The trials, tribulations, and triumphs of a k-12 school network analyst

Chris Sluggett leads the talented and highly commended Technology Services team at Wolf Creek Public Schools, a school district covering rural communities north of Red Deer. The breadth of responsibility for his team — from enabling online learning, to protecting student privacy, to keeping the lights on — can be overwhelming to outsiders. But it was not always this way.

Man wearing suit jacket poses with arms crossed.
Chris Sluggett, Network Analyst for Wolf Creek Public Schools

Over the course of his 27-year tenure as a network analyst for Wolf Creek, Chris has seen a lot of change.

“When I began this role in the late ‘90s, education wasn’t heavily reliant on the internet,” he says. “A single dial-up modem linked an entire school to the online world. If it went offline for a few hours, it wasn’t a major crisis.

“Nowadays, a five-minute SuperNet hiccup floods my team’s phones.”

The internet’s evolution birthed many new tools and platforms to harness its capabilities. As school divisions embraced these technologies, and began connecting an ever-growing number of devices to their networks, Chris’ jurisdiction experienced a considerable expansion.

“Before the advent of internet-based telephony services like VoIP, the Facilities team managed all phone operations,” he says. “With the phones now dependent on the network, this responsibility shifted to our Technology team. Systems that interface with these phones, such as intercoms, also began to fall under our purview. There’s even a school with an automated lighting system now linked to the network.

“At this pace, it won’t be long before our toilets and sinks are integrated into the network, and we’ll find ourselves in charge of the washrooms!”

Ever industrious, Chris has embraced these growth spurts. He relishes tackling the diverse and often unforeseeable challenges presented by the perpetually shifting landscape.

“My favourite part of the job is the fact that there is no typical day,” he says. “Mornings involve routine maintenance checks, but most of my time is spent resolving unexpected glitches and hardware failures.”

Combining creativity with a willingness to grovel

Tackling these unforeseen setbacks requires a fair bit of ingenuity, as the school division’s network is vast and complex, while its financial resources are meager.

“Limited funding is a big challenge. We maintain an enterprise level network — the type you might find at Suncor — but with a fraction of Suncor’s budget. We’re constantly pulling rabbits out of hats to keep our schools connected.”

Wolf Creek’s cost-saving tricks include: opting to lease, rather than purchase, costly equipment like wireless access points; meticulously evaluating equipment options before procurement; and . . . groveling at the feet of vendors.

“You need to frequently play the ‘I’m from a poor school board’ card to get a lower price,” he says.

Cybersecurity threats on the rise

However, certain challenges cannot be overcome through creativity alone. Sometimes, you just need cold hard cash.

“Cybersecurity is a major concern,” says Chris. “We conducted a vulnerability assessment in January and many of the recommended measures are currently beyond our reach due to our limited resources. We need to prioritize the most critical items and forgo purchasing the rest, which has resulted in security gaps.”

Making these decisions isn’t always a straightforward task for Chris. When he began his career almost three decades ago, cybersecurity was still a nascent field, and certainly not on the radar of rural school boards. Consequently, his expertise in the area is still developing.

“Roughly three years ago, insurance firms started mandating the adoption of specific cybersecurity protocols,” he says. “Since we didn’t have the resources to hire a bonafide cybersecurity expert, I had to acquire knowledge in this domain while on the job. Often, I find myself hoping that we’re making the correct choices.”

Unfortunately, many decision makers persist in their belief that malevolent hackers hold no interest in targeting small school divisions.

“Conveying the significance of cybersecurity to administrators has been a tough task,” says Chris. “Numerous rural school boards have never faced hacking attempts, and do not regard themselves as probable targets. As a result, they struggle to grasp the sudden need to allocate significant funds towards cybersecurity.”

Despite these difficulties, resourceful network analysts like Chris will persist in devising crafty strategies to navigate budgetary obstacles. But senior leaders should nevertheless be weary, as ingenuity and diligence have their boundaries.

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