School IT folk – the Swiss Army knives of the industry…

In a post earlier this month I talked about how I thought that IT staff in schools were no longer just men (and women) in cupboards, and that the role had become much more important in recent years. I had some really fantastic feedback, one particular comment from Terry McDonald, a network manager, really caught my eye; he said:

“I find more and more that school network managers, such as myself, are a breed of highly skilled, multi-disciplined professionals that are expected to work miracles on a regular basis with little in the way of resources. Where else but in a school can you work with – Active Directory, Virtualisation, SAN’s, SQL, HTML, Programming, Wi-Fi, etc, etc, etc. In industry you’d normally specialise in just one of these areas.”

I think Terry raises a really valid point – schools have large networks and small numbers of people to manage them. The demand placed on technical staff is high and calls for so many skills that it really is not a job for the faint hearted. Aside from the base technical skills required there are also the other idiosyncrasies to consider, such as the timings of the school day, the exceptionally broad ability range of users, “that” pupil who does everything in their power to mess up your network, the list goes on…  It is this rich mix of skills and abilities that, in my opinion, make the technical staff in schools such a valuable asset – I’m not aware of anywhere in industry (and feel free to correct me if I am wrong) where there is a more diverse role.

Target Audience

I am willing to bet that most people who work in IT have seen that immortal clip from the IT Crowd where Roy answers the phone and, without missing a beat, immediately fires off the line “have you turned it off and on again?”; a question I found myself asking nearly every single day.  Of course in the same clip, Moss is the polar opposite and goes straight in at the deep end with jargon before being hung up on!  I found that being able to adjust how I spoke to different people based on their ability was crucial in being able to help them; it’s not something that came easily, either. Looking back I can’t help but feel that my first IT role was soured by my own inability to communicate properly – something I’ve really tried hard to fix ever since.

So being the jack-of-all-trades in systems administration, network management and desktop support, being a good communicator, and being able to work under pressure from people largely indifferent to your plight is what begins to make up a school network manager or IT technician – all this and often get paid less than your contemporaries in the private sector?  It’s a tall order in my opinion.

So why do so many people do it?

Well, I loved it – it is a role where you can make a real difference to hundreds of people every day.  Yes, most days you answer the same questions so frequently that getting the answer tattooed to your forehead might be quicker than explaining, but that only accounts for half the job – each day was different; presented its own problems and challenges.  IT in education is such a rapidly expanding part of the IT industry in general and even in the relatively short time I was working I saw so many changes to the way technology was implemented that if you took a look at schools in 2005, and again in 2008 you’d see totally different attitudes to IT.

We really are the Swiss Army knives of our profession, working in an incredibly diverse, fast-paced, role that will never get boring!