A Good Day = When Nobody Knows You’re There

Tech Support Behind the Scenes 

TechnicianIt’s 7:00am and you’re gearing up for a full day of instruction with your students. They’ve been waiting for weeks to take this virtual field trip to Australia.  You’re going to explore the Great Barrier Reef and talk to a veterinarian who rescues kangaroos and koalas. The students are about to arrive, grab their one-to-one devices, and begin the journey….

Just down the hall is the business office where a group of administrators is preparing for a statewide videoconference to learn about a new education initiative from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.  Your school is taking part in a pilot STEM project…

Clearly it’s an exciting day for your school, and ultimately everything will go off without a hitch. But little does anyone realize that it was an “exciting night” for the IU13 Network Engineers who were called in during the overnight hours to troubleshoot why the Internet access for some 93,000 students was unexpectedly down! “Our job is to make sure that everything is running properly, securely, and ready for the students and staff to use,” stated Mike Williams, Senior Network Engineer for IU13. 

Williams and Roy Hoover, Network and Telecommunications Coordinator, oversee the IU13 Wide Area Network, or in layman’s terms, the network that connects students and staff of all participating schools to the Internet.  This means computers, iPads, laptops, etc. “There are a million things that can go wrong behind the scenes and ultimately prevent people from gaining access to the Internet. It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen,” stated Hoover.

The IU13 Wide Area Network supports 93,000 students across 20 Lancaster and Lebanon county school districts plus additional members in seven counties, not to mention the teachers, administrators, and staff that support the schools. Needless to say, a lot depends on these systems functioning properly … and having secure back-up plans and a knowledgeable staff should something go wrong.

“When the phone rings at 2:00am, it’s never a good thing,” stated Williams. “But when it does happen, the team rallies to diagnose and fix the problem…so that no one experiences an interruption in service.”

As many know from personal experience, the Internet and computers are subject to various attacks and viruses, from malicious criminal groups looking to wreak havoc (and potentially make a profit) to hackers just looking to cause headaches.

What are some examples the IU13 Wide Area Network team deals with?
  • DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service), essentially hackers writing a program that instructs unnecessary digital traffic to flow through “our portal” causing a “traffic jam” so that the real traffic (i.e., the statewide videoconference and virtual trip to Australia) will be blocked.
  • Ransomware - when a criminal hacker corrupt computer files, then, for a fee, will sell you the antidote …otherwise your files are gone.
  • And then there’s the occasional equipment malfunction, which happened a few years ago.  As Williams and Hoover recall the story…the phone rang on a Sunday afternoon stating that a piece of equipment was malfunctioning. In this case the team spent six hours troubleshooting and then another four hours installing a new piece of equipment.  “That was a crazy night,” stated Williams. “It was 4:30am when the problem was finally corrected, just in time for the school day to begin.”  

Both men stated that this is just part of their job and they love doing it. Hoover likes handling the management details, and Williams like troubleshooting. And, they both enjoy knowing that their work (along with that of their colleagues) is a major teaching tool in today’s classrooms, which rely on programs such as GoogleDocs, Office 365, YouTube, Discovery Streaming, GoNoodle, and more.  “Technology is no longer a nice thing to have. It’s an essential part of our daily lives,” noted Hoover. 

When it’s all said and done, Hoover and Williams don’t mind the middle-of-the-night calls. It’s their job.  As Williams often says when speaking about network troubleshooting, “It’s a good day when no one even realizes there was a problem and they just go about their work.”