With the passing of each year, it seems that companies are becoming more reliant on their Information Technology infrastructure. Consider how far we’ve come in a relatively short amount of time and what kind of additional challenges are placed on the people who support IT.
When I started supporting users of Information Technology, there was always another alternative should something go awry. Today, however, it seems that the alternatives have all but slipped away. At one time, we could get along fine without technology; today, we can’t get by without it. For users of technology, it’s their production that’s affected. For those of us who support them, it means a whole lot more.
Computers: This is where it all started, isn’t it? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but I often consider how much it’s changed my industry (the building design industry). Only twenty years ago, upward of 95 to 100 percent of the design professionals either didn’t use a computer or, at the very least, weren’t that dependent on one. Anything done by way of computer could have easily been done by hand (and sometimes easier). Not anymore.
As time went by, the reliance on computers gradually became greater. It used to be that if someone’s computer failed, the user could do without it for some period of time – even a few days without one was acceptable. But the days gave way to hours, and then the hours eventually became minutes. Today, I keep extra computers loaded and ready to go, fully configured with everything a user needs so I can provide a quick replacement. I’m waiting for the day someone tells me that he or she needs it faster than the time it takes for me to make the swap.
Networks: How many people remember the day you first connected two computers together? I used a device called a null modem and crossover cable, software called ….. dang, I forgot what it was called (but I’ll bet someone will remind me!), and I had to figure out something about a handshake. Then came my DOS version of Lantastic. Then came Windows Server. Today, we have intranets and Internets.
The Internet: Who among us cut his or her Internet teeth on something called a BBS (Bulletin Board System)? And I’m sure there will be some really old-timers (nothing disparaging intended, because in some ways I consider myself one) who recall the days of the Internet that even preceded the Bulletin Board days. CompuServe is one of the oldest on-line services, and it was the first one I used. Baud rates and modems gave way to Broadband and satellites. And speaking of something that’s gone from a novelty to a necessity, I can’t image providing user support without the Internet. (That’s probably a subject worthy of a blog piece in and of itself. Stay tuned — it just found its way onto my list.)
E-mail: This is, I believe, the one thing (a subset of the Internet, of course) on which all my users are most dependent. Without it, many of them are literally dead in the water. Phone calls between our engineers and clients were once the only means of communication; today it seems that e-mail is king. We’ve been transferring data files for a long time, but I can’t recall the last time we had to call an overnight delivery service to ship a CD — or floppy disks.
File attachments to e-mails, FTP sites, and project collaboration sites are not only preferred, but they’re absolutely necessary. Just when I get used to one project collaboration site, a different one becomes the new flavor of the day for a different client, and we have yet another means of file transfer to get used to. Why don’t they all use the same one, or why don’t they all work the same way, I was recently asked? I couldn’t decide if Because or I don’t know was the best answer. (I used both — Well, it’s because, I just don’t know!)
A plethora of devices: Wireless devices, mobile devices, PDAs, hand-helds, digital cameras, flash drives, etc. There’s always something new to learn about and to integrate into our business model. Back in the day, however, I was usually the first one to hear about a new technology; I would evaluate it, and I would be the one to determine the need. Today, it’s just as likely one of my users will introduce something new to me — sometimes welcome, sometimes not. As such, not only do I have to be aware of how to use the new technology but sometimes how to guard against it.
Printers, plotters, copiers, and scanners: It used to be that the buck of support for the dreaded copy machines could always be passed on to someone else. This was usually a guy with the personality of a wet rag. He never smiled, was always short with his answers, and, in general, simply looked like the most miserable guy on the planet. But I could always understand why he was like that — after all, he supported copy machines. I was always content with keeping them outside the realm of something I supported. But not anymore.
We don’t have just a copy machine anymore. It copies, it scans, it faxes, it e-mails, it networks, and it seemingly does everything under the sun. I was just waiting for the salesman to tell me it slices and dices. (It probably does, but I was afraid to ask.) With more functionality and with more networking interfaces, it’s become yet another cog in the wheel that makes our business go ’round. I don’t maintain the inner mechanics of the thing, mind you, but out of the seemingly 1,001 things it can do, I have to learn which ones will facilitate our business, how to best configure them, and, over time, how to teach it to all the users. Gone are the days of a couple of scanners scattered throughout the office — you know, the kind that just got replaced when something didn’t work right.
Even the copy machine technician has changed. It used to always be a guy — like the one I described above. But now they’re field engineers, not technicians, and it’s just as likely to be a woman as a man. While one person used to service all aspects of the thing, today we might see one person service the hardware, and another support the software.
How far we have come: The explosion in our dependency on technology really came to light recently (and how much it’s all changed), when I was asked by a young and new drafting technician about the days of making blueprints. He was amazed to hear me tell him about hand drawing on both sides of a sheet of Mylar and about how the old blueprint machines worked, and so on. I learned about drafting technology with a T-Square, some triangles, and a drawing board. He’s learned everything he knows by way of a keyboard.
Computer technology has accommodated making design changes up until the last minute — and even beyond the last minute. And plotters that, at one time, would take hours to produce one drawing sheet (if the ink didn’t dry up, that is), gave way to wide format, high-speed printers capable of producing hundreds of sheets in mere minutes.
How it’s changed our support role: How much our support role has changed is all relative, I suppose. Like I said earlier, in many ways I’m an old-timer; but compared to others, I jumped on the technology express well after it left the station. Maybe the ensuing discussion will result in some strolls down memory lane, or perhaps it will generate some new ideas about providing support today compared to yesterday.