Memo to Staff: Our Computer System Crashed-We Have No 'Backups'-You're Not Getting Paid for a Month!
by Dr. Rob Reilly
Educational use of computers may be in its infancy. But clearly the administrative use of computers in education is quite mature. Virtually all the records that were once kept on paper are now maintained on computers. Classroom teachers may still fill out paper forms and send those forms to the office in the morning. Teachers may still send the 'lunch count' to the cafeteria on paper forms, but the overwhelming majority of schools take those paper forms and enter them into a computer database. The school nurse's computer and principal's computer are linked to the school secretary's computer in order to facilitate record keeping and record access. And in ever-growing numbers, the teachers' computers are connected to the secretary's attendance database. School administrators and support staff have direct access to the district office and to the state department of education. The computer system has created an electronic web of data exchange and data availability, at least for the business side of education.
Well, all this electronic connectivity is superb. My concern is that the administrative computer systems have matured much more quickly than those who must understand them enough to establish policy to ensure their appropriate use and to ensure their continuing operational availability. My concern is not aimed at the over-worked secretary who must enter the data from a stack of papers into the electronic database; my concern is for the computer system upon which the data resides and for the administrator who must ensure their continuous operation. My concern is for those who must set policy/guidelines for access, management, and functionality of the mission critical computer systems-the computers where student records are kept-the computers where staff records are kept-the computers where budget records are kept.
It's one thing if a secretary or the principal or a teacher enters incorrect information-that will always occur. Some software programs are very good at catching such errors. But in many cases, even if there is an error in a student's record or there is a mistake in the number of sick days a teacher had in a given year, when found, those errors can be corrected. These are not examples of mission-critical problems.
But there are two types of situations that concern me greatly-these are mission-critical issues. One situation is the disgruntled employee, and the other situation is when a system crashes and there are no backup protocols (or the backup mechanism has been tested to see if it works).
I'd be willing to make a bet with anyone who reads this article that there is no policy in your school (school district) that has procedures for handling a disgruntled employee who is about to be fired. (Hint: physically remove the computer system from that person's work area and secure it.) I'd be willing to extend that bet to include the premise that there is no policy dealing with terminating an employee's computer access before they leave the district even if that employee leaves under positive circumstances.
I was the technology coordinator for a school district when the superintendent had to hire a 'temp' to manage the financial records. It was a small school system, so there was no cross training. The office just had the superintendent and his administrative assistant. The 'temp' proved to be an excellent bookkeeper; she had great ideas to streamline the management and bookkeeping processes. She implemented most of those ideas and they worked like a charm. In very short order she was hired as the full-time administrative assistant. She was dynamic-too dynamic. Eventually the superintendent became uncomfortable with all the changes. He felt as though he was losing touch with what was going on-he was very computer literate, but the new things the administrative assistant was doing were, perhaps, beyond his understanding. The various changes were clearly beyond his comfort level. Eventually the superintendent told the administrative assistant to stop making changes-and this was reasonable given the fact that the system worked fine-it did what it was supposed to do. And quite honestly, it seemed to me that the administrative assistant was making changes simply to see how the newest and fastest software worked.
It became obvious that the administrative assistant was becoming unhappy. The day-to-day routine she faced was not something she relished. It was obvious she wanted a more exciting environment. She would have been terrific in a very large company where there is always lots of activity. But to make a long story short, she became quite disgruntled and outwardly hostile to those around her. It was time to terminate her employment. The superintendent was concerned about the computer system…he was concerned that she was going to do 'something' to it. My advice was to start making back up copies of the critical data files, and make those back up copies often. He followed my advice-he made backup copies of her computer daily-sometimes twice a day. He was quite concerned!
Then came the day when the superintendent notified the administrative assistant she was going to be terminated. Much to his credit, he gave her two-week severance pay and asked her to leave immediately. Needless to say this made our disgruntled employee a disgruntled former employee who is looking for revenge!
She cleaned out her desk, but before she left she activated a password on her computer and deleted the budget transactions from the past two-months. She also deleted the current month's account's payable and receivable files! Needless to say, she did not tell anyone what the system password was. But to his credit, the superintendent had done a stellar job in making backup copies of her computer-he had saved the day. He actually saved the day for everyone who worked in the school system. If he had not made backup copies, and if he had not ensured that the backup copies worked properly, no one would have received a paycheck, no vendors would have been paid for a number of weeks.
This brings us to the second concern: When a system crashes, having to use the backup copies to restore the data. Regardless of how it occurs, having inaccessible data generally requires restoration from backup copies.
Well no matter how you get to the point of an inaccessible computer system, let me suggest some strategies (and offer some resources for additional reading, if you're interested).
- Regardless of whether or not there are passwords activated on a computer system, always ensure that there is a system administrator account activated on that computer. Have a system administrator account (with password) in place. This will allow a system administrator (or the superintendent him/herself) to override all other passwords-it's also best to have more than one system administrator account in case you encounter a disgruntled system administrator, or something unforeseen happens to the one person who has the password.
- Establish a routine for making backup copies of critical data and have this done by someone other than the office staff, and store the backup copies off-site. Also ensure that the backup protocol works properly-don't wait until there's a disaster to see if the business resumption plan works properly.
- No matter how small the administrative staff is, always, always, always, cross train staff so that there are a few people who know how to restore back copies, and have a basic understanding of how to run mission-critical software.
It's difficult for me to understand why there is general agreement with the notion that school systems must develop a plan to restore damaged mission-critical systems BUT they do not take adequate steps to ensure such a business resumption plan is in place.
Let me leave you with these questions. What would happen to you if a disgruntled employee destroyed the payroll records at the central office? What would happen if the computer system on which the payroll software resides crashes to the point where it cannot be revived? How long would it take to restore routine operations? How long would you be without a paycheck?
Here are some Web sites with relevant information:
The Virginia Community College system
This Web page is an excellent sample master document.
Also of interest on the Virginia Community College system is:
as well as
MITRE, Inc. (mitre.org) is "a not-for-profit corporation working in the public interest. It addresses issues of critical national importance, combining systems engineering and information technology to develop innovative solutions that make a difference." Even though some of the material in these Web pages addresses Y2K issues, the planning and policy approaches readily apply to contingencies beyond Y2K. Their contingency management plan may be viewed at:
Also of interest at the MITRE Web site is:
Longwood College in Farmwood, Virginia