10 Things a Modern IT Professional Should Do

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You work in IT. You’re in higher education. It’s 2014. Get a move on!

1. Back up your files.

When your machine crashes, you’ll get no sympathy. The whole world knows you should back up your computer. There’s no excuse. Go get CrashPlan or some other way to make sure your stuff isn’t lost. No, don’t go on to number two until you’ve finished this. It’s that important.

2. Use a password manager.

Most people only use a couple of passwords frequently enough to remember them. Go get PasswordSafe (pwSafe on the Mac) and start generating random passwords for your accounts. Don’t bother remembering them, just store ’em in your password manager and copy/paste when you need them. Secure this password manager with one hard password (the only one you have to remember).

3. Use a collaboration tool to share files rather than emailing them.

Email attachments fill up your mailbox and affect performance. Now think about how that might affect your recipients. Just use a tool like Box and send a share link. Much easier and you can control it later if you need to.

4. Learn some basic scripting, even if it’s just an Excel formula.

You don’t need to be a programmer to do some basic string manipulation or some basic conditionals (if-then). Excel or Google Spreadsheets are incredibly powerful tools in their own right.

5. Find a reliable IT news source relevant to your area (news site, mailing list, blog, twitter).

Make it part of your daily habit to check your RSS (try feedly.com) or Twitter feeds. Seek out and follow a couple of good news sites, tech journalists, or smart people who keep tabs on IT stuff. Let these people be your filter and don’t be in the dark about what’s going on in your industry.

6. Build relationships with people who can help you improve, especially from other departments or organizations.

We learn from each other – by listening, by teaching, or by doing. Join campus communities (e.g., Developer Meetups or Mobile Community of Practice), higher ed user groups, Educause constituent groups, industry consortiums, etc. If it doesn’t exist, create one.

7. Contribute back to the community – an open source project, present at a conference, write a blog post, etc.

You’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and with luck your successors may just stand on yours. We benefit from so many other generous contributions and we’re fortunate to work in higher education, where our counterparts are willing to swap stories and strategies. Be a part of the larger community.

8. Listen to your customers.

Work is happier when your customers are happier. What can you do that will make their lives better? How do you know without talking to them? Get out there and watch them use your software, have them brainstorm ideas, or just listen to them complain. Just knowing that they’re being heard will make your customers happier.

9. Figure out your smartphone.

There’s nothing sillier than an IT person who is computer illiterate, and that counts for your smartphone as well. It’s a magical supercomputer in your pocket. It probably cost you a bunch of money and it does way more than phone, email, and Angry Birds. You can tie in with your VoIP phone, access files via Box, edit Google Docs, submit expense reports, and other wizardry.

10. Break stuff.

Our world is full of settings screens, drop-down menus, config files, old hardware, and cheap hosting. Sadly, too many people are afraid of what might go wrong and they never discover the latest features, time-saving methods, or opportunities to innovate. Try out the nightly build (in dev, maybe). Ask vendors about loaning you some demo hardware. Challenge yourself on whether there’s another way to get it done. You’re in IT. Don’t be afraid to break something – it can be fixed. And who knows? You might just learn a thing or two.

Google Apps Scripts, LDAP, and Wookiee Steak

I’ve been a Google Apps user for as long as I could score an invite code to Gmail. Then came Google Calendar, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and a whole slew of other stuff. But as I moved from coder to whatever-I-am-now, I stopped following along with the new stuff Google and others kept putting out there. I mean, I’m vaguely aware of Google Apps Engine and something called Google Apps Script, but I hadn’t spent any real time looking at them.

But as any good IT professional should, I’m not afraid to do a little scripting here any there to accomplish a task. It’s fairly common to get a CSV export that needs a little massaging or find a perfect API to mash up with some other data.

The other day, I found myself working with some data in a Google Spreadsheet and thinking about one of my most common scripting tasks – appending data to existing data. For instance, I start with something like a list of users and want to know whether they are faculty, staff, or student.

netid name Affiliation
cgrundy1 Chas Grundy ???
katie Katie Rose ???

Aside: Could I get this easily by searching EDS? Sure. Unfortunately, my data set might be thousands of records long and while I could certainly ask our friends in identity management to get me the bulk data I want, they’re busy and I might need it right away. Or at least, I’m impatient and don’t want to wait. Oh, and I need something like this probably once or twice a week so I’d just get on their nerves. Moving on…

So that’s when I began to explore Google Apps Script. It’s a Javascript-based environment to interact with various Google Apps, perform custom operations, or access external APIs. This last part is what got my attention.

First, let’s think about how we might use a feature like this. Imagine the following function:


If I passed it the NetID and attribute I wanted, perhaps this function would be so kind as to go fetch it for me. Sounds cool to me.

Now the data I want to append lives in LDAP, but Javascript (and GA Script) can’t talk to LDAP directly. But Google Apps Script can interpret JSON (as well as SOAP or XML), so I needed a little LDAP web service. Let’s begin shaving the yak. Or we could shave a wookiee.

Google Apps Script and LDAP API flowchart

First, I cobbled together a quick PHP microapp and threw it into my Notre Dame web space. All it does is take two parameters, q and attribute, query LDAP, and return the requested attribute in JSON format.

Here’s an example:


And this returns:

"title": "LDAP",
"attributes": {
"netid": "cgrundy1",
"ndprimaryaffiliation": "Staff"

View the full PHP script here

For a little extra convenience, the script allows q to be a NetID or email address. Inputs are sanitized to avoid LDAP injections, but there’s no throttling at the script level so for now it’s up to the LDAP server to enforce any protections against abuse.

Next, the Google Apps Script needs to actually make the request. Let’s create the custom function. In Spreadsheets, this is found under Tools > Script Editor.

function getLDAPAttribute(search,attribute) {
search = search.toLowerCase();
attribute = attribute.toLowerCase();
var attr_value = "";
var url = 'https://www3.nd.edu/~cgrundy1/gapps-ldap-test/?'
+ 'q=' + search
+ '&attribute=' + attribute;
var response = UrlFetchApp.fetch(url);
var json = response.getContentText();
var data = JSON.parse(json);
attr_value = data.attributes[attribute];
return attr_value;

This accepts our parameters, passes them along to the PHP web service in a GET request, parses the response as JSON, and returns the attribute value.

Nota bene: Google enforces quotas on various operations including URL Fetch. The PHP script and the Google Apps Script function could be optimized, cache results, etc. I didn’t do those things. You are welcome to.

Anyway, let’s put it all together and see how it works:

Screenshot of custom formula in action

Well, there you have it. A quick little PHP microapp, a simple custom Javascript function, and now a bunch of cool things I can imagine doing with Google Apps. And just in case you only clicked through to this article because of the title:

<joke>I tried the Wookiee Steak, but it was a little chewy.</joke>