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Vacation interruptus: Don't let an office tech crisis ruin your getaway

By Cara Garretson
July 8, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Whelan's wife is making sure that such an event doesn't ruin the family's trip to Europe this summer. "She has forbidden that my work contact us while we are on vacation," says Whelan. "We'll see how that goes."

Lessons learned: Always make vendor contact information and warranty information easily accessible to your backup. Also, be mindful that waiting too long to refresh equipment can lead to vacation interruptus.

Designate a No. 2 and disseminate that info widely

J. Alan Gray has racked up quite a bit of vacation time in the 39 years he's worked at CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield in Washington, D.C. -- and he's learned a lesson or two along the way.

Gray, who is currently a lead systems architect, remembers years ago when a database glitch kept him away from the surf during a Virginia Beach vacation.

After encountering a problem with the database that played a critical role in the insurance company's daily reporting, someone in operations left a message for Gray -- at his home number, since it was a Saturday.

On Sunday, Gray was contacted on vacation via pager -- having never received the message at his home -- and that one-day delay had significantly compounded the problem. By dialing in via modem from his laptop in the hotel room, Gray was able to fix the glitch after having a conversation with the database vendor. But then he had to process all of the previous day's data as well as the current day's data, which took time.

Moreover, Gray's job wasn't made any easier by the telephone technology of the day. "I hadn't asked for long-distance service in my hotel room, since dialing in to work was an 877 number, but the hotel didn't recognize that as toll-free and cut off phone service to my room a few times," he remembers.

He was forced to march down to the main desk and ask them to turn the service back on so he could finish what he was doing. "It was not a lot of fun," he recalls.

Had the operations department followed the proper procedure and initially called Gray's designated backup, rather than trying to reach him directly, the problem wouldn't have escalated overnight. "Someone else could have easily taken care of it," says Gray, although he readily acknowledges the fault could have been his own: He doesn't remember if he had told operations that he was going out of town.

Lesson learned: Before packing your bags, appoint a second-in-command (and probably a third) and make sure everyone in your organization knows who those people are and how to reach them.

Should vacations for tech managers be mandatory?

What if vacations were mandatory in IT? They are in other fields -- notably finance -- so why not high tech?

Mandatory vacations are considered a best practice in IT security, says Randy Grein, a senior network engineer with a municipal government agency in Seattle, who used to perform independent IT security audits for businesses when he worked as a consultant.

Make no mistake, Grein says, the practice is not so employees will stay fresh and happy in their jobs, it's to protect the companies they work for from fraud and other types of misbehavior -- or simply from over-relying on one individual. "The belief is if people are not taking their vacations, they're either covering something up or they literally can't be replaced, which is a huge exposure for an organization," he explains.

IT employees with duties that involve data security, compliance, access control and related procedures can raise the suspicions of auditors if they consistently don't take time off, Grein elaborates. As an example, he relates the story of a worker who routinely altered computer logs to help cover the tracks of an executive involved in activities prohibited by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

By enforcing mandatory vacations, Grein says, companies should be better able to detect such activity or discourage it from happening in the first place.

Garretson is a frequent Computerworld contributor in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at

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