In Ireland, a former rescue volunteer uses his technology skills to help save a school from IT problems

Andy Barnes
“I'm fortunate that
my day job feeds nicely
into my volunteer work,”
says Andy Barnes

Andy Barnes
“I'm fortunate that my day job feeds nicely into my volunteer work,” says Andy Barnes

At this very moment, millions, possibly billions of people around the world are asking this exact same question: “What’s wrong with our Internet connection?”

Of course, that’s a completely unsubstantiated and ridiculous claim, but admittedly a slow or dysfunctional Internet connection is an incredibly common complaint; a cry for help.

And it’s one that Andy Barnes, a senior technical staff member for IBM in Ireland, heard often at St. Patrick’s National School in Greystones, south of Dublin, where his children attend classes.

“Knowing, and talking with other parents, and some of the teachers in the school, I became aware of problems they were having with the performance of their Internet connection,” Andy says. “It sounded like ‘just’ a network connection that wasn't fast enough to meet all the school's needs, and I thought, ‘that's something I can help with!’"

To the rescue

Andy had previously volunteered in rescue activities—with the State Emergency Service in his native Australia, and then with Civil Defense and the Irish Coast Guard when he moved to Ireland, but his traveling schedule recently put those on hold.

However, with St. Patrick’s there was an alignment of expertise, personal interest and availability—this would be a different kind of rescue activity.

As a chief engineer in IBM Global Technology Services, among his responsibilities, Andy provides assurance of the technology content in major programs, and he is known for leading the resolution of highly complex and critical situations, root cause analysis investigations, and technical health checks.

Diagnosing and fixing the school’s Internet problems was a good match with his skills.

“I embarked on a really exciting and fun journey where I joined the school's ICT committee,” Andy says. “There's a rather long story involved, but the short version is that we were able to increase the network speed by 40 times!”

But in the process, Andy and the school identified several other IT-related issues that also needed attention.

IT should just work

For Andy, his curiosity to explore the Internet issues at the school led to discovering other challenges—aging core infrastructure, insufficient wireless access points, limited on-premises network security, and more.

“I was kind of intrigued! I wanted to understand the school's journey up to that point,” he recalls. “They had made significant investments to help the students and staff, so understanding their objectives was really important before addressing just one particular issue.”

In classic consultant mode, but serving as a volunteer, Andy spent some time understanding "what good looks like" for each persona—staff, students, parents—and then prioritized tasks.

Businesses cases were prepared to pay for new cabling and to invest in network infrastructure, and a government grant helped fund the upgrades.

He also worked closely with the external IT support company that supports the school to review and validate the new technology that was deployed. It was important that support of the new infrastructure be sustainable so dependency on the school’s ICT team members—mostly parents serving as volunteers—would not hinder progress in the case of a problem.

“I was fortunate to have the help of the other ICT members and the support of the school principal,” Andy says. “The school rallied around us, the Board of Management were very supportive, as was the Parents and Teachers Association.”

Possibly, though, the highest form of praise came from one of the school’s students.

“I still remember my son coming home and excitedly telling me that not only did they use the tablets that day, but they worked!” Andy says with a laugh. “I was so proud. That is how IT should be; it should just work and the consumers shouldn't have to care how or why.”

What good looks like

Andrew has created a new online helpdesk tool which is used by ICT members, staff and by the IT support company to centralize support requests, and allow all members of the ICT committee to provide support.

He has also deployed an asset management service and program for inventory gathering so the school can forecast ICT budget requirements and better plan for the future.

“In working with everyone, I drew on my experiences at IBM. I'm fortunate that my day job feeds nicely into my volunteer work,” Andy says.

In 2017, St. Patrick’s was recognized in Ireland as a Digital School of Distinction—acknowledging the quality of the ICT infrastructure, support services, ICT plan, and acceptable use policies—leading to excellence in the use of technology for both staff and students.

Also, the network design and solution that Andy implemented at St. Patrick’s National School was adopted by four other schools in Ireland. The cost efficiency was so significant that it undercut an external vendor’s bid.

“There was quite literally an overnight difference in how St. Patrick’s used IT,” Andy remembers from when the Internet issues were addressed. “For the first time, the school was able to have an entire class of students use their computer lab at the same time.”

He adds, “Volunteering for me is about finding that little something that I can do to help others, and perhaps make a real difference in their lives.”

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