Are You Doomed if Your IT Consultant Quits?

I got this email from Equinox Technology Services, Inc., a Microsoft Certified Partner and New York City-based IT consulting firm serving small businesses, home offices, and residential clients since 1994 and felt it would be helpful for you, so I’m posting it here.
Assuming you have someone in charge of your office computers and network, are you simply glad that someone’s in control of the “computing” side of things and not taking the time to make sure that you are aware of important things you should be? If you have consultant maintaining your office computer environment, what would happen they suddenly left? Would you be in big trouble? The answer depends on how well you understand the fact that many IT consultants legitimately get the impression from their clients that they would rather not be bothered by the details. As long as everything is running smoothly, this philosophy goes, I don’t need to know about it. Ask yourself these questions to help determine whether you are taking the time to properly partner with your IT consultant, to ensure that if and when they depart you are prepared to ensure a smooth transition both during the time it takes to
locate a new IT provider, and to make their job as easy as possible when they take over the IT reins of your organization.
1. Do you know every password?
Practically everything computer and Internet-related in your shop has, or should have, a password. If your computer expert left at this very moment, could you (or someone you trust) log on to each of the computers on the network and have the ability to make changes to system settings, tweak the firewall, the router, and more? Do you know the password to the server, the customer database and other files needed to run your business? That’s why it is important for you, as the business owner, to know all the passwords. And since these usually change on a regular basis, your IT consultant should know that you expect to receive a monthly update with all correct passwords. If a complete list does not exist, complete one. Each of you should keep a copy. While you’re at it, make sure everyone is using a good password. Don’t use words that are in the dictionary. Hackers have software that can find them. And don’t use numbers ó they’re easy to figure out. The safest passwords are alphanumeric: x9iop7*3hy, for instance. Such a password is virtually unbreakable.
2. Do you know where all the backups are stored?
There’s nothing more dull than backing up data. You’ve got lots of things to worry about. You no doubt let your computer consultant or technical designate worry about it. I can’t blame you for that.
But backups are important, which is why you do them. If you’ve ever lost your database, or your files or email, you already know that. If you don’t have a backup system in place yet, strongly consider expert advice setting it up. Since backups can be complicated, at the very minimum you should request a full documentation of what is backed up, where the tapes are located, and how often. And a test backup should be performed at least on a monthly basis, to guarantee that saved data is in fact recoverable. The ability to retrieve within hours critical data that has become corrupted, destroyed, or lost from a variety of potential causes should be mandatory, and the procedures documented.
3. Do you know where the product keys are stored?
Product keys are alphanumeric codes that have to be entered when you install software. Otherwise, the installation won’t work. Of course, your software is already installed, right? So why do you need keys? You may have to format your hard drive, or reinstall your applications on a new PC, along with an operating system. You’re going to need those product keys. In some cases, they are printed on the software’s packaging materials. Or they might come with registration forms. I encourage you to maintain a list of these keys. Print it out. If the computer system collapses, having them in a Word file might not do you any good because you might not be able to access the file. For this, download Belarc Advisor ( This free application lists all of a PC’s hardware, complete with the manufacturers’ names. It’s good to have this information about all your computers in the event of fire or theft. You will also have the names of the programs installed, along with their locations in your computer and product keys. Don’t be nervous about letting Belarc scan your computer. Your PC profile information is kept private on your PC and is not sent to any Web server. Keys are important. You can’t reinstall software without them. Put together a list while it’s easy to do. Don’t count on the system administrator. He or she could be long gone when you need them.
4. Where are software disks stored?
So you’ve got everything installed. You stick the installation CDs into a drawer and forget them. What’s going to happen if you need to reinstall your programs? Bad things can happen to computers. If either your computer or your network becomes unstable, you may need to reinstall your programs. It’s going to be mighty helpful if you know were the software is. Would you like to have to buy new copies of your software to replace all the lost disks? It’s much better to organize things now. Put all the installation CDs in the same place. If you have startup disks or rescue disks, put them in the same place. And make sure the CDs are in their jackets or jewel cases. A scratched CD could be unusable.
5. Who do you call for repairs?
Even computer gurus have to call for help from time to time. When tough problems arise, the tech may call somebody, especially for warranty repairs to a printer or PC, or for help troubleshooting proprietary software such as a legal billing database or tax program. Make sure you have copies of the service contracts and warranty statements for all hardware and software, as well as the number to call for support along with hours of operation. If the computer expert leaves and the roof falls in, you need to know who to call. Do you have a list of all outside vendors and consultants?
6. Do you understand your network and how everything works?
Are you running your network with a server, or even multiple servers? These are complicated arrangements. You should know the basics about the servers, too. I know, I know, time is money. The very idea of learning the servers probably gives you a headache. But these machines are critical. Ask your administrator to draw you a picture of the computers on the network. Along with each computer, make sure you know what each does and where they are located. For continuity planning purposes, a diagram of your network and PC’s done with Microsoft Visio is the lingua franca of network administrators, and will quickly give anyone who comes in to get things back up in a hurry a very good understanding of what’s going on.
If your tech is doing routine maintenance on these computers, and up and leaves, who is going to do it? Maybe the servers have to be reset weekly, or maybe the database has to be purged. There could be a number of relatively simple things. If the expert goes, it will fall to you. This isn’t rocket science. You can develop a basic understanding with a little effort. It’s important that you do so. Again, requesting documentation of these routing maintenance tasks is the bare minimum you should do to perform stable continuity planning of your IT environment. Many system administrators have access to their employer’s systems from home. This makes sense. If something breaks, the consultant doesn’t have to run into the office to fix it. Once he no longer works for you, you must immediately shut off his access to your systems. Make sure you know (or someone you trust knows) what kind of access he has and how to turn it off.
OK, let’s see how you did. Quite simply, you and your business failed this test if you answered “No” to any question. Better get those answers now, before it’s too late.