Volunteering in school IT - A retrospective

The purpose for a PC in a school is to be a teaching tool and not a hurdle.
This is a retrospective of the most interesting volunteer work I have ever done (and still do). I live in a small town (~9000 residents), governed by a Local Council. As it happens the Local Council's finances are in dire straits (which I will not go into at all) and at the 3 schools within its jurisdiction (in two of them my children study), 2 primary schools and one middle school, the PCs in the classes have fallen to disarray. TL;DR No such thing this time. Read on


How it all begun

Somewhere around June 2019 one of the council members mentioned that he is trying to devise a plan to upgrade the school's computers and network infrastructures. Long story short I found myself willingly involved in that project spearheading change on the field while said council member spearheads change in administrative levels on the education board. I will spare you the long night hours upgrading OSs, the mistakes and the triumphs. I will share with you however what I have learned since, as far as project management and support goes, as well as how it has changed me, probably for life.

Culture Shock

Imagine any person in our field, coming from the ever demanding and fast pacing private sector who just enters, albeit volunteering, into the public, slow paced public sector. It is a culture shock. One cannot understand why things move slowly, why time is not pressing and sometimes why one is not being understood. On the other hand the people in the public sector meeting such a person do not understand what is the rush... The wheels of bureaucracy are slow. Why rush?  

One has to press the "client" for requirements (what to install beyond OS and some office suite), how things are connected in the class, what is the firewall configuration (is there a firewall at all? What is a firewall? ) and should data be backed up, only to have answers painfully trickle in.

Fast forward 3 weeks later after the requirements are closed, the school is ready, including training videos, upgrades, dust cleanup, passwords and firewalls. Three volunteers from the private sector rushed in to bring it all up and running just before the new school year opened. 

It was time for the public sector to be in a culture shock. 110 PCs, 3 weeks of after hours work, intensive support for the first week of school opening. They said we have lots of energy. I say we are used to do things in an orderly and quick way.

Lessons learned

Some of these lessons were known to me from experiences past but had to be re-iterated in the right context. So in no definite order here goes:
  • We are a technical authority but also volunteers. Nobody owes us anything. This is their place of work. They know better. We ask what hey need and we suggest the best possible solutions, including building computer labs on Linux instead of aging Windows.
  • When it comes to any procedural vs technical matter (for example, firewall or content filtering), insist, be firm and compromise on what works best but also achieves the purpose.
  • The client is always right. But the client does not dictate how to execute the requests. This is up to us.
  • Don't promise what you cannot achieve

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