A Week in the Life of an IT Specialist

VSO are currently doing a recruitment drive for IT volunteers (full details here). Although my blog is more of a useless collection of incoherent mutterings rather than anything useful I thought I would post about my working week to give any IT people out there an idea of what I do.

First off (and I know it’s a cliché but it is true) there isn’t really anything like a “normal” week and each week is usually very different from the last.

Secondly it’s worth pointing out that generally VSO recruit people to either a “IT Trainer” or “IT Specialist” role. I am an “IT Specialist” (how people laugh) and so in theory am concentrating more on the technical side rather than training but just to mix things up spend quite a bit of time training as well (as I’m sure the trainers spend time “specialising”).

Monday

As I am the only VSO IT person for, well, the entire of Namibia at the moment I sometimes get called to assist other ministries and NGOs around the place. On the Sunday I had driven down to Khorixas (about 400km south of Opuwo) to assist the Ministry of Education (the Ministry of Health were more than happy to let me go – worryingly happy to get rid of me for a few days).

The main reason for me to be at the MoE was to fix their internet connection. Their network was setup by a previous VSO volunteer and I had been to their site once before to find the problem was the Telecom engineer had come and deleted all their firewall settings.

This time their ADSL modem had blown up and (after 12 weeks) telecom had replaced it but their network was still not working.

So in no particular order on Monday I;

  • Plugged the cables in correctly that telecom (even with the aid of the excellent documentation the previous vol had put in place) had managed to mess up
  • Tested the Kerio WinRoute setup, resolved a WGA issue on their server/router/proxy PC (it was actually genuine with a sticker and all)
  • Made sure the server would now survive a reboot and all the services would start (WGA previously knackering that)
  • Went around many many clients fixing their internet settings (which the users had changed at random hoping to fix their internet link)
  • Reset numerous proxy passwords for users who had forgotten theirs
  • Reconnected a PC that had moved from one side of the office to the other
  • Created a firewall user and rule so that services on the server/proxy system (such as logmein and dyndns updates) would work without authentication (they used to in the past but don’t now, weird)
  • Created some new users for new members of staff and instructed them on how to access the internet
  • Installed the OpenDNS dynamic IP updater on the server
  • Removed various viruses from PCs and identified one that was “proper creamed” (technical term) with all sorts of nasties

Monday night two VSO friends, a Peace Corps lady and me went out for a drink at the Khorixas Rest Camp which was nice and only slightly interrupted by my friend being called back to the hospital because some inconsiderate tourist had a heart attack (all was well in the end).

Tuesday

Still in Khorixas and back at the Ministry of Education I;

  • Setup port-forwarding for RDP (to allow remote assistance as well as logmein to hopefully avoid unnecessary trips for simple jobs in future). This is actually no easy task on the Huawei router (well it’s simple once you figure out what the options are talking about). Tested this via GPRS.
  • Reinstalled a Windows machine (the “creamed” one from Monday)
  • Removed some other viruses from machines
  • Had a couple of meetings to explain what I did to fix the internet (there was a theory around that someone had broken into the server room which had caused the problems, I was able to explain it was a “cable in wrong port” issue instead) and also to see about some cabling work
  • Found the CAT5 cable, network sockets and patch cables required for additional network points. Also checked the patch panel to find the room
  • Discovered that the only person with a Krone/punch tool had gone back to China (like an idiot that was about the only tool I didn’t bring from Opuwo not knowing cabling would be required)
  • Had another meeting discussing future plans for cabling and also the outlying offices (this I knew about but ADSL is still not provisioned)
  • Visited the Teachers Resource Centre (TRC) which has an amazing computer lab to check for cabling options (all good). Fixed a couple of minor little problems there
  • Agreed I could come back soon to do the cabling
  • Wandered around ensuring the last few PCs were working properly

Then went to the hospital to see about an internet problem reported on the Health Information System (HIS) computer. Found that the phone/modem cable (RJ11) was plugged into the LAN (RJ45) socket. Fixed.

Had a discussion with the HIS nurse who I know quite well about issues they’d been having with people using the HIS computer for general internet use (tying it up and also infecting it with viruses). Password protected the PC.

Went back to the Ministry of Education as they wanted me to take a “few small items” back to Opuwo. Turned out to be 200 desktops (wooden desktops, not PC desktops) amongst other stuff which a couple of us loaded in the sweltering heat into the bakkie.

By this time it was gone 4.30pm and I decided to stay in Khorixas for the night rather than drive in the dark so back to my friends for some Tafel lager and a film.

Wednesday

After wandering around sorting myself out in the morning (and finding a scorpion under my shorts – which I chased and squashed with only a bit of shrieking) I dropped back into the hospital offices to have a look at a laptop and do a bit of software installing and anti-virus updating.

Wishing a fond farewell to Khorixas I was on the road back to Opuwo by mid-morning.

After a leisurely drive listening to Radio 4 podcasts and contesting with only a few newly created streams crossing the road (thanks rainy season) I was back in Opuwo by 2pm and back in the office (having handed back the Ministry of Education car along with the six tonnes of wood in the back) by 2.30.

While I had been away the Minister of Health and Prime Minister had been in Opuwo to support us during the ongoing measles outbreak. They were now off touring the north with most of our senior management so the office was quite quiet.

For some reason we’ve had double-NAT (ADSL NAT router to DSL/Cable NAT WiFi router to LAN) since I’ve been in Opuwo which I was happy enough to leave alone while it worked ok (I had some vague plans to setup a DMZ for remote access at a later stage) but the D-Link WiFi router has been playing up on a few occasions recently so I took the opportunity to turn it into an access point on the LAN so that if it has problems only WiFi clients are affected.

One of the staff at an NGO I help to support (Medicos del Mundo) then dropped in for some assistance with an Excel problem so I spent the remainder of the afternoon playing with IFSUMS formulas in Excel 2007 and managed to get his calculations working (a rare occurrence given my Excel skills you can be sure).

Apparently there was to be a press conference at 6pm which I was invited to but having missed all of the previous fun and feeling more than a bit knackered I went home instead.

Thursday

In the morning I had the fun job of soldering a power cable into a laptop. This is a re-repair of a job done by someone else after the laptop had been dropped. Though they had soldered the power connections in they were free to touch and had done so resulting in sparks and smoke coming out the back.

The job had been outstanding for five weeks or so whilst we hunted high and low for a soldering iron which was eventually borrowed from a Telecom engineer (thanks!). Managed to remove the old connections and solder new contacts only burning myself once in the process (a personal best).

I then returned the soldering iron. Wandering into the back of the telecom shop (where the engineers work) I found it totally deserted and ended up in the main distribution frame (MDF) room which was just open (none of BT’s paranoia here). Eventually I found a security guard who, seeing the soldering iron, said I should just feel free to get on with whatever work I needed to do as the engineers were out.

Turning him down on his kind offer to re-route the Opuwo phone system I left the soldering iron and my thanks with him.

After than I went over the Red Cross office (another NGO I sort of support) and spent a happy hour pulling LAN cables and playing with printer DHCP settings. Whilst there I also moved some RAM from a broken PC into a working one and failed to move a PCI WiFi card (the destination PC only had two types of PCI Express slots, the horror).

Thursday afternoon found me doing a little training with one of the more promising “I want to be a PC engineer” students. Previously we had covered IP addresses (with my insistence on showing him how binary worked so he understood the “dotted quad” and netmasks) and are now on to some PC/Windows repair stuff.

I spent quite a bit of time trying and failing to restore a Dell laptop which wouldn’t start (get the startup error menu; startup repair loops straight back and normal start hangs as does safe mode). According to Dell there should be a restore option in the repair options (I mean seriously put the repair windows option in a windows menu why don’t you, what could go wrong with that?). It’s not there. I think because the “windows failed startup” flag is set so only showing the repair startup options rather than the general ones. Pmpf.

Setup a new laptop with Office, AV and switched the keyboard from or to (I forget which) US layout.

Friday

Woo! Friday! The office was still quiet.

Spent the morning doing a few pottering jobs; another locale setting, more Dell research (to no avail), prodding the WiFi router a bit and trying to get CentOS 5.4 to install on a PC older than I am (and failing).

At 10am I went along to my first meeting of the week (this is unusual and only because I was away early on and then everyone else was away later on – normally I would have clocked up three to five non-IT meetings by this time) which was to be a feedback session from the national level people regarding their investigations into border crossings (and the associated disease crossings).

At 10 I was in the conference room, alone. By 10.15 other people from my office had joined me, we were all having a chat and I was catching up on the goings on. Eventually by 10.30 it was realised that nobody was coming to present (we think a miscommunication about the times) so we wandered away in dribs and drabs.

After a trip to the bank and lunch I popped down to the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture (I think that’s what it’s called anyway) to see a Peace Corps friend of mine (also IT) and exchange some software and other bits and bobs.

The rest of the afternoon was spent starting to write up my report to the Ministry of Education about what I did and what we need to do next as well as trying to help create an Access database for Condom distribution (turns out 2007 is very different from previous versions especially with table relationships – or at least so it seems to me). Ended up saying I would have to have a decent play with Access over the weekend and see what I could come up with.

Gave up and went home at about 5.30.

At home I read up on ICMP packets and played around with some code to make my network tester hopefully handle errors more gracefully. Oh the glamour and intrigue.

There You Go

So there it is – in unnecessary detail my week at work.

Maybe coming soon: why I did VSO (wanted to go somewhere hot), why you should consider VSO (don’t you want to go somewhere hot?) and a diatribe about service delivery versus capacity building and how one can in fact be the other in the IT field (what?).

In the meantime if you are an IT bod considering VSO then you might like to check out these (infinitely superior) blogs as well:

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