The staff and management at most not-for-profit organizations are skilled in how to serve the communities they support—feeding the hungry, housing the poor, protecting the environment and a myriad of necessary causes. While technology plays an increasingly vital role in helping organizations deliver charitable services, it is rare when a small- to medium-sized not-for-profit organization has dedicated and sustained IT support.
So when Christian Ronchi, a global account team leader for IBM in Switzerland with some years of IT expertise, decided to pay a visit to a local organization near Zurich, he was welcomed with open arms. “A friend told me about axisBildung—an education and vocational training center for young people in Buelach, which is just north of Zurich,” says Christian. “Because they depend on donations and get what they can, axisBildung’s infrastructure consisted of a conglomeration of IT devices, all fairly old, with no obvious standards or indication of a managed infrastructure.”
Together with its partner firms, axisBildung provides about 170 young people with training in a wide range of practical and in-demand professions. Over a period of two to three years, axisBildung and its partners prepare students to successfully complete their education and graduate with a diploma in a trade. Many of their students would have a limited opportunity for such education because of difficulties ranging from learning disabilities to conflicts with the law.
The students are trained in gastronomy, building services, retail, automotive repair, landscaping and also business management—gaining professional skills to support successful transitions to working life. The training facilities at axisBildung and its partners are impressive, but when Christian encountered them, their IT environment needed attention.
Teaching while doing—from chaos to stability
Christian started volunteering at axisBildung in April, 2012. He says that his years of working at IBM on its internal IT infrastructure enabled him to quickly spot some of the weak areas at axisBildung. “The services were always at the brink of a major disaster, in particular the workgroup server and firewall,” Christian says. “Network cabling was in pretty bad shape and there were also some crossover connections into another independent company within their building.”
He recalls seeing the room where the local area network was housed and being astonished by the “chaotic ravel of cables, which were impossible to separate.” The impression was so strong that Christian took a picture of the room to remind him what can happen when something goes unmanaged for too long.
Although axisBildung did have several people sharing part-time IT responsibilities, roles were not clearly defined. When a key team member left, the only remaining contact was an external 3rd party provider who only covered part of axisBildung’s services.
Following a classic consulting engagement approach, Christian asked the head of the company and his team for their assessment of the situation and concerns. He then documented their vision of an ideal infrastructure before diving into the hands-on work of taking inventory, recording software licenses, checking access privileges, and diagramming cable and patch schemes.
As part of their training in learning practical skills, it was also natural to include the young people in the process of improving the IT situation. They assisted in cataloging physical inventory and cabling, drafting a requirements table for new equipment and collecting quotes from different vendors.
Along the way, Christian tutored the trainees in IT infrastructure management, project management, and product evaluation. He also led a session on IT security, which included using the Internet Safety Activity Kit from IBM’s On Demand Community.
Christian would spend about 70 hours over several months tackling axisBildung’s basic IT needs, while giving guidance to several interested students. He says that some issues still remain, mostly due to lack of funds and other dependencies, but IT is running stable and more secure now. There is also documentation of a plan to move forward—Christian presented axisBildung with a priority action plan, a rough time frame and a cost estimate.
Simple solutions, practical skills
Christian continues to volunteer at axisBildung and believes his experience there will have a positive influence on his job at IBM. “I think the work at axisBildung will help me better understand customer needs, dependencies and limitations,” he says. “It also has helped reinforce with me that a simple solution might serve just as well as a highly sophisticated solution—some structure and standards can greatly reduce risk of an outage, without stressing the budget, and improve customer satisfaction.”
At an organization that stresses the importance of practical skills as a path to employment, Christian’s contributions seem particularly relevant. Yet he says, “Anyone can offer and provide help even if the individual’s expertise might not completely match the requirements.” He adds, “I find the opportunity to give back to people and a cause very satisfying, and everyone can do something. You work directly with the people and organization in need and together you’ll figure how to help one another.”