IT under the gun

Keith R. Thode's clients needed help, and fast. So he loaded up his car with two volunteers and a variety of equipment and hit the road, driving from his Dallas office right into a disaster zone.

Thode, chief operating officer at Aidmatrix Foundation, was among the hundreds of people who raced south to help after Hurricane Katrina. But instead of handing out food or administering first aid, Thode helped get essential relief-related IT systems up and running. "In a time of crisis, we had to be there," he says, citing Aidmatrix's mission. The nonprofit foundation develops Internet-based software to help humanitarian organizations better manage supplies.

Hurricane Katrina tested many people's ability to work under the gun. Front-line relief workers handled the most publicized challenges, but IT practitioners dealt with unusual and pressure-filled job demands.

The circumstances around Katrina might seem unique, but many tech professionals occasionally find themselves working in extreme conditions, trying to establish networks or troubleshoot applications far from the comforts of their offices. Such situations make for good stories, but they also provide important pointers on how to work more effectively in everyday situations.

Here are some IT lessons learned in extreme conditions:

Keep it simple. The U.S. Army uses commercial hardware and software when it sets up satellite connections in Afghanistan, Iraq and other remote or hostile areas. Soldiers in the field can set up satellite communications in just a few steps, says Kevin Carroll, an Army program executive officer for enterprise information systems based in Fort Belvoir, Va. They unpack and set up the equipment within 30 minutes, then need only to push a button to have the equipment search for a satellite for the actual transmissions. "We structure it to be easy to use," Carroll says. He explains that soldiers are trained in multiple disciplines, but most aren't IT professionals, and the Army can't rush experts to the scene every time a satellite link is needed.

"We wanted something everyone could use with minimal training," Carroll says. "What we need are very simple systems, not a lot of fancy bells and whistles. That differs from the commercial market, where they want you to have all these new network options and all these reports and all these fancy things that require you to have the tech guy."

Carroll says IT executives, whether military or corporate, should question whether they need such advanced technology or whether their missions could be met with simpler (and often cheaper) equipment.

Escalate suggestions to the next level. Good ideas get lost even under normal working conditions, so it's easy to imagine how they could get overlooked in a crisis. Consider, for example, that the computers the American Red Cross set up in Louisiana will be wiped clean when the work is done. Any new program installed on the fly, no matter how helpful, won't make it to the next disaster zone, says Matthew Feeney, information systems manager at the St. Paul, Minn., American Red Cross chapter and volunteer manager of the organization's Response Technical Team.

So when a volunteer in Louisiana suggested using Microsoft Windows SharePoint to prevent data loss, Feeney made sure the idea first went to the right people in headquarters, who then approved it. Sound like bureaucracy? Not quite, Feeney says. The process ensures that this good idea will be incorporated in future work.

Use personalities to your advantage. Feeney's staff in Louisiana was an odd mix of business and IT executives, students and workers of every experience level. More important, though, Feeney found that these volunteers had a mix of personalities, too.

"You have your natural born leaders. Then you have people like me: I can lead, follow or step aside. And then you had others who were competent and fantastic but didn't want to be responsible for making a decision," he says.

Feeney realized that as he was assembling teams, he couldn't "have too many chiefs in one pile and too many people waiting to be told in another." So he assigned people based on their personalities and their ability to work well together -- rather than forcing everyone to get along all the time.

Consider all personnel possibilities. After Hurricane Katrina, Thode's job was to scale and adjust Aidmatrix's Internet-based software for use by Adventist Community Services and America's Second Harvest -- the Nation's Food Bank Network . His work involved more than programming changes. He helped the agencies physically set up their systems as well as install and run Aidmatrix software.

So when Thode needed to connect Adventist's computers to the Internet, he initially considered using his backup long-distance dial-up Internet account. But a better solution came from an unexpected place: an 82-year-old volunteer from Oregon, who handed him the local Louisiana EarthLink number -- a number the volunteer had looked up before he left home.

Thode later found another unlikely source of help. While setting up an emergency relief center in Texas, he learned that the pastor in charge had been a warehouse manager before attending the seminary. Having a team member experienced in the processes and procedures of warehousing proved invaluable.

"People get overlooked based on everything from age to how they come off," Thode says. But good managers seek out expertise from all sources and then pull those people into the team.

Foster a service attitude. It's easy to forget relationships when work focuses on routers, servers and networks. But Thode can attest to the importance of building rapport among colleagues. "The relationships helped us get right to work," he says.

When he showed up at 1 a.m. on a Sunday outside a previously vacant facility taken over by America's Second Harvest, agency workers welcomed the unexpected support. Work started immediately, despite the hour, and later that day, Thode was rolling out new systems and training agency staff.

Thode says the seeds of such cooperation are sown well before a crisis. "It's really an attitude you have to ingrain in your staff. So whether you're selling widgets or you have an IT department that supports a sale, take a service attitude," he says. That approach will win points with clients, whether they're signing a contract or queuing up for emergency supplies.

Name a point person. Lt. Col. Mike Plummer commands the Army's 67th Signal Battalion and oversees teams of IT workers who support field work. After Hurricane Katrina, his battalion deployed to Camp Shelby, to support relief operations, taking with it data packages that included equipment needed for secure Internet, phone and network connections.

"I can put [data packages] in the middle of nowhere, power them and support a customer," Plummer says. In fact, just 25 hours after arriving, his troops had set up a secure videoconference system that was capable of handling meetings between Camp Shelby and President Bush.

Although the 67th Signal Battalion was deployed to support Army relief efforts, Plummer says his troops served civilian organizations as well. For example, they supplied equipment and set up civilian computers to connect and work through the Army's network.

Multiple customers can put extreme demands on staff, however, and that can slow down a job, Plummer says. "You might have [only] one person who knows how to operate that widget, and if that person gets interrupted every other minute, they can't get their job done," he says.

To make sure competing demands didn't distract workers, Plummer gave customers a place to vent -- a point person who could handle complaints and questions -- leaving other workers free to work.

Employ "after-action reviews." After his battalion's deployment to Mississippi in September, Plummer says he realized he should have brought along the Computer Emergency Response Team, which monitors for intrusions and helps protect the Army's network against them.

To ensure that he doesn't leave the team behind again, Plummer incorporated the idea in the "after-action review," sometimes called a postmortem in the corporate world.

The Army writes up such reviews following exercises and deployments, outlining what went right, what went wrong, how to sustain strong points and how to fix mistakes. "Then you incorporate that into any future training that you do," Plummer explains.

Be flexible. As Thode drove into Louisiana, he knew he might have to perform tasks outside his normal responsibilities. Sure enough, his clients called on him for jobs that had nothing to do with his software expertise. He helped one volunteer choose a computer from an electronics store. And he drove 150 miles to get cellular modem cards for America's Second Harvest.

He handled tasks large and small with equanimity. "Understand that rules and structure are there to support you in achieving the mission," he says, "but sometimes the base lines change."

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