ETAC Column - Document, Document, Document: Or, how to stop worrying about the departure of “the guy who knows” from your shop

by Adam Woodlief, ETAC Member and Chief Technology Officer, Georgia Public Broadcasting

As times change in our industry, in large and small shops, the need to update documentation is just as important as updating equipment. Many organizations are lucky enough to have that one Swiss Army knife of an employee who knows where every rack screw is and why it’s there. These folks are the go-to in any situation, are always available and have all the systems in their heads. We have all become dependent on folks like this and are lucky to have them.

Recently Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) engaged in a Studio Control Room refresh. After we worked out functionality and needs, the rest should have been no issues, right? We have lots of drawings, so identifying legacy systems and replacing them shouldn’t be overly complex. Easier said than done! On top of the normal issues with a project this size, we also ran into some other roadblocks. We discovered that drawings weren’t up-to-date and there were strange things wired up under the floor. Not unlike many stations, we have been short on time and budget for many years. We have relied on quick fixes and workarounds. Unfortunately, some of these temporary fixes have become permanent, and they weren’t always documented. This, combined with legacy vendors and employee turnover, help exacerbate the documentation issue. So often the reply to a question about legacy infrastructure is; “Don’t worry we have a guy that knows what and why everything is… only problem is he retired.”

This can be a huge issue when you have a timeline and budget constraints, but we turned these missing pieces of information into an opportunity. Most of our HQ engineering staff, including myself, have been here less than five years. So, the institutional knowledge was spread among the staff. One person had heard a rumor about this relay system; another had gotten fed up with something not working and just run a new cable a year ago. Our “go- to” was now a collective. We relied on folk tales and good memories to piece together a working model of our current system. Mainly, we learned we didn’t want to be in this situation again.

We took the upgrades as an opportunity to also upgrade our documentation. As we moved from system to system hand tracing cables, we documented. And we compiled our new system drawings with our legacy systems to create a well-documented plant. This has been highly effective in improving morale and team-building. We all now have a much better understanding of each system in our plant. This has made planning for future projects easier and more efficient.

The discovery phase of our projects doesn’t begin with hair-pulling and nail biting any more. We can pull up documentation and trust that it’s correct. We have implemented better rules for updating as we make changes in the racks or anywhere else. The goal is to make everyone that Swiss Army knife.

In short, your action items are: 

  • Make sure you ID your “go-to” person and write down everything in their head before they retire.
  • Make sure your staff is talking and not hoarding information.
  • As our workflows and environments continue to evolve at breakneck speed we have to share information and document.
  • Spend time now updating documentation and sharing institutional knowledge to save time later.