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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Perspective: Don't be a Nick (Burns)!

I thought before I launched into the geek speakiness and tech talkiness, I would do a psychospiritual level set and talk about one of the challenges I face as the "company computer guy".

One of my favorite recurring characters in the late 90s sketch line-up on SNL was Nick Burns (Your Company Computer Guy). Watching those sketches was hilarious, and painfully self-referential for me. See, there's a Nick Burns buried inside me, an archetypal character defect that I will probably never completely exorcise, no matter how many spiritual inventories I do. I would even venture to say that there's a little bit of Nick in all IT professionals, no matter how polished, humble, and self-effacing you might be. And, at the heart of that archetype is a lack of self-esteem that wields sarcasm as a blade to cut ourselves off from the potential of future rejections. When we dive into something with almost religious zeal, whether it's computers or video games or what have you, we become "geek". And when our geek gets deeply buried enough under arcane language, inside jokes, and minutia, we cut ourselves off from the general population. It can become a vicious cycle.

Wow, that went deeper than I anticipated. Sometimes I even surprise myself.

For the first 6 years(!) of my IT career, my geekitude both paid the bills and gave my Muse a medium, as I worked in the Helpdesk doing phone support in a retail environment (and in my spare time, pushed pixels with a passion). I could go on and on about the challenges and frustrations of trying to troubleshoot computer problems when you can't see the screen of the person you are helping (this was pre-TeamViewer or Remote Desktop days), don't know as much as you'd like about the system you're trying to fix (old-style dumb terminals and HP mini-computers), and the person you are trying to help is under the gun to help the customer glaring at them on the other end of the phone. And by nature, I am not a patient person. It's amazing to me, looking back, that I did not get written up on a weekly basis for my attitude.

When I moved into desktop support, it was a little easier to temper my frustration because I was at peoples' desks, seeing the problem first-hand, and was almost always rewarded with genuine gratitude. That fed my soul. The Nick in me still came out, but in a way that people tolerated as "just Jack", not mean-spirited but that gruff, sarcastic character that was often tempered with kindness and humility when nobody else was looking.

Occasionally, my sarcasm even causes a chuckle, as I would send folks a link to the Let Me Google That For You site when they had a question I thought was incredibly easy to "just google", which they could have done themselves. In fact, I became so famous for that directive within my wife's family that her sister gave me a shirt one Christmas that had "just google it" emblazoned on the front so I could point to it whenever they asked m something they knew I would tell them to google.

Since then, I've tried to incorporate the philosophy that "knowledge does not equal virtue" and daily remind myself it is unfair to get attitude with someone because they don't necessarily know or remember tech procedures that I think should be fundamental. Virtue should be measured by what and how much we give of ourselves to others. Period.

When I started working at ARC, this attitude of patience and empathy was an even more important "coat to put on" every morning. In the corporate world, it is somewhat reasonable to expect people to have basic computer skills because it's an integral part of their job. In the non-profit sector, people consciously choose to get involved in order to contribute to the greater good, not necessarily to make a living or further their careers. So the expectation of basic computer knowledge is not appropriate. These folks at ARC are here to make a difference in the lives of those we serve, and it's my job - my MISSION - to make sure that their experience with their computers doesn't become a distraction from THEIR mission.

As I continue to define and refine the direction that I'd like to guide the development of the IT infrastructure here, I think it's central to what I do to remember what's important to the people I'm helping. I guess, in that light, calling this an IT "empire" is rather... Nick-ish of me. So from now on, I'm going to call it OUR IT Collective.

Cheers, and have a great day!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Building an IT "Empire" - Part 1: Managing those desktops!

When I first came on board here at Contra Costa ARC, there was no IT infrastructure to speak of. It was a mishmash of unconnected, unmanaged bits and pieces with little cohesion or consistency.

All the desktop computers were deployed without modification, either directly from Dell (complete with crapware galore), inherited from the county, or built by a system integrator and then equipped with Office 97 and all subsequent patches afterwards. The lone agency server (hosting the accounting and payroll systems) was running NT server on a Pentium 3 500mhz processor... with DAT tape backup (never really was sure if any of those tapes had uncorrupted data on them). The file server was an XP machine with a shared out folder. Email services were a conglomeration of personal accounts and a domain poorly and expensively hosted by Earthlink. It wasn't pretty, but it worked for them... mostly.

I can imagine that this scenario is probably more common than not for non-profits who cannot afford full-time IT staff. When I finally had a complete picture of the task before me, it was more than a little overwhelming, but I enjoy a challenge.

So where to begin? Well, I realized I needed to overhaul the desktop management process first, since that's the core component of the infrastructure here. I have since set about identifying and refining my toolset for this aspect of my job, and it's a big piece of the puzzle. My next several posts will catalog the details of my processes and the tools I use to manage the PCs here at CCARC. Below is a list of topics I will cover:

  • Setting minimum hardware specs, OS requirements and creating a software "package"
  • Purchasing PCs and software
    • Using TechSoup.org and the Microsoft Donation Program: Don't pay full price for that OS!!!
    • Dell: A consistent source of quality desktops and laptops for under $500
  • Managing workstation images
    • That first build: patched and up to date in one afternoon with Autopatcher!
    • Minimize driver hunting with Driverpacks.net
    • Batch software installs with ninite.com
    • Enable remote support with Echoware and a Remote Desktop tweak
    • Final custom touches with Group Policy Editor
    • Wrap it all up with Acronis True Image Workstation and Universal Restore
Before I had this process nailed down, it would take me a minimum of a day and a half to build a PC with Windows XP Professional SP2 from scratch, taking into account all the updates and patches that had to be downloaded. I didn't have a lot of experience with imaging PCs but I knew there were ways to streamline the process.

These days it takes me less than an hour to go from blank hard drive to deployable, managed XP or Win7 Pro desktop. Considering that I am building about 10 PCs a month, that's 11 times faster than it would be without these techniques. When you're running the show solo, that kind of time savings is critical.

In my next post, I will talk about how I decided on minimum desktop hardware specs, what OS to use, and which software I deploy on agency PCs.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Perspective: Then to Now...

What a journey!

When I first started at CCARC in 2007, I had just been laid off by my previous employer of 14 years. That had been a series of corporate IT jobs, my favorite having been a couple of years in desktop support. When I got the news, there was about 30 seconds of "Oh sh*t, what now?!?", followed by an immense sense of relief that the Universe had finally granted me an exit opportunity from a job I was too afraid, insecure, (and lazy) to leave on my own.

I hadn't been unemployed but a day when I came across the ad for the position of IT Coordinator here at the agency.  Working IT at a non-profit was something I had considered many times, but the hurdle of significantly reduced salary was more than I had the courage to try and overcome. With this job posting, I had a chance to pursue a career path closer to my heart, and a chance to put my skills to use for an organization that was making a difference.

Working someplace where I didn't feel like I had to check my soul at the door every morning, doing what I do best?  Sign me up!

It was literally 6 days from unemployment to first interview, and 2 weeks from interview to first day on the job. I was the first IT person they'd had on staff, having patched together support from a few sources and somehow limped through their introduction to computers, e-mail, and the internet. When I came on board, I was welcomed as a much-needed resource, and I quickly got to work putting out fires. A lot of fires.

I had quite a road ahead of me, but not once have I thought that going back to a corporate gig was a preferable option. I have a ridiculous amount of flexibility and latitude in this job. There have certainly been times when the breadth of my duties and responsibilities has been overwhelming, but those anxieties were matched with the sense of accomplishment I felt when I would implement a solution that required my own brand of innovation and "can do". I have been able to experiment and explore tech in ways that have sometimes seemed tangential  at first, long on the "tech for tech's sake" without any practical application in the context of the needs I am trying to meet here; but then somewhere down the line those explorations and discoveries have suddenly developed relevance when a new challenge appears.

If there's one thing I truly miss, it's a sense of cameraderie with fellow geeks. I am hoping that by journaling my challenges and triumphs here, someone out there will reach out and share their stories and "a ha" moments. This can be a lonely business, not strictly because I am the only IT person, but also because I am working with tools and concepts that most people don't find as fascinating and promising as I do. And that's OK.

So on I go, and here is where I will leave my breadcrumbs for others to perhaps follow.

Welcome!

I'm Jack Riggen, IT Coordinator at Contra Costa ARC.  I've been on staff here since April of 2007, happily supporting staff members in their efforts to support our clients and their families.

This is, hands down, the best job I've ever had.  It's also one of the most challenging, in that I am the only IT person on staff, supporting 200+ computers at 11 sites, in use by 350 staff members. I have had to develop strategies and find tools that help me maximize my presence and minimize technology hassles experienced by the people who I'm here to help.

With this blog I am also hoping to provide some insight to other "Lone IT Rangers" out there in the NP world, working for the greater good.  We're in this together people. I hope my trials and learning opportunities can help you get the most from your IT infrastructure!

Cheers,
-Jack