ISPs and vacation..yes you can get away

Let’s face it, if you are an owner, sysadmin, network admin, or whatever in a small to medium Internet Service Provider vacations can be a troublesome thing to accomplish. Getting away for a conference or training can be a huge deal as well. In this post, I want to help you layout some steps to help you have some rest and relaxation. Let’s start with why this vacation stuff can be a mystical thing. Then we will go into some strategies to implement so you can getaway.

 

The Why
Many small service providers, especially WISPs, are very entrepreneurial in nature. This means they are very driven, type-a personality folks. They pay attention to detail, and every detail counts. You have basically two categories for these folks. The first I like to call the boss. This is the person who has built the business and wants to make sure the well-oiled machine is running at 100% all the time. He or she is calling the office if they have not heard from anyone in a certain amount of time. They start getting nervous and want to make sure the place hasn’t caught fire and that’s why they are getting no calls.

The second person is the geek. The geek tends to treat their network like a pet. They care for the network it like it’s a living organism. They know all the ins and outs of every aspect of the network. They are so in-tune with the network they can walk into the server room and notice a slight difference in noise indicating a slowing fan or a server with ten disks spinning instead of eleven.

So, what are you to do if you want to take some time off? You need a plan. I see too many people at conferences in the hallways with laptops balanced on their knees trying to solve an issue. Sometimes this is a critical issue that warrants an emergency response. Sometimes its something that can wait until the evening or wait a few days. The thing is I see these folks over and over in the hallways at conferences. They are always outside on their phone or laptop. They are not getting the benefit of being there because they are still tied to the office like they never left

The 11 step program

Step one – Admit you need help
Realize you need to getaway. This not only benefits you physically and mentally but benefits the company as a whole. It allows other employees the chance to step up and take leadership roles and exercise their problem-solving skills.

Due to various personality traits, it is sometimes hard to let go of the reigns. If you follow my steps you will actually be more in control because you will have systems and tools telling you what is going on with the network.

Step two – Have procedures
You need to have clear escalation procedures for issues that come up. Procedures for installs, server reboots, tower reboots, and anything that may happen need to be documented. I always imagine taking someone who has never seen any I.T. equipment and handing them a piece of paper on what to do in such and such a /scenario. This is where documentation comes into play as well. However, procedures are the steps to take. They are directions that anyone should be able to follow. If you have ever watched a movie where the control tower is trying to talk someone in a plane trying to land you know what I mean. They almost always have a shot of the control tower person breaking out this big book and starting to walk through procedures. You should have the same thing.

If you have an access point failure your procedure should involve how to identify which access point has failed, how to do basic troubleshooting and steps to try and remedy the situation. After these steps have done there should be an escalation procedure of what to do next.

If an access point has to be replaced your procedure should outline what model to grab from spare inventory, where the backup file is stored, how to restore the backup file, how to test the new unit. the more you have in procedures, the less time technicians should spend on the phone with you. They can walk through these procedures, send you a quick text or call if something needs clarification, and proceed with the procedure.  Have others review your procedures. This can ensure you are clear and things make sense to someone who might be reading them for the first time.

Step three – Scheduling
If you are the type of person who has to be involved with every customer install for whatever reason (we will talk about reasons shortly) then do not schedule installs for the time you are away. If you must schedule installs try and schedule them for times you know you will be available or can make an easy time to be available.

Step four – Remote access
Setup remote access. IPsec VPNs or easy to setup. I did an article on having an mAP lite to carry around with you. https://blog.j2sw.com/equipment-2/mikrotik/mikrotik-map-for-the-wisp-installer/. Go to your local Mcdonalds and hop on their wifi and see if you can get to everything you need to before you fly halfway around the world.

Step 5 – Documentation
Make sure documentation is up-to-date before you leave. If it is not, and you can’t, instead of scheduling installs while you are gone, make your crew(s) update all documentation. Have them take pictures of tower sites, record model numbers, serial numbers, etc. If you are a company that already has good documentation then great. You are already one step closer to that vacation.

Documentation goes hand in hand with step two above. Having a documented network is different because it is more inclusive. Things like directions to a site, gate codes, I recommend having a physical file on every broadcast location technicians will need access to. This could be a PDF they print out or in a file cabinet somewhere. Don’t always count on your techs being able to access online systems.

Modern billing systems keep track of this information as well but having a sheet on file outside of this can save time. The tech can just print it out and start following along. Maybe it’s your brother or neighbor who needs the information. Or the landowner the tower is on. Updating documentation and audits are perfect things for employees to do when you are away.  

Step 6 – Prioritize what needs to be escalated to you
Before you leave set expectations for your availability. Your staff should be able to tell customers you will be unavailable until the evenings or just plain unavailable. You should also prioritize what is an emergency and what can wait.

Should you be disturbed because of a single customer is offline?
Can it wait?

Step 7 – Have someone minding the store
If you are a one-person shop or small company consider an answering service for the time you are away. Have someone that can tell your customers something. You will find most customers are willing to accept an answer they will have to wait as long as they are told that. Sure, you will have customers who are unruly no matter what you tell them

Step 8 – Invest in automation
There are a plethora of monitoring and ticketing solutions out there. These are invaluable for cutting down on troubleshooting and just plain letting you know what’s going on when you are 3,000 miles away. Systems such as Zabbix, LibreNMS, or even the dude are all free tools to alert you to trouble. Billing software is another way you can automate. For wisps, I recommend this article https://blog.j2sw.com/xisp/xisp-billing-platforms/

Step 9 – Set aside time each morning or evening to check-in
if you must check-in, set a schedule. Something like every morning at 9-10AM you are going to be sitting by the pool, under an umbrella, with your laptop and will be available to talk about any issues. During this time you can

Step 10 – Don’t’ answer all e-mails and tickets
It is easy to get “on a roll” when you have your laptop or phone in front of you. It’s easy to lose a couple of hours sorting and replying to e-mails. Don’t get caught by this trap. Go through your inbox and only deal with the e-mails that you deem a high priority. If it is a priority item deal with it right then. If it can wait, mark it and deal with it later. Some folks with use message flags, others will move the message to a special folder to look at later. Do not use your inbox as a to-do list. At the very least, go through your inbox and deal with only the items you set in step 6. Even if you have extra time, don’t deal with lower than necessary items.

Having a clean inbox can make reading and respond to e-mail on a mobile device easier as well. Studies show you are more apt to delete unimportant emails in an inbox with fewer items than more. Your mind wants to keep it clean.

Step 11 – Don’t want until the last minute
A week before you are to leave put a freeze on any service impacting upgrades on your network. Don’t fall into the mindset where you have to do all the things you have been meaning to do before you leave. If it is not a security upgrade then it can wait until you get back. I have seen too many operators spend days leading up to when the leave updating software and doing all the things they have been wanting to do for a while.  The problem with this is it usually takes 2-3 days for customers to start calling in with non-outage complaints.  If the upgrade slows down customer speeds it may take a few days to start getting the calls. This can be problematic if you are already traveling.  

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