10 Ways to Survive as an IT Manager

IT ManagerSo after five and a bit years of being an IT Manager here is some advice I have learned along the way in no particular order. On the whole I have enjoyed myself but it has been a real challenge at times.

1. Figure out what plates are still spinning

Being an IT Manager is all about keeping everything running all of the time. A bit like spinning 5 or 6 plates. You have plates for your servers and network infrastructure, you have plates for bespoke databases that you maintain, you have plates for your staff (including any external contractors), you have plates for any websites or apps that you develop. That is a lot of plates to keep spinning and that before you start thinking about what your boss wants you to deliver. Make sure you know what is happening with all these plates, which ones are happy, which ones are on the way to the floor and which ones you need to get the glue out and repair.

2. Make it someone else’s problem

If you can blame someone else do so. If your internet goes down it is your ISPs fault. If your website dies its your hosting company’s fault. Take responsibility for problems but if when something goes wrong you can pick up the phone and ask for help, it will make your life easier.

3. Hire good staff

Hiring poor staff wastes time and money and makes you look bad by others. Demand the highest salary band for new staff that you can afford and don’t agree to hiring anyone that you have doubts about. It is easy to bow to the pressure to get someone quickly but this will always result in worse problems in the long run. Once you have a good team do your best to keep them, and warn upper management of the problems if staff leaves (basically make it their problem not yours!).

4. Learn, Learn, Learn

You may or may not have the opportunity to go on training courses. Whatever your situation spend time learning new stuff that will benefit the company and yourself. You can learn a lot by reading online, you can petition for training from your managers, you can fund training yourself, you can ask for help from your different suppliers. The more you learn, the more you can do and the more useful you can be to the company, plus the more interesting you will find the job.

5. Say No!

Don’t be afraid to say no. You will always be asked to do the impossible and if something is impossible say so at the start. It wastes everyone’s time if you spend a lot of time trying to do the impossible. Always give your reasons for saying no, and if you always say no people will think you are unhelpful. A better way to say no is to come up with a better solution. No I can’t do it your way but here is a better solution.

6. Don’t give estimates

If you are asked how long something will take you don’t answer straight away or give an exaggerated estimate. Go away and spend some time thinking of everything that is involved before replying. There will always be something that you forgot to consider when first asked about it and looking at the different components will help plan out the work needed as well as provide an estimate.

7. Know what to tell your boss, and what not to

This is a hard one to get the balance right for. You need to tell your boss enough so that they appreciate all that you do, but too much and they will stop listening and accuse you of talking in technobabble. I have never got the balance right with this one. I have always aired on the side of not telling my boss enough, and hence they don’t realize that I saved the day on Sunday night as everything is working again on Monday. Do repeat yourself. If your server is running low on resources start asking for replacement hardware early, and increase the frequency and the panic in line with the problems it is causing.

8. Understand the problems of the business

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Businesses need to make money. If the one you work for isn’t making enough money you will soon be looking for another. If you work for IT you will quickly start to see the problems of the business, think about what simple changes IT could make to improve things that would benefit the whole company. Some of your suggestions won’t go anywhere, but some may have a massive impact. I can think of a few changes that IT have spearheaded that I am very proud of, upgrading our internet connection, simplifying or automating processes and delivering new versions of software.

9. Ask for help

Don’t be afraid of asking for help. There are lots of places to look for help. Other departments could take more on, you could recruit extra help, you could hire external contractors. You can ask questions on support forums like ServerFault or StackOverflow, many software re-sellers or other suppliers are a good point of contact for questions about things they supply. Microsoft Support was also invaluable for a server issue.

10. Think about disasters

Write a disaster recovery plan or backup policy. Yes there will always be something more important that needs doing, but just stop for a moment to think how you would feel if everything died on your watch. The one thing you can rely on with technology is that it will fail at some point. A back of the envelope plan of action is better than no plan at all, even better is a detailed plan of what to do when each and every service you rely on fails. Plan additional services with an idea of adding extra redundancy. Always have multiple Domain Controllers, think about what data you could run from the Cloud. VMs could be replicated to the Cloud, and servers could be run from there.

Surface Book Review

en-INTL-PDP0-Surface-Book-CR9-00001-P2I have just bought myself a new laptop, but it is not just any laptop it is a Microsoft Surface Book.

I think this is probably the first time I have bought myself a top of the range laptop and after a few days of use I am loving it.

The Surface Book is the latest in Microsoft’s Surface line of tablets but the first to feature a keyboard and be more like a traditional laptop. The keyboard is detachable from the keyboard so you can use the Surface Book like a tablet.

As it is a top of the range laptop, it was not cheap, so if price is a significant factor in your laptop choice this is not the machine for you. Microsoft are trying to compete with Apple’s Macbook range.

So what did I get for my money:

  • Windows 10 Pro
  • 16Gb RAM
  • 512Gb SSD (Formatted Size nearer 474Gb)
  • 6th Generation Intel Core i7 Processor
  • Surface Pen
  • 13.5-inch touch screen

I have only had the device for a few days but these are my thoughts so far. My primary reason for buying this is for doing development work with Visual Studio and SQL Server.

I really like the Surface Pen. This is a feature that I didn’t think I would use much. The Pen connects via bluetooth and allows interaction with the touch screen. The pressure sensitive screen allows all sort of touch actions to be performed.

I especially like the choice of keyboards that are offered when the physical keyboard is detached. You can have either a on screen keyboard which you can type with pen or fingers, an on screen keyboard that splits in half or you can write with the pen. This is an amazing feature. My handwriting is not good but most of the time it understands my scrawl. With this option you can hand write a tweet or fill in a form on a webpage. For speed I would not recommend this form of input for large amounts of text, but for browsing the web of when you are just clicking on links it is great.

Windows Hello – I can unlock windows just by looking at my screen. How cool is that! It was really easy to setup, it just takes a photo of your face and next time you login all you need to do it look at the screen. Note if you are working in tablet mode, make sure the tablet is the correct way up.

It’s not all brilliant though. Detaching the screen is fiddly and sometimes takes a few moments to do. A few times I have felt I needed another hand but I am sure the more I do this the easier I will find it to do.

Battery life isn’t great especially when running off the tablet only. This is due to the machine having two batteries, one in the base and one in the screen so with keyboard attached you have much longer use times. Actually I am finding the battery is lasting longer now that I have used it for a few days.

The screen has a very high resolution 3000 x 2000 but using clever zooming technology everything is still readable and not tiny. However I use Remote Desktop a lot and this caused me a problem. When RDPing the remote session used the host screen resolution which made everything tiny on my servers. The solution to this can be found on SuperUser and involved using Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection Manager, a cool bit of software for managing multiple RDP sessions. This is actually an improvement on the way I usually work, but until I found the answer this was annoying.

Another minor annoyance with the keyboard is that you can’t press Ctrl-Alt-Del with one 20160226_082809 (2)hand. Normally this isn’t a requirement but if the screen locks while I have my son on my lap I am stuck, but I won’t blame the surface book for this.

When I got my Surface Book I was also given a Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter. I am not a fan of this bit of tech as I can’t get it to work. I briefly got my old laptop to connect but my Surface Book keeps telling me NO!

Overall I like the Surface Book. It is certainly the nicest laptop I have ever used. Now that I have the docking station I can connect two monitors, have a wired internet connection and it becomes a proper work horse. What does everyone else think? Better than Apple’s range of laptops?

SQL Transaction Log Backups

Like many DBAs I spend a lot of time maintaining my SQL Server backups.

From SQL Server I maintain both full backups and transaction log backups. I have often restored my full backups but until recently I have never restored a transaction log backup. All backup strategy’s are only as good as the last time you tested the restore process.

So what is a transaction log backup?

A transaction log backup contains all the transaction log records generated since the last full backup and is used to allow the database to be recovered to a specific point in time (usually the time right before a disaster strikes).  Since these are incremental, if you want to restore the database to a particular point in time, you need to have all the transaction log records necessary to replay database changes up to that point in time.

How to do the restore.

First right click on Databases in SQL Management Studio and select restore database. You should then get a screen similar to this.

restore1

In source click the … to allow you to select your backup files.

Now normally I have only ever selected one file here, the *.bak file. Instead select the *.bak and all the *.trn files as well. After SQL Server has chugged for a few minutes (time will depend on number of transaction files and server/disk speed etc) the restore plan section should fill up with files.

In the destination database box, type in the name of the database you want to restore. I recommend using a different name to avoid overwriting the original database, appending Test or a datetime to the name is what I usually do.

On my test server I need to untick the take tail-log backups option off the options screen before I can execute the restore.

Now you can either check the tick boxes in the restore plan section or (more fun) click the timeline button to select at what point in time you want to restore to.

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You can either select the point in time with your mouse or specify the exact point in the time textbox. Alternatively you can just select the most recent point, probably the most likely option when disaster strikes.

Now that I have tried doing this on my test server I feel much more confident that when disaster does strike I can get things restored quickly and painlessly.

How often should you run transaction backups?

The answer to this question depends on how critical your data is. Until very recently I ran mine ever 15 minutes, I have increased this to every 5 minutes, but I have seen recommendations of running it every minute. The more critical your data the more often you should run them.

Disaster Planning

flood disaster recoveryOver the Christmas break the city of York experienced the worst flooding disaster it has seen in recent years. If you want to help donations are being taken at York Flood Appeal.

Luckily I wasn’t affected but it was really sad seeing many of my favourite streets full of water. Thousands of people had to be evacuated from their homes when the water was at its highest.

York has its phone exchange located in the centre of the city and as the flood waters rose, this building flooded. BT who run the exchange worked flat out trying to restore phone and broadband services to York and the surrounding area, but this lead to at least 24 hours or more of downtime for users.

During this time most of the city wasn’t able to take card payments from customers (due to an internet connection being required), cash machines were not working for the same reasons and the most worrying thing access to emergency services was not available.

I am in no way critical of the hard working engineers that worked on the BT exchange to restore services to the city. However I have to ask what was contained in the BT disaster recovery plan.

As an IT Manager myself backups and disaster planning is something I need to think about and plan for. Recent investment in our internet connection meant that we are now on a leased line so BTs downtime would not have affected us in terms of network connectivity, I am uncertain about phone but I believe as a business we could have continued running during this time if we needed to.

Planning for a disaster is not something I ever make enough time, however I definitely want to spend more time on it and I do have the basics of a plan in my head which is probably more than BT has.

BT is a huge company they run almost the entire country’s phone lines and according to wikipedia have operations in 170 countries. I think that they can afford to have someone plan for disaster recovery.

The York Exchange is located next to a river that often floods. What could the company have done to avoid this problem?

  1. Relocate some or all of its services to a location away from the river.
  2. Add the ability to reroute services through an alternative exchange.
  3. Many towns and villages surrounding York use the BT exchange surely some of these could have been configured to use other exchanges.

In these days of terror alerts and bomb scares. Imagine if York was London and all it took to take down communication ability of the capital was one Exchange to be offline?

I am sure BT are looking at what they did right and what they did wrong and if you are reading this have a look at your own disaster recovery policy. Don’t get caught out like BT did.