The most interesting and satisfying technology projects are also the most difficult. Consolidating your server room from 200 to 50 servers might bring a warmth to those bean counters cold hearts, but server or storage consolidation or one more round of bug fixes isnt the stuff of which IT legends are made. Heres a tough project: Be the first to bring remote training to soldiers in a forward area during a conflict. Where do you start? What equipment do you use, and how can you keep the system operating during heat, sandstorms and mortar rounds?
Louis Celli, of Billerica, Mass., a retired master sergeant with 22 years in the Army, took on just such a challenge. With the help of Citrix Systems, a few Iraq-based service personnel with one creaky laptop and a spotty satellite connection, and a contract with The Veterans Corporation, Celli has begun offering a free business development course based in Boston but conducted worldwide, including in Iraq.
Celli, now The Veterans Corporations Boston regional education hub director, conducts an 11-week business development course covering everything from how to write a business plan to funding options to how to make the business contacts you need to succeed. In May, he held his first online training course with 44 soldiers in Iraq. They were taking part in the course after a day of patrolling and "sitting in a canvas tent with a satellite dish nailed to the top post," said Celli.
A trainer rather than a technician, Celli credits Citrix for quickly responding to his request for remote training software (he uses the companys GoToMeeting offering), the technical acumen of some of his students, and a willingness to work through dropped connections and sleeplessness to help him accomplish his first rounds of courses. The GoToMeeting product proved easy to use, as it would pick up where it left off after a dropped connection. The audio bridge using a satellite phone has proved more troublesome. Using instant messaging has helped bridge those gaps. Those soldiers completing the course have developed business plans in a wide range of industry areas, including automobile repair, landscaping, disk jockeying and consulting. One major hotel chain is using a distinctive snack cracker developed in one business plan.
The current training setup used by Celli is Version 1.0. He has a list of upgrades and plans he would like to implement, including moving to Version 2.0 of GoToMeeting. He is looking for advice and help on developing a satellite antenna and network that wont be so spotty due to storms, wind and sand. He is working at getting some PCs that will remain in the tent rather than be one of the soldiers personal systems. In addition, hes looking for guest speakers to talk about what it takes to build a successful business. If you want to help in any of these areas, drop me an e-mail.
But this column isnt about helping someone get a few PCs, although that would be a nice gesture. At a time when Hewlett-Packard (a technology company, right?) highlights its IT operations as one area for layoffs and my e-mail in-box gets lots of mail from technologists bailing out on technology careers, it is well worth remembering that technology is still a catalyst that can change businesses, education and careers.
The increase in bandwidth continues to allow digital assets to replace physical products. The combination of products that can monitor other products (whether it be RFID tags in the business or ZigBee systems in the home) and people (security and an aging population are combining to create whats fast becoming a monitored generation) will require systems yet to be developed. While you might find yourself on the wrong end of a pink slip at your company, walking away from technology means you are not going to be part of this next round of purpose-driven technology innovation. One former master sergeant with some free software, a shaky connection and a willing audience has proved he can blaze some new technology trails. Dont forget that.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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