Computing Technology Specialist

[Please remove <h1>]

[Please remove <h1>]

[Please remove <h1>]

Date: December, 2007
Department: Computer Science Computing Facility (CSCF)
Position Title: Computing Technology Specialist
Position Grade: USG 9-13

Table of Contents

General Accountability

Computing Technology Specialists are accountable to their CSCF Computing Support Manager for all aspects of the supported computing environments, with special regard for the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. Responsibilities include a wide range of activities supporting the maintenance and continual improvement of the supported computing environments. The end result must be scalable, and shareable with other support staff and organizations.

Nature and Scope

1. Organizational Relationships

Each Computing Technology Specialist is a member of one of the support groups of CSCF, which are:

  1. The Core Services Group provides computing infrastructure for the School. It provides infrastructure to the other groups within the facility. That includes the network infrastructure for the entire School, including the high speed backbone.
  2. The User Support Group provides the primary points of contact for all non-research computing needs of faculty and staff within the School, above and beyond the basic infrastructure provided by the Core group. That includes courses offered by faculty in the School, and administrative computing.
  3. The Research Support Group provides the primary points of contact for research done in the School. The group provides services in addition to those provided by the other groups.

Each support group is managed by a different Manager. Thus, each Computing Technology Specialist reports to the Manager of the group of which he or she is a member.

Each member Computing Technology Specialist in a support group has similar responsibilities that are generally different in instance and degree.

Under the three managers are potentially overlapping domains. For example, a group of courses or a group of research projects with similar computing needs might be designated as a domain. Thus, there might be a domain for all first-year programming courses. There might be a domain for all fourth-year courses dealing with computer architecture. There might be a domain encompassing two research groups together and a domain for another research group by itself. The domains are guided by the appropriate manager, the obvious example being the research project domains being guided by the manager responsible for research computing.

Each domain consists of one or more support specialists, chosen for their needed technical expertise. A given specialist may be in more than one domain in order to allow distribution of required technical expertise.

The Shared Infrastructure Domain overlaps with the other domains. This overlap is to allow the individual domains to share the expertise of the Shared Infrastructure Domain, to gain economies of scale.

The intention is that whenever a point of contact can't resolve a computing problem, he or she approaches someone in the appropriate domain who can resolve the problem.

2. General Framework

The Computer Science Computing Facility (CSCF) is the primary computing support provider for the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. Its mandate is to provide a leading computing and networking infrastructure to support the research, teaching, and administrative missions of the School. CSCF plans, manages, and monitors the network facilities within the School. This enhanced network capability is connected to the campus backbone network, and hence the Internet, through a single point of presence provided by IST. Services include account administration for non-CSCF owned research machines, back-up services, machine installation and setup, a secure and environmentally controlled machine room, consulting services to the School, electronic mail, web access, and local software enhancements. CSCF also provides remote distribution of software, such as mathematical text processors, scientific software, statistical packages, compilers, and editors, particularly through the MFCF-developed xhier system. IST maintains the xhier system for the wider campus community.

In response to curriculum demands within the School, CSCF centrally plans, develops, and administers instructional labs. These include special-purpose labs for computer graphics, real-time programming, networking, and distributed systems. General-purpose instructional facilities include PC-based labs (Macintosh and Windows), and thin-client labs that provide students immediate access to an array of Unix servers. Graduate students in the School are served by thin-client or PC-based systems within their offices. Students are provided Unix accounts for the duration of their academic terms. CSCF maintains its own systems and also provides hardware, software, and consulting support to faculty members and administrative staff across the School who operate their own equipment.

The Math Faculty Computing Facility (MFCF) maintains similar instructional facilities. They are physically adjacent to CSCF's, each environment provides access to the file storage of the other, and accounts for all Math Faculty students are provided on both. Furthermore, a Help Centre and a printing room are common to both environments. Therefore, CSCF unavoidably coordinates these aspects of its instructional support activities with those of MFCF.

3. Working Environment

The computing environment is constantly changing as new technologies are adopted, requiring continuous adaptation and the development of new skills. The large size of the computing environment results in non-trivial diversity, and the resulting need for integration.

The working environment is fairly unstructured, with the emphasis being placed upon communication, continual improvement, and achieving timely results. The incumbent can function independently and effectively, establishing appropriate priorities for his/her areas of specialization.

Most individuals work independently, with immediate access to other members of his or her support group and domain, for advice and guidance. An effort is made to keep staff offices of support group and domain members close enough to allow immediate interaction. Group problem solving, and mentoring are encouraged. There are however demands placed upon the CSCF which for some staff require some, or in rare cases almost all, time spent away from the group, and/or significant time spent away from their offices.

Work ranges from solving day-to-day problems that affect the continuing operation of the computing environment to long-term infrastructure support projects designed to improve the computing environment as well as our ability to support and extend it as efficiently as possible.

In practice each member of the support team develops specialities as the need arises. Specializations can occur for software "packages", hardware architectures, operating system architectures, network protocols, language standards, etc.

4. Working Conditions

The work environment is typically within private offices, in front of a computer workstation. Work is generally self-managed which allows staff to take breaks as necessary.

There is an occasional need to engage in light to medium lifting of computing equipment; typically workstation-class machines, network components, and mid-sized servers, the most awkward typically being large CRT monitors.

The position involves competing demands of short and long term projects and goals, the potential of interruptions when engaged in what would usually be concentrated work, and the possibility of mistakes causing damage to a large number of computing systems.

Mobility may be required in dealing with technologies that can't be maintained via a network; typically visits to client offices, machine rooms or labs.

In general, working hours are flexible, as circumstances allow. The primary constraint is availability for sufficient interaction with management, fellow support staff, and clients. The latter is especially important if the incumbent is designated as a "Point of Contact" for a CSCF client.

Staff may occasionally be required to work beyond normal business hours to resolve emergencies, or test and deploy changes in the production environment.

5. Major Challenges and Problems

Some of the major challenges faced are:

The computing environment is very diverse. Although for some of the user groups it's possible to focus on specific technologies, other groups either require or demand diversity, which then increases the difficulty in maintaining required expertise, since in this environment, staff increases generally aren't planned when considering new technologies.

The existence of diversity demands the need for integration of the various technologies in use. Adopters of diverse technologies generally don't plan for integration, but rather assume it.

Range of User Skill
The "customer base" consists of groups that have widely different skills, from technically naive to extremely sophisticated. That greatly increases the difficulty in providing services suitable for all.

The Black Box
Many of the technologies in use are effectively "black boxes", in that internal operation is hidden or poorly documented, thereby increasing the difficulty of operation and problem diagnosis.

Rapid Change
The nature of computing technology is such that change is extremely rapid, sometimes on the order of months. Consequently, one cannot rely a-priori upon having specific skills or training for the task at hand. The result is an environment where the ability to train oneself is very important.

6. Methods Used to Achieve Objectives

When judged practical, the incumbent explores possibilities, recognizing preferred approaches and solutions. The incumbent judges the extent to which such approaches may be practically pursued in a given situation, as opposed to using standard approaches and solutions. The incumbent uses a disciplined approach to all aspects of problem resolution.

The incumbent adopts an abstract approach to problem solutions, so as to not only be aware of appropriate solutions, but to be able to choose general, scalable solutions to problems where possible. Solutions which can benefit the campus as a whole are ideal.

The incumbent uses general principles to solve specific problems without a detailed knowledge of the systems involved.

The incumbent engages in time management approaches ranging from the need to balance time across multiple areas of work, to, at more senior levels, formal project management approaches.

When engaged in front-line support, the incumbent is effective, polite, and comforting to users, who may be very inexperienced with the supported systems. When engaged in more abstract design and development, effective, precise communication with peers, here and elsewhere, as well as productive mentoring and coaching of others, becomes important.

7. Significant Internal Relationships

Continuous communication with other members of the CSCF is required in order to stay abreast of the changing environment. The incumbent can work effectively with those in other groups within the CSCF, as well with those in the same support group, in order to implement inter-disciplinary projects.

8. Significant External Relationships

The incumbent will interact with groups within the School that use CSCF services so as to better understand and anticipate their needs. This will be critical to the planning process led by the Director.

Significant external relationships include the sharing of expertise and effort with other campus support groups that affect the School. For example, with the department of Information Systems and Technology (IST), the Mathematics Faculty Computing Facility (MFCF), and Engineering Computing (EngComp).

The incumbent can communicate effectively with specialists at other installations, whether it be by attending technical conferences and meetings, or by the various forms of electronic communication.

The incumbent may have to interact with computer manufacturers, and third-party suppliers of equipment and maintenance.

Statistical Data

CSCF has 22 full-time permanent staff, and typically some co-op students and/or part-time student help. The budget is approximately $1.7M. Staff may be involved in other funding, often the result of support for research computing.

The size of the supported community varies with time, generally increasing, so specific numbers can only provide a rough idea of magnitude. As of Fall 2007, there were approximately

70 faculty
1700 CS undergrads
2500 other undergrads taking CS courses
260 grads
20 administrative staff

in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, aside from CSCF itself. Each of the groups has diverse support needs.

Specific Accountabilities

The incumbent provides potentially all aspects of support for systems supported by CSCF. The result of this support is the continual improvement of the local computing environment.

The development and maintenance of a computing environment imposes a variety of needs, some examples of which are:

  • Collecting state-of-the-art information. Needed for an understanding of computing technology as it relates to
    • supported systems,
    • technology used in the University,
    • and potential acquisitions.
  • Installing, updating and distributing software. This must be accomplished in a heterogeneous environment in a timely, and hence automated manner. Packaging software into a form amenable to efficient distribution to a large number of machines can be a significant part of the installation. Troubleshooting problems with new software systems can be a significant portion of the installation effort as well.
  • Integration of Computing Systems. Some problems are best solved by combining systems, e.g. a WWW server, a database system, an authentication system, and a WWW production environment. It's analogous to using supplied libraries in software systems, just on a different scale.
  • Correcting, modifying, and creating software. Except where it's a specialization, applications development is unusual, kept closely related to fundamental needs; typical examples being the development of simple dynamic web content, and associated system administration tools.
  • Ongoing maintenance of system functioning. Performance/behaviour monitoring, (re)configuration, accurate problem determination and reporting, including determination of hardware as the cause of a failure, are all examples of what may be required.
  • Writing skills. Useful in several situations, e.g.
    • providing additional documentation for computing systems, in order to compensate for inadequate or missing documentation,
    • describing internally developed procedures and standards for both internal and external audiences.
  • Consulting. Done directly with the user community, or by providing expertise to consultants.

The incumbent is expected to develop a broad skill set with some specialization. Thus, the incumbent is capable of performing any of the above, or providing services normally performed by other support personnel, either by employing existing skills or by obtaining the required skills. The extent to which the incumbent does so depends upon available time, current needs, and capabilities.


A minimum requirement is a university degree in a computing discipline together with relevant experience, or a combination of education and/or experience deemed to be equivalent.

The incumbent has broad-based system administration skills for at least one of Windows or Unix based systems with obvious potential for gaining expertise in the other.

Familiarity with both the software and component level hardware aspects of supporting continually changing environments is expected, together with a fundamental understanding of how our computing technology works, or clear potential for it.

Career Path

There are a variety of abilities involved in these positions. It's expected that a change in position grade is the result of a change in some of the requirements, but not necessarily all. Specialization is reasonable. However there are certain characteristics that are common to all position grade changes. They are:

  • abstract thinking
  • breadth and depth of experience and knowledge
    • general technical knowledge and experience
    • local knowledge
  • extent and difficulty of responsibilities
  • disciplined, standardized approach

In general, most will engage in some level of day-to-day support of the computing environment. The extent to which that is supplanted by activities that have wider impact on the computing infrastructure depends upon a more senior position grade, and available staff.

A senior position requires a sufficient depth and breadth of experience that it can be usefully applied to virtually all relevant problems in the computing environment. An incumbent in a senior position is considered an expert in several areas.

Less senior positions may involve more mobility, typically visiting machines in offices for repairs that can't be performed via the network.

In comparing these positions with those in IST, we see that the closest resemblance is with those in "tech support" (referred to as "system support specialists") and "systems" (referred to as "systems integration specialists"). IST has the luxury of having enough staff to afford a separation of the two groups. Other departments do not in general have that option. As a result, senior positions have the added complication of being required to engage in some interrupt-driven work.