly static in nature, it's impossible to tell what the future holds. Any one of us working in IT may find ourselves interviewing for a new job with little notice. It behooves you to ensure you don't have to "cram" on new technologies to answer interview questions, when you should be exposed to — or at least familiar with — these concepts on a regular basis.

SEE: Special report: IT Jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (free PDF) (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

8. Branch out into new fields

Nobody ever said working in IT was easy. In addition to maintaining your current skill set, try branching out into different fields where possible in order to broaden your knowledge base and increase your appeal to potential new employers — or your current one. You might very well find yourself retained in the face of a potential layoff because you're the person who knows about [insert hot trend here].

For instance, it's been said that automation can pose a serious threat to system administrator jobs, and current sysadmins would do well to evolve into learning coding as well. This may seem unfair on the surface - many sysadmins would argue if they wanted to become programmers then they would have done so directly - but it simply goes with the IT territory.

IT is not like finance, HR, law, or some other professional which changes on a glacial basis; the irony of the field is that we bring about new changes in rapid fashion... and those changes require us to adjust our know-how accordingly.

9. Focus on what makes you tick

Amidst updating your skill sets and focusing on new concepts, don't forget to retain a focus on what you truly love about technology and what brought you into the field to begin with in order to keep your perspective fresh.

I myself enjoy troubleshooting and solving the many "mysteries" which can occur when you work in IT, such as application crashes, disappearing emails, script failures, and other puzzling developments. This helps me to keep from feeling agitated when something isn't working right to see myself as a maintaining order in a chaotic environment.

I also enjoy working with encryption since it can be rewarding when it works right, and as I indicated earlier, this could lead to a career in cybersecurity down the road.

10. Exercise/downtime

The gyms are packed with people trying to lose a few extra pounds and yet many of them will likely be gone by March. Since IT is one of the more stressful careers, 12 months of regular exercise can help you retain your sanity and focus. Just getting out of the office for an hour at lunchtime to run a few miles can also produce remarkable insights into existing problems since you're easing off the throttle and exercise stimulates your brain.

Downtime is also important. While many of my hobbies involve technology, I also make sure to branch out into other areas like sports, craft beer, history and cinema. Spending time with family and friends on a regular basis is also helpful both from a social perspective as well as to aid in recharging and broadening your horizons. You might even turn off your phone for a while!

Take it from me, not being immersed in technology on a constant basis has helped me maintain my love for the profession for 25 years.

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Image: iStock/gpointstudio

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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