IT on the fly

The art of quickly building, then dismantling, IT operations, so you can always do your job — even when disaster strikes.

Keith Robertory was staring down a project of epic proportions.

Last autumn, as the East Coast prepared for Hurricane Sandy to strike, Robertory was planning to create and run an entire IT shop. He’d have only hours to organise staff and get systems running.

He just needed to know where to go.

Robertory heads the disaster services technology group at the American Red Cross. It’s his job to make sure Red Cross aid workers have the on-site technology they need to do their jobs, even when a hurricane takes out everything else.

“When most people go to an IT person and talk about disaster, they’re picking up servers and running away. We’re doing just the opposite. We’re taking equipment into the disasters where infrastructure is the worst,” he says.

Robertory has an unusual talent in a profession where practitioners often talk about multi-year deployments — he can build and dismantle an entire IT department on the fly.

“We assume there’s no infrastructure, [so we ask], how can we get soup to nuts done?” he says.

Robertory and other IT executives who work in similar circumstances say the temporary nature of their operations forces them to focus on the essentials — the systems that their organisations need most in order to be as efficient and effective as possible. Their lessons on how to run successful IT shops in extraordinary situations can be applied in even the most ordinary of conditions.

Boxed and ready
For Robertory, focusing on the essentials means quickly delivering the equipment and connectivity that aid workers need. Sometimes, like in the case of Hurricane Sandy, he knows up to a week in advance that his services will be required, even if he doesn’t know exactly where they’ll land. Other times, he has no warning.

Either way, he’s ready to deliver everything from Windows laptops to networking gear. “Anything that you’d see in a normal office environment we have boxed up in ruggedised cases ready to go,” he says.

Robertory keeps a mix of technologies in the cases to ensure that his teams can get something up and running fast. If land line phones don’t work, for example, they can go with cellular or satellite. As part of this modular approach, he adds new technologies that seem to make sense while retaining those that have performed well in the past.

The cases are shipped to disaster zones, where volunteers who make up Robertory’s on-the-ground IT teams set up shop. In the Hurricane Sandy response effort, volunteers built the IT infrastructure at a staging area in White Plains, New York, and used satellite communications until they had data circuits pulled in. The set-up was later moved to a vacant floor in a Manhattan building, where the Red Cross could use the existing network infrastructure.

The equipment comes with detailed instructions for volunteers to follow. Robertory says the goal is to have a clear, concise plan so volunteers don’t get bogged down. “We have a 15-minute rule. If it takes you more than 15 minutes to figure something out, ask for help or [work on another piece of equipment]. We just keep moving. That’s one of the secrets to our success,” he says.

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