10 Standards to implement at each managed client site

The hardest part of providing network maintenance and systems administration support is applying the templates we use for new clients. There appears to be no ideal template that we can apply easily without involving a lot of customizations. Some clients like the monthly report we provide while others don’t seem to care. This where general Standards templates are needed. Here is a list of standards we have or are currently working on:
1) Workstation/laptop/server/printer/smartphone hardware and software requirements at each office;
2) Remote access/control policies;
3) After-hour support, primary/secondary coverage SLA;
4) Corporate use of email, internet, file access policies;
5) Billing cycle and reporting;
6) Purchasing and budgetting flowchart;
7) Build documentation for new workstations;
8.) Systems monitoring and alerting;
9) Incident management;
10) Project management.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I make it up as I go along. If you have other items that you think should be added here, please let me know. The templates we currently have don’t all work for each client so we refine it accordingly. Having all these standards only provides better value for our client’s business. Have it all written up, a page for each category, and keep it all in a binder at each office or stored online for reference anytime questions or audits come up.

Using Google charts to enhance the system monitoring stats you receive in your email inbox

We have set up scripts at all our client sites to monitor everything related to computer system operations in order to ensure uptime is guaranteed and to also proactively forecast upgrades. This includes monitoring server disk space available daily, email mailbox usage weekly for MS Exchange Servers, and backup capacity planning to ensure we don’t span to multiple tapes. I’m sure there are other sexy off-the shelf canned solutions out there but making use of batch scripting, vbscripts, Google Chart api, and a free smtp mailer takes care of the daily monitoring requirement that we need at each site. Any off-shelf we purchase will have to be customized anyway so this is a cost-effective alternative.

The most popular statistic that systems administrators like to monitor is disk space on servers or critical workstations. Here are different parts required to receive these disk space stats in the message body of your email inbox.

1) Setup a batch script that reads the disk space free on the shared disk partitions of the servers you are interested in monitoring and writes the results to a command delimited text file. Append to this text file everytime the script runs.

2) Setup in vbscript code that reads the above input text file. Have it create a string variable that has as a value in html syntax the disk space free records from the input text file. Include in the html syntax the correct Google Chart api URL syntax to display the data in a chart.

3) In the vbscript code, call a third-party command-line smtp mailer like blat.exe or postie.exe that emails the string variable containing the html syntax as an email attachment. This chart is good looking and can be used to send daily email alerts to site owners and General Managers.

You can extend this to other systems you would like to monitor. It provides good business-case for any proposals or projects you initiate and enhances the value you provide by showing business users that you are actively watching their computer systems.

We are putting together an eBook ‘kit’ that includes all these sample scripts. It will also include all the other templates we apply to clients we have on monthly maintenance plans. Come back here often for updates.

7 things Freelancers and Consultants need to do to avoid stress and burnout

Providing computer support and maintenance for a number of clients can be challenging. Many enjoy working on multiple projects at the same time and are comfortable working until 2am daily. Over time, however, this can stress and burnout even the most dedicated entrepreneurs. In order to provide quality service and support, it is important to have focus and give your 100% while on the job. Here is my top 7 list of things to stay on top of to avoid getting burntout and stressed:

1) Have a balanced work and home life.
A good balance between work and personal life is important. Family is very important to me which is why it tops the list. By putting friends and family up there, your stress level will become more manageable and a happier technician translates to more productivity at work.

2) Schedule it.
You can’t be everything to and everywhere for your clients. Its important to put everything you need to do daily, weekly, monthly, yearly to an online calendar like Goggle Calendar in order to ensure it gets attended to. Schedule your work and personal life to get the balance we need in #1.

3) Get enough sleep.
Studies everwhere say that sleep recharges our brain cells. We provide more value to clients when we are fully rested, alert, and smiling.

4) Delegate and don’t micromanage.
If you have direct reports or subcontractors, make sure you project trust in their capabilities and skills. Let them learn from their mistakes, which can be very hard to do especially if you work with different subcontractors often. Just let it go so that you can focus on other things that bring value to your clients.

5) Document everything.
This is important especially for cross-training direct reports and subcontractors. You can’t be everywhere so having frequently updated documentation is critical. Update your business plan often as well to improve business processes. Lastly, documentation helps with taxes at the end of the year.

6) Service-Level Agreements (SLA).
Most business engagements with SOHO will probably not include any SLAs. Its important to have the expectations and assumptions ironed out with each client to ensure happy business relationships. Do they expect you to drop everything and come to the office when a problem arises? Do they expect a report everytime a service visit is initiated? What do they expect? Once you have this documented (per #5), your stress-level will not go through the roof the next time the General Manager calls you with computer issues.

7) Use templates.
Having templates makes your job easier. Have one for Outage Reports, Project Initiation, Change Request, Daily Backups, Monthly Invoices, Time Sheets, etc. These templates allow you to have a disciplined approach to operations and project activities, and shows professionalism.

This is my list and any additions or comments are welcome.