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Vacation interruptus: Don't let a tech crisis ruin a getaway

Planning on taking a vacation this summer? If you're a tech manager, you may find yourself with unwanted baggage -- guilt, anxiety over how things are going in your absence or even concern about the status of your job.

working on vacation

That's because these days the need for time off takes a back seat to job survival and "the need to be needed," says Judy Arteche-Carr, managing director with Arteche Global Group, a management consulting company.

That situation can be particularly acute in high tech. "Businesses' perception of IT is high-availability, and that extends to managers," she explains.

IT staffers aren't the only ones feeling the vacation pinch, according to a poll conducted by CareerBuilder at the end of May. Of the 5,600 full-time U.S. workers polled, 24% reported they have had to work while their families went on vacation without them, and 16% said they gave up vacation days in the previous year because they didn't have time to use them.

Of the respondents who said they do plan on vacationing this summer, 30% reported they will contact work while on vacation, up from 25% last year, and 30% said they plan to take office work with them.

Statistics like those are discouraging to Arteche-Carr and other experts who watch the IT industry. It's true that IT systems have become essential to business operations, but the successful functioning of the IT department shouldn't rest on any one person's shoulders -- especially if that person is vacationing, ill or otherwise unavailable.

It's a bad sign if the organization won't be able to survive without the boss for a week, says Arteche-Carr, pointing out that "relying on one person increases risk." (For more, see Should Vacations for Tech Managers Be Mandatory?)

Aside from the health of the company's IT function, there is the health of the IT staff to consider as well. "For employees who don't take vacation, burnout can be high. Even an efficient employee will lose focus," she says.

All told, vacations serve as mini tests to prove if a department can function when key players are away. That's the theory, anyway. In reality, IT departments sometimes flunk that test in a big way.

The results can either be comical or turn out to be a serious wake-up call to organizations that need a better Plan B for when the IT manager is out on holiday. To prime your mental pump before your own vacation, or to help you do a better job prepping for the next time you take time off, read this compilation of anecdotes about good vacations gone bad and the lessons tech managers learned from them.

Remember to show your backups the basics

Because Matthew Laping is the sole member of the IT department at Alumni Research, a small Holiday, Fla., company that publishes alumni directories, the company's tech-savvy CEO and a data specialist who is also a power user usually fill in as needed for Laping when he is away. Laping typically hands them the keys to the server room and a list of admin passwords before he leaves town.

That was the case a few years ago when Laping took his young daughters on vacation to Disney World in Orlando, about a two-hour drive from his Tampa-area office.

Shortly after arriving at Disney, Laping got a call from the CEO and the power user saying one of the servers that provides Web services to Alumni Research's 300 clients was down.

After connecting to the server from his notebook at a local Panera sandwich shop (the chain is well-known among business travelers for its free Wi-Fi), Laping determined that the server's network interface card (NIC) had to be powered down.

That meant the server had to be rebooted, which required nothing more than pressing a button. The only problem was that nobody back in the office could find the right button.

The CEO and the power user were mortified that they couldn't figure out which button to push, says Laping, but this particular machine was a Dell rack server with a flat design rather than the tower configuration with which the men were more familiar.

The two kept pushing a button that was for adjusting the display, not turning the unit on and off. When nothing happened, they panicked.

In the end, everyone agreed that the easiest solution would be for Laping to physically fix things himself. "I had to drive two hours back to push a power button," says Laping, recalling that he turned right around and got back on the road once the NIC was up and running again.

Lesson learned: Even with smart devices, wireless services and VPN technology, not every problem can be dealt with remotely; make sure your backups know the basics -- like how to power down servers.

Don't forget to delegate your decision-making authority

On the night before Thanksgiving last year, T.J. Whelan was minutes away from arriving at his in-laws' house with his wife and kids, having driven two hours from Washington, D.C., to Wilmington, Del.

As he pulled into the driveway around 9 p.m., his phone started buzzing with texts from the network manager at the Washington law firm where Whelan is MIS manager. The messages said there was no connectivity to the Microsoft Exchange cluster.

That meant that attorneys in the firm's two U.S. offices and two overseas offices were completely cut off from email. "As I scrolled through the alerts, I saw one message stand out: 'We are f#!*d,'" remembers Whelan.

Whelan called the network manager -- who was also supposed to be on the road heading to his own holiday destination but had never gotten out the door -- and learned there was a major failure in the SAN containing the Exchange information stores.

The network manager contacted Dell support, which confirmed that the disks had failed but also reported that it might be a while before replacement parts could be located, because they were older models. (The law firm had been planning to replace them in the coming months.)

As MIS manager, Whelan was the only one able to oversee the process of getting replacement disks from Dell, since he alone had all the purchase and warranty information. He spent most of Thanksgiving morning on the phone with Dell, ate a quick holiday meal and packed his family back in the car to return early to Washington.

Whelan headed to the office, where he and the network manager decided to begin rebuilding the Exchange environment on a spare server rather than waiting for Dell to locate parts. By noon on Black Friday, Exchange was back up.

"The irony is that most of the [employees] in the U.S. never knew that there was anything wrong due to the holiday," Whelan says.

Whelan's wife is making sure that such an event doesn't ruin the family's trip to Europe this summer. "She has forbidden that my work contact us while we are on vacation," says Whelan. "We'll see how that goes."

Lessons learned: Always make vendor contact information and warranty information easily accessible to your backup. Also, be mindful that waiting too long to refresh equipment can lead to vacation interruptus.

Designate a No. 2 and disseminate that info widely

J. Alan Gray has racked up quite a bit of vacation time in the 39 years he's worked at CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield in Washington, D.C. -- and he's learned a lesson or two along the way.

Gray, who is currently a lead systems architect, remembers years ago when a database glitch kept him away from the surf during a Virginia Beach vacation.

After encountering a problem with the database that played a critical role in the insurance company's daily reporting, someone in operations left a message for Gray -- at his home number, since it was a Saturday.

On Sunday, Gray was contacted on vacation via pager -- having never received the message at his home -- and that one-day delay had significantly compounded the problem. By dialing in via modem from his laptop in the hotel room, Gray was able to fix the glitch after having a conversation with the database vendor. But then he had to process all of the previous day's data as well as the current day's data, which took time.

Moreover, Gray's job wasn't made any easier by the telephone technology of the day. "I hadn't asked for long-distance service in my hotel room, since dialing in to work was an 877 number, but the hotel didn't recognize that as toll-free and cut off phone service to my room a few times," he remembers.

Have your say

Have you ever been called back to the office from vacation? Share your tales of woe.

He was forced to march down to the main desk and ask them to turn the service back on so he could finish what he was doing. "It was not a lot of fun," he recalls.

Had the operations department followed the proper procedure and initially called Gray's designated backup, rather than trying to reach him directly, the problem wouldn't have escalated overnight. "Someone else could have easily taken care of it," says Gray, although he readily acknowledges the fault could have been his own: He doesn't remember if he had told operations that he was going out of town.

Lesson learned: Before packing your bags, appoint a second-in-command (and probably a third) and make sure everyone in your organization knows who those people are and how to reach them.

Mandatory vacations are considered a best practice in IT security, says Randy Grein, a senior network engineer with a municipal government agency in Seattle, who used to perform independent IT security audits for businesses when he worked as a consultant.

Make no mistake, Grein says, the practice is not so employees will stay fresh and happy in their jobs, it's to protect the companies they work for from fraud and other types of misbehavior -- or simply from over-relying on one individual. "The belief is if people are not taking their vacations, they're either covering something up or they literally can't be replaced, which is a huge exposure for an organization," he explains.

IT employees with duties that involve data security, compliance, access control and related procedures can raise the suspicions of auditors if they consistently don't take time off, Grein elaborates. As an example, he relates the story of a worker who routinely altered computer logs to help cover the tracks of an executive involved in activities prohibited by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

By enforcing mandatory vacations, Grein says, companies should be better able to detect such activity or discourage it from happening in the first place.

Garretson is a frequent Computerworld contributor in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at caragarretson@gmail.com.


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