The Holly and the IT

Before the festivities get into full swing, IT managers must make sure that everything is organised for the holidays. Julia...

Before the festivities get into full swing, IT managers must make sure that everything is organised for the holidays. Julia Vowler plans for a smooth IT Christmas

God rest you merry gentlemen" may well be the fervent hope of the IT department asthe Christmas holiday approaches - but if you really want to let nothing you dismay during the festive season, the secret is advance planning and good organisation.

For a low-stress Christmas - in the office at least - plan early, and cover all bases, advises Chris Wise, European technology manager for customer services at Xerox.

The first base to cover is the principal driver of IT activity: user activity. Until you have a clear and accurate picture of what users are going to need and want by way of IT over the period, you won't be able to plan your response to it. Once you know which business staff will be in and what they will expect - and what your service level agreements say they can or must have - you can allocate your own resources accordingly.

Contracts check

When it comes to allocating IT resources, the first thing to do, says Wise, is check out contracts. You need to know whether terms and conditions cover Christmas working or not. Even if they do, you need to select sensibly, such as those without strong social and family commitments over the season.

"You need to assemble a team you can trust," says Wise. It's no good thinking you've lined up half a dozen people and then five phone in claiming they're sick because they resent having to work.

And even if the contract stipulates Christmas availability it makes sense to be appreciative of staff coming in at anti-social times.

You'll also need, says Wise, to look at the impact of Christmas working on budgets and future resources.

"Look if there's a requirement for extra payments or time and a half off in lieu, or sending staff out for meals, and other things," says Wise.

The next step in the sequence is to move further down the food chain and check out what festive season service levels you can expect from suppliers. There is little point fielding your own support staff if they can't get support from suppliers.

"Go down to the lowest level you can," advises Wise.

Don't be fobbed off with bland assurances that supplier staff will be "available". You need to know who and when, and for how long you can have them, and, best of all, their home telephone numbers. Again, there's no point calling the supplier's support line if the call centre is closed.

Next, says Wise, you need to check out the corporate IT disaster recovery plans. These should, as a matter of course, include Christmas contingencies when normal external services cannot be relied on to be normal.

"You need to review your disaster recovery and ask if you are comfortable with it for the Christmas season," he says.

You are not alone

It's also crucial to remember that IT cannot operate in isolation. Something that's painfully easy to assume - perhaps erroneously - is IT support staff will be able to get access to premises at holiday time.

"Do security staff know your staff will need access, and when?" reminds Wise. "We're fortunate in that our security staff are proactive and ask us. But I've known some firms where IT people turned up to work over Christmas and found the building locked up."

It's also useful to check the heating and power will be turned on. "You don't want to turn up and discover it's -5ûC in the computer room," points out Wise.

Apart from supporting those - usually fairly few - business users who need IT over the holiday season, Christmas is, from an IT point of view, an ideal time to have the IT department offline. Apart from the four days over Easter, there's never another slot in the calendar where business is as quiet, especially with the growing trend, imported from the US, of closing down for a week between Christmas and New Year.

For IT, that week is the best opportunity it will have to get down to some heavy duty maintenance. Now is the time, says Wise, to do those demanding but usually inconvenient tasks such as running major back-ups, reorganising databases and replacing hardware like servers and routers that usually never get turned off. Again, make sure you have set up clear and reliable communication lines over the holidays, with suppliers before you undertake such tasks.

"This is the time to push your relationship with your suppliers so that they are there for you," says Wise.

It will also be necessary to decide which, if any, systems to power down for the duration. It may well be best, when it comes to critical, but older systems running reliably and steadily, not to do so. They may not power up again. You don't, warns Wise, want to have to find you have several hundred end-users offline on 2 January .

Whatever systems you power down, "always ensure you allow plenty of time" to power them back up - and that you can bring in more support staff if there are problems, advises Wise. Does your disaster recovery plan cover you if there are delays in being offline when users come back?

Whatever maintenance you do, it will have to be allowed for in the IT budget"Because there's so much you can do by way of maintenance and upgrades you need a budget available - that can be tricky as Christmas falls at the end of the fourth quarter.

"You'll need to fight all year to keep the money to do it," says Wise.

Maintenance work

One way to ensure an open wallet is to remind business that doing maintenance at Christmas "is essential because it's the least impact time for users," he advises. You also need to remember IT will probably not be the only department which thinks Christmas is a good time for doing user-inconvenient maintenance. There's little point hoping to replace kit if lifts are out for maintenance.

"You need a joint plan with facilities management so you can schedule such things together," suggests Wise.

If you are a multi-national operation, it's worth remembering Christmas is not necessarily universal, nor are time zones. Even in Europe, public holidays fall on different days, with some countries placing far greater emphasis on New Year than Christmas. Different cultural conditions make for different availability, and need to be first discovered and then planned for. It may even work to your advantage. For example, suggests Wise, it may be worth rerouting calls to the German call centre over Christmas itself.

Wise reminds the final IT activity over the festive season, apart from skeletal end-user support and major maintenance tasks is lack of activity - things that should get done, were normal-running in operation, but aren't.

This is true of projects, he points out, where monthly milestones or review meetings will need to be pulled forward or pushed back. Again, the critical factor is to see these coming beforehand and plan accordingly, either clawing ahead before Christmas hits or catch up afterwards. This year's Christmas and New Year will be different from last year's - there's no millennium bug to contend with.

"Last year, so much effort and funding went into preparing for the millennium that everything was in better stead," says Wise. "Last year went so well because there was so much attention paid to it. It was a one-off. This year, it's back to usual."

User demand

It's important not to let IT get "demob happy' this Christmas on that account, and be relaxed to the point of sloppiness. Ironically, because everything went so smoothly last year - thanks to all the planning and hard work - users may have had expectations raised and demand more than what is budgeted for. However, as Wise points out, precisely because of all the planning that went into last year's efforts, the payback should still be reverberating this year.

"It seems like I've seen better plans in place this year," surmises Wise. "We've all learned from last year."

And when IT managers - and workers - do come back in after New Year, what should they expect? A rush of extra support calls, that's for sure - whether or not all the systems are back online.

"You always get a lot of calls on 2 January from users whose PCs won't power up," predicts Wise. Inevitably, some machines are victims of alcoholic carousing prior to Christmas - wine-soaked keyboards are not uncommon.

It's a sensible idea, advises Wise, to deliberately keep diaries as blank as possible for the first couple of days of the New Year, both for managers and team leaders. That will give a margin for unexpected demands to be sorted out before the next year gets properly underway.

Wise says, "There's usually half a dozen small things to do which, if you fix them now you can do it, but if you've got meetings booked you'll end up having to juggle everything or reschedule them."

Deliberately allowing for some slack in the system gives everyone a fighting chance. Besides, after the Christmas break, both the department and the team needs to rebond.

"People like talking about Christmasses, make connections, to get back into the swing of things," Wise reminds.

With the IT Christmas Holiday Plan worked out, nothing remains except to enjoy the parties and get out the decorations. Just don't, says Wise, put tinsel or fairy-lights on the computers themselves. Health and safety would not like it. Who wants to sort out the entire IT department on Christmas Eve?

Don't mention the weather!

Some things can't be planned for they can only be guarded against and reacted to. The Great British weather is one of them. Flooded computer rooms apart, one obvious problem that adverse weather can bring is to make it impossible for IT staff to get to work over the holidays. They may need to be kitted out with mobile connections to have a chance of getting some work done from home. However, warns Wise, if the standard disaster recovery plan for flooding stipulates - "If flooded call Mr Bloggs with a mop" - at Christmas time Mr Bloggs may well be in the Canary Islands and his mop unavailable.

"You need to ensure your disaster recovery plans works on all levels over Christmas," says Wise.

Problem log or Yule log?

With everything under such superb control, therefore, what can the IT manager be usefully doing? Just as Christmas is a good time for IT maintenance, so it's a good time for brain maintenance as well.

"You can use Christmas to get things done that you can't usually do in the year," says Wise.

One year, for example, he spends the holidays reading through 3,500 problem logs. Catching up with journals and reports is another luxury not usually available in the office, and can all be done sitting in front of the fire with your family watching James Bond. It gives you a breathing space in which to come back up to speed on developments and changes in the IT marketplace, see what other people are doing with IT, and generally stretch yourself mentally without the pressure of endless firefighting.

Can the head of IT let go to the extent of high-tailing it to the Bahamas for the duration? Probably yes, says Wise, providing they keep their mobile phones switched on. Although he or she should have put in place a team and a plan to cope with anything, not only may it be necessary to do the things that managers are paid to do - take decisions - but they should also keep in touch with what goes on as a matter of good principle.

"You don't want to come back in on 2 January and be the only person not to know that the building burned down," comments Wise.

IT Christmas checklist

  • Establish with business departments which users will be in and what they will need by way of IT and support. This gives you your baseline for how much support you will need to provide

  • Check IT employment contracts for whether and how Christmas working is covered but be sensitive about whom you deploy

  • Check out the situation with your suppliers about holiday time support. Get as much detail and commitment as possible.

  • Liaise with facilities management and security to ensure that access to the building will be available over the holidays, that heat and power will be on, and any building maintenance work is publicised

  • Plan and budget for IT maintenance and upgrades to be done over the holidays - Christmas is the least-impact time for end-users, but will be costly on IT staff

  • Decide carefully which systems you need to power down. Old ones may not want to power back up again

  • Allow more time than you think for getting powered up to ensure everything is online again for 2 January

  • Check out your disaster recovery plans and ensure they make allowance for the Christmas factor when back-up or alternative sources may not be available

  • Check out all project management plans to see if milestones fall during the Christmas period, so you can adjust the schedule accordingly

  • Expect a rash of calls on the first working day back as users return from the break

  • Try and ensure the first few days of January are unscheduled to give you some slack to get you and your team restarted. Staff need to rebond with you, each other and their jobs.

  • Expect the unexpected when it comes to weather conditions - and homebound staff

  • Get as many telephone numbers as possible (especially home and mobile, hotel and relatives) from as many people as possible - IT staff, facilities management and security staff, and supplier support staff. Not being able to get hold of people is one of the major bugbears of Christmas support

  • Don't get out of touch yourself

  • Use Christmas to catch up on reports, journals and paperwork. It's time out from the daily round.

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