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Strike a balance when working with IT interns

An intern can be a valuable asset to an IT shop, especially one that's low on resources, so don't waste her time or talents on trivial tasks.

With IT evolving at a breakneck pace and new challenges emerging daily, IT shops need all of the additional resources they can get, especially in terms of manpower. Additional software and applications are only useful if you have people to use them. Of course, not all resources are created equal; you or your group may request the assistance of another administrator, but management may choose to cut costs by sending you an intern instead.

The obvious flaw in this plan is that IT interns aren't equipped to dive in without training and won't have the same impact that a seasoned administrator would. Also, if you overload an intern with work -- as is often the case -- you're bound to encounter issues down the road. The key to avoiding these issues is to properly train IT interns and assign them tasks that benefit the group. Interns are there to learn and bring value, so don't waste their time -- or yours -- by making them go on breakfast runs, label cables no one will ever look at or throw them into systems with which they have no experience. Working with interns requires a delicate balance of guidance to ensure both the intern and company success.

Draw up dependency maps

Interns are there to earn and bring value, so don't waste their time -- or yours -- by making them go on breakfast runs, label cables no one will ever look at or throw them into systems with which they have no experience. Working with interns requires a delicate balance of guidance to ensure both the intern and company success.

One of the selling points for IT interns is that they're typically hungry for knowledge. They are looking to gain information and insight into what a possible career in IT might encompass. This natural curiosity and energy can benefit an existing data center in multiple ways. One of the first is to shore up a major weak point in almost all data centers, documentation. I'm not just talking basic documentation like the name, IP, VLAN, storage, performance and platforms -- I'm talking about application dependencies. After all, how many admins can say they have a diagram of their application dependencies or even the internal infrastructure, such as Active Directory? Due to a lack of resources, this level of documentation is nothing more than a distant dream for many organizations, but an intern can change all of that.

Having an intern that can investigate and work with application owners to create these dependency maps can be critical to your data center today and in the future. It's often a task that management recognizes and demands, but is pushed to the bottom of the list in lieu of more pressing issues such as updates, upgrades and outages. Investigation into application dependencies can reveal a lot of hidden data about how your data center functions, why some things have existed the way they have and what could be done better. Documentation is also useful to day-to-day tasks, such as patching. Patching is a slow and dull duty to perform, one which most admins would be all too happy to delegate to an intern. However, this can create problems, as patching must be done in a specific sequence and can have serious negative consequences if done incorrectly. While serious issues will always require attention from admins, dependency documents make it much easier for IT interns and operation folks alike to assess impact and risk before picking up the phone. IT interns certainly can't take the place of administrators, but they can tackle lower tier duties to reduce the amount of work admins need to do, allowing them to focus on more critical tasks.

Tag, you're it

Speaking of other necessary tasks, let's talk virtualized environments and tagging. Tagging is the ability to put custom markers on VMs and then search or sort by them. These tags come in handy when looking for groups of VMs quickly. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked because most admins are too busy -- or so they claim -- to put them in. It's a great task for a person on your data center team who has recently had a lot of exposure to application dependencies and server names such as, say, an intern. Since tagging is related to documentation, it's a good way to slowly expose IT interns to more complex infrastructure systems.

Laying down affinity rules

Once your intern is comfortable working with tagging, they're ready to move on to working on VMware Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and High Availability (HA) rules for your virtual environment. Combined with HA restart rules, DRS balancing rules are critical for preventing widespread issues in the event of a host failure. These rules often become a collection of affinity and anti-affinity pieces that have grown into a jumbled mess over time. Since they are often put in very piecemeal and have no real process for backup, they are susceptible to loss in the event that something happens to DRS or HA. It's possible for someone to accidentally turn off DRS or HA, causing those services to be uninstalled instead of just disabled. This process removes all of your rules and should be avoided at all costs. Setting up DRS and HA rules is generally regarded as a more advanced data center task, but if given the appropriate amount of time and oversight to ensure proper setup and documentation, it makes for an excellent culmination of an intern's experience.

An IT intern's job isn't to make an impact on day one, nor is it your duty to hold her hand and walk her through everything. Allow her time to get acquainted with things and realize it's OK for her to fail a little; the key is to limit her failures to the early stages where she won't have a significant impact on production systems. Then, as she grows and gains confidence, take steps to introduce her to more critical systems. It'll pay off in dividends in the long run.

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