Culture

Engineer’s Guide: Be Your Own Home IT Department

24 Mar 2020 10:00am, by

Engineers, coders and developers are scrambling to work from home right now.

Back in my engineer/analyst days at Lockheed-Martin and AT&T I always had corporate IT support. For a problem, I’d call the help desk and somebody would come by, fix it and I’d be back up and running quickly. These days, you may be faced with having to set up your own infrastructure and learn how to get your “home” side of the job equation going, possibly with reduced help from the company.

The good thing is that engineers, developers and project people are usually well organized, systematic, good at asking questions and above all curious. It’s the perfect time to adopt a “How do we get this working?” attitude. Then proceed to figure it out. At the same time maybe pick up new skills, like getting into Linux or learning the finer points of installing cable modems, routers, cables, desktops and monitors.

Setting yourself up to work from home might seem daunting if you aren’t a system/network administrator or hands-on hardware type. Today we’ll get started analyzing your needs, checking your assets and offering a few suggestions on what you can do right now to get moving.

Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes.

What Do You Need to Do Your Work?

A great place to start is to review your daily jobs and processes and relate those to your office computing capabilities. If you are still in an office, do this now. Most people will have a desktop or laptop with applications (accessed both locally on your machine and through a browser), some kind of Internet access and a phone. Layout a diagram of your typical workflows, showing the processes, people and systems you work with to do your job. Working from home will require roughly the same basic infrastructure.

Next, make a list of the programs you use all the time. List occasional-use programs too. Sort them into categories of importance, complexity and frequency of use. Make note of any difficulties or issues with your applications. Developers might a versioning tool to manage their code. Hardware-oriented people could use testing applications and diagnostics. Managers and project leaders rely heavily on email and presentation software. Support folks need access to customer management systems and issue tracking. Writers and doc people use content managers. Web developers need… well, web servers.

Make note of the running environment needed by your applications. How is the software licensed? Does the software only function on Windows? Or, on a Mac? Do any of the programs run on multiple operating systems?

Is an application browser-based? If it’s browser-based, do you require high-bandwidth internet access? Video conferencing software like Zoom, might be marginal on a cheapo or spotty WiFi connection.

Try to learn everything you can about your office infrastructure and how it makes it possible to do your job. If you are still in your office environment, it might make sense to go visit your resident business analyst or program manager to get a better understanding of your business processes. Ask questions that will help you anticipate what you’ll need, when you move “off-site.” You can bet they will be mobilizing to try to get work done, when everybody is office-less. Your interest and insight can help find ways to get your job done as you learn to function remotely. Make no mistake, this will be an uncertain learning curve for everybody.

In spite of the challenges, I think being flexible, imaginative, positive and adaptable are critical to getting through these difficult times and succeeding in the future. “Can Do” and team effort goes a long way.

As you explore your “job” in a new light, lets also take a look at what we have to work with at home.

What Home Infrastructure?

A few days ago my daughter called and asked which internet provider we had at home. I told her Spectrum. She said that’s what she thought. Of course, you know my next question. “Why?”

She works in a local call center as a customer support associate and the company was floating the idea of people working from home. They haven’t made the decision to close their office yet and there are many unanswered questions. Will they provide laptops or take-home desktops? How will internet and phone service work? Who will do what? How will IT support be handled?

She certainly wasn’t ready for my deluge of questions about her office infrastructure. You know, the types of questions I talked about earlier in this article.

Of course, as an independent consultant, I’ve refined my home infrastructure to suite my own computing needs. I work on WordPress, communicate through email/phone/IM, download large programs frequently, create presentations and constantly scan the web for tech info. I haven’t used Windows in years, preferring to be a Linux shop and use free/open source software.

Could my daughter do her job from my house? Probably. Here’s what I have.

  • 100 Mb/s download, 10 Mb/s upload cable Internet access, via Spectrum through an Arris TM1602 cable modem.
  • NetTrend TEW711BR 150 150 Mb/s wireless N home router.
  • ASUS duo-core Intel model X83VM-X1 notebook running at up to 2.27GHz. It has 4GB of RAM and a 750GB, 7200 RPM hard-drive. It also has a non-touchscreen 14-inch 1280×800 color LCD display, three USB 2.0 ports, wireless N wifi, 100/1000Mbs wired Ethernet and HDMI. This is a 10+-year-old machine. I’m running Ubuntu Linux version 18.04.04 LTS with the XFCE desktop.
  • Lenovo quad-core IdeaPad, model U430 touch notebook running at up to 2.30GHz. It has 4GB of RAM and a 500GB, 5400 RPM hard-drive. It also has a touchscreen 14-inch 1600×900 color LCD display, three USB 2.0 ports, wireless N wifi, 100/1000 Mbs wired Ethernet and HDMI. The machine is several years old and runs Ubuntu Linux with the XFCE desktop.
  • Raspberry Pi 4 quad-core ARM processor DIY Steampunk notebook running at 800 MHz. It has 4GB of RAM and a 64GB SanDisk Extreme micro-SD card. There is a non-touchscreen 11.5″ 1200×800 color LCD with a display board and is connected through HDMI, wireless AC wifi, a gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports. The Pi also has dual HDMI ports. It runs Raspbian Linux with the LXDE desktop.
  • Samsung S8+ smartphone with a 30GB/mo. family data plan and unlimited text and talk. It runs Android and can function as a WiFi access point bridging over to the cell network.
  • 19-inch Samsung HDMI TV/monitor.
  • HP model 1606 laser printer set up with a fixed local IP address connected via a Cat 5 cable to the router behind the firewall.
  • AT&T connectivity to the internet and a landline that is currently not operational. The wiring is there, we just aren’t using their hardware or services.

What Can You Do Right Now?

Collect your lists and diagrams and put them in a paper folder. I like to keep a frequently updated engineering notebook going on my projects to record important information, configurations, relevant specs and various one-off thoughts and notes.

If you are still in the office, schedule time with other team members and express your interest in making working remotely from home real. Do that even if you are already out of your office. Company leaders are definitely entertaining ideas on how to keep the doors open, employees healthy and the business going. It’s an all-hands challenge and everybody is covering new ground. Dive in and figure out what you need on your own. There are many opportunities to step up and learn new things, while adjusting to alternative ways of work. Who knows, you may just invent a new job for yourself.

Test your home infrastructure and get whatever you have running smoothly. If you have a slow internet connection, find out why and fix it. Maybe you need a better plan? Are you using a fast domain server? Are you on a clear WiFi channel? Should you relocate your router to a more central place in your house? Is it time for a new computer? Look into better or bigger data plans (cable and phone). Investigate getting a landline phone connection, if you work in a call center, for example. Don’t forget to put the notes in your engineering notebook.

Are you up to date on the different browsers, office suites and email clients (both on your notebook and smartphone)? Maybe do some studying and exploration, if you now find yourself with some extra downtime. Open source software, like Firefox, LibreOffice and Thunderbird (email) are exceedingly capable applications available for download from the web. Get them and give them a spin. They might be an option if you need to use your own gear and no longer have your commercial applications available.

Lastly, spend time connecting the dots between how you do things in the office and how you might do them at home. Figure out where you were and where you want to be, then fill the gaps with solutions you find.

Upcoming articles will focus on insights, tips, techniques, processes I’ve used, as a remote worker over the last decade or so.

Contact Rob “drtorq” Reilly for consultation, speaking engagements and commissioned projects at doc@drtorq.com or 407-718-3274..

Feature image via Pixabay.

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