Ticket to Ride

Much like a Network Management System, a key component of any IT infrastructure includes a support ticketing system. There are hundreds of applications available to meet this need, all with varying features, as well as costs.

For the past ten years, we have been using a product called Web Help Desk. At the time it was one of our better options, offering most of the features we needed at an attractive price. However, over the years the application has dated itself, and it still looks and functions just like it did ten years ago. It had gotten to the point that for the past few years we only used it when we needed to track a ticket for billing purposes. Everything else was handled solely via direct email and phone communications.

As a two-man support team we had managed to make this model work, but we lacked any data to quantify the scope and breadth of the work we do on a daily basis. I knew we needed to make a change and begin tracking all of our support requests through a more modern ticketing system. In early December we fired up a trial of a product called Freshdesk. I was familiar with the Freshworks family of applications from a few years back when I dabbled with their accounting platform, Freshbooks. I knew they had a solid reputation in the industry and their interfaces were always clean and simple. Unfortunately, our trial expired over the holiday break before we had a chance to really dig in under the hood. Luckily a quick call got our trial extended by a few days so we could see if Freshdesk would be a good fit. Within 24 hours I had issued a PO and we were rocking and rolling with Freshdesk.

Since we were moving from an email-based reporting system, the ability to have forwarded emails converted to tickets was crucial. Freshdesk handles this easily, and even finds the original sender of the message to mark as the requestor. Additionally, Freshdesk allowed us to create Companies for each of our Districts, and anytime it sees a new user from a specific @schooldomain.org address, it automatically associates them with that Company. On top of that, users can easily login with their Google account to create tickets and view the status of any existing tickets. This is very slick, and makes user provisioning a breeze!

So far things are progressing nicely. I’ve already been shocked at the sheer volume of requests that we field every day. It’s taken a little bit to get acclimated to the process of logging phone calls, walk-ins, etc., in addition to traditional email requests. Luckily the process is quick and easy, and I’m confident that the data we are gathering will be invaluable as we move forward.

Be Nice…Until It’s Time to Not Be Nice

You may remember earlier this Fall when our Bluehost VPS was having issues. It ended up being a hardware issue that took more than two weeks for them to flush out. Fast forward to this past week. Our server started acting up with the exact same symptoms.

I quickly called their tech support and pleaded my case to have them check the memory (the problem last time). Instead, I was escalated to Tier 2 support, and was told to give them 24-72 hours to “look into it”. Meanwhile, I have to keep the masses at bay and hope they find the problem quickly.

I waited 24 hours and thought I would call in to see if they had found anything. They knew nothing and couldn’t tell if anything had been done. I was told again to wait the 24-72 hours.  I was not happy, but kept quiet and took my medicine.

Finally, after lunch on Friday, as the magical 72nd hour was expiring, I picked up the phone and called in. By this point it had been three days, I had heard absolutely nothing from Bluehost, and both my customers and I had lost our patience. I felt advanced sorrow for the poor unsuspecting agent that would draw the unlucky number of me in their call queue. Steadfast, I maintained my professionalism. He first asked how long it had been, to which I happily answered the requisite 72 hours. I waited on hold for another fifteen minutes while he took his best crack at the case.

Defeated, he came back online and told me that he had escalated my case to Tier 3 support. “Great,” I replied. “How soon can I expect to hear something?” He replied, “You should hear something within 24 hours.” It was at that exact moment he heard me inhale deeply as I had expended every last bit of keep quiet I had left in my soul. I explained that I had already waited 72 hours, and was not going to wait for another 24 while they do nothing. Our server had already been unusable for three days, and this could not be drug out for two weeks like it was in August.

I demanded to speak with a superior. The agent put me on hold for a good five minutes, presumably to take some of the fight out of me. Supervisor, Brett, answers the phone, to whom I quickly provide the elevator summary of the situation. I asked Brett if he’s ever seen the movie Roadhouse, and in particular, the scene where Dalton tells his bouncers to “Be nice…until it’s time to not be nice.” I told Brett that I was past the phase of being nice, and it’s time to get some answers. Brett chuckled briefly and assured me he would get someone to look at it right away. I told him if they didn’t have this fixed by Monday that I would be leaving Bluehost and would never return.

Apparently my convo with Brett was not at a loss. Within thirty minutes Tier 3 support looked into the issue and escalated it to their Systems Operations team, who eventually escalated it to a Sr. Systems Architect. By Saturday night our server was humming along under normal operation again.

As a person who has been on the receiving end of this situation, I always hate having to strongly assert my point, and yes, interject a curse here and there to drive things home. As Dalton would say, “Nobody ever wins a fight,” but sometimes you’ve got to light a fire under the posterior of the right people to get things moving again.

Keep an Eye on Things

PRTG Dashboard

Network management systems (NMS) are a key component of any technology infrastructure. They provide real-time monitoring and reporting of a variety of hardware and software components on your network. Over the years I’ve had experience with a number of software packages – Nagios, What’s Up, Zabbix, Zenoss, SolarWinds, and most recently, PRTG.

Some forward-thinking colleagues in other ESUs have been singing the praises of PRTG for a few years, but I wasn’t so quick to jump on the bandwagon. A little over a year ago I had the chance to get in on a group buy with them at a great price, but I still wasn’t sold. I was convinced that I could get what I needed from a free or community supported tool. After floundering in trial implementations with a couple other tools, I finally gave in and bought PRTG.

We’ve only been running PRTG in production for a couple weeks, but I am wholeheartedly convinced that it is worth every penny. In that short time, we have already identified a failed power supply, a degraded RAID array, a bad ROM battery, and other performance tweaks on a number of servers. We also have the most accurate visibility into our bandwidth utilization that we have ever had, which helps greatly when purchasing firewalls, bidding circuits, and buying internet capacity.

One of the things I love most about PRTG is the Maps functionality. It lets you build your own custom dashboards that can show you how things are performing on your network. The image above is a screenshot of the dashboard I have running on a TV in my office all day long. At a glance, I can keep tabs on anything happening in our area. Having this information is invaluable in our line of work.

Leaders are Readers

Harry Truman is quoted as saying, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Not that many years ago if someone had asked me what was the last book I read, I would struggle to tell them. Over the past couple years I have been reading regularly, and it’s been a good habit for me to resume.

Right now I am reading two books concurrently, both as part of book study groups. The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros is the book I am reading with ESU 11 librarians, and Leadership Redefined by Dave Weber is the other book we are reading as an ESU-wide book study. Both book studies are covering one chapter per week, and we post our thoughts and reflections in a Google Community. The schedule has been easy enough to keep, and it’s nice to hear other people’s thoughts as we progress through the chapters.

Most of my reading falls squarely under the non-fiction, professional development heading. I also listen to quite a few audiobooks as part of my daily commute (one hour each way). One of the more recent audiobooks I listened to was What EveryBODY is Saying authored by former FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro. I’ve always been pretty observant and receptive to nonverbal communication, but this book was a real eye-opener.

I do occasionally venture out of the self-help section and enjoy reading for pleasure. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I finished reading Winging It! which is a stunning compilation of short stories outlining the aviation career of Jack Jefford. Jack is a distant relative in my family, so reading about his trials and tribulations as an Alaskan aviator made for a very enjoyable read.

Not surprisingly, I am also an avid reader and follower of various blogs. This is a great way to stay current with industry trends and news happenings. The byte sized reading is like a modern-day version of reading the daily newspaper. Feedly is my app of choice for reading various blogs through their RSS feed.

Reading is inarguably one of the best ways to grow professionally, learn, and it’s also a great mechanism to relax. I spend a lot of hours each day glued to a screen, so cracking open a paperback is a welcome release for the eyes and mind.

Survey Says!

I’ve always been a big fan of game shows. I grew up watching the Price is Right, Press Your Luck, and a number of others. This fall I had the opportunity to lead a team building activity for our all staff opening day. I decided I wanted to channel my inner Richard Dawson and host a Family Feud style game show for our staff.

I searched the ends of the internet to find a customizable Family Feud game. There are a number of free PowerPoint templates available, but by far the best one I found was from a site called Rusnak Creative. This site has a slew of PowerPoint templates for a variety of game shows, and they are all top notch. Many of these are fully editable, and come complete with instructions, sound effects, the whole shebang!

I knew that I wanted my Family Feud to be education related, so I found this site that had a full listing of questions from four different seasons of the show. I parsed through them looking for any that had keywords such as teacher, student, class, or school. I was able to build a great activity that got everyone up on their feet, thinking, laughing, and enjoying our time together.

I’ve been able to get a lot of mileage out of this game show concept. I’ve already repeated my Family Feud two more times since then, and it’s always a hit! Plus, it’s really fun to be a game show host for half an hour.