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Is our Energy Grid Safe?

Ukraine, December 23, 2015: a worker at one of Western Ukraine’s power distribution centers watched helplessly as his computer was taken over by a hacker, who – with click after click of his now remotely controlled mouse – proceeded to take about 30 substations offline. Two other power distribution centers were hit at the same time, bringing the number of substations disabled to 60 and the total number of people without power to 230,000.

The culprit: a piece of Malware called BlackEnergy3, which had infected computers tasked with running the energy grid. Because the attackers changed users’ passwords, preventing them from logging in to stop the attack, and because the virus erased key monitoring computers, engineers were unable to immediately restore power. Eventually, hours later, power was restored using more traditional manual controls, but not before inflicting extensive damage to power control system that is still being remediated today.

The cause of all this chaos? It is believed someone at the power plant unknowingly open an infected Microsoft Word document. Makes one pause, doesn’t it?

Sure, this happened on the other side of the planet, but the United States is not immune to a similar attack. In fact, it’s already happened.

In 2014, it was reported that the US energy grid was attacked 79 times, and the modus operandi for the majority of them was similar to the Ukraine attack – the virus or malware was released through infected email. While the Department of Homeland Security has said such a thing is a “rare occurrence and unlikely to cause widespread damage,” hackers have still been able to infiltrate the US energy grid. Continue reading “Is our Energy Grid Safe?”

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Internet Slang: Thank the Internet for YOLO, Selfie

It would be difficult to argue that the internet hasn’t changed the way we talk. After all, without social media platforms and chat rooms, would anyone be exclaiming “YOLO!” when they’re about the attempt the world’s highest bungee jump?

Would “trend” be a verb instead of a noun? Would “crowdfunding” be a thing? And let’s not even talk about “selfie.”

YOLO, as most know, is internet slang – an abbreviation, actually – for “you only live once,” a phrase that gained popularity in 2013 among, mostly, millennials as a way to explain why did they something while apparently using questionable judgement. Of course, something can “trend” on Twitter, as in, #laughinggoat is trending worldwide; “crowdfunding” was born when fundraising sites like GoFundMe began sprouting; and “selfie,” well, you know.

Much of today’s internet slang is simply old words given new meaning. Sometimes, the slang catches on pretty quickly, thanks to social media (“cyberbully,” for instance), and can actually become so pervasive and understood that it is given official status in the dictionary (attained by “selfie” in 2013). Other slang words, however, take longer to reach the masses or are common in only certain communities.

TNSC continues its series of public service blogs today by delving into some of the more obscure slang words being used on and about the internet. Here we go.

Cewebrity: a person who is famous due to their world-wide-web presence. Think: any one of the Kardashians. Continue reading “Internet Slang: Thank the Internet for YOLO, Selfie”

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Overcoming the Challenges of Working from Home

When the nature of a job allows it, today’s technology removes virtually any obstacle to working from home. As long as an employee has internet access and can link to company servers, he or she may never need to go to the office.

For me, the notion to propose a mostly work-from-home scenario (four days home/one in office) arose when we had our first baby; it escalated to nearly full-time-from-home when my husband took a job in another state.

Fortunately, TNSC management recognizes the importance of a healthy work-life balance, so nine years ago, they took a chance that it would work. And it has. I get to continue in a job that I love while being present for my children; the company, which valued the institutional history and skills that I possessed, didn’t have to hire a new employee.

But while it is succeeding as I hoped, working from home still brings challenges. Here are some of the top challenges, and ways I’ve found to overcome them:

Work days can be longer: When you have to calm a crying baby or clean up the toddler’s mess, your eight-hour workday may take ten hours. This could be an issue for coworkers or customers who may need something right away. I find that prioritizing my tasks helps; if there’s a hard deadline, if someone is waiting for me to do MY job before they can continue theirs, or if it is going to affect cash flow, I give the task high priority.   Continue reading “Overcoming the Challenges of Working from Home”

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Tech Slang & Jargon: A Fun Little Primer

We get it. Information Technology is broad and often confusing, with seemingly endless facts to absorb just to grasp what happens inside all those wires and up in that cloud. But besides all the facts – which require years of continuing education (just ask our techs) – complicating matters even further is that IT has a language unto itself.

And, even if the words look somewhat familiar, the lexicon of IT is enough to make the uninitiated scratch their heads.

For example, if you think a “white hat” is something you’d wear with a white tuxedo, well, you’d be right only if you weren’t speaking to IT professionals. To them, a “white hat” describes a person – a hacker – who identifies a security weakness in a computer network but, instead of taking malicious advantage of it, exposes the weakness so that the system’s developer can fix it before the cyber-criminals (also knowns as “black hats”) can inflict their damage.

White hats might employ “fuzz testing” or “fuzzing,” a software testing technique used to discover coding errors and security loopholes in software, operating systems or networks. Those using the technique input massive amounts of random data – called fuzz – into the system in an attempt to make it crash.

So, today, as a public service – and to bolster your IT vocabulary – here is a smattering of other IT jargon.

A war dialer is a computer program used to identify the phone numbers that can successfully make a connection with a computer modem. The program automatically dials a defined range of phone numbers and logs and enters in a database those numbers that successfully connect to the modem.

Pen-tester has nothing to do with ball-points, but is short for penetration tester, someone who tries to break into a security system to test its effectiveness.

Abandonware is slang for software still under copyright but no longer distributed, sold or supported. But someone has it. And it’s probably not working. Continue reading “Tech Slang & Jargon: A Fun Little Primer”

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Five Ways to Delight Customers with Excellent Service

Something we value highly here at The Network Support Company is delivering excellent customer service. From our business development managers to our technicians to our account managers, we aim to delight and surprise our clients with our attentiveness and level of engagement. The quarterly customer service surveys we deploy – in which we score 4+ out of 5 across the board – show that we’re hitting the mark.

Excelling in customer service, however, isn’t something that happens by accident. There are skills and behaviors that everyone in the service field can cultivate and polish, so that satisfying customers becomes almost second-nature.

Here are five ways to delight clients:

 

  • Listen. When an issue is first presented, take the time to listen, ask questions and take exceptionally detailed notes. This fundamental approach, which should happen at the very beginning of any issue or problem, helps facilitate efficient resolution and minimize a “knowledge gap” that could arise when multiple people are involved.

 

  • Be proactive, follow up and, most importantly, take ownership. Let the customer know that you are spearheading their issue or project and pushing things along – even when action lies with another department or even another company. Too many firms let an issue fall off the radar once it leaves their immediate sphere of influence.

Continue reading “Five Ways to Delight Customers with Excellent Service”

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How to Create a Solid “Bring-Your-Own-Device” Policy

With technology evolving rapidly, most employers simply can’t keep up with the pace of change as easily and quickly as their workforce can, so more and more companies are allowing employees to use their own devices on the job. From laptops to cell phones to tablets, today’s businesses are often powered with equipment not provided by the company.

The benefits of allowing personal devices are numerable: It saves the company money by not having to purchase new computers every few years; it increases productivity, assuming newer technology means a person can work more efficiently; it allows salaried workers to move projects along after official work hours, since their “work desk” is now often in their pocket or purse; and it improves morale, because, ostensibly, the employee is using equipment of their choosing.

But it also opens up new set of vulnerabilities for the employer, meaning it is imperative for every company to have a solid policy regarding the use of personal devices. Although there are many things to consider when crafting a BYOD policy, here are five points that every policy must address:

Security. Many questions arise; here are only a few. How do executives ensure that company data is secure when it’s accessible on someone’s personal smart phone? Should they mandate that a phone have a lock code (and mandate how quickly that lock should activate) and that a laptop have an appropriately strong password? What’s the rule on accessing company data via wi-fi or unsecured hot spots? Continue reading “How to Create a Solid “Bring-Your-Own-Device” Policy”

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Options for Lone Users Who Must Back Up their Data

The saying goes, “There are two kinds of computer users; those who’ve lost their data and those who haven’t lost their data yet.”

The truth of the matter is that, eventually, something will happen that will result in data loss: a virus, a lightning strike, a cyberattack, a stolen laptop, a server failure, a hard drive crash… the list goes on. Simply banking on the fact that they won’t happen to YOUR network or YOUR machine is foolhardy.

Technology companies such as TNSC exist, at least partly, because these dangers are lurking, and no one is immune. TNSC’s mission is to protect against glitches (manmade or otherwise) that plague technology. Their most basic safeguard method: backing up all data. That means replicating the files somewhere else – off of the user’s machine or network – so that, in the case of a data loss, the files can be restored. Backing up is vital. Non-negotiable. So they do it regularly – and with redundancy – for their clients, most of which are small-to-mid-sized businesses.

But what of the lone wolves? The one-or-two-person agencies? The freelancers? Those without an IT consultant who takes care of it for them? They’re equally vulnerable to viruses, their computer parts will fail, and their hard drives will reach end of life, and die. And, if their files are not backed up, they’ll lose them too, with little chance of restoration.

Fortunately, there are some simple solutions for lone wolves. Experts generally agree on a 3-2-1 backup strategy: Have 3 copies of your data – 2 of them stored onsite, but on different devices (like an external hard drive or DVD), and 1 copy off-site (like the cloud).

Onsite options:

Optical drives. This simple method involves saving documents and images onto DVDs or BluRays, which are then saved in a binder or cabinet. While inefficient for daily backups (it must be done manually) and for accessing versions of files, it’s good for storing pockets of data, such as medical records, tax files, etc.

External hard drive. This solution requires the user to connect the drive to their computer, usually by USB, and then install and configure the software that runs the backup program. Most external drives come with backup software, or a user can run the backup utility that came with the operating system. The initial backup can take hours, but after that, it’s only a few keystrokes and a few moments of backing up time. Pre-setting automatic backups, for when a computer is idle, is also an option. Continue reading “Options for Lone Users Who Must Back Up their Data”

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The Value of Humor in the Workplace

It’s a practically a daily occurrence: one of my coworkers – it could be any number of them, actually – walks by my office and pauses to hurl a well-thought-out insult. Of course, I’ll then lob one back, because that’s usually what leads to some uproarious laughter.

Laughter. Fun. Humor. They’re as much a part of The Network Support Company as the servers, computers and cables that we use. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Dwight D. Eisenhower said “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” We subscribe to that. From Day One, our founder and CEO Jim Kennedy has recognized that people who enjoyed being at their workplace would perform better at their jobs. From the start, he’s been good at letting our people be who they are, as long as the environment is safe and non-threatening.

There’s some basis for allowing it. Studies show that a fun, humor-friendly work environment:

  • Breeds a cohesive team mentality, because people bond over finding the same things funny
  • Encourages better attendance because coming to work isn’t viewed as a chore
  • Allows people to “be themselves” without worrying about being seen as a goof-off or cut-up
  • Does not distract people from work or their ability to concentrate
  • Contributes to employees’ overall health, because laughter has been proven to lower blood pressure and boost the immune system
  • Reduces employee turnover and burnout
  • Boosts creative thinking

Continue reading “The Value of Humor in the Workplace”

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Three Ways the Internet of Things Saves You Things

The Internet of Things (IoT), the network of physical objects embedded with technology that allows them to collect and exchange data, unquestionably makes us a “smarter” society, but, aside from its inherent geeky coolness, the way the IoT enables us to improve our lives is what is catapulting it into mainstream usage.

On a larger, corporate level, the technology – which relies on electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity – is being used for smart grids, intelligent transportation, smart environments, and even smart cities (officials use it to monitor things like availability of parking, vibrations under bridges, and levels of trash in city containers.)

But on an individual level, it can help us become more efficient (saving us time), more frugal (saving us money) and even more fit (saving us from illness).

Early adopters of this sort of technology may be using it, in fact, without even knowing it’s a part of the IoT. Take, for example, Waze, billed as “the world’s largest community based traffic and navigation app.” Users join with other drivers in their area, who share real-time info – such as traffic jams, accidents or police activity – which helps the collective community better decide which route to take, saving them time (and even gas money or a traffic ticket!), and easing what could be considerable frustration. Continue reading “Three Ways the Internet of Things Saves You Things”

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Will Desktop Mini Computers Catch on in Business?

A popular trend amongst desktop manufacturers is making business class desktops that are much smaller, but just as powerful as their space-hogging cousins. These computers, which mount to the back of a monitor and are known as mini’s, are a welcome innovation for many users, but one, in our experience, that has yet to infiltrate the business world.

Some of this lack of adoption has to do with the fact that there’s been no real marketing push from the manufacturers of these micro machines, so there’s a real possibility that many purchasing managers are unaware of their presence in the market. And the rest has to do with the fact that, cost-wise, there’s not much difference between them and a popular form of standard desktop, so there’s no economic incentive to change to the new technology just yet.

Lenovo computer pic for Erik's blogThat means cubicle-dwellers are still, for the most part, working on standard business desktops: either the larger Micro-Tower that eats up half the leg space under a desk and prevents stretching (for blood-flow or even catnap purposes), or the Small Form Factor, which is stacked on a desk and ends up being covered with sticky-note reminders of work to do, following that catnap. Continue reading “Will Desktop Mini Computers Catch on in Business?”

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