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Linux Support: In House or Outsource?

Maintaining an IT infrastructure is hardly ever a one-person job. Unless your business is IT and you’re the only person in the business, you’ll need help. In this article, we look at what help is available, how you should go about finding it, and how to use it effectively.

The first decision is whether to support your infrastructure internally or outsource that support. Support is rarely 100% internal (you may need to hire specialists from time to time) or 100% external (someone will need to liaise with the support company). Be wary of trying an approach that’s too hybrid; it’s better if one entity manages the systems and infrastructure, albeit with guidance from other parties.

Internal Support

The biggest advantage of directly employing IT staff is that you have complete control over what they do and when they do it. If you have something that you believe needs to be worked on right now, you can make that happen. That team is available to your business to use as you see fit.

If you’re used to managing sales people, you may find it challenging to recruit and retain good IT staff.

There are, however, some challenges in directly employing IT staff:

  • You’re employing someone, with all the overheads that implies (salary and infrastructure costs, career development, people management, etc).
  • You need more than one person. People take holidays, attend training courses and other external events, and occasionally become ill. If your business is reliant upon internal IT support staff, you need at least two.
  • You need to attract good people. Good technical staff like a challenge and may quickly become bored in a static environment.
  • You need technical oversight. Without that, it’s not unusual to see home-grown, non-standard solutions implemented. Such solutions are often less effective and more expensive to support, particularly when the person who implemented them leaves the business.
  • You need to retain them. If you’re used to managing sales people (typically extroverted and highly motivated by money), you may find it challenging to recruit and retain good IT staff.

Managing Technical Staff

It’s worth exploring that last point in more detail. In the same way that extroversion arguably makes a better sales person, the traits described below can be positive for IT staff. What follows is necessarily a generalisation, and of course there are talented IT specialists who don’t conform to the stereotype described. However, over years of employing some of the best Linux technical staff available at Tiger Computing, this is what we’ve found.

Don’t bat an eyelid when they ask for a £100 keyboard – you’ll get the value back many times over.

  • In-depth technical staff tend to be more introverted than extroverted. They can be great team players but may prefer to work away from the centre of attention, focusing on getting the job done. They will often prefer the quieter end of the office and may opt to work from home more days per week than other team members. At the extreme, some are not overly comfortable on the telephone, so give them tools to support them through other communication channels, such as email, Instant Messenger or Slack.
  • They like to be in control of their environment. If you’re expecting them to support Linux, don’t insist that they use a Windows PC. If you tell them they can have whatever keyboard, mouse and monitor they want, they will be in awe. Don’t bat an eyelid when they ask for a £100 keyboard – you’ll get the value back many times over.
  • They know how they work best. Listening to music on headphones might strike you as distracting, but for many IT people it isn’t. Multiple monitors are a plus. They hoard: at the back of the cupboard will be a memory stick of dubious provenance that ‘might come in useful one day’. You can insist on a tidy-up once a year or so, but otherwise go with the flow.
  • They like solving problems and devising solutions. Don’t tell them how to do their job; rather, tell them what results you want. Equally, don’t ask them to implement a solution that you or someone else has devised; instead, tell them what problem needs to be solved. At the very least, involve them in the analysis of the problem and the design of the solution.

Give them a ‘toys budget’ of £1,000 that they can spend as they want

Regarding recognition: we all need money to live, but once they have a roof over their heads, food on the table and maybe a beer on a Friday, their priorities change. Saying ‘thank you’ pays dividends (as it does for many staff). They will often value a technical training course more than the money it costs. For your best staff, give them a ‘toys budget’ of £1,000 or so that they can spend as they want on technical things without further approval.

You don’t need to go to great lengths to treat IT staff differently from everyone else, but – as with all staff – it’s worth recognising that different people work in different ways and have differing values. IT staff who are treated well, listened to, respected and given opportunities to grow will be very loyal.

One final point: developers can be very valuable staff members, and they may well be proficient at building and maintaining a development environment. However, they’re seldom the best choice to manage a production environment. The requirements of each environment are different. The development environment is likely to be agile, flexible and possibly testing new technology, and focused on the immediate future. Conversely, the production environment needs stability and security, and needs to be part of a long-term coordinated plan.

Linux is a vast subject. No one person has in-depth knowledge of all of it.

Outsourced Support

For most businesses, managing an IT infrastructure is not their core skill, and for that reason alone they often look to outsource that work to a business where that is the core skill. Some of the benefits of outsourcing include:

  • Defined costs: So long as the deal is correctly structured, the costs will be known in advance and may be budgeted for. By ‘correctly structured’, I mean that the agreement should be to provide a level of service rather than a number of hours or Incidents.

For a company that provides out- sourced Linux support, if they aren’t good at doing that they won’t survive for long.

  • Access to expertise: Linux is a vast subject that includes which RAID system to use, how to configure highly-available clusters, which cloud infrastructure to use, which container system is right for you (if any), data encryption techniques – the list is huge. No one person has in-depth knowledge of all of it. Outsourcing to a business that designs, builds and maintains Linux systems every day of the week gives access to that expertise.
  • Wide scope of experience: It’s likely that what you are trying to do – or something very similar – has been done before. A good outsourcing partner will be able to bring experience of working with other clients to your situation, which will result in a quicker and more robust solution.
  • Support infrastructure: A good, experienced specialist IT company will already have the components needed to manage an IT infrastructure, including systems for ticketing, monitoring, configuration management, backups, and so on.
  • Proven processes: They will also have developed processes and methodologies to enable them to support their clients effectively and efficiently.
  • Trained staff: In a business where IT is a core skill, it’s likely that they will have invested in high-quality training for their staff.
  • Up to date: Technology and the associated best practices evolve over time. A professional IT company will keep up to date with what’s current and ensure that the solutions it manages are fit for purpose. Most of all, though, for a company that provides out- sourced Linux support, that’s their core business. If they aren’t good at doing that, they won’t survive for long.

Summary

  • If you do employ IT staff, you need at least two people
  • In-house IT staff, particularly in a small business, may lack the breadth of IT skills needed
  • If IT isn’t a core skill of your business, consider outsourcing the IT support

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