Scary Tech: Voodoo IT support

Some of what we do is incredibly challenging. Sometimes it's tedious. Usually it's in between. But it isn't magic.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Every year, the editors at ZDNet can't help but get in the Halloween spirit and ask us to write up our scariest bits of tech. Viruses, botnets, Larry Ellison...you get the idea. This year, though, now that I've moved on from life in the trenches as a school district technology director to the rarified air enjoyed only by consultants-upon-high, it's time to talk about voodoo tech support.

If you've ever provided tech support in a public school setting, you know what I'm talking about. It's the belief that everything we do is voodoo, to be practiced only by witch doctors, possessed of such supernatural skill that mere teachers, administrators, and staff could not dare to dream of engaging in such feats of wisdom and magic.

And if you've ever provided tech support in a public school (or in most places outside the high tech industry, for that matter), you also know that most of it is neither voodoo nor rocket science. It's common sense with a few tricks of the trade thrown in for good measure. Sure, sometimes things get hairy and complicated. Networking issues, firewall troubleshooting, database maintenance, server migrations, and the like do take specialized skills and there is nothing like a really savvy school tech to make a district thank the IT gods that he/she isn't working in private industry for twice the salary.

But I know, you know, and you know that I know that everyday troubleshooting, fixes, maintenance, and brushfires are just that: brushfires. It doesn't take a trained, experienced fireman with a ladder truck, tanker, and aerial drops of fire suppressant to put out a brushfire. Small brushfires will usually yield to a garden hose before they get out of hand. Nor does the average help desk call require virgin sacrifices or any eye of newt to solve. Which is good, because the science department is usually fresh out of newt eyes and parents start to complain when the IT guys start asking girls about their sexual activity.

Strangely, though, far too many IT people tend to perpetuate the voodoo mythology surrounding what they do instead of empowering school staff to solve more of their problems themselves. Would a primitive tribe facing serious budget cuts lay off its witch doctor? Of course not! Think of the curses he could invoke! And as long as what we do in terms of computer tech is voodoo, then our jobs are safe, right?

In some cases, yes, whether or not it's right. But how much cooler would the job of the average school IT person be if he or she could spend less time putting out brushfires and more time empowering staff and innovating in terms of curriculum? The best and most successful schools have teachers, principals, IT staff, and students working together to make sure that all of the tech actually does what it's supposed to do. This leaves the IT staff free to deal with the forest fires, as well as to think about the best way to integrate all of that tech into the classroom, which is really a far better use of their time and expertise than rebooting computers and troubleshooting printing problems.

A lot of progressive, secure, sharp school IT people have already left the voodoo behind to get about the business of transforming education. It's time the others got on board. And as for the teachers and staff reading this post, it's time you demanded empowerment, access, and transparency from IT.

Happy Halloween!

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