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Tech Talk Live Blog

Documentation: It Isn’t a Four Letter Word, but It Should Be

Rich Molettiere


Several years ago in rural Nebraska, a one-person IT school district suffered a major loss when the IT director was killed in an automobile accident. With her went the heart and soul of technology in that district.  Everything was gone – admin usernames and passwords, knowledge of what was where, license info, etc. No written or electronic documentation existed. It was a black hole.  Everything was gone.  The IT director had been hit by the proverbial bus, and now the school district had to scramble to gain access to the various systems while school was in session.

Why don’t we document our technology?

Sure, time is an issue but “time” is always an issue.  There is always time to find something else to do, more engaging, more exciting. Documentation, that four-letter word, can wait until tomorrow.

In the Omaha Public School District, we began (and continue to implement) an initiative to document our systems across our 80+ sites to provide redundant documentation, common formats, and secure access to the information.

Our first step was to establish a working committee to investigate what was needed and how to accomplish it.  The group has met a number of times and slowly is building out our documentation.  As consensus is achieved on each additional piece of documentation, it is rolled out to the appropriate staff for implementation.

Among the items agreed upon to date . . .

Common format issue – Almost immediately we had to address the existence of some excellent documentation saved in varying, non-standard formats. Having had to provide emergency support to a “buddy” school on the absence of its tech, I know firsthand how having a consistent documentation format makes life easy.  Rather than agree on a common format, the committee elected to maintain several versions of the same info.  It was not what I wanted, but it was a step in the right direction.

“Core Documentation” – the minimal documentation that all sites must maintain that we have identified.

  • Inventory – Where is everything . . . hardware, software, license info, etc.?
  • Backup procedure – What is the written procedure followed to backup information?
  • Data map – Our legal staff requested that each site maintain a “Data Map” document to identify the network locations at which student and staff files could be saved for any future HR issue.
  • Disaster Recovery plan – Knowing that Omaha has been hit by a tornado in the past that destroyed a middle school, how would we recover in the event of another disaster?
  • Organizational chart & contact information – Especially useful for new staff, who is what and where in the district.
  • IP/DHCP/DNS – Details the assignment of IP subnets across the district and the assignment of devices to specific subnets.
  • License information – You need to know what software and hardware has been purchased.
  • Passwords – Need I say anymore?
  • Technology Punch list – Tasks to complete, sorted by time of year, for example, what tasks must be completed at the end of the school year, the beginning, monthly, etc. To the seasoned tech it may be second nature, but it is an important guide for the rookie.
  • Printing – All things printing; how are printers assigned (GPO, script, etc.), info on any print management software that might be used, etc.
  • Common naming standard for users & equipment – How do we consistently “name” equipment for further management? As an example, our standard computer name is in the form of C332-WD-57B-606.  This describes a “C”omputer, “332” is the building number, “W”indows “D”esktop, in room “57B” with the last three digits “606” of the inventory tag.
  • Building map – if you can’t find it, you can’t fix it.
  • Professional Equipment and Materials – A list of any materials assigned to the tech, for example, laptop, reference books, etc., that should also be there when the tech changes positions.
  • User Provisioning – The specific procedure to be followed when creating staff or student user accounts. What AD groups are assigned, file system assignments, how are email accounts modified, etc.?  Although all student accounts are created by the district, there are some modifications based on installed systems at sites that need to be followed.
  • Servers – Where are the servers, what hardware is being used (brand, model, system specs) what runs on each server, etc.? This is especially critical to have documented in case a disaster occurs. Knowing what you had makes it easier to replace it quickly, especially when you need to prove damage to the insurance company.
  • Systems – A catchall for applications that run in the building on the servers or local workstations, many requiring user credentials, for example, the ID card print station, the building marque sign, security camera system, etc.
  • Roles & Responsibilities – Clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities between the district system engineers and the local site technician, for example, district SEs manage network switches, not the local tech – same for wireless access points; building techs manage the printers, the local backup system, etc.

A Knowledge Base is maintained within our email system.  We have all heard it before, if you have to tell someone more than once, document it and share the documentation so that others can benefit.

To avoid the “proverbial bus,” make an effort to document your systems not by being overwhelmed with the forest but by looking at an individual tree.  Commit to reserving 15 minutes a day, every day, to start the process. You will be amazed how much you can get done.

Rich Molettiere is the Interim Lead for User Support at the Omaha Public Schools, a position that involves providing local as well as district-level technical support.  He had been active in school technology since the Apple II both as a teacher and now a full-time tech.  He can be reached at rich.molettiere@ops.org or on Twitter at @rich_molettiere.

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