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Entries in On-Call (1)


What it Means to be On-Call in Information Technology

I don’t know of a business able to have 24x7 staffed coverage for all critical functions.  Some businesses might do a follow the sun model, others have a relatively small “command center” reaching out to support organizations when the command center can’t address an issue, some simply go without.

Inevitably some support is provided via an on-call function.  There are many ways organizations can schedule “on-call”, and those constructs can be addressed in another post.  This post is about what you should do when you are on-call.

It’s actually pretty simple.  If you are on call, you need to be able to be reached and able to troubleshoot.

Being on-call is about being accountable for the issue being escalated to you.  The group escalating either doesn’t know how to resolve the issue, or the standard operating practices (like separation of duties) prevents it.  In other words, they need help…and ultimately the customers of the system in trouble need help.

Let’s examine some of the behaviors needed by on-call staff:

  • Be reachable – Yes, there are still places where cell phones don’t work.  They are generally few and far between.  So make sure your cell phone is charged and works.  If you live in an area with spotty cell coverage, consider a repeater or switch services.

I know one person who says she sleeps with her SmartPhone under her pillow so it wakes her.  Good idea!  Do whatever it takes for you to be reachable.

  • Be kind – If you are awoken from a sound sleep, you get to grumble a bit.  People that either hang up, ask “why are you calling me,” or state “this is not my job” need to understand the command center is reaching out to get help for a critical issue.
  • Be available – Being reachable allows the command center to make contact.  Now you have to be available.   It’s my view unless blood is involved on-call staff must be available to deal with issues.  If you are not available, it is virtually the same as being unreachable.  Concerts, important dinners, kids events, etc are all known in advance….get someone else to cover for you! 
  • Be able to work –Once, on a critical issue audio bridge, an on-call person announced, “I am happy to help but I’m 60 minutes away from a PC.”  What good was that?

My son, who is occasionally on-call supporting physicians, and I independently came to the same conclusion: get a portable modem for the PC.  I have a portable modem and can tether from my cell phone…and the modem/cell phone are on different carrier networks.  When he is on-call, my son logs into the network in the evening, so he doesn’t have to go through any set up process in the middle of the night if called.  He makes a point of never being more than 10 minutes away from being able to work.

  • Be prepared – I carry a plastic folder of key contact information and critical documentation.  Having it saves me time of trying to locate it online at point of crisis.

What happens when these behaviors are not followed?  Ultimately the customer of the system suffers and this is unacceptable.  Managers need to treat failures in the same way they would any other issue.  In other words, they need to use the progressive discipline process (such as verbal warning, written warning, termination.) 

Harsh?  Frankly not at all.  This is what we are being paid to do.  (It’s even more pronounced in organizations where being “on-call” results in supplemental pay.)

One last point.  In IT, were always on-call.  That doesn’t mean we are expected to carry a laptop everywhere and not have a life.  It does mean we need to be helpful to others when they call.

Do you end up with too many support calls?  Give thought to what YOU can do to prevent this.  In many cases, if the on-call person did just a little better job up front, the on-call requirements would be less.  In other words, look to yourself for improvement.

What are your experiences with on-call?