Monday, June 10, 2013

Confessions of a SharePoint Skeptic (A Network Administrator’s SharePoint Awakening)

By Robert Schley
I worked as a Network Administrator for many years.  I joined the Marines straight out of high school as a “small computer systems specialist" and  worked for eight years setting up and maintaining many diverse systems, ranging from straight Cisco networking to Windows Enterprise support to WAN/LAN transmission mediums.  I took for granted the amount of technology that I was being exposed to over my enlistments.  Once I left the military, I realized I needed to choose a specific area of expertise rather than be on call for general IT support.  So, for the next four years, I worked for four years as a Department of Defense contractor teaching Information Technology to Marines.
At the end of my contract, I moved to Nashville, TN.  After going through months of SharePoint training and being mentored by some of the finest SharePoint instructors around, I’m now an Instructor myself with PremierPoint Solutions, where I continue to utilize my training skills and vast IT background knowledge.  Now that I have had comprehensive training and experience with Microsoft’s SharePoint software (though I'm always learning new things about it), I realize how little I knew about SharePoint as a system administrator.
Why?  Well, that’s a bit of a story.

My first exposure to SharePoint was in the Marine Corps in the early 2000s.  There wasn’t a huge to-do about it, so SharePoint quietly slipped into usage at the unit I was in.  The IT people who set it up, and the IT people involved in sustaining it, were from different departments that didn’t always communicate with each other well.

Personally, I saw SharePoint as little more than “a web server joined with a shared drive.” So, although I saw SharePoint, over time, becoming integral to Marine Corps communication and information sharing, I dismissed it as unimportant, since our department, the “real” IT department, wasn’t responsible for it.
My last job, where SharePoint was used for collaboration and reporting, began to wake me up to the possibility that SharePoint might be much more than I realized – until forced and unnecessary server migrations broke the customizations which had made it so useful in that environment.

Now I work for a company that is focused on SharePoint, and I realize how my false preconceptions and skepticism “stunted my growth” relative to SharePoint. One of my assumptions from a behind-the-curtain, systems/network administration perspective was that it was such a simplistic system I didn’t need to follow it. There couldn’t possibly be any real power in a system that doesn’t need technical people to explain and maintain it.  The fact that the IT Department did not run the SharePoint server when I was in the military was "proof" of that.  It never occurred to me that there could be a very good reason that IT was not given that responsibility.
Similar to social networking, the power of SharePoint is the ability to hide "the man behind the curtain."  The technology behind SharePoint is not actually that complex or anything too terribly new.  In its most basic breakdown, SharePoint is literally a web front end that connects to an SQL database to store objects.   The ambitious nature of this is not the technology (which I’ve always been focused on), but that it is "organizationally capable."  In other words, it works, and that is the reason SharePoint is creeping in to most organizations.  It’s likely that even Microsoft couldn’t have foreseen how popular and pervasive it would become.

So now, having overcome my former skepticism, here I am a former network administrator who has transitioned to training technology and now to teaching SharePoint.  (I see myself as a teacher now rather than simply an instructor.  Teachers offer their thoughts, comments, and impressions of progress, as well as methodology and facts.)  In this case, teaching SharePoint is much more than explaining which button to push.  It is the awareness of who needs the information; and the “who” is different for every single implementation.
Having gone through this transition, I now see the wisdom of taking SharePoint Information Management out of the hands of IT, because they are outside the flow of information. The IT Department is excellent at providing platforms to support work, but the raw effort of managing associations, information flow, and relevance to active operations (business) needs to be managed by the people actually doing the actions.  I was a platform provider rather than a direct information manager. 

Information Technology professionals still play a vital role in organizations.  The deep knowledge and skills required to provide platforms will never go away.  But Information Managers are taking an increasingly important role in business systems.  While the ability to build an IT platform will always be vital, the ability to utilize those systems and optimize them for the organization is just as important.
Maybe this is just part of my own personal growth from having “skills for the sake of skills” to learning to craft those skills to be useful within an organization.  I like to think that I am catching up to the revolution of empowering individuals within organizations to adapt the organizational methodology to be as efficient as possible.  Organizations are becoming smarter through the improved communication and collaboration in SharePoint.  As Stephen Hawking put it, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”