Never assume engineers have mastered all the fundamentals

Erik Eckel argues that it's unreasonable to assume every technician can master the vast technologies consultancies are commonly tasked to support. Read his suggestions for building specific areas of expertise on your staff.

Consulting offices occasionally resemble a triage ward in which numerous clients are experiencing multiple and varied crises simultaneously. The temptation during such firestorms is to dispatch any available or the closest engineers to troubleshoot and repair the issues. But because failures are so often due to such a wide range of issues -- a failed DSL modem, a toasted router, a corrupted Exchange store, a virus-laden workstation, a failed RAID array, a bad battery backup, etc. -- you can't.

Consultancies can't assume every engineer has mastered every fundamental. For example, it's probably not a good idea to send the SonicWALL expert to troubleshoot a corrupted SQL database. Consultancies will get calls about Microsoft OSs, Linux OSs, Macs, software applications, routers NOSs, managed switch configurations, physical plant errors, backup failures, cloud-based app failures, tainted databases, failed telcom pipes -- that's two much for one engineer to master. I learned the hard way.

The problem may be prevalent at consultancies that leverage corporate IT departments as staff feeder systems. Many consultancies recruit engineers from the corporate ranks. Within corporate environments, engineers frequently become extremely proficient performing a select group of tasks. Chances are, those engineers didn't have to support or troubleshoot the tremendous variety of equipment, OSs, applications, and routing and network systems a consultant does when working for a consulting firm.

Stop don't assume (or hope) all your consulting office's engineers have mastered all IT fundamentals -- that's unrealistic. Instead, consider building specific areas of expertise on your staff. Encourage technicians interested in routing, VPNs, QoS, and the like to gain SonicWALL and Cisco certifications. Help database administrators find a rack server you can repurpose to let them study the newest SQL platform in a nonproduction environment. Assist another in mastering all aspects of Microsoft's new Exchange platform.

Sure, everyone in the office needs to be comfortable performing basic hardware and Windows troubleshooting tasks. Everyone needs to be able to remove viruses and spyware, configure new user accounts, and repair failed smartphone and Outlook configurations. But not everyone needs to chase QuickBooks point-of-sale certification, earn Cisco accreditation, or prove masterful troubleshooting Dentrix, ACT!, and MAS 90.

If the only engineer available in a crisis isn't certified in the technology in question, the tech can still go to the client site and eliminate obvious errors, isolate the issue, and serve as the resident expert's boots-on-the-ground, if needed. As long as you have the knowledge you need on staff, he or she's only a telephone call away. Resist the temptation to criticize the on-site tech, because it's unreasonable to assume every technician can master the vast technologies consultancies are commonly tasked to support; that's the consultancies' overall responsibility, not the single technician's role.

By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...