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Time management in a crazed IT department

Long hours and constant crisis are the hallmarks of IT work. Yet those who have logged many an hour on the job have found some techniques to make it easier.

Adam Moskowitz is an independent systems and network architect in the Boston area. He spends his professional life surrounded by server racks, switches and routers, making sure that state-of-the-art systems run smoothly. It's a complicated job. Can you guess what Moskowitz picks as the most important tool for his job?

It's not management software. It's not even electronic. No, it's a small, hand-held notebook.

"What I tell people is that if you don't see me write it down, assume I never heard it," Moskowitz said. "E-mail works too, but I sometimes even copy e-mail into my notebook. There's something about the act of writing something on paper by hand that helps you retain the information."

Life can be hectic for systems and network administrators, so it makes sense that having the information at one's fingertips can be helpful. Moskowitz constantly checks his notebook during the workday, and he flips back through it at the end of the week to make sure nothing has slipped his notice.

"One place for everything -- that's important," he said.

Scottie Swenson, president and systems manager of Seattle-based Web-hosting company Hero Networks LLC, only differed in that he preferred a notebook with a solid binding to a ringed one.

"I document everything," he said. "You can't fix something unless you understand what that something is. A lot of times, I'll be going back through my notes and the answer to my problem leaps off the page and says, 'Hey stupid, I've been here all along.'"

Swenson, who also lectures for the Systems Administrators Guild, preaches the time management principles made popular by Alan Lankein, author of "How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life."

The basic idea is to write down everything you have to do and break it into three groups -- absolute necessities, things you think are generally important and things that might be good to do if you had the time for them. Order them in A, B and C columns, then prioritize the columns and get cracking on the top of column A.

You usually end up ignoring the C items, Swenson admitted. "What you're aiming for is the most effective use of your time."

Chris Mann, a systems administrator for Stonebridge Bank in West Chester, Pa., suggested actually scheduling documentation time each day.

"If you don't plan it, you'll just end up doing it when you thought you'd be headed home," he said.

He and Moskowitz both recommend working skewed hours in order to get some quiet time on the job. Mann prefers to work a bit later; Moskowitz comes in early.

Everyone stressed the importance of being thorough. "Test like crazy and have others check your work before you push it out to a live server," Mann said.

Take extra time to fully understand your company's systems and how they're configured, Moskowitz suggested. Avoid taking shortcuts when you put those systems together, because "it's less pressure when things go wrong," he said.

Dave Hilton, a systems administrator for Foster City, Calif.-based Entelos Inc., a virtual testing company for the pharmaceutical and medical industry, takes good planning a step further by planning for repairs before even deploying a system.

"Every time I get a box from a manufacturer, I fieldstrip it and put it back together," he said. "I've found connectors and cables not properly pressed together, screws not screwed, loose metal. I even take an emery board and electrical tape and dull any sharp corners in case I've got to go back inside the box. The things that are most likely to go wrong are mechanical."

Some other time management suggestions include:

  • Label everything, including both ends of your wires, indicating where they go.
  • Plan what you're doing the next day before you go home.
  • Force yourself to stop working at a certain point in the day, otherwise you may never see your home.
  • Put up a sign that says you're only to be bothered if it's an absolute emergency when you need some quiet time to work, or sometimes relax.
  • Ground everything, even things you don't think need grounding.
  • Check your server room every day for loose items, flopped-out cables and anything that could prove a hazard in the future.
  • Know what you don't need, some projects sound great, but can take you away from more pressing matters.
  • Know what you're good at and what you're not good at. Try to have someone else do the things you're not good at.
  • Keep the serial numbers of your equipment and the phone numbers of your vendors next to the phone you will call them on in case of an emergency.
  • Ask a lot of questions, because what users say they want and what they actually want are often two different things.
  • Clear your e-mail inbox before you leave every day.
  • Keep a decent stockpile of necessities like cables on hand so you always have them in a time of need.

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