Know your network

Your tech network is an essential tool for your business, and needs to be protected. PAUL WALLBANK

Paul Wallbank Tech Talk blog

By Paul Wallbank

Every business owner should note the mess San Francisco city council finds itself in after a dispute with a system administrator. This is a valuable lesson for businesses big and small.

It’s alleged Terry Childs personally controlled a city network with 20,000 users. While the hysterical headlines claimed “computer tech holds city to ransom” it turns out he simply wouldn’t turn over the passwords to allow others to make changes to the network.

While I’m not going to make assumptions about Childs and his motives, as there seems to be a lot more to this story than first meets the eye, there are some measures all businesses should take to avoid this happening.

The most basic thing is to document everything. Every asset on your computer network needs to be documented; that information should include administrator passwords, specifications, configurations, serial numbers, purchase details and warranties.

While storing these details electronically is useful you should also print out a hard copy and store this under lock and key with all the software and paperwork that came with each device. It’s a good idea to keep these details off site in case of a fire or flood in the office.

The next point is to manage your IT staff or contractors properly. It’s not unknown for unscrupulous support companies and contractors to deliberately keep critical information from their employers as a tactic to ensure payment, or make them harder to get rid of. If you suspect your IT partners are doing this then you need to make sure you have a written copy of the network information and it is up-to-date.

The motives for in-house support staff withholding information is usually different as one of the trademarks of a good IT administrator is an attention to detail. Sometimes that attention can become a little obsessive.

Having an “uber tech” system administrator is, superficially, a great thing to have in your business. They’ll work 24/7, research everything thoroughly and care passionately about the quality of their work.

The bad news is sometimes they come to see their part of your business as bigger than everything else. Instead of the network being a tool to help your business, they see it as being the business – and that’s when disputes with other staff and managers begin. If you see hostility from your tech people to the rest of your staff then you need to explain to them that while you value their skills and commitment they are part of a team.

Thankfully most techs don’t become obsessive, but the nature of the work attracts people who are prepared to work long hours. The eventual burn out has results usually similar to what San Francisco council’s managers are currently dealing with.

Even if your administrator doesn’t burn out, there is still a serious business risk of the admin being the only keeper of important information. If they are hit by a bus or simply uncontactable when a crisis hits, then you have a problem. This is why it’s important to share this information.

So make sure your computer network details are written down somewhere and accessible when needed. It can save a lot of unnecessary heartache.


Paul Wallbank is Australia’s most heard computer commentator with his regular computer advice spots on ABC Radio. He’s written five computer books and just finished the latest Australian adaptation of Internet for Dummies. Paul founded and built up a national IT support company, PC Rescue and has a free help website at IT Queries. Today he spends most of his time consulting and advising community and business groups on getting the most from their technology.

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