Recent data shows that nearly half of all companies offer or provide Macs to employees and that the Macs represent about 7% computers in the workplace. That’s according to a Forrester report that was issued last month and that prompted me to write a feature about how deploying and managing large Mac populations in enterprise environments differs significantly from supporting a handful of Macs.
In that that article, I covered a lot of the tools IT departments rely on to handle large scale Mac deployments. Knowing what those tools are is a great starting point, but there are also several key skills that IT professionals managing and/or supporting Macs in business need regardless of whether they’re dealing with a half dozen Macs or upwards of a thousand.
Many of these skills listed here are specific to working with Macs and Apple products. However, since it’s rare for any environment to be completely Mac-based, Mac IT professionals should have a well rounded set of knowledge and experience covering general IT operations, Windows, networking, Mac/PC peripherals, and mobile technologies.
Mac Desktop Support Skills – It’s probably a given that technicians dealing with Macs should have at least some basic support skills. Those skills, however, need to cover advanced OS X and application troubleshooting, detailed understanding of networking in OS X, the ability to diagnose and troubleshoot peripherals, and integration with other business and enterprise systems.
The Library folders – Any Mac IT professional should be able to describe the three Library folders in OS X (in a user’s home folder, at the root level of the startup drive, and in the System folder at the root level of the startup drive), how all three differ from each other, and be able to describe what sort of data each subfolder contains. Since much of OS X troubleshooting involves files stored in the various Library folders, understanding them is a crucial skill.
Hardware repair – The ability to perform full-on hardware repair isn’t as crucial for most organizations as the ability to troubleshoot OS X, but a basic understanding of hardware troubleshooting is an absolute must. Other than really basic hardware repairs or upgrades (replacing a drive or adding RAM), most Macs are designed to be repaired by Apple authorized service centers and Mac Geniuses in an Apple Store. Most Mac hardware is proprietary and the only source for replacement parts is Apple – that means only authorized service centers can order parts in many cases. However, anyone can take and pass Apple’s hardware repair certifications – a useful skill set in its own right. For organizations not located near a service provider or Apple store, however, Apple has a self-servicing program that allows certified hardware techs working for those organizations to order replacement parts and perform warranty repairs.
Pro apps and professional workflows – Most Macs in business run specific professional tools. These can include Apple’s Pro apps like Aperture and Final Cut Studio as well as a range of other high-end titles like the Quark, Avid, AutoCAD, and the range of tools in Adobe’s Creative Suite. In many organizations, Mac IT professionals need to troubleshoot these apps as well as OS X and more common app collections like Office and iWork. Troubleshooting these apps effectively means being at least marginally proficient in using them. Also pro apps don’t exist in a vacuum – they’re typically pulled together in various integrated workflows that can include software from multiple vendors, services across a range of Macs, and integrate with other systems. Mac IT pros need to understand the common workflows for these tools as well as workflows specific to an organization or even individual users.
Common Mac apps – In addition to troubleshooting various niche and high-end professional apps, Mac IT pros need to be skilled in handing problems with more common tools like Office, iWork, Mail, iCal and so on. Often this means a mix of Apple and third-party apps.
Windows on Mac – Many businesses will have a handful of Windows tools that Mac users need to access. This requires Mac IT professionals to being able to install, setup, and troubleshoot Windows alongside OS X. Although a Mac IT specialist often has access to Windows support counterparts to aid in the process, he or she still needs to be able to handle basic Windows troubleshooting. That also means troubleshooting the tools for running Windows on a Mac (Boot Camp, Parallels, VMWare Fusion, and Virtual Box). It can even mean troubleshooting virtual desktop systems like Citrix, though this will almost always be done in conjunction with a systems engineer or administrator.
Apple Remote Desktop – Apple Remote Desktop (often referred to as ARD) is a key Mac IT tool and is a Mac IT pro’s Swiss army knife. There are various support and maintenance features including screen sharing, sending remote Unix commands and scripts, background installation of apps and updates, and the ability to send several common Mac commands like shut down and restart. Many of these features can be strung together like Automator workflows. Beyond that, ARD offers immense monitoring and reporting functionality. It can retrieve every piece of hardware info, installed apps, usage of installed apps, information about which users have logged into the Mac, and much much more. Understanding the potential uses as well as the specific functions of ARD is a key skill.
Scripting and automation – OS X offers a number of scripting and automation capabilities. The simplest and most common are Automator workflows, AppleScript, and Unix shell scripts. Having a solid understanding of all three can come in handy for scripting common tasks on administrator workstations but they can also be helpful for creating workflows and, if needed, work arounds for Mac using employees.
The command line – OS X is a Unix operating system and there’s no end to tasks that can be accomplished more easily and efficiently from the command line. At the same time, OS X represents a unique flavor of Unix that can occasionally be disoriented to long time Unix users and administrators. Having a solid grasp of Unix in general is a great advantage, but having an in-depth understanding of how Apple has implemented Unix in OS X is even more important.
Underlying technologies – While not all Mac IT pros will be software developers or OS X Server administrators, there’s an immense value to having a working knowledge of Mac software development and OS X Server. That knowledge offers a lot of insight into a wide range of issues including troubleshooting, Mac integration with Active Directory, local and network user account management, software deployment, and Mac client and user management.
Open Directory and Active Directory – Speaking of OS X Server, it’s very helpful for Mac techs and critical for Mac systems administrators to understand Apple’s Open Directory – the native directory service in OS X. In enterprise environments, Apple may be shifting away from OS X Server and large-scale Open Directory use, but Open Directory is still a core technology in OS X. Every Mac has an Open Directory node for local accounts and it follows the same standard schema as shared domains hosted by OS X Server. That schema defines all the data attributes for user accounts, groups, and computers – everything from user names to network home folder locations and sync rules to preset Dock items to lists of approved applications. In most businesses, Microsoft’s Active Directory is the principal directory service and uses its own schema for similar Windows user and PC attributes. Successfully, integrating Macs into Active Directory environments and troubleshooting related problems demands at least a basic working knowledge of both Open Directory and Active Directory.
Mac Client Management - Apple currently offers two ways of managing Macs in the workplace. The first and newest is through Lion Server’s Profile Manager, which can set restrictions on individual Macs as well as iOS devices. The more full featured and long standing option is referred to as Managed Preferences or MCX. Managed Preferences are based on Open Directory and allow administrators to manage the entire Mac user experience from Dock items to application preferences and everything in between. Management settings can be applied to individual users, groups, specific Macs, and groups of Macs. Most third-party Mac management tools plug into this framework and understanding the options that can be set, how to set them, and how to troubleshoot them is another critical Mac IT skill.
Deployment technologies – Understanding the ways to roll out Macs, new applications, and software updates is another important skill. There are several excellent free, open source, and commercial tools out there. Some focus on deploying complete Mac images to specific computers and other focus on installing specific applications or updates – known as monolithic imaging and package-based deployment respectively. Monolithic imaging can even be a troubleshooting shortcut as it essentially resets a Mac to the state of its initial rollout and can be faster than than diagnosing a stubborn OS or software problem.
Those are pretty much the core needs for anyone support and managing Macs in business and enterprise environments. Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind, however, is that managing and supporting Macs – particularly large numbers of Macs – does require some additional skills beyond being a knowledgeable Mac power user.