on December 3rd, 2008

Dear Colleagues

1. Well, a year has barreled past with bewildering speed and we again make our comprehensive 2009 Engineering Planner/Diary, free to the first 30 of you that request one. These books are full of useful engineering design formulae and tables with space available for each day’s notes.

2. Let’s face it – whether we like it or not; we all work with computer systems today. I was reading a really nifty list of mistakes that even IT pros make (thanks to Debra Littlejohn Shinder). I have adapted them for engineering professionals working in industry. I am not thinking of complex issues such as the misconfiguration of a firewall which shuts down your entire SCADA network for your plant (although this does happen); but more common place stuff. As engineering professionals, IT is incredibly important to us, so these suggestions may be useful.

2.1 Backup, backup and backup again – comprehensively
We all agree that backups are important. A colleague of mine, Clive Smith, who ran an Industrial Automation business, made the following claim: I would have the business up and running within 2 hours if a fire destroyed the premises and all our systems. This is all well and good, but when did you last check that your back ups actually work? I was horrified to find, a few weeks ago, that our expensive back up system had accumulated so much data (600GB) that it wasn’t backing everything up any longer. Plan for a fully fledged disaster so that when fire goes through your premises or a virus chomps everything up; you can indeed recover quickly. Have your new people been trained on how to recover your systems? If your key IT guy is away on holiday in Bali, is there someone left behind to pick up the pieces for a back up?

2.2 When there is any doubt, there is no doubt
When your web connectivity drops out, or your web site takes longer to load up, or the mail slows down intermittently, or your UPS mysteriously comes on – you can bet your bottom dollar that these are early warning signals of something developing which will generally deteriorate. It will not heal itself. Investigate, with the suspicious and persistent nature of a Sherlock Holmes, until you find out the cause or causes before you have real shutdown which impacts on the firm’s total productivity. Finally, don’t assume that the IT guy knows more than you do as a user. If his explanation about a particular problem doesn’t make sense, quiz him until you understand.

2.3 Document changes
When you change the configuration of the server or the router or make any other IT setting changes, document these clearly (in language designed for a layman). Store these documents in an obvious place to ensure that even that layman can find them!

2.4 Log to help with troubleshooting
It is often difficult to find out why a particular software application locks up or fails. Hard disk space is delightfully cheap so keep log files to track why your irritating program has given up the ghost at 3am. Many people don’t turn program logs on, as they believe they can save space. But they do provide a wonderful ‘black box recording’ of what happened when your software application suddenly nose-dived and crashed.

2.5 Budget for lots of time for critical updates
When updates are released for various programs, it is worthwhile testing them thoroughly so that they don’t introduce problems. Make the assumption that the upgrade will cause problems when installed. It is worth your while to try and find out what these problems are before inflicting them on the rest of the firm.

2.6 Do not upgrade in a hurry
I have a well worn thesis that any new software, just released and straight out of the box, is riddled with bugs and problems. It is startling that large multinational companies release buggy software to their long suffering clients (and then have the temerity to charge them for support). To avoid this pitfall do not install a new package until it has been in the marketplace for some months (and indeed years) – until you have confirmed with other users that all is well and it works really well. Upgrading at this stage will save you money and angst. I marvel at a very large, state of the art, multinational and highly profitable computer retailer which uses software programs that are years out of date, but which still work extremely well for their point of sale systems. On the other hand, don’t wait too long to install a desired package and lose out on the real benefits in using it.

2.7 Passwords and computer security are critical
The bandits are out there, beyond your firm’s stockade, waiting to destroy your IT system. Make sure you have regular password changes and manage your security carefully all the time. Educate your users regularly about the security of your network. When an employee leaves anticipate that she/he may still have access to your system unless you change passwords. Do regular virus scans and random audits of computers looking for potential problems.

2.8 Don’t bend for every little request
There are rules in running your IT system that apply to everyone. Don’t bend over to adjust rules for those who want things changed because of their peculiar circumstances (or pet programs that suit them). It chews up your IT maintenance resources, often weakens your security systems (eg. let’s adjust the company firewall so that you have easy access to the company server when you are in Kazakstan) and makes the overall system inefficient.

2.9 The IT system has to work for a living
The IT infrastructure is there to be used for the benefit of the organization so ensure it serves everyone effectively. Users must be able to access the internet for valuable information, send and receive mail quickly and effectively and share files easily. If you make life too difficult for your users, they will find innovative ways to bypass your security measures.

3.0 The KISS principle
Whenever you implement anything in the IT world, go for the simplest solution. Anything that is too complex (and undoubtedly clever) is often challenging to keep working. We implemented a hot standby system a few years ago, regrettably, with clever back-ups which was simply too complex to work on a continuous basis. We have simplified it considerably since then.

3.1 Train others to do the IT support job
No one is indispensable. Train others to support and manage the network. This also facilitates the IT guru taking leave without your IT system collapsing in chaos. Arthur C. Clarke remarked: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I believe, however, that an IT system should be anything but – it needs to be brutally productive and down to earth.

Yours in engineering learning


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