MacSysAdmin is the only conference (I know of) in Europe focused exclusively on managing Apple devices. 2014 marks my second consecutive year of attendance. Tycho Sjögren has organized this event for many years and his experience shows through excellent pacing and management — every session started and ended on time, with frequent breaks to refresh, chat and stretch the legs. It was great to hear from presenters with new perspectives, and traveling to Sweden was a pleasure. I strongly encourage IT professionals who are serious about the Apple platform to attend this conference in the future.
When attending conferences, I try to sit in on every presentation regardless of my personal interests. Even if a presentation doesn’t seem to relate to how we operate at Forget Computers, there might be a nugget of information that could spawn a new idea. Ed Marzcak mentioned in his MacSysAdmin presentation that it really doesn’t matter if you’re responsible for the management of a few thousand devices (like Forget Computers) or tens of thousands of them (like Google), the concepts are the same. This statement is encouraging because it's at the heart of what we do at Forget Computers. We pride ourselves on taking enterprise solutions and concepts and making them accessible and applicable to teams of any size.
Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Bell Media, University of Oxford, Axel Springer, and Walt Disney were represented among the speakers and all of them presented fantastic solutions for managing Apple devices. It's important to note that while many of their methods are powerful, they may not be appropriate for all organizations. We all have unique roadblocks and challenges to overcome, and being sensitive to the unique needs and opportunities of an organization informs us not of what solution is "best" but what is the best fit. What nearly all of these speakers have in common is the privilege of working to please a single, corporate or university entity. I can’t deny that I sometimes dream of how nice it might be to work to satisfy a single organization. Forget Computers works with hundreds of different environments … and cultures … and user types. This presents even greater challenges when trying to develop best practices (and avoid the worst, as described by Charles Edge's presentation), while maintaining excellent customer service and promoting user autonomy.
After digesting these presentations, it became clear to me that a common challenge we all share as IT providers is communication. Communicating effectively and transparently is often more difficult than it seems. I will argue that it’s relatively easy to manage technology compared to managing the expectations of the complicated, emotional people who use technology! Helping end users understand why we do what we do, getting buy-in, and listening to their feedback is demanding and essential. As an outsourced IT provider we have always (in my biased opinion) had to work harder at this than internal IT because, quite simply, we are much easier to kick out the door if no one agrees with what we are doing.
With today's fast pace, it can be challenging for even our own team to know everything we do. How can we possibly communicate these changes effectively to clients? Many of them don’t even care to hear the message. They simply want things to work. Increasingly, they want things to work without even taking the time to discuss the issue with our team. They want us to fix the car while they are driving — and without the benefit of a roadside stop to chat! But adapting to changing needs is another story entirely. Back to MacSysAdmin …
Below are a few of the more interesting topics discussed (in the hallways and after a few beers) at MacSysAdmin 2014.
Admin vs Standard Users
This is a topic I asked a LOT of people about. I believe everyone responded with, “Yes we allow our users to run as Admins.” However there were always caveats …
- They run as a Standard User, but they can promote themselves to Admin status when needed. They become demoted at the next restart.
- We setup new Macs with Standard User accounts, but anyone who presents a business case can run as an Admin.
- All of our users are developers, so of course they are all admins!
- Look at iOS. There is only one type of user on this device. That is the direction Mac OS X is heading. (But OS X is not iOS yet, is it?)
All of these responses boil down to "it depends". It’s OK to run as an Admin, assuming you have other security measures in place. Therefor, I will continue to run as a Standard User on my own Mac — with the privilege of knowing the Admin account credentials when I need it, and I will encourage our customers to do the same. (See, Change Management 1.1 - Standard vs Admin Accounts.)
Automation is clearly the ONLY way to stay on top of technology's fast pace. Forget Computers has invested heavily in automation since 2006, so I was unsurprised to hear the benefits of automation touted at MacSysAdmin. What does surprise me is how many organizations continue to ignore the benefits of automation (and Macs in general — especially when it comes to security). As noted in a recent HBR article, titled Your Scarcest Resource, many companies scrutinize their fiscal spending, while disregarding the amount of time they spend. Too many companies (of all sizes) seem to have no problem throwing people at a problem when an automated solution already exists, albeit at a price. Yes, automation is not entirely free, however there’s a 100% guaranteed return on investment if you’re in it for the long run. I don’t see any better way than automation to increase efficiency. The message (if you haven’t got it yet) is to automate your Apple device management or go the way of the Dodo. OK, getting off my soap box.
The User Experience
Focus on the end-user experience. This is what Apple does. This is what drives Apple to invest heavily in the products they make … the hardware, the software, even the packaging their devices arrive in. The unboxing experience. The setup experience. The migration experience. Really thinking hard about the user experience is historically NOT what IT does. This preconceived notion reenforces the perception of IT as the enemy, and this is something Forget Computers has been fighting since 1998. Kevin White of Macjutsu is quite outspoken on this topic and I believe he’s got it right. Every decision IT makes needs to focus on one simple question: does this benefit the end user? Granted, we can't ignore growing security concerns, especially among organizations, and what benefits the individual is not always aligned with what benefits the organization. The good news is the solution is simple (at least in principle) … communication!
This brings me to the last and most important recurring theme at MacSysAdmin … improving communication with customers. How do we communicate in a world where everyone is inundated with information? Communication is at the heart of providing good support desk and general IT services. It can also be remarkably challenging because it is much easier to manage devices than to manage people. Additionally, who wants to be managed? The language itself carries negative connotations — maybe that is the heart of this issue. People associate the devices they use as their own, as an extension of themselves, and if you manage my device then maybe it feels as if you are trying to manage me. Very few people enjoy the feeling of being managed.
Therefore, it is paramount that we work not to manage devices, but to help our customers succeed with technology so they can succeed at their jobs. It sounds simple, but technically minded people (engineers, developers, coders, supper desk staff) are not alway the best at simple communication. Even those well trained in customer service can find effective communication a challenge. What is too much, too little, too technical, too basic? It’s all relative and can vary day-to-day across organizations and users. Every organization has a unique culture and users with unique needs, so where do we begin? How can those of us challenged with communicating across a hundred organizations and several thousand users improve? Below is a plan to get started. Some of it we do at Forget Computers today and some of it we need to start doing, or work to improve. None of it would be possible if we didn't use automation in other areas to "free up" our time for better communication.
- Focus: Decide what is important to communicate. Is the message about security, change management, or best practices? Interactions with clients need to be clearly defined and specific, not jumbled together into a firehose of information.
- Build Awareness: Don't just jump into the message — build awareness about the importance of the message. Provide examples and context to make your message relevant. Users will listen if they are aware of why they should care and how the message will benefit them. Build this awareness internally across your team first, then expand this awareness to your clients.
- Use Multiple Channels: We all consume information differently so it's really beneficial to reach out through various channels. Email (if we must), online ticketing and this knowledgebase have been our traditional channels. Webinars and events are something we’re currently developing. We also recently began delivering personal orientations for every new user we onboard for clients and this has been very well received.
- Document: Create both simplified and detailed documentation to speak to a range of interests, and make it searchable for easy reference.
- Provide a Feedback Loop: Ask for feedback. Listen. Reiterate and repeat to improve.
It sounds simple and probably feels obvious to many, however are you doing this today — are you really communicating? At Forget Computers we continually work to communicate with our clients that we’re here to help, and we work to be as transparent as possible. Yet I know we still struggle with effectively delivering a message. If you’re not sure how you’re doing, maybe ask your users? If you have ideas or feedback on this topic please share them — if not in the comments of this article, then maybe next year in the auditorium, during the evening activities or even on stage at MacSysAdmin!
Thanks for reading,