by Esther Schindler

Need a Mac Support Tech? Find a Linux Guru.

Jan 17, 2008 4 mins
Apple Computers and Peripherals Linux

If your company is deploying Apple Macintosh systems, say experienced IT administrators, don't expect to retrain your Windows support staff. Instead, find a Linux or UNIX admin. You'll save yourself from a world of hurt.

At least some companies are giving their users a lot more platform choice, these days. That’s great news for end-user morale and productivity, but it puts an added burden on IT support staff who need to keep all those various computers running and in corporate compliance.

Several IT administrators recently shared their experiences during a Macworld 2008 conference session largely about companies adopting Macintosh IT solutions. While most of the discussion was about the reasons they changed platforms, “selling the move” techniques and the technicalities of switching during a corporate adoption, a common theme was managing people. Specifically, how do you find or create trained technicians who can adequately support Mac users? The answer? Look for UNIX and Linux admins.

“The more UNIX you learn,” says Jordan Kirkpatrick, VP of information systems for Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, “The better you are with Macs.” Mac OS X is, after all, built on top of a flavor of UNIX, and it inherits the entire UNIX philosophy. While the graphical user interface makes a lot of things easy for end-users, the people who have to work on a computer’s underbelly may need access to the underlying system. Someone who is comfortable with UNIX will be happy to use the Terminal command line to get things done.

To grow expertise, said these experts, the answer is for IT departments adopting Mac OS X to search for UNIX and Linux professionals when they can’t find Mac specialists. In fact, Kirkpatricks recommends, you can easily hire a UNIX expert who has never touched a Mac, and she’ll take to it without any problem.

And finding qualified people was certainly a primary issue for Kirkpatrick, who has been converting his company from Windows to Macs to the point that the company is now about 85% Mac where it was once 90% Windows. “Our technical challenges aren’t caused by the operating system or incompatibilities but rather by IT people who don’t know the opposite platform,” Kirkpatrick says. Yet good Mac OS X technologists are rare, and often, he claims, “Windows guys don’t want to learn OS X.”

Mark Jeffries, senior desktop engineer at a large Bay Area biotech company, said that oftentimes “Windows guys come at things as ‘everything is broken,'” a Calvinist view in which the tech assumes that everything is doomed. That attitude produces issues particularly around deployment, and also creates well-meaning but inaccurate support solutions. For example, Jeffries explained, the “Windows guys” will blow away plists rather than check system and application permissions, because they think a system fix requires a direct attack on the Windows registry.

You also won’t need as many support staff to keep the Macs running, and running well, these experts emphasized. Jeffries said the ratio of Mac-to-Windows tech support calls coming in at his company is 1:10. But the people you have do need to embrace the OS. Plus, you must rely on them to train the people around them. In an aptly named session, “One man, 20,000 Macs,” Dr. George Vensel, who runs the IT department for the Manatee County School District in Florida, explained that his team of 13 network techs and six computer techs includes his “best expert” who works with other techs, school administrators, and the instructional experts.

That doesn’t mean that the people you hire to support Macs in the enterprise can be clueless about Windows. Mac support staff need to understand both sides of the subject for interoperability reasons, and should know how to support Active Directory and other Windows concepts because they can’t depend on Windows techs to understand how Mac work. Kilpatrick advises, “If you can’t talk Windows to those guys, you’re nobody.”