Category: Life

Life is not just about the home. Important experiences happen anywhere and everywhere.

Interruptions in tech support

I recently read some posts on the damaging effects of interruptions and wanted to explore this in the context of my current job – sysadmin across multiple k-12/ks1-5 educational environments – and offer some thoughts on how to change things.

First off, the core educational environment itself is pretty much built around interruptions. You generally have a single teacher in a room of a few dozen kids. I’m simplifying here, but the teachers essentially have particular targets to hit each lesson (“teach this thing”, “make sure the group produces this result”, etc) and these lessons are typically somewhere around an hour long, though from what I’ve seen these lessons are shrinking in length to squeeze more different material into a day/week. Teachers have to hop between different targets every hour (or less) as the group they teach changes (the students have to similarly hop, but across entire subject ranges. Is there any surprise that, combined with the usual suspects (advertising, media, social medias’ infinite scroll, etc), young people have shorter attention spans?) Often these differing targets are in the same subject (Science, or English, or Mathematics, and so on) however different classes are at different points in the curriculum and even if some of those classes are at the same point in the curriculum (the students are of the same age) they’re often grouped by capability – some classes need more time and effort and revision of material than others, whilst the top groups delve into subjects at a deeper level.

A teacher has an hour to achieve a goal before moving on to the next goal with a different group. During this hour, they will typically outline the thing to be done or learned, then work with the class to help them get there. This naturally results in questions (interruptions) continuously. It’s in the teachers best interest to answer these questions well to ensure that individuals maintain pace with the group, but paradoxically the more questions that are asked the slower the group can move forward, as spending time explaining material again for the benefit of one means that those who do understand it already are not really learning for the time period it takes to get the one who asked caught up. Thus in my uneducated opinion, the priority for the teacher is to get the effectiveness of the first explanation of any material perfected (as closely as possible given the ability of the class) ensuring that most of the time most of the class (if not all) comprehends it to a suitable degree on the first attempt. This minimises interruptions and enhances learning for all, as the class learning velocity is kept high.

This problem is outside the scope of what I want to talk about but it is relevant, because one side effect of this we-must-acknowledge-interruptions behaviour is that I feel it becomes habit. Being interrupted a lot becomes the norm, and it is my opinion that this encourages the teaching individual to also be the one interrupting others more.

Let’s go back to the classroom. You have one hour to teach a group of 33 twelve year olds about some algebra. You fire up your laptop and switch the projector on to find that no matter how you try you can’t get an image to appear on the board. This unplanned interruption has immediately taken up brain power and, critically, time, even if you have backup plans for each and every lesson. As you have chosen to use the technology resource you have clearly decided that it is important, so we can assume that without that resource your teaching and the students learning will be less effective. You are after a fix for this problem quickly. The quality of your teaching is likely somewhat diminished and the longer this goes on the worse this gets.

So you do what anyone in your situation does – you try and get it fixed. This is where tech support comes in. You make a phone call or send an email to that tech you like, or if you’re a hero, log a ticket on the ticketing system. The hero did the right thing – logging a ticket. No complaints from me there. (Pro tip for techs reading this: make every avenue of communication a ticket generating event!)

However emailing an individual or phoning interrupts the support techs. This is often warranted and is always understandable, and your job is a constant stream of interruptions so one more won’t hurt, right? This is where, unfortunately, tech support suffer. We operate in the opposite universe. Your tech problem, as a teacher, is probably one of your biggest current problems. And we totally get that. Promise. We really do. But… it probably isn’t our biggest problem and is almost certainly not something we’re going to want to deal with right away.

An interruption to us does not progress anything, it in fact stops everything. If we are in the middle of resolving another problem, being forced to stop for a reason (whether it’s to deal with a major issue or respond to a phone ringing or being pulled out of the moment by a name being called) causes us to disconnect from “the flow” and at best mentally change gears, at worse slow the brain CPU way the heck down. This is jarring and as evidenced by the many articles published about interruptions can in fact be damaging, both mentally and economically.

The more this happens the less effective overall an individual or a team can be. I argue that an ops team lead (Helpdesk Manager, IT Director, etc) should put work into minimising interruptions for the betterment of the team and yourself, regardless of your vocation or the objectives of the team. Here’s what I propose you can do to help within your tech support team regardless of work environment… Though you will likely need managerial sign off on some or all of these. It’s worth noting that I didn’t come up with these, they’re merely an amalgamation of things I’ve learned and tested which have worked for me. I am assuming you’re part of a team instead of solo hero, too, though if you are solo then interruption reduction could potentially save you from burnout. Some of these might help.

Everything should (automatically) log a ticket

Make it easy to log tickets. Saying “no ticket no fix!” feels good but doesn’t actually achieve anything for the organisation, except to piss off someone with an issue (and let’s hope that person isn’t a C-Level.) Let people call, let people email, let people visit, let people knock on the door. You can more than likely automatically create tickets in your ticketing system that come through to email, and if you can’t, get a better ticketing system. Get a generic “techsupport@” inbox set up and configure your helpdesk to add everything sent to it as a ticket. Bonus points of you reply right away (automatically of course) telling the requester that their ticket has been logged. At least they know it’s in the queue instead of sitting unread in some mystery inbox.

Ten CC’s of Triage, STAT!

Yikes, you now have a flood of tickets. This looks bad. And hey, maybe it is, but at least now you know it’s bad instead of it just feeling bad. Maybe management would be surprised to see that you’ve got 143% more tickets than you last reported, because everything is a ticket now. No more invisible work.

Anyway, I digress. Triaging tickets is essentially reviewing a ticket and deciding if it’s a priority or not. There are many ways to judge this, but typically you want to take into account how urgently this needs to be fixed and how much of an impact it would have if it didn’t get fixed.

A PCI Compliance audit deadline of two hours ago is pretty urgent – it’s something that needs to have happened already. But… the banks aren’t going to block all transactions immediately. Business doesn’t stop because you’re a few hours late on submitting a self eval form (this is not an endorsement to delay PCI compliance!)

A projector in a classroom has a pretty high impact – that’s 30+ students (plus one pissed off teacher) per hour per day. That adds up quickly. And yes, it’s pretty urgent too, but worst case the teacher can still teach like they did in 1985. Right?

Triage is important for two main reasons:

  1. It helps you and your team decide on what to work on without having to decide on what to work on
    Generally, you work on the thing with the smallest SLA time left, and if you have negative SLA counting down then you should probably get on that ASAP. Assign the Priority (the urgency and the impact) an SLA (say, high impact high urgency = 4 hour SLA, low impact low urgency = 14 day SLA – whatever you decide will be unique to you and the organisation and likely requires understanding managements expectations as well as your teams abilities)
  2. Reporting, evidence, promotions, wage increase, redundancy protection, efficiency gains, areas of focus and more!
    Having all this triage data to look back on will highlight where things are working and where they’re not, but bigger picture style. You can use the data and the knowledge that you’ve gained to more closely align the team with the objectives *and reality* of the organisation. Perhaps when triaging your tickets you could also categorise them – hardware, software, licensing, accounts? Or go one level deeper – projector, laptop, desktop, TV, printer. Office, Web browser, MIS. After time passes you can really easily see where your team spends most of its time and where resources (like money) can be allocatied to reduce load in those areas.

Triaging tickets is generally not a full time job, so you could make this person…

Hero Assignment: Interrupt Shield

Designate an “interupt hero” – this can be one person or more and ideally they would triage tickets in the queue too. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do this, put them in another room and leave everyone else in the relative peace and quiet of the main office. Make everyone else go to this smaller interrupt room for direct in person support.

They deal with all phone calls and in person visits and group emails. They also deal with any quick support calls (when not on a phonecall) that don’t require them to leave their desk and that are interruptable, for example password changes, group membership updates, etc. You should rotate this person very regularly so you’re not moving the “interrupt problem” to one person all the time, as that’s a recipe for disaster. Let them do a day at a time, or two days if you use a hero team, rotating half the team out every day so handover and “current events” knowledge transfer (what were yesterdays big issues? What’s on the radar today?) can occur more naturally.

Redirect everyones incoming calls to the interrupt hero team. This further reduces interruptions to the main body, though you may want to make exceptions for VIPs. Your interrupt hero team should be able to forward calls to you, but generally they will be able to deal with most quick things (and push to the focus team via a ticket if not, of course)

This has two advantages. First off, the toil is reduced for the team at large – your senior sysadmin isn’t doing the third password change this week for little Joe – and secondly (and most relevantly) the rest of your team can focus for long periods of time on their work. Better work is done by most of the team. Better work is better results (whether those results are money/profit or a higher quality of education.)

Don’t overload on active tickets

Don’t assign anyone (including yourself) too many tickets. There is no perfect number – it’s different depending on role, personality, type of work, and many more factors. But try and get a ballpark. I would suggest starting with no more than 10 non-pending tickets (for clarity, I define a pending ticket as one which is waiting for something outside the control of any member of the team) and only one should be worked on actively at a time. You can’t install a printer whilst also diagnosing wireless issues. Pick one. Focus.

Low remaining (or negative/expired) SLA first

Plucking tickets from the queue because they look easy isn’t productive, long term. But it’s fine, short term. Don’t sweat it, manager. But keep an eye on it.

Tickets should be worked based on their SLA, accounting for the available suitable resources (don’t put the guy who sucks at DNS problems as the lead on critical DNS problems – train them? Yes. Rely on them? No.)

Sometimes it’s nice to jump 70% down the queue and grab a few easy tickets. It feels like a break.

Just don’t make it a habit.

Having repeat logs of the same call that has gone unanswered for three months is – you guessed it – yet another interruption. Old (the definition of which is, essentially, defined by your SLA – expired SLA? Ticket is old!) tickets should not exist (with very very few exceptions. Like budget availability.)

Don’t judge people on their call closure rates

How many tickets I’ve closed vs the other techs means absolutely nothing. Get honest feedback from the source – ask the staff and, yes, the students, to rate the support. Then pay it attention. This feedback is so valuable. Whenever a ticket is closed, automatically send a followup email asking for feedback, and make it quick. You want the emotional immediate feedback, not the “dwell on it for three days and [calm down/forget]” feedback.

  1. Was the support: [] Amazing! [] Ok! [] Shit!
  2. Optional comments here:

Negative feedback is the most valuable information you can possibly obtain

I argue that getting positive feedback means absolutely nothing, except as a “look how great we are, CEO!” line in the yearly review meeting. The feedback you really want, the feedback with actual damn value, is the negative feedback. And it’s all well and good getting it. But make sure to pay attention to it, don’t let it sit in the database doing nothing. Analyse it. Understand it. This is the closest you’ll get to dipping your hand in the metaphorical technological currents of your organisation. You’ll be able to feel the effect of the teams work, and when something goes against the current, you can fix it immediately.

This makes better, happier staff and students. Better happier staff and students equals better results. Which equals… you guessed it, fewer interruptions.

Interruptions aren’t going away, but you can reduce them. And when you do, that firefighting feeling will decrease, work quality and rate will improve and as a direct result the stability of the environment should improve, too. And when the stability of the environment improves, the interruptions decrease.

At least, that’s my experience.

There’s plenty more about this on the internet at large, much better explained and with additional steps than what I have listed here, however I feel that these steps are the big hitters that might just give you enough time to step back and take a real close look at the bigger picture without worrying about where the next fire will start. And it’ll take time. But it will work.

Receiving unsolicited blogging advice

TL;DR: me post more!!1!

I recently read a blog post about a blog post and came to realise that I too struggle to post stuff on this very blog. I am conscious that I suffer from the curse of “I must make everything interesting!” but… maybe I don’t have to suffer any more. Maybe I don’t have to care. After all, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.

I started this corner of the web to document my renovation and tech stuff for me and myself only. And Ben. (Hi Ben) But somewhere along the way it started to be about what other people find interesting, and… nothing really felt big or important or interesting enough. Hence the lack of posts recently.

So, a reset. Time to post more. They may not fit the predetermined categories, they may be completely uninteresting, but it turns out that not only is that okay, it’s what I intended originally anyway. They’re interesting to me, and besides I suspect I read these posts more than anyone else. Maybe, just maybe, someone else will find something a little bit interesting or useful too? That’ll be a positive bonus.

The algorithms and view counts hold no sway. I forbid thee!

Light-up Spinning Top in the Dark

Something about these toys appeals to me. The Kid got a few so I snapped some pictures, expecting a blurry mess. And that’s what I got, but in a good way! I love how the projected red light looks in the longer exposure photos.


I love how ice looks when it forms on something smooth and flat like glass. If I didn’t have to scrape it all off in a hurry to get to work I’d stare at it for at least two minutes. What? It’s freezing out there…

Working with Covid-19

I don’t appear to have had Covid-19, this post is more about working with it in the world, not working whilst ill!

Bit of a rambling post, I’m adding to it between jobs so forgive any abrupt topic shifts.

Schools are closed, but students still need to learn. As tech support for a school, enabling this has been… Well, easy to be honest. We’re a Google school so the shift for our students (and those teachers that bothered to learn it…) has been relatively simple. But there’s more to a school than enabling teachers to provide material and help to students. The challenges arose (and continue to become apparent) with all the other departments that enable teachers to do their jobs; wellbeing, admin, safeguarding, leadership, the list goes on.

For us in tech support, the whole team has been busy providing support for the schools in the local area. We’re avoiding going on-site wherever possible, though this is not always avoidable. Remote support is not something we had prepared for, either. We’ve been using Chrome Remote Desktop to get on to other user devices who are also at home, but as nobody has local admin and Chrome Remote Desktop won’t pass through UAC prompts we’ve been unable to fix a small subset of issues. Something to correct moving forward for sure – a remote assistance like product (something along the lines of GoToAssist or LogMeIn) would be swell, but it’s a bit late to deploy it now.

We had to roll out laptops to our non-teaching staff, but unfortunately with limited devices available many staff simply don’t have the ability to do much work that can’t be done on a phone. Many people who said they have devices at home didn’t account for the fact that their two-point-four kids and partner would also be needing it. We didn’t take this in to account either and are paying for it now.

Some students also don’t have devices, however the DfE is offering devices to those most vulnerable. We’ll see how that goes, I can’t imagine there’s a stock of millions of laptops stored in a warehouse somewhere, but something is better than nothing!

I’ve wanted to work from home for a long time and have biased towards tools that can be used from anywhere. Rolling these out to a wider user base has certainly highlighted issues in our processes and changes we can make in the future, however for now we’re… doing pretty well, actually.

The impact on education won’t be felt for a long time, but there are already some interesting developments.

Some staff are arguing for the use of what are effectively spying tools to check up on both staff and students. Thankfully, this is being outright rejected by senior staff in our school. Others are demanding a lot of their teams, forgetting that some of them have kids and/or elderly and vulnerable relatives and neighbours to look after. This is having a direct impact on the teaching and learning – some staff are just exhausted. I’m getting emails from staff late at night and very early in the morning. Students are also submitting work at unhealthy hours.

I love working from home. Much more productive, fewer interruptions lead to better quality of work faster. It’s great. But for some it’s clear their home-life does not facilitate it well.

I’m hoping once the pandemic is over, we keep what we’ve learned and don’t just rush right back in to how life was before. I’m not sure I can survive a full-time office job anymore….

Is it a bird? Yes

This poor lil’ tweeter flew into our kitchen window!


We have a cat so quickly plucked the little bird off the floor and put him up on a bird table. After a short rest it flew off, happy as can be.

As I was carrying it to the bird table it snuggled right into my hand and wouldn’t get off. Must have liked the warmth. Cute!

Baby ProTip #4713

Little baby gotta take medicine? Aww, poor thing 🙁 Odds are you’ll be given a syringe which, whilst it works, is a bit of a pain to work with when it comes to delivering the liquid to the child.

Instead, measure out the dosage using the syringe then squirt it into an upsidedown clean bottle teat for the baby to drink from! No need to attach the bottle, just carry the teat over – careful to not spill any – and let the baby suck it from there. Make sure it’s a low flow teat, or it’ll come out on it’s own as you take it to your baby.


We had a kid! Spawned a child process!

Having a child is a very strange experience. Being the father I have it pretty easy physically, though mentally and emotionally it’s quite… unique. It’ll take a while to fully digest this mental gear-change and I don’t think I could write about it accurately enough to do it justice, so I won’t attempt to just yet.

Like with most things, theory only gets you so far. You need to experience it to fully appreciate it, and appreciate it I now do.

I expect every birth is different at some level, whether it’s the process itself or the attitudes and reactions of the individuals involved (including family, friends, as well as – and in some ways most importantly – the medical staff, more on this below) but there’s one thing which I suspect is consistent across all births.

Shit me is it tiring.

He was born at the end of May, and I’ve only had the energy to post one small update here since then. In fact, this article has been written in short bursts since the previous one went up because it has been tricky to find the energy to post here whilst we’ve been home (apologies if it reads somewhat awkwardly.) There’s always something to be done, not including the remaining renovation work we still need to do. Being in hospital though? That is an entirely different beast.

We ended up being in the hospital ward for nearly a week. I was lucky enough to be able to escape once or twice a day (to feed the cat, or take receipt of our poorly timed new sofa delivery) but my Significant Other spent every minute inside a single small room. That look on recently rescued miners faces when they see daylight for the first time in months? I bet it was a bit like that for her when we finally left.

What didn’t help our stress levels was the two occurences of building work that went on in that week at the hospital. One was right outside our window, the view from which was simply of a different wing of the hospital across a 20m gap between the buildings, so not exactly a picturesque vista. We had to keep this window open too as it was at least 34C in that room at best. They were running cable or something, and heavy tools were out in use for two days.

The heat in the ward was almost unbearable. I know they keep it warm in there (to keep the little babies nice and snug!) but this was over the top.

It turned out the aircon was broken. This was the cause of the second set of building work. About a dozen intimidating big burly blokes climbing ladders in hallways and going into the suspended ceiling with drills and hammers taking apart metal ducting (loudly) to try and get the ward down to a decent temperature. Having all these workmen patrolling and working, covering everything in ceiling tile dust, couldn’t have been a calming factor for any of the women or babies in there. I felt bad for those unlucky enough to be in a shared room, though (typically) those women get to leave after a day or so at most.

After three days of this chaos they did get everything up and running. Unfortunately this was achieved the evening before we left, so we didn’t really get to appreciate it.

I hinted above that the medical staff’s reaction and behaviour to you is an important element in your perception of the experience. Special and unfortunate mention here for them: they, generally, sucked.

The saying “There are always some bad eggs” is an understatement of such proportions that it gets flipped on its head. We were pleasantly surprised when we spoke with someone who seemed to give a fuck, let alone show compassion. I have a great deal of respect for NHS staff and don’t blame them for being jaded or stressed. They are underappreciated, overworked and many roles are underpaid. But those who show this disinterest would probably do everyone a favour if they moved on to something else. It might kick the government up the ass a bit if everyone on the NHS staff started looking after themselves instead of taking the amount of shit they deal with daily on the chin. Unfortunately, the sick and injured will suffer. Rock, meet hard place.

I know it’s not as simple as that and voting for change is the best way forward. The ward we were on is fairly renown for being not that great once everything goes off-script (as the birth of our child tore up the script then set fire to it, this applies to us) but it’s difficult to fondly remember any part of the birth or the following week. And this sucks.

We’ve got a healthy baby now, though, and that’s awesome. But it doesn’t make the experience okay. There will forever be a bad taste in our mouths when we remember this in the coming years, but for the sake of our sanity, our happiness, and the small human being we now find ourselves responsible for, we have to move on as best as we can.

I expect that as time moves on and he grows (oh, that reminds me: they told us the wrong weight at birth. I don’t know how they got that wrong) I will find myself with more time for this site, and I will no doubt have more thoughts on fatherhood and being a parent in general. I’ve also got renewed focus on some technology stuff now that the home renovation isn’t exhausting us to quite the same level. I’m eager to write up some stuff on that front, too!

Onwards and upwards!

ps. Star Trek Picard looks amazing.

Hello, world!

Hi there.


Hey. Been a while!

Spotted enemy number 1 the other day. The cat got into a fight a few months ago and we have finally identified the attacker.

We spotted this cat teetering on the edge of attacking our cat in our back garden a little while ago, but it was dark and we couldn’t clearly make him (or her) out. As soon as it saw us it ran (ineffectively being chased by our own cat – thanks for the assist but you wouldn’t have done anything if we hadn’t been there I bet!)

We’ve finally spotted him/her peering into our property in the daytime:

Evil incarnate

Didn’t manage to get any closer than this before the cat bolted.

I hope this cat and our own can become pals, but I expect it won’t happen. Our cat is too much of a pushover. Poor boy 😀