It was fine yesterday.
September 16, 2010 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Need some help getting myself up to speed on being "the computer person." Just got a new job, which mostly involves handling lighting and carpentry tasks for a resident theater company. My responsibilities also include some IT stuff for their computer system. I'm looking for suggestions on how to be more of an expert and less of a-person-who knows-how-to-use-google.

I'm okay at solving my own at home computer issues and managed to goolefu and askme my way through my first big issue here. However, it took half my day. What can I be doing to learn more about how to do this stuff quickly and efficiently? Get A+ certified? Read an A+ book? I was a CS major in college, but that really means I know how to code and can usually parse instructions on troubleshooting websites and in help files. (I will also happily explain the marriage algorithm and red and black trees to you when I'm drunk apparently). It doesn't mean I'm up to speed on proper network security measures and the nuances of routing and server operation. So what are some books/forums/classes I should look into in order to get this up and running properly? Assume outsourcing will not be an option for the forseeable future.
posted by edbles to Technology (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"X for Dummies" will teach you all you need to know.
posted by Biru at 11:03 AM on September 16, 2010

Honestly? "The computer person", at a firm like yours, is typically the person who's a good problem solver, winging it as best they can. Don't let that make you feel insecure at all. Hell, it's how I got started, and now I lead a team that's 50% formal training and 50% "I used to be a molecular biologist but this is more fun."

Having said that, you should set up a system of your own at home, that mimics the systems you're maintaining, and play with it. Fool around with it, and when you inadvertently break it, figure out how to fix it. You can learn to solve the problems your company will have, even before they have the problems, this way. Plus, you'll learn how much fun it can be when you're not under pressure to "fix it now because we're losing money/our customers can't get to their data/our service reps can't read their appointments" and the data that might get lost is fake data you entered yourself.

In this way, you're being paid to learn, so take advantage of that so that, by the time you go for your next job, your resume is a lot stronger. And of course, as you go, you're going to get faster.

Finally, never forget: if you're the only IT person, and a problem takes you half a day to solve, people just assume it's a really difficult problem! It's when there's two of you and the other guy's a lot faster that you'll have problems. So take a deep breath, be patient and confident, and keep on keeping on. Besides, the longer you take to solve a problem, the more chance you won't do something foolish in a rush.
posted by davejay at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

As someone who does occasional ad-hoc support in a development environment, I've found it difficult to anticipate what's going to go wrong next. The most important tip I have is: document what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what you did to fix it. There have been so many times that I've run across a problem that seemed familiar and resolved the issue again from scratch.
posted by flipper at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2010

A+ certification is probably a good idea. You can actually prep for it by reading books, especially if you've got a little experience and common sense; the tests are costly enough but taking classes is insanely pricey.

I just got certified after years of feeling like I didn't really know what I was doing, and it helps a lot. (Not that I know much more now than I did a couple months ago... but I know what I know at least, and have a little card to prove it).

Still, knowing how to use google goes a long damn way. It's still how I solve most problems.

On preview: what davejay and flipper said. I'd say lean especially on documenting heavily. Document everything you do. Lots of lousy, and some otherwise excellent, IT folks don't document, and it causes disasters. Someone someday (it might be you) will have their ass saved, because you wrote down the wifi password in a formal document instead of just keeping it on a post-it.

Also, spend extra time and energy thinking about backups. Ahead of time.
posted by Erroneous at 11:11 AM on September 16, 2010

Nthing documentation. I'm an honorary IT girl at my job - the hardest stuff is always when no one wrote down what happened before. And it's very disheartening re-writing technical documentation that was poorly done the first time through.

Also: make sure you know exactly what everyone uses your system for. Do not piss off the receptionist or payroll staff via ignorance. This plus the "for Dummies" books will be of the most help. My dad and stepdad are IT guys and both of them say certifications aren't worth the money. They're both self-taught for IT.

(As for fora: I am very impressed with AskMe's turnaround time.)
posted by SMPA at 11:25 AM on September 16, 2010

That may be all there is to it.
posted by valkyryn at 11:29 AM on September 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

Server Fault is an excellent place to ask Sys Admin related questions.
posted by mmascolino at 12:02 PM on September 16, 2010

You'll get faster as you solve more issues. You'll get to a point where you can recognize new issues as being similar to old ones you have resolved previously.

And don't downplay your ability of using Google!
When I was team lead for local desktop support in a large company I would have been really happy if my team members would have tried googling an answer before asking me. Just to know they tried thinking about it analytically before wanting to be spoon fed.

You might benefit from signing up to a popular tech message board so you can get involved thinking about problems. Help others when you become able to and post questions you get stumped on so others can assist.
posted by zephyr_words at 12:05 PM on September 16, 2010

I dropped in here to recommend the same link as joke, this is probably 80% of my actual IT Help Desk job.
posted by AltReality at 12:12 PM on September 16, 2010

Third vote for the valyryn link, this was effectively 50% of my job some years ago and people still think I'm a god descended from heaven to solve their computer problems.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:56 PM on September 16, 2010

I popped in to plug the good ol' ounce of prevention. Assuming you're in a Windows environment.... Automate software & virus definition updates. Establish safe standards for user permissions and installed software (spyware detection, Firefox with protective plugins, blocking sites that are really bad news), and other similar "safe internet use" practices will mean that you have fewer big IT problems to begin with.

Throw in a handful of SATA drive toaster "enclosures" and some kind of backup software for each desktop, and you're a hero if anyone ever loses a hard drive.

Ensuring your wireless is password protected & strongly encrypted, and that your entire network is firewalled properly, will button everything else up nice and tight so nothing big happens.

Buy your new equipment from NewEgg and you won't waste hours and hours looking for better prices. They're not always cheapest, but they're almost always close enough that it's not worth your time looking anywhere else. And their customer support is pretty solid.

I foresee a week or two's worth of work researching and implementing these practices - make a prioritized checklist (like troubleshooting, this is a Google task) and push through it one item at a time, as budget and your other duties allow. Doing this preventative maintenance will mean fewer emergencies down the road.
posted by richyoung at 1:08 PM on September 16, 2010

Some of my thoughts for being in the industry are:

A+ is a good way to flag yourself as not really knowing what you're doing to other IT people. I also endorse documentation on what you did, I say 1 hour documenting saves me 8 hours later. I use a wiki for this and many do, but mostly it's whatever you can fit into your workflow. Backups. Backup that wiki you just made, it sure would suck to lose it now that you've put 30 hours into it. All the real 'computer' people or good IT people I know do it for fun, or at least used to but can't remove it from their day to day identity any more.

Good IT people are logical problem solvers FIRST. You can know nothing about computers but if you can read and logically reason through problems you're most of the way there. I think you might say 'But how useful is logical problem solving if I can only glean the most basic information about what works and what doesn't without understanding it?' For example, 'if I press this everything dies, therefore do not press this.' The answer is this is a never ending moving line, you start with the most basic understanding but as your knowledge base increases over time you will understand more and more of the problems you face while retaining the ability to clearly diagnose and fix. Today maybe you don't understand the reason it didn't work, but perhaps in a few years that line will have moved to 'I don't understand the memory management issues for this database, but according to these docs these settings will fix it'. There's always some aspect you won't understand.

Lastly, moving towards learning automation and management of larger numbers of workstations is one clear path to career advancement and more money. Really if you just follow your interest and aim to become more sophisticated you will move upwards, be it hardware, networking, niche software/hardware markets, server administration, programming, etc.. Generally the 'computer people' regular day to day people see, talk to and get help from are the lowest rung on the ladder. There are many, many people above them paid to not have to talk to you and they like it that way.
posted by BurnMage at 3:53 PM on September 16, 2010

However, it took half my day.

Sounds about right - possibly even on the quick side - for a big issue.

Bear in mind that people who rope the carpentry staff in to do their IT are the kind of people who look at computers as being essentially magical. If you're capable of interpreting the Sacred Scrolls better than they are, you get to be High Priest and awe them with your apparently effortless mastery.

What can I be doing to learn more about how to do this stuff quickly and efficiently?

More of it, and keep notes. Any computer you touch needs a Maintenance Notes file with your initials and contact details at the top, and dated and initialled log entries briefly describing everything you did and why.

Doing a bit of freelance Geek Squad type stuff on the side (complete with note-keeping - email copies to yourself) will get you more exposure to the kinds of problems that will also bite at work.

Also, read all the back articles on The Daily WTF and follow up anything you don't understand.
posted by flabdablet at 10:45 PM on September 16, 2010

Okay wiki started. Server Fault is great. Thanks for the help and the reassurance peoples. Daily WTF is bookmarked.
posted by edbles at 3:59 PM on September 17, 2010

I just wanted to add that my computer programmer father has had this dilemma throughout his career. "If I'd just known what the problem was, it would have taken me ten minutes, so should I really bill them for six hours?" But you're approaching the problem with a knowledge base that has taken years to learn (in school and outside of school) and they're also paying you for knowing where to look. Most people can't be bothered to figure out where to start, so they'll think you're a superhero for solving it.
posted by lauranesson at 1:27 PM on September 27, 2010

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