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Taking your show on the road

“Combat is a highly fluid situation…” –Author Unknown

I say this all the time half-jokingly but there’s an element of truth to it that’s applicable to people doing I.T. service work on the road. Going into it with this expectation gives you a leg up. Things are going to change, and you are going to come across all sorts of people and situations that you never would have expected when you walked out of the door.

10BASE-T Cable. Picture taken by Duncan Lock a...

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If you have ever worked as a service technician of any sort, you can attest to the fact that one of the problems you run into all the time is the unknown. You don’t have an IP address that you need, someone forgot to tell you that the door is locked and the only person with a key is three states away, or worst of all you need a patch cable. The bad thing about the patch cable dilemma is that when you run into it, the nearest Radio Shack is an hour away and has them on sale for $36.00, and don’t forget the product protection plan for an extra $1.73.

Good field service technicians are under-rated, and not so good ones are often given a pass, because hey who would have known that a pack of rabid badgers ate all of the patch cables in the closet. The key to being a good one is twofold

  • Preparing for the unknown,
  • Adapting to changing situations.

Okay, so how the hell do I do that?

Preparing for the unknown is really pretty straight forward. Bring everything, within reason. The part that gets tricky is adapting to changing situations. To be blunt, not everyone can do this, and slowly but surely I’m starting to believe that it’s a skill that you have or you don’t.

Preparing for the unknown

Essentially, be ready for whatever you may need to do. I am methodical when I install equipment, which entails making sure things are tidy, wires are tied, components are labeled, everything is secured, and the work I have done is documented.

You can apply this logic to lots of tasks, and they don’t even need to be technical. I’m going to go with an example that I’m familiar with to work through it, but the important part is having a solid grasp on what you’re trying to accomplish. Experience helps, but it’s not as important as simply being able to think through your task step by step in your head. If you can get your hands on the equipment you’re working with, play with it. If not, Google it. There’s a manual for everything.

Let’s assume for a minute that we want to accomplish everything I just listed while installing a network router on a T1 circuit in a remote location. Assuming that the circuit from the telephone company is terminated into a DMARC or Smart Jack in the same room that you are going to house your router, you will at least need the following tools, equipment, and supplies…

  • Network Equipment (Expensive stuff that your leaving there)
    • The Router
    • Ethernet cables
      • From the router to the switch
      • From the router to the DMARC / Smart Jack
  • Power cable
    • This may include a DC adapter depending on your router
    • Are there enough outlets?
      • If you’re not sure you better bring a surge protector
      • Tools (Stuff your taking with you when you leave)
        • Screwdrivers
        • Label Maker
          • Don’t forget your tape
  • Power Drill
    • Are the batteries charged?
    • Do you have a charger in case they aren’t?
  • Camera
    • How many words is a picture worth?
  • Flashlight
  • USB to Serial Adapter
  • Cisco console cable
  • Supplies (Cheap stuff that your leaving behind)
    • Nylon wire ties
    • Hardware
      • How are you securing the router?
        • Wood screws for backing boards
        • Machine screws for rack mount equipment
  • Nylon wire ties
    • Surface mounts with double sided tape help too

So that’s what you need, assuming a best case scenario. Right there that’s a backpack full of stuff that you’re taking in with you. This is the bare minimum amount of stuff you are going to need, but what if it’s not nice and neat and what you expected? Is the DMARC in a separate room from your network switch? Are you going to install the router near the switch or near the DMARC? What’s your pathway between the two points?

Being able to visualize what you are going out to do step by step is what helps you prepare for the unknown, and to bring with you everything you’re going to need when you get there. Before leaving, take 5 minutes to sit down and work through the process in your head, specifically thinking about what steps you will take and what tools, supplies and equipment you need for each of those steps.

Adapting to changing situations

I personally carry an office in a messenger bag, including my laptop, pens, paper, personal effects, etc. Depending on what you carry, and what you’re doing, you may or may not be able to carry your tools in this bag too. I also tend to carry disposable supplies in here too. This is what I carry with me everywhere I go, and it’s the first step to being able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. About the only thing I can’t do when I’m mobile is print, and normally in a pinch you can pull that off wherever you go.

Then there’s the issue of larger tools, and the stuff you are leaving there. You could of course, leave it in the cardboard boxes and cases that they come in, but in my experience bad things happens when you do that. A good example would be pulling into the building you’re going to and realizing that the closest parking structure is two blocks away. Now you’re forced to carry boxes and tool cases, which at best are awkward, and difficult, and it just doesn’t look cool. It normally gets better too, since network equipment is normally in the bottom, or the top of any given building, and there may or may not be an elevator that goes there. Packaging these things into another bag of some sort normally ends up working well. It provides you with the mobility you need to get to where you’re going on foot efficiently. I’ve found generic duffle style bags work well. Keep your eyes open though especially at the big box stores for huge duffels, or even luggage that’s on sale, or left for dead in the clearance section.

Being able to talk to, and engage people is an important skill too. Again using the example I have been working with, let’s say that your contact isn’t answer the phone once you get on site. Who else can you talk to? Building maintenance people and security guards are normally a good resource, because they can get anywhere, and normally know the building well. If these people can’t help you, they can normally get in touch with someone who can. Remember, janitors, guards, and facilities people run the world. Being polite and respectfully talking to them with a smile on your face and clearly explain who you are, where you’re from, what you’re trying to do, and why you’re trying to do it can get you a long way.

What if the equipment isn’t configured correctly? Be prepared to be able to fire up the equipment, connect to it using whatever mechanism you prefer, and re-configure in a basement while sitting on a bucket. This takes technical knowledge of the equipment, and an understanding what it does and how it needs to be configured.

Putting it all together

The point of all of this is that there aren’t many obstacles you can’t overcome with some planning beforehand and ingenuity once you go to do the work. Being able to successfully plan your work, and overcome obstacles while doing the work makes you a valuable resource to any employer.



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