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?

altWell, 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!

2 thoughts on “School IT folk – the Swiss Army knives of the industry…

  1. Having worked as a technician in high school education for some 3-4 years, and recently taken up a new position as a Network manager within a Primary school, I find some of these things more and more evident as time goes on.

    I find no matter how much experience, qualifications I (do not!)have, there is always something that makes no logical sense, that in a normal business environment you would just “Phone up a specialist” to help fix.

    Just a few days ago a recruitment agency I left my details with about 6 months ago rang me up, and offered me a position elsewhere (which I turned down, as I have only been in my current position for 6 weeks!). My average salary were I to move to the private sector would be between £25k-£32k, whereas in education I am lucky if that passes £25k, most likely the figure floats between £13k and £18k for a technician, and £18-23k for a manager.

    Even worse for those who work in education, is that we are expected to do the work of multiple others, and are often unqualified to do much of it. Due to budget restrictions there is little to no funding to acquire that training in most places either.

    The biggest problem I forsee in businesses investing in the ‘future of education’, is that there is no profit in it for them in any timeframe that most of them care to look at. 10-20 years in the future is too far ahead for them to be considering profit margins, all they can see is the aforementioned Black Hole that is education IT.

    A profit making company is never going to undertake a project unless it see’s money to be made; and that is the failing of the BSF projects, that in the long run, these companies are looking at how much they can make for as little input as possible. At current, educations “Cupboard Technicians” are working to the opposite mindframe: “how much can we get for as little money as possible?”

  2. And if the school pays too little, they get real bozos.

    I remember visiting a school back in the days of when AppleTalk networking was all the rage. The Head of Admin was showing me their AppleTalk network diagram. I’d call it a WAN, but that would make it sound more professional than the intra-building birds nest that it was.

    “Which peanut designed this?”, I asked.
    ‘Justin, our IT guy. He comes cheap.’
    “Well cheapness would explain the state of your AppleTalk network then.”.

    You didn’t touch on the subject of school politics either. Which can be an interesting minefield to navigate.

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